Agenda #4: Death by Lethal Religion
From the series Diabolical
You’ve heard the phrase, too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Well, that can actually be true of religious things. Join Chip as he reveals that it’s possible to be doing good things, right things, religious things, and yet be going in the wrong direction spiritually.
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About this series
Satan's Agenda for Planet Earth (Including You)
God's agenda for your life and planet Earth is under constant attack by the enemy of your soul, who seeks to distract, derail, and destroy. It's the ultimate illustration of competing agendas, and eternity lies in the balance. Learn how to recognize and fortify yourself against Satan's schemes, even when you've taken a direct hit. Based on the book of Acts, Diabolical will equip you with biblical truth about your enemy and reveal the battle plan you need to thwart Satan's plans and fulfill God's agenda.More from this series
We’ve talked about three specific agendas that Satan has. Not, sort of, the scary type demonic things like on movies but subtle agendas that are deceitful. The kind of agendas that get us off course and we don’t even know it.
Acts chapter 9 may be the most diabolical and most deceptive of all. Because it comes packaged in spirituality. We’re going to talk about agenda number four. And agenda number four is death by lethal religion.
Religion may be one of the most powerful ways in all the world, in the name of God, that Satan deceives people, steals their life, ruins their relationships, warps their thinking about themselves and God.
And I want to tell you if you want a profile of how the enemy works through religion, it’s that. First of all, he has all these things about God and he anesthetizes us. We go to sleep. We become unaware. We say God words. There’s God patterns. There’s religion without reality.
Second, you get paralyzed into patterns. And patterns that you feel obligated to do that, over time, become a way of performing before God. Or so you think.
And then, finally, religion always has this one common denominator. It will close your heart. It’ll close your heart toward the real God, it’ll close your heart toward people, it makes you rigid. In fact, look at the definition of religion in Webster’s. It says, “To acquire a deep conviction of the validity of a religious belief or practice.”
Now, that’s sort of the common term but notice the roots. It’s an old French word from Latin. Religio means to fear the supernatural. At the heart of religion is a fear-based. And then notice the French word, religare, if that’s how you pronounce it, is to tie or to bind up. It has the idea of a state of a life bound by a vow.
In essence, religion is an external set of rules and practices to either merit God’s favor or to avoid his or her wrath, depending on the religious system.
And so, at the end of the day, it’s rooted in fear. Religion binds people. It ties people up. It gets them on some sort of a performance trap to think, “If I do certain things at certain times in certain ways, somehow I’ll be acceptable by God.”
Jesus, interestingly, speaks to religious leaders. If you want, open to Matthew chapter 23, I’m not going to read the whole chapter at all but I, as you open to Matthew chapter 23, I’m going to skip around but here’s what I’m going to do. I want you to hear what the Son of God said to the most religious people on the planet.
This is what He said to the people that were the most disciplined, were the most spiritual, they knew the Bible better than anyone else. This is from the very lips of Jesus; this is His view of what religion does, how diabolical it is.
“Then Jesus said,” Matthew 23 verse 1, to the crowds and to His disciples, “‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees, they sit in Moses’ seat so you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do for they do not practice what they preach.’”
Now, listen to what He says religion does. “They tie heavy loads and they put them on men’s shoulders. Everything they do is done to be seen by men. They love the place of honor. They want the most important seats in the synagogue.”
Skipping down, verse 13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of God in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter and you will not let those who are trying to enter to enter. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and then you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourself.”
These are not calm words. These are not nice words. These are not Jesus, meek and mild. This is Jesus attacking what’s diabolical and what religion does to the human heart. He goes on because this is what really happens.
“Woe to you, blind guides.” Later He calls them “blind fools.” Then He says, “You blind men.” “Woe to you, teachers of the law and the Pharisees, you hypocrites, you give a tenth of your spices, of your mint, of your dill, but you have neglected the far more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup but inside you’re full of greed and self-indulgence.
“Blind Pharisees, you hypocrites, you look like whitewashed tombs, which are beautiful on the outside but on the inside you’re full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. On the outside you appear to people as though you are righteous but on the inside you’re full of greed and hypocrisy and wickedness.”
And then it’s just like Jesus went off. And He said, “You snakes! You vipers! How will you escape the condemnation of hell?” And then He says, “I’m sending you prophets, I’m sending you wise men, and I’m sending you teachers. Teachers and wise men of the truth, of love, and life.” And this is the prediction He makes: “Some of them you will kill and crucify, others you will flog in your synagogues, and you will pursue them from town to town. So upon you will come the judgment of all the righteous men all the way from Zechariah to Berekiah, all will come upon this generation.”
