Christian Living in the Modern World – By James Chapman

Chapter 2

Cheap Religion

Neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing. So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver (2 Samuel 24:24).

So set are the hearts of men on bargains that they will go a long way, and pay out of time and money in travel more than the article would cost at the store, in order to get something for nothing. But most men are really suspicious about an exchange which offers things absolutely free, so the sale which proposes something of quality for a price much lower than legitimate merchants ask catches a larger group than the gratis appeal.

I still recall with a tinge of disappointment a boyhood experience at the Old Settler’s picnic. Soon after arriving on the ground I met my school friend Arthur, and upon passing remarks we found that neither of us had any money, not even so much as a nickel or a penny. To us the picnic meant red lemonade, peanuts and striped stick candy. But today all these must be passed, since there was no money between us. I was immediately discouraged and suggested that we leave and go to the creek fishing or otherwise spend the day in some fashion that would not demand any fee. But Arthur was not so ready to give up He observed that the stand men had well filled tubs of red lemonade — more, he was sure than they would be able to sell at the price of five cents a glass. He prophesied that later the price would come down to two glasses for five cents. Then three for five. All you can drink for a nickel. And then with that magnificent hope of which only a boy is capable, he suggested that at closing time at night there would be some left, and that rather than pour it out, the venders would invite the Stragglers to come up and drink it without charge. So there in the very beginning of a hot afternoon, already thirsty, we took up the prospect of waiting until dark or later for the despairing merchants to give away the remnants of their drink. Now and then when we would drift away from the vicinity of the lemonade stands, the venders would put up a chorus of appeals to the crowds, then one or the other of us would imagine they had commenced to give it away and we would leave our place of interest with great haste that we might be in line for that final bargain in which we hoped to get something for nothing.

But most of us have lived long enough to know that the calamity that makes goods worthless to their owners is likely to make them worthless to us also, and we have also learned that in the markets of this world quality goods usually cost more money. And we have found that an article that bears but a cheap price may be more expensive in the long run, and that some goods cause us to remember the quality after we have forgotten the price. We therefore turn from the venders who offer bargains and do our trading with the established merchants who will be there still when we get ready to buy the second time. Good goods cost more money, but they are worth the difference — that is our mature judgment concerning the wares of this world.

In the moral and spiritual realm prices go up immediately until the best things are not for sale at any price. Take honor and veracity and purity: the very suggestion of exchanging one of these for money or advantage is obnoxious in the extreme. Set over against every earthly promise, the right thinking person prefers to be right and trustworthy and clean than to have everything else besides.

We do not always jump from the low plane to the high as quickly and easily as we have done in these paragraphs. Many, in spite of the Master’s warning, would serve God and yet not entirely forsake Mammon. They would first bury their father before following the Master. They would go home and make it right with those that are at their house before they would launch out in the Christian way. They would follow Christ and yet not forsake all.

The population of the world cannot be casually divided into the bad and the good. There are many who do not readily classify on either side. Things are not all either black or white. Some of them are gray, and it is not easy to place them immediately. If every man were either out and out for the world or else wholly devoted to God, the problem would be simple. Or, to come down to our own personal experience, if we ourselves were always free from mixed motives and from conduct that borders on the forbidden, we could rest much easier about ourselves and our final disposition.

Neither is it fair to charge everyone with hypocrisy who falls short of the best in religion. That is, some are sincere in a measure who are not completely committed to the way of God. Of such it may be said that they hope to reap the rewards of righteousness without accepting all of the adjustments involved in righteousness. In other words, they are spiritual bargain hunters and are out to get quality at a reduced price.

Under a moral government like the one of which we are subjects, it is sometimes possible to live for a time as spiritual “deadbeats,” that is, to enjoy better conditions than our own merit would warrant. I think no one who is fair-minded will question that whatever greatness our country possesses it owes to the piety and religious sincerity of our fathers. History gives invariable testimony that wherever people immigrate to a new land just in order to better their economical status their coming makes no contribution to the moral and spiritual good of their new home. It was like this with the Spanish gold hunters of the early American colonial period. It was like this with many of the English settlers who came to Virginia. But whenever people come for moral and spiritual reasons they do make a contribution to the well being of their chosen land. It was like this with the Pilgrim fathers, and with the many who came to America to set up family altars, to establish public worship and to found schools in which the Bible was the principal textbook.

