Tuesday, August 31, 2010


It seems to me that the following story is illustrative of what we often speak of. Christianity, on the whole, and without doubt, has become a religion of performance. If those claiming to be Christian are seen to attend church, do daily devotions, do not drink, smoke or swear, get involved with certain works like serve at conferences or childrens' camps, they are deemed to be genuine Christians.

As I was thinking about this I came across a story which Alan Knox tells, a story which I couldn't help but repeat here:

There is a story about an old man and a young man on the same platform before a vast audience of people.

A special program was being presented. As a part of the program each was to repeat from memory the words of the Twenty-third Psalm.

The young man, trained in the best speech technique and drama, gave, in the language of the ancient silver-tongued orator, the, words of the Psalm.

“The Lord is my shepherd …” When he finished, the audience clapped their hands and cheered, asking him for an encore so that they might hear again his wonderful voice.

Then the old gentleman, leaning heavily on his cane, stepped to the front of the same platform, and in a feeble, shaking voice, repeated the same words-”The Lord is my shepherd. . .”

But when he was seated -no sound came from the listeners. Folks seemed to pray. In the silence the young man stood to make the following statement:

“Friends,” he said, “I wish to make an explanation. You asked me to come back and repeat the Psalm, but you remained silent when my friend here was seated. The difference? I’ll tell you. I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, a follower of Christ, is much, much different to what we have traditionally seen as "being a Christian". The word Christian now-days has been stripped of its meaning to simply mean a religious person.

Sadly, there are many who are heading towards the end of their lives, believing they are safe for eternity because they are loyal attenders, workers, etc., when in reality, they are as certain of a lost eternity as any unbeliever.

The above story illustrates the simple truth of what it means to be a follower of Christ, a member of His Father's family. It's about genuine relationship which the Lord Jesus Christ earned for all who would come to Him believing that what He did in His life, death and resurrection, and through the merit of which, those who trust, rest on this completed performance of a work, in faith, are assured of an eternity in His presence.

It's sinful for anyone to want, or expect more, from those who have placed their trust in Him.

Genuine followers of Christ, will want to meet together, not to follow a pre-arranged program, but to celebrate the Lord's Supper, in rememberance of what He did, and what He purchased for us. While they are together they will pray for and with one another, encourage one another, edify one another with what Scripture is saying, exhort one another. Occasionally they may have a teacher they know they can trust.

A strange phenomenon occurs when they understand this; they grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and they can't get enough of it, as they disciple one another, and make disciples, and the prominent figure, central amongst them, is the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ.

As I said, it's about relationship with the Father, the Son and each other indwelt and bound together by the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


continued -

It is so very easy to profess to be Christians, attending church, the mid-week Bible studies; even being very vocal in prayer, and the affairs of the church, and at the same timer being neither a Christian, or, if one, having neither heart nor life.

Such people are formalists. Their Christianity is a farce, because it is only form.

Strangely enough the voices of such are often the loudest; their “Christianity” consisting of talk and profession. They know all the information of the Gospel, they even profess to delight in doctrinal matters, displaying their expertise as a sign that they are “good Christians”.

Their pride in the "soundness" of their own views, is one of the prominent things about them. The "ignorance" towards anyone who disagrees with them is legend.

They might even be correct in their assertions, but this is as far as they get! If it were possible to put their inner lives under the microscope, all the “godliness”, that they express in words would be missing in the form of deeds.

The fruits of saving grace, such as transparent truthfulness, genuine, sacrificial love for God’s people, humility, honesty, forgiveness, kindness, gentleness, lack of guile, benevolence, and mercy are conspicuous by their absence.

The claim that they are Christians, is denied by the lack of substance. The missing substance is the fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit, fruit exhibited in love, which Jesus said is the proof that we are His disciples.

Can we wonder why so many churches are floundering when, sadly, such formalists are often seen as the mainstay of the local church. holding to positions of control. As Paul observed, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical".

In Paul’s day a person could be a direct descendant of Abraham, born into one of the tribes. If a male, he could have undergone the rite of circumcision on the traditional eighth day. As he grew up he could have faithfully kept the observance of all the feasts.

The religious observances in the temple always saw him in attendance. But in God's sight he was not a Jew! Because he had no heart for God.

This “heart” of which I’m speaking is what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections” in Christians is a work of the Holy Spirit, not something artificially and deliberately generated.

Many are carefully diligent about their outward profession. As a member of a church, they carefully adhere to its traditions, are baptized, never missing the regular services, and the Lord's Supper--and yet in God's sight, may not be a Christian at all, still heading for a lost eternity.

Our Lord Jesus Christ speaking of the Jews of His day in Matthew 15:8-9, says, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men" .

So much of what we do, and teach, today are the traditions, practices, and rules of men, often with appropriate proof texts added where necessary, to give them weight.