I don’t know about you, those are the strongest words that are anywhere in this book. Those are from the lips of Jesus about religion. And no one is immune, over time, to becoming religious. You can even make up your own religion. Secularism is a religion. Humanism is a religion.
So here’s the question I want to ask and answer: what’s the difference between dead religion and a living relationship with God? What’s the difference between a dead religion and a living relationship with God? And I want to suggest that Acts chapter 9 will give you a very clear picture of it.
And what I’m going to do is I’m going to read through Acts chapter 9 but I want you to think more like a movie viewer than someone sitting in a church listening to the Bible being read. Because the structure, the Holy Spirit has instructed Luke, what you’re going to see is there’s going to be a scene number one and then a scene number two and then an intermission.
And then there’s going to be a scene number three and a scene number four. And what we’re going to find is that there’s this contrast. There’s going to be the contrast, he’s going to speak about the most religious man in the world at the time, the greatest intellect, the greatest Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised the eighth day, a Pharisee, according to the law, faultless, Saul of Tarsus.
The first half of this chapter will be Saul’s story. The second half will be of a fisherman, a regular guy named Peter who has blown it and struggled. But he’s following Christ passionately.
And what the author is going to do, he’s going to say, “Here is Saul’s life. This is what religion does and looks like. And here’s Peter’s life.” And then right in the middle he’s going to say, “Here’s the key. Here’s the point. Here’s what I want you to get.”
So open your Bibles to Acts chapter 9. But you need to follow along. Scene number one, the movie has begun. We pick up the story.
“Meanwhile, Saul was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and he asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so if there were anyone found there who belonged to the Way,” the early Christians were called that, they were the Way, they said Jesus is the Way, “whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground, he heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul said. ‘I am Jesus, who you’re persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.’ The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless. They heard the sound but they didn’t see anyone. Saul got up from the ground and when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus and for three days he was blind. He didn’t eat or drink anything.”
We’ll learn later he’s praying during this time. His world has turned upside down. Damascus, by the way, is about a hundred and forty to a hundred and fifty miles from Jerusalem. I mean, this guy is zealous. This guy is sincere. He sees these people following Jesus and he thinks it’s ruining Judaism. And he wants to go get them.
And so, he gets these letters in scene number one – murderous threats. He was there standing as a young man and people put their coats down here and Stephen was killed. And he goes, “Yes! And I’m going to get Stephen and all the rest of them.” And he’s willing to travel. It’s probably by day so it was probably a seven to ten-day walking trip to find these other “Christians”. Not called that yet. They’re just called “Followers of the Way”.
And bam! A light. And he realizes that persecuting these Christ-followers is actually Jesus and he realizes that he’s now been messing with the God of the universe. And for three days he doesn’t eat, he doesn’t drink, he’s trying to make sense of it all.
Scene number two: the big change in Saul’s life. Picking it up at verse 10. “In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias and the Lord called to him in a vision. ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered.
“And the Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him and restore his sight.’ ‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I’ve heard many reports about this man and all the harm that he has done to the saints in Jerusalem and he’s come here with authority from the chief priest to arrest all who call upon Your name.’
“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go, this man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.’
“Then Ananias went to the house and he entered it and placing his hands on Saul he said, ‘Brother Saul! The Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, He has sent me here to you so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’
“Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again and he got up and he was baptized and after taking some food he gained his strength and Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.”
In a word, he was converted. In a word, he realized that the Yahweh of the Old Testament, that the angel of the Lord, that the Messiah is Jesus. And all that knowledge and all that wisdom – he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, he was trained under the top Pharisee of the day.
Secular writers say of the apostle Paul, he was the greatest intellect in all of the culture in the first century. And now this man has just had this jarring relationship. He’s gone from a religious person, literally, without fault to someone that has met the living God personally. Things are going to change.
Before scene number three and four comes there’s an intermission. Imagine, you know, when you watch a television show and the camera is on and maybe there’s this couple and they’re walking on the beach, and they’re talking about maybe getting married and this and that, and then the camera shifts and there’s this couple sitting at a kitchen table talking about their daughter, and whether they should be marrying this guy and what this is…
You know, we don’t think about it, but the cameras are shifting, and these things are happening at the same time. Now what Luke is going to do is he’s going to say, “This amazing thing happened in this man’s life and in the intermission, I want you to see that it had real impact. It had impact short-term and long-term.”
