The death of religion seems a strange topic to preach about in church, but I sense that over the last year or so we are seeing in our own nation the slow, painful death of institutionalised church.
With the plebiscite last year, and the numerous Church scandals involving priests, etc. never before has conventional Church seemed so irrelevant to and out of touch with our people. Aussies are not impressed by fine buildings, bells and smells, rituals or nice words. So religion as such is losing its power in society, but interestingly, this is not the first but the latest of many times when religion has lost relevancy and power.
Aussies have never warmed to institutionalised Church , partially because as Aussies were a bunch of rebels. Australians are unconventional, and often antiestablishment… we don’t like rules, we don’t like fake and we really respond the best to genuineness, openness and fairness.
And as Australians we value mateship above all else… and what is mateship? It is relationship, on a deep level.
CHOOSING RELIGION OVER RELATIONSHIP
God has always been about relationship. In the Garden of Eden, we find the Lord walking in fellowship with man and woman. When sin entered the world, man chose sin and thereby rejected relationship with God, causing physical death and even eternal death to take root in man.
Relationship is about love, it’s about commitment, it’s about respect. Religion is a tricky customer, because it looks on the surface like it is about those things, but it isn’t… it is actually about making us feel like we are acceptable. Look around at all of the world’s great religions and you will see people doing things to gain salvation. Religion is man reaching out to God, but Christianity is God in the person of Jesus Christ reaching down to man. Christianity should be a relationship, not a religion.
Back in Exodus at Mt Sinai, the people I Israel had the opportunity to fellowship with God, but they were afraid…
Exodus 20:18-21 (ESV Strong's)
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
At that point people chose rules over relationship, laws over love, fearfulness over fellowship. They thought it’s better to just follow a series of rules or rituals rather that actually converse with, and be responsible to, their awesome, mighty, overwhelming God. Man has been doing it ever since!
RELIGION AND RELATIONSHIP
Religion is what you do over and over… Religion is what you do continuously… Religion is your rituals, your customs, your habitual activities… We seem to like it…
Religion is that which you do habitually… But relationship is something altogether different…
Relationship is a connection, an association between you and someone else… Relationship is the kinship that exists between you and someone else… Relationship is the camaraderie/ companionship that exists between you and those that you are close to…
And in order to have relationship, there must first be fellowship…. To connect with God, we need more than just religion; more than just a habit… we need a relationship with God…!
Philippians 3:8 (ESV Strong's)
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
Paul is saying everything, every single thing, is like rubbish, or even dung compared to what? Compared to knowing Christ. Paul clearly lays it out here, it’s about knowing Jesus.
So as believers we need to commit to relationship over regulations, fellowship over fearfulness and love over legalism. Think about it.. You can be obedient to someone without loving or being close to them, but if you genuinely adore someone, you are obedient automatically because you want to please them and bring them joy!
LEGALISM: BEWARE THE POWER OF RULES
In one of life’s great paradoxes, rules and regulations have a way of choking genuine obedience. The reason behind this is that outwardly rules may bring what appears to be obedience, but it reaches a point where obedience is often grudging because. People being people, we cannot legislate to change the heart. Governments find this… they create swathes of rules governing our behaviour, but government cannot change the underlying attitudes of the heart.
In 1936 Australia had 88 pages of income tax laws. By 2008, we had 5743 pages, and employed 20,000 people to implement them… the ATO is the 2nd largest government agency!
Even in church, heartfelt decisions for Christ are soon replaced by man made rules if we are not on our guard against them.
Every great move of God throughout history has gone through an identifiable evolution…
A Man: It starts with one man and a God given, God driven dream… Martin Luther, John Wesley, William Booth.
A Movement: It continues with Holy Spirit inspired leadership, creating a powerful, God led movement… Protestantism, Methodists, the Salvation Army, ACC
A Machine: After a while, a generation or two, the movement gets organised into a machine, still looking the same to outsiders, but it degrades to people following rules and regulations.
A Monument: Today many moves of God lack power and are just monuments to past glories!
Choosing rules over relationship kills relationship, brings an outward conformity without true life change or obedience in the heart. Even the chosen people of God faced this, starting with that choice at Sinai and chose to follow rules, prompting Isaiah and later Jesus to say,
Isaiah 29:13 (ESV Strong's)
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
Even in church, we look obedient, we give lip service to God, but our hearts are often far from Him. And in the Church, the telltale sign of this is when we elevate rules above relationship, laws above love and look obedient outwardly when secretly our love is cold and lifeless. Let’s have a look at legalism in the church, and discover why legalism is religion without relationship…
1. LEGALISM MASQUERADES AS OBEDIENCE
Legalism is the obedience of rules above relationship, and laws above love. And we Christian are ripe for the picking… we have a history of legalism in the church, even today, even here at Ignite!
All world religions are legalistic… they consist of a series of rules that believers must obey. Christianity, at least how it looks to most Aussies from the outside, seems no exception. We should be, though, because the church should display God’s love not legalism, yet legalistic Christians actually believe that they are being obedient. They are being swindled by legalism.
