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!