Jesus repeatedly denounced the formalism and hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, and warned His disciples against it.

In Matthew 23:13, Jesus warns, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" Such warnings He gave eight times, in a very short space of time.

But even with the warnings, our Lord held out an open door for repentance; and He does the same for His church today!

Formalism in the practice of God’s people, from a spiritual point of view, is much like cancer is to our body. It is pernicious, very subtle, until it takes hold, and finally destroys “heart”, leaving proud, careful, but dead, religiosity. The virus by which it is spawned is human tradition!

In the eyes of a person looking on, not understanding formalism, all may seem healthy and well, and even draw accolades. The formalist will have plenty of religious activity, but as immense in quantity as their activity may be, it will be accompanied with little, or zero quality.

The Lord Jesus Christ, who sees into the very heart of all men, knows the true situation. In His sight formalism is not a true relationship with Him at all.

The testimony of Scripture gives a clear warning to all of we who profess to be Christians. If we understand sin, we will dread the sin of formalism.

Again I would quote J.C. Ryle, who well understood how perniciously evil formalism is when he said, "Formalism may take your hand with a smile, and look like a brother, while sin comes against us with drawn sword, and strikes at us like an enemy. But both have one end in view. Both want to ruin our souls; and of the two, formalism is the one most likely to do it. If we love life, let us beware of formalism in religion. Nothing is "so common." It is one of the great family diseases of the whole race of mankind. It is born with us, grows with us, and is never completely cast out of us till we die. It meets us in church, it meets us among the rich, and it meets us among the poor. It meets us among educated people, and it meets us among the uneducated."

This initial infection of this malignancy often emanates from a leadership which wants a tidy, controlled ship, over which they have sole steering rights. From thence it spreads to the spreads to those in the pews.

The result? The third Person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit of God is relegated to the back rooms of our minds and heart.

Again, I am in hearty agreement with J.C.Ryle, who says, The person who thinks that there is no formalism in his church, is a very blind and ignorant person. If you love life, beware of formalism. Nothing is "so dangerous" to a man's own soul. Familiarity with the form of religion, while we neglect its reality, has a fearfully deadening effect on the conscience. It brings up by degrees a thick crust of insensibility over the whole inner man.

I reiterate Ryle’s very wise words : “The person who thinks that there is no formalism in his church, is a very blind and ignorant person.”

I was rather shaken when someone shared with me the following words of an unbelieving observer of Christianity:

"Christianity has dared to lower its ideals before the challenge of human greed, war-madness, and the lust for power; but the religion of Jesus stands as the unsullied and transcendent spiritual summons, calling to the best there is in man to rise above all these legacies of animal (development) and, by grace, attain the moral heights of true human destiny.

Christianity is threatened by slow death from formalism, over-organization, intellectualism, and other non-spiritual trends. The modern Christian church is not such a brotherhood of dynamic believers as Jesus commissioned continuously to effect the spiritual transformation of successive generations of mankind."

Are we so patently out of touch with God's Spirit and Scripture that an unbeliever has such a clear eye when it comes to discerning the problems faced by the institutional church of today?

The world is looking on and sees what is happening! When will we have the blinkers removed from the eyes of our mind and heart?

Oh God! Cause us to take our proud narcissistic eyes off ourselves, and our ego centered plans, bring your people to their knees in genuine repentance, and those who are nothing more than pretenders, to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ!

Monday, August 16, 2010


continued from last post:

Any group of people, habitually committed to formalistic function will eventually place more importance on formal structures, forms and procedures than on what the group represents.

This evil effectively cuts the third person of the Godhead out of the life of those who claim to be God’s people.

Paul was caused to clearly see that formalism would, at some time, cause greater problems for the church, as we can see from his warning in 2 Timothy 3:5 that a time would come when even God’s own people would have "... a form of godliness but denying its power."

Is not this the situation we find ourselves in today? Is it not true that the church at large, has a such a commitment to traditional form, that instead of evidence of true godliness, "a form of godliness" only, exists?

Even though the numbers are rapidly falling, large numbers of people attend church, read their Bibles, pray, preach, teach, with very little evidence, if any, of real godliness evidenced by their life.

In his letter to the Romans, in 2:28-29, we find Paul dealing with this very issue, when he wrote, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical."……...". No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God."

In the context of this article we could paraphrase Paul’s words: “Holding to an outward form or profession does not make Christians.”

Saying one is a Christian, or practicing outward expressions of Christianity doesn’t make one a Christian. A person is only a Christian if they are truly, and radically, changed, and being changed inwardly.

Continual changed towards God, continual changed towards our fellow believers, continual changed towards a lost world. A long time ago, I came to the conclusion that there is no settled place of “having made it” in the genuine Christian life.

