Hiding Behind Religion
Therefore the Lord God says this, “Listen carefully, I am laying in Zion a Stone, a tested Stone, A precious Cornerstone for the [secure] foundation, firmly placed. He who believes [who trusts in, relies on, and adheres to that Stone] will not be disturbed or give way [in sudden panic].
One more refuge of lies is religion. It may surprise you that religion is as much of a refuge of lies as morality, other people’s badness, universalism, or infidelity. Religion never saved anybody. It is one thing to trust in religion; it is something entirely different to trust in the living Christ.
You may tell people about Christ, and they may say, “Oh, I am very religious, I go to church; I say my prayers every morning and night; I go to Communion. I have been baptized. I have been confirmed. I give a tenth of my income to the poor. I am very religious.” Well, you can do every bit of that and go straight to hell. Religion never saved anybody.
Is your religion making you a better man or woman? A great deal of religion will not make men or women one bit better. Many religious people will lie as fast as anybody. They will go around slandering their neighbors. Men who are prominent religious businessmen will cut you as wide open in a business deal as any man in town. They turn a deaf ear to the cry of the aged and the needy, unless it is going to get into the papers that they gave them something. Many men are very religious and are perfect scoundrels.
I met a man who seemed to be most religious. He made his employees gather together at a certain hour everyday for prayer, and he held religious services with them every Sunday that they would not have to go to church. But this pious hypocrite was paying the women who worked for him starvation wages. His employees were the palest, most sickly crowd of women. I have ever seen. That kind of religion will send a man to the deepest part of hell.
Will your religion stand the test of the dying hour? A great many religious people are as badly scared as anybody when they come to die.I have heard the groan and sigh and weep in the dying hour. Their hollow religion doesn’t stand the test of great crisis. Will it stand the test of the Judgement Day?
Religion is a refuge of lies, and if that is what you are trusting in, you will be lost forever.
There can be no doubt that the Sanhedrin and the mob that cried out for Jesus to be crucified were religious. The Pharisees were strict observers of their religious laws and traditions, yet when Christ stood in their midst they either didn’t recognize Him or they refused to acknowledge Him. They were so bound and blind by their religion that they missed the presence of the Lord.
In the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem we find an illustration of how one can be religious but not recognize the very presence of Christ.
“As He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it [and the spiritual ignorance of its people], saying, “If [only] you had known on this day [of salvation], even you, the things which make for peace [and on which peace depends]! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.”
The crowd was an enthusiastic group, shouting praises, casting down before Christ their garments and palm branches and to the casual observer, they were caught up in praise to God. What they were really involved in was an expectation that Jesus had come to fulfill their understanding of the Messiah and He would throw off their oppressors and they would be a free nation again. When Christ failed to bring it to pass and rather than rejoicing in the moment, He wept over Jerusalem, they quickly turned away. I’ve known people over the years that were religious but when life didn’t work out as planned, God didn’t answer a specific prayer or meet a specific expectation, they abandoned their “faith” and bitterness and unbelief became their companions. This was what Satan accused Job of- being religious because of blessing. In the crisis of life true faith and trust will manifest or the shallowness of religion will come to light. Some years ago there was a very religious woman that I knew. She was always telling people who were facing adversity to have faith and to praise God in the trial. When she went through times of adversity, she became depressed and bitter toward God. You see it’s easy to trust in religion when life is good but the true test of faith is whether it will stand in the storm. I refer again to what David says in Psalm 23, “Yay though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” This is the difference between a genuine relationship with God and mere religion. Religion may go with you to the crisis but a relationship with God will go with you through the crisis.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus compares religion to having a genuine relationship with God. Listen to His words:
13 “But woe (judgment is coming) to you, [self-righteous] scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven in front of people; for you do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow those who are [in the process of] entering to do so. 14 [Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you swallow up widows’ houses, and to cover it up you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation.] 15 “Woe to you, [self-righteous] scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel over sea and land to make a single proselyte (convert to Judaism), and when he becomes a convert, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears [an oath] by the sanctuary of the temple, that is nothing (non-binding); but whoever swears [an oath] by the gold of the temple is obligated [as a debtor to fulfill his vow and keep his promise].’ 17 You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the sanctuary of the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 And [you scribes and Pharisees say], ‘Whoever swears [an oath] by the altar, that is nothing (non-binding), but whoever swears [an oath] by the offering on it, he is obligated [as a debtor to fulfill his vow and keep his promise].’ 19 You [spiritually] blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? 20 Therefore, whoever swears [an oath] by the altar, swears both by it and by everything [offered] on it. 21 And whoever swears [an oath] by the sanctuary of the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells within it. 22 And whoever swears [an oath] by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it. 23 “Woe to you, [self-righteous] scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you give a tenth (tithe) of your mint and dill and cumin [focusing on minor matters], and have neglected the weightier [more important moral and spiritual] provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the [primary] things you ought to have done without neglecting the others. 24 You [spiritually] blind guides, who strain out a gnat [consuming yourselves with miniscule matters] and swallow a camel [ignoring and violating God’s precepts]! 25 “Woe to you, [self-righteous] scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and robbery and self-indulgence (unrestrained greed). 26 You [spiritually] blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the plate [examine and change your inner self to conform to God’s precepts], so that the outside [your public life and deeds] may be clean also. 27 “Woe to you, [self-righteous] scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 So you, also, outwardly seem to be just and upright to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 “Woe to you, [self-righteous] scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets and decorate and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have joined them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the [allotted] measure of the guilt of your fathers’ sins. 33 You serpents, you spawn of vipers, how can you escape the penalty of hell?
