Religion, Ritual, and Reality
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A major problem in our world today is religion. In fact, a lot of people choose to separate themselves from God because of religion. Many people will not consider the claims of Christ because of religion. Religion can be a real problem. We tend to think of people as being religious or not religious, but the fact is, pretty much everyone is religious in some form or fashion. Almost without exception, diverse tribes, nations, societies, groups of people have developed with their own ideas of religion.
Exodus 32:1–8 (ESV)
1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.
4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”
6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.
8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ”
Even God’s chosen people quickly abandoned the one true God to worship and sacrifice to a golden calf. You see, they had not heard from Moses for some time, Moses had not brought them any news from the Lord, so being religious people, they found another object on which to focus their religion.
Some people who profess to be religious show the world by their actions that they are in reality hypocrites, but this unfortunate reality is not the real problem.
The problem is not even because of the evil things people do in the name of religion. These are all just symptoms of the problem. The problem of religion is religion itself. What we must understand is that religion can actually encourage people to live lives of hypocrisy. It's easy to be religious. But religion is not enough.
Thus far in the book of Romans, Paul has been dealing with people who reject God. Now he turns his attention to religious people. These are not people who reject God. On the contrary, these are people who affirm God, accept God's word, and participate in the rights and rituals of the church. These are people who openly identify with God and His Commandments. The shocking thing about them, however, is that they are lost. They are religious, but lost!
As we shall see, this is the very situation that exists in much of the world today. In fact, in many Bible-believing, evangelical, Christian churches we find many people who are religious, but lost. We may be religious, but you must understand that religion will never get you into Heaven. Religion is not enough - never was, never will be.
In a minute we will be looking at the second chapter of Romans. In this text, Paul exposes the fallacy of trusting in religion. He is speaking to the Jews, who were the primary beneficiaries of the true word of God. God had revealed Himself to the Jews. They were His people. The Jews of this passage compare to any who trust in religion today. By understanding the mistakes they were making, we can then judge whether we are making those same mistakes ourselves. The real question you must ask yourself is this: "Are you trusting in religion or are you trusting in Christ?"
We look first at:
I believe that religion is a leading enemy of Christianity. That statement may sound strange to you, and in fact, you may ask “doesn't the Bible itself speak about "true religion" in the book of James?” It certainly does:
James 1:26–27 (ESV)
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
When James mentions true religion or pure religion, he is making our precise point. The Bible must speak of "true religion" because of the danger of "false religion." A lot of what passes for religion in our day is false religion. Because of that, it is far more profitable to cease to use the term for the real thing.
What the Bible calls "true religion" is in reality a relationship with the living God. Religion has been defined by some as man's attempt to be pleasing to God. On the other hand, the Bible teaches that we can never make ourselves pleasing to God by our own efforts. Therefore, religion becomes my effort to earn my salvation. Therein lies the problem.
What religion produces is people who trust in themselves and their identity as religious people. This was the case of the Jews to whom Paul wrote in Romans, chapter 2:
Romans 2:17–20 (ESV)
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God
18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law;
19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,
20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
It is obvious that they were proud of being a religious people. You see how Paul says, “you call yourself a Jew.” They were proud of that designation. It identified them as the God’s chosen people. It also indicated that they were a very religious people. Paul could just as easily say, "You take pride in being known as a religious people." This is how we would apply this today; we take pride in being a religious people.
This is the subtle deception of religion. Because religion always leads to a prideful attitude. That was the case of the Jews. Notice what they took pride in. They were proud that they possessed the law. They were happy that as Jews they were known to rely on the law and through that, they could “approve what is excellent.”
The reason they felt this way is because the law had been given to them by God Himself. It was all written down on scrolls passed down through the years. Because of this they could boost about their unique relationship with God.
They considered themselves to be a guide for the blind, they saw themselves as a light for those who were in darkness. They prided themselves in being an instructor of the foolish, and teacher of infants. They were very proud to be so religious. They, to the exception of all others, had the truth. They knew the truth. They agreed with the truth. They taught the truth.
