The apostle Paul is transformed into something completely new. Everything changed.
When he met the living God his relationship with God changed, with the Jews changed, with Christians changed, with himself. His perspective changed. He went from being a persecutor to a preacher.
His values changed. He was a religious guy. You heard Matthew 23. He was focused on fame, success, prestige, status, and control. And now you can read thirteen books that were penned by the apostle Paul and he was consumed with people, relationships, the hurting, the oppressed, and serving.
His goals changed. First half of this chapter, there was a man who was wanting to rise to the top. Second half, there’s someone who is concerned about reaching the lost.
In the first half, it’s impressing his contemporaries. Now he’s someone you’ll hear over and over that he wants to please God from the heart. And he went from persecuting Christians to proclaiming forgiveness to all the known world.
You see, conversion is that point in a person’s life when they fully realize that their way is not the right way. They may be devoted, they may be sincere, they may be “morally good,” they may be religious. But they realize that Jesus Christ and He alone is the answer to the most penetrating issues and problems of life.
Why am I here? Is there life after death? Who is God? What do I do to have a relationship with Him? Christ is the Son of God. He came and died for all. He rose from the dead to prove that it’s true. And He offers eternal life to whosoever would put their trust in Him.
And then you’ll notice that after this one hundred and eighty degree conversion, what do you have? You’ve got a hundred percent call in mission. You know, like, he didn’t say, “Oh, I’m so glad I met Jesus! But, boy, I sure don’t want anyone to know about it.” After a few days, he’s in the synagogues.
He goes, “People, I was wrong. People, you gotta hear about this. People, you know, look at this, and this, and this, and this, and this.” I mean, he was an amazing intellect.
Here’s the question I have for you. Have you, unconsciously, subtly, been introduced to a religious system but maybe never had a Damascus experience? It’s possible to intellectually believe in the Bible. It’s possible to intellectually believe Jesus is God. It’s possible to feel like you ought to, and good, moral people go to church, at least once or twice a month.
It’s possible to actually think, you know, it’s probably pretty important to give some money to help some other people, and try and be a good person, and follow the golden rule. And you may even feel a little guilty when you do this or do that.
Religion is one of the most diabolical ways to keep you from a living relationship with God. Conversion always leads to a calling. If there is a passion in your heart to follow. If there is a concern for others you didn’t have. If there’s an appetite for God’s Word. Because it’s not about reading a chapter a day or coming to a service or how do I not feel guilty? Or, will God be mad at me?
It’s about, “I am deeply, unconditionally loved and I want to get to know Him.” The apostle Paul would say, he wants to know Him, in the power of His resurrection, and in the fellowship of His suffering. He was passionate to know God, not perform. Not become a “religious” person.
To summarize, I put the product or results of religion at the top. I made a little cloud floating above religion. Religion results in control, fear, and death. It’s what it does. Religious people are control freaks. And they fear everything. And they hate change.
And it brings death - separation from God, separation from themselves.
By contrast, living relationship results in power, and love, and life. And here’s all I want to say. Just ask yourself, are you experiencing the power of God? Is there a love of God in your heart? Is there a living relationship? Or is it a lot of obligation, a lot of duty, a lot of oughts, a lot of shoulds? My parents when to church, now I go to church. I should be a good, moral person.
When you know the living God, and the living God lives inside of you, by the Holy Spirit, as you’ve trusted Christ as your Savior, there’s a one-eighty that happens. More or less dramatic depending on your background.
But all I just want to do is shake all of us to say, “Wait a second.” Even those of us that know Christ personally, religion creeps in! We make our own. We have all of our own little groups, we make our own little religion. And the enemy gets inside our religious thinking, and it’s not whether it’s true or not, it’s our way and how we see the truth, and everyone ought to see it like us.
Here’s some take-aways that I think are critical and important. What must we learn about religion? Number one: religion focuses on acceptance from the outside in, and yet life occurs from the inside out.