The first woe is that these do not enter the kingdom of God themselves and also keep others from doing so. In other words, they practice a form of religion but never fully receive the transformation of salvation through Christ. They may join the church but are never born again. They remain in the bondage of sin and it’s practices and their lifestyle is detrimental to those who may be searching for Christ.
The second woe is pronounced on those who may appear to be very religious but practice taking advantage of the weaker. In this case Jesus says they take the advantage of the widows. We may call it good business, but no Christian should ever prosper at the advantage of another person. Our business practices ought to be guided by our relationship with Christ who said, “
40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘I assure you and most solemnly say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it for Me.’
The third woe is pronounced on those who make following ritual more valuable that having a relationship with Christ. Often we make a priority for new members the practice of our particular religious rituals rather than helping them develop a personal relationship with Christ. I have a friend who serves on a major university campus as the leader of Chi-Alpha ministries- a Christian missions work. In conversation with him about the alarming rate of students who abandon their Christianity as they go off to college, I learned that according to their study, most of those who do so had no genuine relationship with Christ. They were involved in their youth group, participated in church activities and went to church with their parents, but they had no personal relationship with Christ. When they left home, youth group and church, they had nothing to carry them so they dropped their religion and religious activities. If you could no longer practice your rituals, would you still know you had a relationship with Christ?
The fourth woe is pronounced on those who make the building more important than the Presence. In this case, the Pharisees held that when you swore an oath- made a promise- and you did so by the gold of the temple, it was more binding than just giving your word. Two things are addressed here. First of all what makes the temple-church building important is the Presence and not the structure. At the risk of being offensive, let me say that an empty church building is no more holy than any other building. It is only holy when filled with worshippers who have invited the Presence to meet with them. Without being irreverent may I also say that the sanctuary is not where God dwells, for the Bible teaches that we- our bodies are the temple of God and that He dwells in us.
The fifth woe declares that those who may give great sums or do mighty deeds but neglect mercy and faithfulness may practice religion but not know Christ. Often we can become critical of others as we judge their level of involvement or giving or working. We must learn that every act, every gift, every work ought to spring out of our relationship with God and we do not give, labor or serve in comparison to what others are doing but we do “everything as unto the Lord.”
The sixth woe is for those who major on outward appearances and neglect the inner evils. I have seen religious people offended by how someone dressed or wore their hair or where they went or what they did while at the same time they themselves were participating in ungodly behavior with unrighteous attitudes. Some churches major in these things and yet inner sins such as gossip, covetousness and judgemental attitudes are accepted. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were more concerned with the appearances of outward righteousness, keeping the law than they were having their hearts cleansed and transformed. What I tell young Christians is to seek God for His cleansing and purifying of their heart. Their conduct and activity will then follow outwardly as their inner being is changed.
The seventh woe is, in the words of Scripture, “Having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” The word translated power here is “exousia” meaning authority. This pertains to those who while openly agreeing with what the Bible says is true do not let it direct their lives. It is acknowledgement without obedience. For example most Christians would agree that we have been given the Great Commission-“go you into all the world and proclaim the gospel”- but many simply ignore it as though it is for everyone else; self excepted. Religion may allow one to ignore the instructions of God, relationship will not.
The eighth woe is upon those who hold the work of their ancestors to be something that gives them connection with God. God has no grandchildren. You may have had godly parents and grandparents. You may be a descendant of a long line of believers and workers in the church, but what they did does not qualify you as a Christian. Every person must find and have their own relationship with Christ. You may have been brought up in the church. You may have participated in all its activities. You may have practiced it’s rituals and for all outward appearances you are a member of the body of Christ, but unless you have had a personal born again experience, your dependence on mere religion will leave you fearful and hopeless when you face eternity.
The only sure refuge is Christ. This sure foundation stone is Jesus Christ.
“….for no one can lay a foundation other than the one which is [already] laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 3:11
This is the only refuge that will stand the tests. When my conscience points to my sin, I have the answer that satisfies it. Christ took my sins and nailed them to the cross. Will it make people better? A living faith in a living Christ will make anyone who has it more and more like Christ. Will it stand the test of Judgement Day? We can face God on that day with confidence. You may say, “What, have you never sinned?” Well certainly I have-we all have. But when God asks for my answer, I will speak one word, “Jesus,” and this answer will satisfy God. When I come face to face with death and the unknown of eternity will this refuge stand? O yes “for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against that day.”
May you find your refuge in Christ alone for He alone is sufficient.
Dr. John Thompson