In fact, Luke is going to gloss over a period of time, and skips what Paul talks about as three years in Arabia where he went and spent personal time with God.
And then as though the camera comes back to the main story he comes back and zeroes in and says, “Now, this was Saul in religion. Now here’s Peter in relationship.” Let’s read the intermission together.
Picking it up, verse 20. So, what happened to him? “And all at once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t this the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on His name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priest?’”
I mean, they are just, like, wiping their eyes going, “Are you kidding me?” “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and he baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ, He’s the Messiah.” He’s the long awaited One. He’s the One Isaiah 53 foretold. He’s the One that would be born of a virgin. He’s the One. All those passages.
Paul, likely, had nearly all the Old Testament memorized. And all those passages and all that learning and all that religion and all that discipline, now he’s looking at it through a brand-new lens. It’s through the lens of Jesus, who he’s met.
Notice what happens next. “After many days had gone by the Jews conspired to kill him. But Saul learned of their plan and day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But the followers took him by night and they lowered him in a basket through the opening in a wall.
“Later, when he’d come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples but they were afraid of him, not believing he was really a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and he told them how Saul, on his journey, had seen the Lord and how the Lord had spoken to him and how in Damascus he’d preached fearlessly in the name of Christ.”
See, he didn’t have just an experience. His experience led to a calling. His experience led to behavior that demonstrated he had a change of mind, that led to a change of heart, that led to a dramatic change in mission in his life.
And so, Barnabas says, “Guys, you can trust this guy. Believe me, I’ve seen him. I mean, I’ve seen him preach now. He’s on our team.”
“So, Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and he debated with the Grecian Jews but they tried to kill him. When the brothers learned of this, they took him to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.”
Now, every now and then, Luke does this about three or four times. He’ll not only have an intermission but he’ll have a commercial. And what he does in the commercial is he stops and gives a progress report.
So, you know, we’re now in Acts chapter 9 and so he stops and says, “Oh, by the way, remember Jesus was ascended in chapter 1? Remember how the Church was born in chapter 2? Remember all those miracles? The growth of the Church, then the persecution? By the way, let me give you an update on how it’s all happened.”
And so, he gives this progress report in verse 31. Then notice the Church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. Well, their number one enemy just became their number one advocate.
“It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit and it grew in numbers living in the fear of the Lord.” And if you’re in your own Bible, circle the words “the Church”. And I just want you to notice it’s singular. The Church where? Judea, Galilee, and Samaria – those half-breeds. See, there are a lot of local expressions but “the Church.” It’s all of us.
They look different than us, and they may worship different than us, and they may view a few minor things different than us, but the Church, the people that follow Jesus and love Him. And we’re all in this together.
Now, scene number three. “As Peter was traveling about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. ‘Aeneas,’ Peter said to him, ‘Jesus Christ heals you; get up and take care of your mat.’” Immediately Aeneas gets up. “And all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.”
And so, we get this quick snapshot. And so, we have the apostle Paul, on the one hand, a religious man walking, ready to kill people. And he’s blind. And when he ends up being blinded by the light of truth he becomes an invalid and they walk him into Damascus.
Now the author wants you to know that’s what happens with religion. People who think they can see are actually blind. And then here’s someone who’s in need and is paralyzed physically.
And notice how carefully the text says, “Peter says, ‘In the name of Jesus.’” It’s the person, it’s the power, it’s the living relationship. And then he says this little phrase, “Take up your mat.” Now, it’s similar to when Jesus said, “Take up your mat,” but this phrase is a shade different. When we see that and I read that, because he’s a paralytic, we often think it’s about taking up your mat and walking, which it could be. But the primary use all through the New Testament of this little phrase is that you can now get up. You can live, you can do something. Open your mat and eat to get strengthened so that you can begin a new life.
Scene number four. Peter is about ten miles from another city called Joppa. And as we pick up the story in verse 36, “In Joppa, there was a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time, she became sick and died and her body was washed and placed in the upstairs room.
“Lydda was near Joppa so the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to him and urged him, ‘Please come at once.’ Peter went with them and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room and all the widows were standing around crying and showing him the robes and the other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.
“Peter sent them all out of the room then he got down on his knees and he prayed. Turning toward the dead woman he said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ She opened her eyes and seeing Peter, she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet, then he called the believers in and the widows and he presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa and many people believed in the Lord.” And then notice this final line: “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”
The rabbis in the day would talk about: a tanner is an unclean person. You don’t go to a tanner. You don’t get near tanners. What tanners are, is they would take animal skins and go through the process of what you do to animal skins, either to make a leather coat, or they would make leather things that you could drink out of.