I just always want to remember that. You might jot in there Philippians chapter 3. The first half of Philippians chapter 3, the apostle Paul talks about his outside in experience of being religious. A Pharisee. Tribe of Benjamin. According to the law, faultless. Self-righteous.
And then in the second half he talks about the inside out. And he said, “I consider all those things,” literally, the word is “dung.” Or rubbish. “I consider all of that as rubbish compared to knowing Him.” And then he has this plea. “I want to know Him in the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering.”
There’s this passion. It’s personal. It’s living. It’s alive. It’s a love relationship. Religion is always all these external things that’s patterns, and rules, and if you don’t do it then you’re guilty, and what about this, and God loves you when you do these things, He doesn’t love you when you don’t do these things.
And it’s evil.
And the Church … it becomes legalism, with those heavy weights. And it leads to this: religion is rooted in performance. Life is rooted in grace. See, when you’re a religious person, the questions… it’s not like you say them out loud, but they’re built into your psyche. “What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do? How much am I supposed to do?”
Am I supposed to pray five times a day? Do I have to go on a pilgrimage? Or, in our circles, do I have to read the Bible every day? And how much of the Bible do I have to read? Am I supposed to give money? If I’m supposed to give my money, do I have to give ten percent? Is that ten percent off of gross or is it off of net? Do I have to read for fifteen minutes or twenty-five minutes? Is a mission trip every three years… is that okay? How much do I have to do, do, do? That’s religion!
If you’re asking those questions, you’re missing the point! God doesn’t need your time. God doesn’t need your money. He doesn’t need your short-term trip.
See, that’s performance. The question that those in relationship ask is, “Who am I becoming?”
The test, the litmus test, is not how much do I do. Do I love people more? The issue isn’t do I give off this, or give off that. Am I more generous? Do I care about people? Do I love God? Am I open to Him? It’s Your money, what do You want to do with it? It’s Your time. I’ll go every week, every month, once a year, never go.
I just want to do what You want me to do. I love You. You love me. I don’t have to perform. I am saved by grace. I am sustained by grace. I am the object. I’m His son. God wants to put His arm around me. You’re His daughter.
It’s completely different.
Religion chains people, binds people, makes them prisoners. Grace frees you.
Third observation, is that sincerity and devotion are no substitute for truth. Paul was sincere and devoted. Suicide bombers? Sincere and devoted. Some of these wacko, religious “Christians” sects? Sincere and devoted, right?
How about let’s get it from out there to here. Some of us in this room: sincere and devoted. And we’ve added things, and feel pressure, and make up extra rules, and take our rules and put them on other people. And here’s the thing, is it true or not? Or has it just been handed down as one more layer of stuff, one more layer of obligation?
Is your relationship with God a lot more like duty, obligation, ought to, got to, never measure up? Or is it more like joy, passion, adventure? One is a relationship. The other is religion.
Fourth, religion is easy to spot in others and nearly invisible to ourselves. This is so painful. Because this isn’t like, do you have a relationship or are you religious? That’s certainly true. I will tell you that all of us that have a personal, vital, living, growing relationship with Jesus have parts of religious thinking in our brains.
And the enemy wants to cause it to grow, and to grow, and to grow, and give you false guilt, give you struggles with things. But where it’s happening in your life, or mine, it’s almost invisible.
I mean, I can look at other people and go, “Wow! Boy, there’s… Man, that’s easy to see.” It’s just hard, when I look in the mirror…. “No, I think this is working pretty good. I think everyone should do it this way. Exactly this way. Think about this that way.”
See, religion produces very narrow, controlling people who demand others think and act exactly the way they do. Religious people turn people off. People in love with Jesus draw people like a magnet.
I’ve been in missionaries homes who are sincere all around the world. They have such fear. I’ve watched them, “Okay, everybody sit down, right now. The Bible is really important.” And I watched three teenagers, rolling their eyes going…. And out of all their fear - rules, rules, rules - they don’t trust their kids.