The foundations of our nation’s greatness were laid by these early Christians, and the real pioneers were not the statesmen and the soldiers, but the ministers and the humble laymen who gave unstintingly to make our land a Christian land. But now the children and the children’s children have come along to enjoy the fruits of this superior civilization, but to use up their patrimony like so many parasites. Children of the founders allow the churches to close for want of support and attendance, and they themselves spend the Sabbath on the golf courses and in indulgence in holiday diversions. They want a safe place for their children, but they themselves sit about in indolence while designing men foist liquor and gambling and the salacious motion pictures upon the land. These would not think of doing anything active for the corrupting of our people, but, on the other hand, they are indolent citizens who are content to warm around the fires their fathers built, and make no contribution of even a bundle of sticks to the fuel supply. These may be said to have cheap patriotism. And any claim they may make of willingness to die for their country is not sufficient compensation, for we all are obligated to help make our country a place that is worth dying for. In fact, it requires a better type of patriotism to sustain one in a daily and continuous right course of living than it does to enable one to die dramatically in a time of public excitement.

But we are thinking of religion in its more formal and personal sense. Jeroboam, you know, made religion easy for Israel by setting up two places of worship, one in the north and one in the south, so that no one would have far to go, and so no one would need to go to Jerusalem at all. But this concession to ease and convenience marked the drift of a people and the downfall of a nation. It was not long until men substituted household gods for even the shrines at Dan and Bethel, and set up common people for priests instead of the chosen sons of Levi, and the whole land forgot Jehovah. They started with cheap religion and ended with false religion.

In the days of Jeremiah the priests in Judah, feeling sorry for the people, commenced to say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace,” and “healed the affliction of the daughter of my people slightly,” and paved the way for drift and corruption and destruction.

But why hark back to antiquity? A great denomination in America, during a given decade, had an unusual number of accessions to its membership, but when the net results were tabulated it was discovered that the losses had been greater than the gains. The principal editor of the denomination, commenting upon the matter, suggested that the disappointing results were accounted for by the fact that church joining had been made too easy. In the desire to save souls and count accessions ministers had made religion so easy that those accepting it did not take it seriously and drifted out faster than they could be brought in.

General William Booth of the Salvation Army, himself a mighty crusader and apostle to the neglected, looked forward with fear to the time when men would “have Christianity without Christ, religion without the new birth and profession without possession.” He feared they would come to take church joining for conversion, baptism for regeneration and appearance for reality. John Wesley was quite certain there would never be a time when there would not be a people called Methodists, but he feared lest they might be overcome with success, and give way to popularity, and cease to be a virile and evangelistic people who pressed home upon themselves and those that heard them the demands of New Testament standards of experience and life.

But why go even to our contemporaries? Our first duty of search is with ourselves. As the living conditions become more pleasant, men have the tendency to become soft and flabby. So, in a sense, we are the vulnerable generation ourselves. It used to be noted that when the early Christians came toward the end of a period of persecution it would be a rare thing that a Christian should recant to save himself from the lion’s den or the stake. But when there had been a long respite, and a new persecution began, recantation was common. Life became sweet when the days were pleasant, and even Christians clung to it too tenaciously. This is a day of ease with us. Physical plenty is matched with toleration, and if we could just remove fear of death and of future judgment, we would be in the millennium now. But “these are times that try men’s souls.” These are times that make men soft. These are the time that make men less than men. Our day is a good day for pretense and profession, but if we are genuine, we must be so by our own will — the times do little to help in that direction.

Araunah would make it easy for King David. Here is the level threshingfloor which the king might use as an altar. Here are the threshing instruments which will do for wood. Here are the oxen for the sacrifice, and all are offered to David without charge. But David rejected the idea of cheap religion, and paid the full price for all he used. He would not offer to God things that cost him nothing. This was the proper attitude for a rich king. A poor man might take whatever he or his friends possessed and God would accept it. But when one was able to pay God could not be pleased with one who would spare himself.