This pride led them to an inescapable attitude. That is the attitude of presumption. You see, pride always leads to presumption, always. Because of their religion, and who they thought they were, they thought they were pleasing to God. They presumed that all of this religion they had was enough. They were wrong.
It is not enough to consider yourself religious.
It is not enough to rely on the law.
It is not enough to brag about your relationship to God.
It is not enough to know His will and even approve of what is right.
It is not enough to be instructed by the law.
It is not even enough to be a teacher of the knowledge and truth that has been revealed by God.
These things are not enough.
Listen to the problem and predicament they were in starting with verse 21:
Romans 2:21–24 (ESV)
21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?
22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.
24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Paul is speaking here to the Jewish religious leaders, a group that he knew well. Paul had been a part of that system. He knew where the bodies were buried. He knew of the skeletons in the closet. As he is speaking, each of those religious leaders is reflecting on the private things in their life and wondering how Paul knows so much about them and their secret sins.
They had become hypocrites. On the surface they were following God when in fact they were dishonoring God by breaking His law. They taught one thing and did another. It was a case of “don’t do as I do, do as I say.” They were religious, but they had totally missed the point.
What matters is not what you know, agree with, or teach. What matters is who you are. Following God is not about the head, it is about the heart.
Now, let’s look at:
Romans 2:25–27 (ESV)
25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.
26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
One of the subtle traps of religion is the idea that somehow, if we participate in religious activity or ritual, that will gain us favor with God. For Jews, the big ritual was circumcision. This was the sign of the covenant that God had made with Israel.
On the eighth day of his life every male child would be circumcised as a testimony to the covenant God had made with His chosen people. So, for Paul to talk to them about the ritual of circumcision was to talk about their identity and identification as a people belonging to God.
The problem was that the Jews had come to rely upon this physical act of religious ritual instead of seeing the spiritual significance behind the physical rite of circumcision. What Paul is saying is that the outward act only has value if you observe the law. To go through some religious ritual when it is only an outward act with no inner spiritual significance is foolishness.
If they were not willing to do what God had commanded, why should they think God would accept them based upon some religious ritual. Certainly, it was a ritual He had commanded in their case. But the significance was not in the circumcision, it was in the covenant relationship. They were identifying with the covenant yet violating the covenant by the way they lived their lives.
Indeed, it went even deeper than that. Their behavior was a reflection of their character. They did not obey the law because they did not want to obey the law. They wanted the benefits of God's favor without the obligations of obeying God. Paul reminds them that if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. In other words, outward rituals must testify of an inward reality.
Paul asks a rhetorical question in verse 26:
So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
His obvious answer is yes! Again, the emphasis is on the inward spiritual reality, not on the outward physical ritual. Indeed, these uncircumcised people who keep God's law will condemn those who are circumcised and break God's law.
Finally, let’s look at:
Now we come to the real heart of the issue. This is the point Paul is trying to make.
Romans 2:28–29 (ESV)
28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
The point is that religion is not enough. Outward ritual is not enough. You could paraphrase Paul this way: "You are not a true believer if you are only one outwardly, nor is true Christianity merely an outward and physical expression. You are only a true Christian if you are one inwardly; and none of your religious observance means anything unless it is from the heart, by the Spirit, and not merely by knowing the letter of the written code."
The real issue, you see, is one of the heart. You can be as religious a person as you possibly can be. You could even be a preacher who knows and believes the Bible, one who knows how to read it in its original Hebrew and Greek, and one who proclaims its truth with a loud voice from the pulpit. But if your heart is hard as stone, it means nothing. It is a matter of the heart.
Now Paul is not saying that we should not identify with the people of God, or that we should not be baptized as believers, or that we should not believe and proclaim the truth. All these things have meaning for us if our heart is right with God.
This is the real issue. This is reality. Religion shields us from reality. God brings us face to face with reality and calls us to repent. And when we do, He replaces the heart of stone with a heart that is open to God. When that happens, we cease to trust in the outward observance even though we participate in it. But we do not participate in it as merely a ritual. We participate because it testifies of a spiritual reality. That person's praise is not from men, but from God.