Going to God or Religion - There is a Difference

I wanted to elaborate a little on the idea of going to God instead of religion. In times of uncertainty like we are experiencing in the aftermath of the September 11thtragedy, Christian bookstores report Bible sales are up 30%, books on prophecy (not true prophecy, but religious fortune telling) and "end time" themes are flying off the shelves and books on understanding the Muslim faith sold out immediately.  If any of you have ever contemplated writing a religious book, now’s the time.  Business is good!

As I said earlier on the homepage, there’s a difference between going to God and following the herd into religion.  Let’s get right to it.  This is Galatians 3:10-12.

"And all those who expect to be justified by keeping the law are doomed to destruction, as it is written in the Scriptures, Cursed is everyone who does not perfectly observe all that is written in the law [Deut. 27:26].  It is clear that no one can be brought into right standing with God by observing the law, those in right standing with God will live by faith.  And make no mistake; the law is not the same as faith, for even the law itself tells us that the one who does the things prescribed by the law will live by them and not by faith [Lev.18:5]."

OK, some explanation is in order here.  Most religious people today will read this and say, "What does this have to do with me?  I’m not under the law.  I’m not trying to follow the law."  There is a perception in religion that people in the Old Testament were under the law, and people in the New Testament are under grace.  But the truth is the law as it was given in the Old Testament became the basis for most of the religion that exists in the western world today.  The law was, first and foremost, a moral code (thou shalt not do this, thou shalt not do that).  Then it was also a ritual code that symbolically illustrated spiritual principles that could be understood by observing or participating in the rituals.  However, neither the moral code nor the ritual code ever produced salvation for anyone.  That was not their purpose.

Now, before you get too confused, let me explain why I equate the law with religion, and, specifically, with the various forms of Christianity as they exist today.  We live in what we call a Judeo-Christian culture, meaning the basic principles that we believe in and live by started with Old Testament Judaism and then continued into New Testament Christianity and have been carried on since then to this present time.  And today our religious systems are a direct result of what evolved from those original Old Testament moral and ritual codes.  If you continue to read the articles on this website you’ll see several places where I take great pains to explain the differences between morality and spirituality, and between ritual and reality.  It was never God’s intention that we pursue morality or symbolic ritual (both of which represent the foundation of all religious systems).  He has always wanted us to strive for spirituality and reality.  But it is clear that religion has always promoted morality and ritualism.

And so, at least from my perspective, and I hope you can see it as well; religion represents the moral, ritual side of the equation.  And as Paul says in the passage above, those who follow the moral, ritual path (the law or what it became, religion) are doomed to destruction.  He further explains that no one was ever brought into right standing with God by following this path.  Which brings us to the next point.  People involved in religion would be quick to point out that they agree with Paul when he says that those who are in right standing with God must live by faith; because that’s exactly what they’re doing – living by faith!  But I have to disagree.

You will also find, if you continue to read the articles that follow, that faith has very little to do with what you know about God, what you’ve learned in your religious institution, what you’ve read in the books you buy at the Christian bookstore or what you’ve rationalized in your mind and have decided is right or wrong.  Faith is not based on your perceived ability to predict what God will do in any given situation in your life (I have faith, or I just believe that God will do this or that).  Faith is not based on a set of denominational doctrinal statements (this is what we believe or this is what we practice).  True faith has nothing to do with either the moral or ritual codes, and that is exactly what Paul is expressing above in verse 12.  The law (and what came out of it) and faith are two completely different things.

