These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13).
God had the prophet Isaiah condemn the people of Israel for their religious practices although many of these practices had been ordained by God Himself. He had tried to show them how to live holy lives, but they had created a set of rules that emphasized form over substance. He desired a relationship with them, but their rules taught that external behavior was everything; the internal motive of their hearts was ignored.
Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” (Isaiah 29:14)
Isaiah hinted at a coming Messiah who would teach the people what love is all about. And when He came, what did the Messiah say about their religion? All of Matt 23 is devoted to His condemnation of their “form without substance” religious practices, saying they actually prevented people from entering the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 23:13). Their zealous keeping of rules had given birth to a religious pride that was the biggest sin of all.
Pharisee or Tax Collector?
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
In this parable the Pharisee’s pride was evident as he thanked the Lord for not making him like the tax collector; for making him obedient to the rules. But it was the tax collector who went home justified, because it was he who realized that he was a sinner in need of mercy. In Matt 23:2-3 Jesus was careful not to “throw out the baby with the bath water” by reminding the people to obey their leaders, but warning them against following their example of relying on external behavior for their salvation.
Later He explained His point more clearly. “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks”(John 4:23). We are to be a spiritual people, seeking a relationship with the Father even as He seeks one with us, not a religious people, mindlessly obedient to a set of rules taught by men.
But the problem of religious works didn’t go away go away with the birth of the church. A few years later, Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy that depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8). Already man’s tendency to add to what God had done was becoming evident in the church.
What Religion Are You?
Someone once defined religion as “sinful man’s vain attempt to cover himself before a Holy God.” It began in the Garden of Eden, as Adam and Eve, realizing they were naked, hurried to clothe themselves before the Lord saw them. But the Lord had a different remedy for their nakedness. He clothed them in the skins of animals, demonstrating that it was by the shedding of innocent blood that they would be covered, not by the works of their hands (Gen 3:7 & 21). It continues to the end of the age as He warns the apostate church at Laodicea to “buy white clothes from Me to cover your shameful nakedness” (Rev 3:18). Through out the Bible we are either “clothed in His righteousness (Isa. 61:10)” or “naked and shamefully exposed” (Rev 16:15) in in a vain attempt to clothe ourselves.
A Moving Experience
Needing help to move some furniture, I called the Salvation Army for a couple of strong bodies. They sent me Bill and Cliff, two young men enrolled in their rehab program. Bill was raised a Mormon while Cliff grew up Catholic. These two groups are noted for adding rules and traditions to a biblical foundation. Riding along in the truck I had rented, we had time for talk so I steered the discussion to matters of eternal significance. They both spoke about things they had been taught, and I suggested that the Lord won’t be interested in the particular church we attended, but in the motive of our hearts as we did so. Finally Bill, in one of those break through moments said, “So it all boils down to the faith in your heart.” Bill had gotten past all the religion he’d been taught, and was finally listening to the Spirit within him.
The Protestant Work Ethic
Work hard, live right, and you’ll succeed. Good advice, as long as you remember that everything you have has come from the Lord; even the intellect and energy you think is responsible for your success (Deut. 8:18). The only thing we have to commend ourselves before God is the realization that we have nothing but our faith to make us righteous.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)
So whether you’re sitting in your favorite pew, performing an act of kindness for the less fortunate, or giving of your excess to help a struggling ministry, realize that the goal is not to earn points with God. He’s already given you all the points there are. The goal is to express your gratitude, to give thanks to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Because even though you can never hope to live up to His standards and earn your own righteousness, He’s given you all of His (2 Cor. 5:21), and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
He didn’t do this because you’re better than others, or because you’ve earned it. He did it because He loves you, and gave you the faith to believe that when He went to the cross, He went for you. Remember His goal was to teach us what love is all about. Let’s show Him we’ve learned the lesson.