But it was a smelly, yicky thing; they were usually on the edge of town. And Luke wants to be sure that we understand that this follower of Jesus is breaking the taboos of Judaism and because of personal relationship and life, he is with a tanner, an undesirable, an unclean person. There’s scene one, scene two, scene three, and scene four. And here’s what I want you to see.
This is a picture of dead religion versus living relationship and Acts 9 is a study of contrasts.
So here’s the question I want to ask and answer: what’s the difference between dead religion and a living relationship with God? What’s the difference between a dead religion and a living relationship with God? And I want to suggest that Acts chapter 9 will give you a very clear picture of it.
And the structure of this passage, and the reason I put it like this, this is how the Holy Spirit put it together, so we could see the dramatic contrast between religion and living relationship.
Let me show it to you. Look at this. Notice it opens with a Pharisee who is clean. It ends with a tanner who is unclean.
The focus is, what’s Paul doing as the chapter opens? With murderous threats, he wants to kill people. The chapter ends with what? The focus is life. She’s resurrected.
The subject is a murderer in the opening chapter. The subject is a doer of good works, someone who loves people.
You’ll notice that Jesus, what’s He do? He rebukes Paul but by contrast He resurrects Dorcas.
When Paul meets Jesus, he’s blind. When Dorcas, did you notice the little phrase? When she’s resurrected it says, “She opened her eyes.” Those things aren’t put there by accident.
The author wants to carefully help you see the distinction. The apostle becomes an invalid and remember the story? The invalid becomes someone who walks and serves.
Both of them are told to get up. The apostle Paul, it says, God speaks to him and says “Get up; go where I tell you. This is what you must do.” The paralytic is, he gets up and instead of going, all the people of Lydda come, and they believe, and they hear, because of the miracle.
The apostle Paul is healed to carry His message to the Gentiles. This paralytic is healed very carefully, in the name of Jesus. And so, if you take those things, the core teaching and point is verses 20 and 22.
If you still have your Bible, open it up. I want you to see this. Verses 20 and 22, it is the dividing mark. It is the core. It is the main point between dead religion and a living relationship with the living God.
Verse 20: “At once he began to preach,” notice, “in the synagogue.” That’s where their religion is. What’s he preaching? “Jesus is the Son of God.” That’s deity. Jesus is God! Whoo. Truth. Person. Not rules. Not patterns. Not ceremony.
“All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t this the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among all those who call upon His name?” Second point: when you meet the living God, your life changes. It’s dramatic. It’s different.
There is a before and an after. I mean, there’s something that happens. Relationship with Christ brings life. Dead religion brings death.
Notice it goes on: “And hasn’t he come here to make prisoners?” And then here he is, instead of prisoners, what? He’s setting people free. “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.”
Here’s what I want you to see. Here’s what happened. Two things. Number one: he had a hundred and eighty degree conversion. The apostle Paul was sincere, devoted, smart, educated, a Roman citizen, wealthy. He had it going. And, I mean, he’s going like this and bam! He meets the living God and now he’s going exactly one hundred and eighty degrees a different direction.
It’s called conversion. Webster’s defines conversion as “To turn from one belief or party to another.” Roget’s Thesaurus’ synonyms are: change, transformation, resolution, metamorphosis, reformation.
It’s the making over of something from something into something new and different. 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 people 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’ve got to 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. Ay, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi, yi.
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, people 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?” Over “performance,” in my notes, I wrote Matthew 23 and put a circle around it. Over where it says “grace,” I put Romans 12, and I put a circle around it.
Because see, 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. And it’s out of, see, they have such fear. I’ve watched them, “Okay, everybody sit down, right now. Okay…” I mean, this is a true story.
“Okay, we’re going to… the Bible is really important.” And I’ve watched three teenagers, rolling their eyes going…you know what their body language is telling me? “As soon as I get out of this house, I’m leaving mom, dad, God, Bible. They’re wacko.” 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. You find yourself having little conversations 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’ve got to clamp down on some people. And you’ve got to 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. And after about four years of that I remember a conversation with a gal that I dated earlier in college. And out of the blue, she said to me, “You know, when I first met you and you were a new Christian, I was really open. It seemed like there was such joy and life. I was really open to maybe exploring what it was all about. But if being a Christian, and being committed is like you, the last thing I’d ever want to do in my life is be a Christian.”
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, you know what? 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 it is God’s mercy that rocks our world to reveal our religion, and birth afresh new life. I want you think, mercy, mercy, 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.