Another instance of Paul’s concern on this matter was in his letter to the Colossian Christians, in Col.2:8, See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

We could go on ad infinitum about how the traditions of men has thrust the church into formalism.

More than a century ago, in the late 1800’s, J.C.Ryle, said, “Never since the Lord Jesus Christ left the earth, was there so much formalism and false profession as there is in the present day. Now, more than ever, we ought to examine ourselves, and search our religion, that we may know what sort it really is.”

If that was the case more than 100 years ago, we would be extremely naïve about the state of the church, to deny that his words apply, at least equally, to today.

We would be dishonest not to admit that, as we have developed in knowledge, wealth, and capabilities of science and technology, we have become satisfied with our prowess in these things and so proud and sure of our ability to organise and control, that we have rationalized, into powerless obscurity, the work of God’s Spirit amongst His people.

We merely give lip service to the concept of the Body of Christ, as Paul speaks of it. We need to ask ourselves the question: Is our Christianity a thing of form or a thing of heart?

That’s the point being raised by Paul in the passage we read from in Romans 2:28-29.

God lays down some profound thoughts and principles as He speaks through His Apostle: "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God".

Firstly, mere formal religious practice is not true Christianity, whether the way we practice our faith is old or modern, whether home church, organic church, new or old.

Mere formal practice of one’s Christian faith is not true Christianity in God's sight.

Secondly we see that the heart is the seat of true relationship with God, therefore the true Christian is a Christian in heart, a fact which is revealed in whole of life practice, not in knowledge, position, or profession.

Thirdly, true Christianity can never expect to be popular or peaceful. True Christianity can expect praise from God, but seldom the praise of man.

Even as far back as 1658, a Puritan by the name of Thomas Hall, speaking on 2 Timothy 3:5, said, "Formalism, formalism. Formalism is the great sin of this day, under which the whole country groans. There is less life; more profession, but less holiness."

In 1658, he was describing our day perfectly, if his comment was valid for his day, it is certainly true of ours! Now, more than 300 years later, there is more light than ever, and less life, certainly more profession and less practical outworking of functional ministry of every person claiming to be Christian!

When a person is a Christian in name only, in outward things only, and not in heart and mind, in profession and practice only, his attendance to outward practice of Christianity is a mere matter of habitual form, or fashion, or custom, without heart, and with little influence on their own life, much less on someone who is a disciple. Such a person has a "formalistic religion", not a living faith.

This is what Paul told Timothy would be the case; people possessing, indeed, the "form," or outward show of Christianity, but not possessing substance or "power of the genuine article".

We could use the modern example of the thousands of people who regularly attend public worship services, attend the Lord's Table, but know nothing of true heartfelt Christianity.

People who have no idea of a deep, personal involvement with the Scriptures, and as a result, have no great pleasure and joy in reading them, nor do passages of Scripture bring challenge and angst about the aspects of life that are necessary signs in their lives of the working of the Spirit of God.

In the daily outworking of their lives, they have no idea what it means to separate themselves from worldliness without negating their love for others and opportunities to make disciples, nor are they really interested in such matters.

Formalists often take great pride in holding to a Confession of Faith, but in practice care little or nothing about the distinctive doctrines expressed in it.

As far as what is today called, "attending church", "worship", etc., is concerned, as long as many, maybe most, have fulfilled the outward form of attending church services, doing their allocated tasks, they are basically indifferent to what they hear preached, and leave the church meeting focused on their activities for the rest of the day.

Imagine, if at the end of such a day, if you could make yourself invisible and remain in the presence of the average attendee at church services, for weeks on end, what do you think you would observe?

Would you have reason to believe that the meeting they attended, the message they heard, was meaningful in any way?

Indeed, would your observations give you cause to think they were any different from the unbelievers who surround them?

to be continued

Thursday, August 12, 2010


One of the advantages of being retired is to realise the amount of time wasted in times gone by. Mind you, one can also get more of those little things done which were always put on hold because of being too busy. I’ve found retirement has been advantageous because there is more time to think about things we were always too busy to think about.

During my years as a pastor, my waking hours, and sometimes the hours when I was supposed to be sleeping, were absorbed with my work, especially sermon preparation, and writing weekly printed studies, preparing material for the church bulletin. Twelve hour days were common.

Personal matters, and many needy others, received little attention.

One thing that stands out to me like a beacon is the fact that pastor’s wives are, without doubt, greater heroes than their husbands could ever be. My precious wife was much neglected during a large part of my ministry.

I’m not telling you this because I feel a need for confession of such, but to illustrate a terrible malaise, a sickness, which has invaded everything which calls itself “Christianity” in today’s world. Very few, if any, escape this affliction, both pastors and their beloved congregations.

This disease is so insidious, that we don’t realize we are afflicted; and yet it leads, not only to the malfunction of the individual, but of whole church bodies.