And instead of an adventure and instead of, “What does God want to say, and how do we discover how much He loves us, and what do you think about that?” It’s this top down, harsh, legalistic… and they run.
Let me give you some symptoms, since it’s invisible, here are some symptoms. And I’d like to say, I did extensive research to figure out these symptoms, but actually, I looked in the mirror for about thirty-three seconds and these are symptoms.
Religious people are controlling. Religious people are resistant to change. Religious people are critical of others. If you find yourself having a little conversation in the car, or even in your mind, someone starts doing that, you’re just critical.
Religious people have feelings of superiority. You’re better than. Smarter than. More holy than. Religious people, by and large, can be very unloving. What’s right in their view - not necessarily scripture, but what’s right in their view - is more important than the person.
Religious people are fearful of the future. Religious people are anxious, and religious people are involved in political, relational agendas in churches. Because, see, when they start feeling they’re going to lose control, like Paul, you gotta clamp down on some people. And you gotta find some people that are on your side, that’ll look at it like you do, and you have these little conversations about what they are doing, whoever they are.
I know way too much about this. I came up around a group and it wasn’t their fault. It was me. But it took the dynamite and nitroglycerine, of my warped personality, deep insecurities, and arrogance.
And so I was around a group that when I started to grow, I memorized a verse every day for about three years. I had a prayer list that got very long. I never went to bed. I never missed. I prayed all the time.
I was the biggest religious jerk you’ve ever seen on the face of the earth. I actually had to stop memorizing scripture, and realize that God loved me when I didn’t pray, or get all through my list. And I remember even as I was in seminary, I remember my wife and I deciding, if I didn’t give more percentage every year, a higher percentage… Man, I’ve got three kids, I’m in seminary with no money and giving more, and more, and more money away.
And behind it was this religious I’m-going-to-prove-myself-to-God. And I had to learn about grace. I spent months in Galatians just saying, “God, would You help me to grasp that You love me, plus nothing? You love me when I blow it. You love me when I’m obedient.”
Now, grace is what teaches us to grow. So it’s not that we just say, “You know, forget every…” But it’s relationship.
Notice the final point that’s been very helpful, is that it’s God’s mercy that rocks our world to reveal our religion, and birth afresh new life. God is so merciful.
Because, see, religion will eventually cause you to do one of two things. Either hit the wall or become a hypocrite. I mean, once you have rules, you make up the rules. Make them up today then try and keep them perfectly.
No one can keep any rules. And so what happens is if you try, and try, and try, and try, like I did, I just burned out. I got so depressed. I got so depressed it was like, man, this whole other job of being a Christian. I was just ready to can the whole thing.
Or, what you do is, you realize you can’t keep them, but you want people to think you can, so you become a hypocrite, so you act like you’re keeping them, but you really don’t.
And God, in His mercy, you know what He does? He’ll break you. God, in His mercy, will allow a tragedy. God, in His mercy, will allow a car wreck. A divorce. A bankruptcy. A mate to walk out on you. A kid that says, you know, “Forget you, Mom and Dad!”
And all of a sudden, all your rules and all your religion when you’re hurting, mean nothing and you find yourself, “Oh, God! Please help me. God! Please! Please, I don’t know what to do. I don’t have a job, I lost my home.”
I’ll tell you what, religion doesn’t do anything when you’re in desperate need, right? And when you cry out, in the midst of pain, He’ll always answer. Because what you’re looking for is someone to love you, forgive you, sustain you, and help you.
And Jesus said, “I’m near to the brokenhearted and I save those who are crushed in spirit. And I’m for you. And I did not come to create a religion or new hoops for you to jump through. I came that you might have life and you might have it abundantly.”
Have you been converted? Have you done a one eighty? Have you embraced Jesus, not religion? And if so, do you have a calling? Do you realize that you, in your hands, and hearts, and lives, are recipients to take the message of life, and you’re a steward of the manifold mysteries of God. He loves people.