It is not far different in the markets of God from what it is in the markets of this world. In both we usually get just about what we pay for. In the markets of God men come to the altar with proud, impenitent, unforgiving hearts and then go away with a formal, powerless, unsatisfying religious experience. They bring but a partial sacrifice and arise with a limited blessing. They withhold part of the price and go away with but a substitute. It is cheaper to whitewash than to wash white. It is cheaper to just profess over a crooked past than to make restitution and confession and find the evidences of mercy with the Lord. It is cheaper to join the church than to humble the heart before the Lord and men. Men would like to have “old-time religion,” but old-time prices are dear. They would like to have satisfactory evidences that God is their Father, but that costs in heartbreaks and tears. Christians would like to be filled with the Holy Spirit, but one cannot be filled with the Spirit until he gets ready to be emptied of selfishness and pride. It is not that men prefer the mild, meaningless, “take it by faith” kind of religion that is the bane of the times, but that kind is cheaper than the kind that satisfies the heart and gives peace and rest in life and in death, so men take the cheap kind at the lower price.

And it is cheaper to be just a nominal church member than to be an out and out Christian. The nominal church member can go to church just intermittently — regularly on Easter Sunday — and yet be consistent, for he does not claim to be very good. He can leave out prayer meeting from his worship program and Sunday school from his service schedule, and yet have some kind of hope. He can give of his money meagerly and just when he feels like it, and he can leave foreign missions out of his list of responsibilities. Of course a church member like this will not get much comfort out of this religion, but since he does not invest much in it he may still think he has a bargain. The minister cannot depend upon members like this for any service that is difficult, but of course such members do not exact much from the church and the minister. It is just a cheap religion all the way around. The member can supplement his church fellowship with his club and lodge and he can salve his conscience by contributing to the Community Chest. He can major on being kind to his family and offering his children the “best opportunities.” Of course his religion will break down in a crisis, but if he can still remember then that he did not pay much for it, perhaps he will at least realize some compensation, for he will even then be sure that the best goods cost more money on the markets of God.

But lest we should seem to say that one can make his choice between the real and the formal and not be much worse off, seeing there was a difference in the price.. we must make a summary that is unequivocal. Formal religion does have secondary values. It is pretty much the social thing for one to have his church, just as he has his lodge and his club. And even the formal acknowledgment of interest in the high and holy brings some personal and social reward. Even at a man’s funeral it adds much to the propriety of the occasion if the minister can tell that the deceased was a church member. We do not disparage any of these values. Rather we let them stand for their fullest claim. But, personally, why have any religion at all?

My answer is that I want religion to do everything — for me that religion is supposed to do. I want it to bring me unmistakable evidence of pardon for past sins and of present acceptance with God. I want it to bring into my heart the consciousness of moral purity and holy estate before the Lord. I want it to bring me assurance and comfort in life and in death. I want it to furnish me a sure anchor of hope by means of which I may anticipate the joys of heaven, and which will be strong enough to enable me to depend upon it when my loved ones pass on out of my sight and when I come myself to walk out into the shadows. And such a religion as this must be unmistakably real. For such purpose mere camouflage is worthless. To serve such ends religion must be one hundred per cent genuine.

And such a religion is as different from the cheap kind as substance is different from shadow. The best of the cheap kind is but an imitation composed entirely of human elements. But this real kind has the best of the human elements plus the divine elements, which are themselves the factors that differentiate Christianity from pagan religions. Christianity is better than the others just because it is “the power of God unto salvation,” while the others are but the forces of insufficient man directed in religious channels. Nothing in all the world pays such poor personal dividends as cheap religion. The homely man may pass for comely by reason of the assistance of the tailor and the beauty expert. And if he passes as comely, that is about all there is to it, for physical beauty is on the surface. The “four-flusher” may get the honor which would come to him if he were actually rich. And that is about all there is to it; for men will cease to honor the rich some time anyway. The pretender may pass as a scholar, if he but learns to hold his tongue, and he may thus steal the homage intended for the wise. But unreal religion fails in the major purpose. It fails to bring inner peace and assurance. It fails to give the anchoring hope of eternal life. It fails to bring communion and fellowship with God. It breaks down just at the time when one has nothing else upon which to depend.

And so, as for me, I come now to join with David in rejecting a cheap religion. I want quality, and I know quality demands the highest price. But I still want quality, and I want it so much that I will pay the price. I know the price cannot be something I do not have — that would be a travesty on the justice and mercy of God. I know that what I have and all I have must be enough, and so I come asking for a religion so real and strong that I can safely hang all my hopes upon it in time and for eternity. And to have such a religion I bring my all.

O God, our heavenly Father, save us all from both the fear and the love of men, and give us grace to love Thee with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We pray for the fullness of Thy blessing, and in return therefor we offer Thee our all. We pledge to Thee our fullest price that we may claim at Thy hand the fullness of Thy grace. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.