In my case, as with most pastors, my total absorption in the traditional forms of ministry masked the symptoms, as does life’s involvements of the other members of Christ’s Body, for whom a combination of formalities is often involved; work, family, entertainment, hobbies, the positions we are entrusted with in the running of the church, other voluntary church work, etc., etc.

I want to share some thoughts about the extremely serious issue of this disease in the church family.

The words of Chrysostom, apply to what Paul said, and are as true today as ever,
Just as the fountains, though none may draw from them, still flow on; and the rivers, though none drink of them, still run; so must we do all on our part in speaking, though none give heed to us.

At the outset, I must declare my love for the church of Jesus Christ, of which all genuine followers of Christ are a part. We are His betrothed, His Bride to be.

Having made that declaration, I'm asking you to please be careful of how you read what I am about to write, simply because it is far too easy to have the attitude expressed in the following poem, of which I am unaware of whence it came:


Preach a sermon preacher, make it short and sweet,
Our stomachs strike at 12 o'clock a hungering to eat.

Preach a sermon preacher, with words both smooth and fair,
For psychology we are thirsting, for scripture we don't care.

Preach a sermon preacher, punctuate it with jokes,
Fill it with your yarns and tales and entertain us folks.

Preach a sermon preacher, we care not what you say;
As long as you leave us alone and fire the other way.

Preach a sermon preacher, but don't get too specific;
As long as you will generalize we think you are terrific.

Preach a sermon preacher, make it good and plain;
But don't you dare get close enough to call sin by its name.

Preach a sermon preacher, preach it round or flat;
We love to play at hide and seek and guess just where you're at.

Preach a sermon preacher, make it what we like to hear;
We'll pat you on your spineless back, while you scratch our itching ear.

In 2 Tim. 3:1-5 the apostle Paul warned Timothy, about the sickness of which I write. It was already becoming common in his day, but would become more virulent as the age of grace, in which we live, progresses:

In teaching Timothy about this malaise, Paul told the young pastor what symptoms to look for.

In v.5 Paul indicates how the disease will finally manifest itself: “They will hold to an outward form of godliness but deny its power.”

There is no doubt that the visible church is being devastated by this insidious disease. Its more obvious manifestation is in what would best be called “formalism”, which is rooted in much of what is accepted church practice.

My concern in this regard began more than thirty years ago, when I was an elder of a denominational church .

We were blessed to have two consecutive pastors, who were used of God to encourage my wife and I to enter full time pastoral ministry. I had found two brethren who shared my concerns. Interestingly, one was an Arminian who had little love for reformation doctrine, and the other, like myself, was thoroughly convinced in regard to the doctrines of grace, but, we three, held a common love and concern for the Church of Jesus Christ.

They were both the gentlest, unassuming, humble men.

Uppermost, in our many discussions, was that many of the central concepts and practices associated with what we call 'church' are not rooted in the New Testament, but in ideas and habits that formed after the apostolic times.

We found mutual agreement on four crucial points of church history portrayed by Jon Zens:
1. The church portrayed in the New Testament was a dynamic organism, a living body with every member a functioning part. From somewhere around 150 years after the establishment of the church, the church gradually became, increasingly, more and more governed by an established hierarchy, even though that hierarchy was unofficial. The church became institutionalised.
2. The early N.T. church was marked by the ministry of every believer, under the leadership of a plurality of elders. The building up of, and the meeting of needs of the church, was accomplished through the spiritual gifts of everyone who were the local church. People didn’t go to church, they were the church.
After the early years of the apostles, the church became more and more under the control of people claiming to be called to particular church offices. This had the catastrophic effect of separating the so-called 'laity' from the so-called “clergy”. This negated, the significant, and essential ministry of the average church member, leaving it in the hands of a so-called ‘clergy’ class.
3. Most of the first 150 years of the church were characterized by periods of intense difficulty and persecution . Indeed the church was a suffering body, and yet, under these conditions it flourished.
The time of Constantine changed all that and the church became formalised, favored and ultimately sanctioned and protected as the official religion of the Roman state. Because preachers did not teach otherwise by example and precept, the church became, as a rule, an institution at ease, which it continues to be to this day.
4. During the first 150 years the New Testament church was perceived as a real threat to the ungodly political and religious structures and powers of the day. Believers had no official protection and depended on the Holy Spirit to hold them together, to lead them in ministry and to protect them.
After Constantine’s intervention and sanction, the church became a very powerful institution, along with its many rules, rites and offices which had a specific design. That design was not so that the Lord of the church would be glorified, but to ensure an unassailable faithfulness to the institution, and an apparent visible unity among its adherents.
This was the beginning of the malignant cancer of formalism which affects most churches of today.

Formalism is the scrupulous adherence to prescribed or habitual outward forms.

to be continued