As Christians, we have beliefs about certain behaviours, ideas and doctrines. It is good that we have opinions, but I believe we sin when we elevate those opinions above our love for one another. And don’t think it is only other churches and denominations, because folks we can be as legalistic as the next believer. Paula wrote to a Church struggling with legalism in Colossae…
Colossians 2:20-23 (ESV Strong's)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Paul’s says these rules look like real religion, but they actually do nothing about controlling the flesh. In our church life, getting drunk, swearing, and sex outside of marriage are clearly wrong. However, just because you don’t get drunk, swear or sleep around, it does not mean you are right with God. You look pious, but inside or behind closed doors you might be struggling with sin and far from God.
My friend in Mayalsia told me last week, “The older I get, the less judgemental I become.” Friends, we need to not be judging one another, because…
Romans 2:1 (ESV Strong's)
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
This does not mean we compromise and tolerate. I can disagree with you, I can even tell you so, but still love you unconditionally. Again, when we love what we think or believe more than we love another person. We become judgemental and legalistic, and we do not demonstrate God’s love!
2. LEGALISM CENTRES ON MAN MADE RULES
God gave His people rules for living. We call them the 10 Commandments, but Jesus summarised them into just 2 commandments…
Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV Strong's)
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
The original written Jewish law is called the Torah, and it is the first 5 books of the Bible, However, to this has since been added the Talmud, which scholar John Phillips describes as “vast accumulations of tradition encrusted with enormous deposits of human interpretation. The Torah itself has been largely superseded in Judaism by the Talmud.” The five books of the Torah can be written out in 350 pages, and summarised to two great commandments. The Talmud takes up 523 books printed in 22 volumes.” By the time of Christ these man made laws had to a large degree eclipse the written laws of the Bible.
And even today, we have laws that are cultural or controlling but not Biblical. In my parent’s day, dancing was considered a sin, as was women wearing makeup or shorts and even going to the movies. We see clearly today that these are based on man made rules devised to control young people, not on a relationship with God.
Now some Biblical principles need to be applied to modern society, but we must be careful to make sure the Biblical principle is faithfully applied. You might say, “Everyone lives together these days, so God now allows it.” However I think it is clear that doing so flies in the face of the Bible’s teaching on sex outside of marriage. You might say, “ Movies aren’t condemned by the Bible, but I believe any movie promoting non Biblical principles like demonic horror movies and promiscuous sex clearly violate God’s will for us.
3. LEGALISM IS ELITIST
Legalism is a man made effort to feel ok with God. It is raising to the position of Biblical mandate rules God never intended. It is taking our traditions and preferences and imposing them on others as an act of spiritual superiority the Bible never intended.
Legalism might make you feel pious and godly, but it is divisive, destructive, seductive and deceptive. It is destructive because it causes death instead of life, seductive because it satisfies the flesh and makes you look towards yourself and your own power instead of God, and deceptive because it makes you feel spiritually elite when you are actually a slave to man made rules!
Legalism kills life in the Spirit, and is focussed on man made, external rules. It often takes the form of “I don’t/you don’t”… perhaps you recognise these?
I don’t smoke, I don’t dance, I don’t swear, I don’t do drugs, I don’t sleep around, or
You don’t use the right Bible translation, You don’t worship the right way, You don’t tithe properly, You don’t pray enough, You don’t hear God like I do, You don’t, You don’t, You don’t!
Matthew 23:2-4 (ESV Strong's)
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
The religious leaders used their thousands of man made rules to control others and make themselves superior. They made them heavy burdens, when all people need to do to please God is love Him and love others!
We are not immune. I’ve had people leave our church because we use rice cracker for communion, because we changed our name and because we do not do certain things in church. Legalism, pure and simple!
4. LEGALISM DOES NOT WIN PEOPLE’S HEARTS
Legalism and rules might cause compliance, but they do not win people’s hearts. Kids brought up in harsh religious environments often rebel later on, because there was no love, just rules. They confirmed, but they did not transform!
Ephesians 6:4 (ESV Strong's)
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
In Hebrew discipline and instruction also means nurture and exhortation. That’s how we should lead, with nurture and encouragement. Many churches tend towards legalism and control, but our leadership here does not… we want to lead as Jesus directed…
Mark 10:42-44 (ESV Strong's)
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
Without being soft or tolerant on important issues, we need to love even those we disagree with. We must be completely intolerant of ungodly ideas, but completely tolerant of people.
THE CURE FOR LEGALISM
Legalism, strict adherence to and control of people using man made rules, is rampant in the Church in Australia, and this in part is why Aussies have little time for legalistic, organised religion. We think if we are harsh on certain issues we are being a good witness, but while we must be uncompromising on the truths of the Bible, even when we are uncompromising we need to be so with love. We have to learn to hate the sin but love the sinner. So how can we cure legalism?
1. REALISE OUR PREFERENCES ARE NOT GOD’S LAWS
God’s laws stand forever, and they are not there to ruin our fun but to protect our lives.
Matthew 5:18 (ESV Strong's)
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
God’s laws about anger can save relationships. God’s laws about honesty can save your business. God’s laws concerning sex outside marriage can protect you from disease or unplanned pregnancy.
But legalism occurs most often when we elevate our preferences or opinions above God’s opinions. In the church, issues like tongues, tithing, dancing, movies and drinking to name a few, have been touted as God’s will but really are at best our opinion or interpretation of God’s will, and at worst our opinion of what others should and shouldn’t do.
The first cure for legalism is to sort out what God actually requires, and not what we want to see happen. We need to absolutely committed to obeying God’s law as revealed in His Word, and less judgemental about how others obey our opinions!
2. BE INTOLERANT OF IDEAS, BUT TOLERANT OF PEOPLE
Many Christians have fallen for the mantra of our society, that we must be tolerant to all, especially gays and transgenders. Whole churches are busy tolerating things that the Bible clearly says are sin.
I believe we must be completely intolerant of ideas that contradict God’s clear Word and direction. I cannot and will not call a gay union a marriage, and I don’t care what my government says. I refuse to look at the Bible through society, but insist on looking at society through the Bible. The first one changes every month or so, and the second changes not!
However, while we must be completely intolerant to ideas that go against God’s law, we must be completely tolerant towards people, even those attacking us, even those who promote those ideas.
1 Peter 3:15 (ESV Strong's)
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,
Making our defence is about being intolerant of ideas that contradict the Word of God, but gentleness and respect are about tolerating the person. We cannot win people to Christ by arguing with them, insulting them, disrespecting them or rejecting them. You mustn’t agree with them, and you may need to tell them so to their face, but in the name of Jesus, don’t reject them, love them! Hearts are won by love, not by elitist rejection and arguments.
3. GUARD YOUR HEART
Proverbs 4:23 (ESV Strong's)
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.
The third cure for legalism is guarding your heart. Your heart is constantly under attack, but you need to realise that everything you believe, speak and do comes from your heart. It is the wellspring of your life. If you block this spring, life downstream starves to death. If you poison your heart, if you fill it with fear, envy, prejudice, depravity or anything outside of God, you poison the whole of your life. So how do we guard the wellspring of our life, our heart?
Philippians 4:8 (ESV Strong's)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
You can escape legalism by filling your mind and hence your heart with good and God things. This is why coming to church is essential, reading the Bible every day is mandatory, interacting with believers, reading good books, listening to worship songs, all of these Serb to guard your heart.
4. BE OBEDIENT
When Saul was asked to wipe out a city, and he kept the best livestock for himself, Samuel caught him red handed. Saul, in an effort to save the situation and escape the just punishment that was heading his way, claimed that he had only kept the best of the livestock in order to sacrifice them. But Samuel said,
1 Samuel 15:22 (ESV Strong's)
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.
Listen, God does not want your religious duties, He wants your heart! For centuries, man has been trying to obey rules to please God so God will bless him and give him what he wants. But all along, God wanted man’s heart, not the legalistic following of rules. To be obedient is better than our religious, legalistic sacrifice, and to listen is better than whatever else we can offer. Listen and obey, it’s that simple!
5. FALL IN LOVE WITH HIM
Our obedience should not be motivated by fear of God zapping us, or cursing us in some way.
1 John 4:18 (ESV Strong's)
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
Falling in love with Jesus, deeper and deeper every day, that’s the key to overcoming legalism and fear in our lives. God doesn’t want your lifeless legalism, He doesn’t want your ornery obedience, He doesn’t want your religious rule following, He wants your heart, He wants your love!
And when you love Him, obedience follows as night follows day. I obey Jesus, not because I’m forced to, not because I’m fearful of what might happen if I don’t, but because I love Him and I want to please Him more than anything else in the world! I obey Jesus and serve Him because I love Him, but I cannot truly love Him whom I do not know. So to know Him is to love Him.
2 John 1:6 (ESV Strong's)
And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.
THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY
In 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul lays out rules for conducting orderly church services and spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy. But between the two is the great chapter on love, which starts like this...
1 Corinthians 12:31 (ESV Strong's)
But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Love, brothers and sisters, not legalism, not rules, not religion, not judgement, love, Paul says, is the higher, the more excellent way. Here at Ignite we preach the Word of God without compromise, we seek the will of God unswervingly and we refuse to shy away from what God says is His truth and His standard. But let us always do this in love, because people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!
Unity is the church is paramount, and any time you elevate your preferences and your opinions above love for someone else, I believe you are in sin!
Today Church, I am calling you to leave legalism and learn love. I’m asking you to rediscover your first love, the love that sometimes gets lost in the repetition of religious behaviour. Today I am asking you to pledge that you will love and serve Jesus, not your own desires and not a Church or religious denomination. And today I am asking you to make a commitment with me that we will love each other more than we will love getting our own way or fighting for our own opinion. I’m calling you today to a higher calling, a more excellent way, to the path of unity. If we are ever to win others to Christ, we must stand together in unity.
If you don’t know Jesus, it’s time to give Him your heart.