Faith describes the real experiences you have with God.  Faith is always a result of your personal, individual submission and obedience to God.  Faith is what happens when you allow God to participate in your life so He can do what He wants to do.  It has nothing to do with what you have already accepted or decided.  One of my favorite examples is Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22.  When God told Abraham to take Isaac up the mountain and sacrifice him as a burnt offering, was God testing Abraham’s faith?  Yes, of course He was.  But could there have been anything in Abraham’s past that could have prepared him for this.  Was there anything in any code of conduct or ritual that told Abraham this would be required of Him?  Absolutely not! This was a test of his faith (his willingness to submit to God and obey Him) and as in any real test of faith, it was personal.  It was between Abraham and God.  Abraham didn’t find out about this from his pastor when he went to church on Sunday morning.  And, of course, Isaac was involved as well.  In spite of the misleading religious children’s books that show Isaac as a helpless little boy doing only what his father told him, he was actually a young man who both understood and submitted to this test.

So, let’s go back to my original statement about God not being the same as religion.  When we continue on to Galatians 3:19, Paul tells us why the law was given.  This is what he says.

"Then what was the purpose of the law?  It was added because of transgressions…"

In other words, the law was given to point out the fact that men could not measure up to God’s standards of righteousness and holiness.  Men violate those standards.  We sin; and not just some of us, all of us (Romans 3:23). The law represented a standard that could not be met, a moral code that could not be kept.  It was meant to illustrate the futility and impossibility of man achieving his own righteousness by trying to follow a set of standards. To fail in one area of the law was to be guilty of failing in every area of the law (Deut. 27:26, James 2:10).  

And the irony of all this is that today men and women all over the world are trusting in the religious systems that have come out of the law to gain God’s approval and get them to heaven, even when the Scriptures tell us plainly that this is impossible!  And every religion in the world (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, you name it) follows the same form; adhere to the prescribed moral code, follow the traditional, symbolic rituals and achieve your own self-righteousness (or some kind of god-like status) through your own efforts.

Paul continues in Galatians 3:24 to point out what the law was supposed to do.

"So the law served as a guide to show us our need for God’s redemptive plan in Christ, that we could have the opportunity to gain right standing with God through our faith."

So, the purpose of the law was to show us that we couldn’t gain God’s approval through our own efforts (morality) and that God’s plan was for us to submit to Him and obey Him and allow Him to be personally involved in our lives and therefore, have the opportunity to change us into the image of His Son through the experiences we have with Him (spirituality).  It was never God’s intention that we would mindlessly participate in a system of traditional symbolism (ritual); He wants us to have a real, personal relationship with Him, where we can learn to recognize what He wants to do in our lives and we can submit to that so He can accomplish His purpose in us (reality).

Read your Bible and see what defined Abraham’s faith in God.  It was his submission to God, his determination to recognize what God was doing or what God required and his willingness to accept it and be obedient.  It was his real experiences.  Look at the life of Moses, of Jeremiah, of David or Paul, or anyone else.  Their relationship with God was defined by their real experiences with God.  That was their faith.  How can people go to religious institutions week after week, year after year, listen to others talk about God, follow rituals (say this now, stand up now, do this now, sit down now, recite this now, be quiet now), read books about God, go to class to learn even more about God, tell God what to do and how to do it, then claim to have a personal relationship with Him?  Where’s the submission, the obedience, the  understanding, the experience?  

Of course I realize the problem with most people today is that they have accepted the idea that God doesn't get personally involved anymore.  That's what most dead religions teach.  They may concede that God was directly and personally involved in the lives of key characters in the past, but that was then and this is now.  My Bible and my experience tell me that God's character (Who He is) and nature (what He does) cannot change.  If you continue reading these articles you'll see what I mean when you get to the paper on the Invisible God.

A quick and simple look at history should convince us.  God gave Israel the law to force them to acknowledge their sin and recognize their need for Him. They immediately set out to prove that God was right by adding rules and rituals of their own and showing a stubborn determination to do their own religious thing without God.  When you read the Gospels you see Jesus opposing religious leaders because they either ignored the intent of the law or because they had perverted it to suite their own agendas.  The law that God had given over time became a man-made religion called Judaism.

The life and substitutionary death of Christ fulfilled all the symbolism of the law (Romans 10:4) and revealed a reality that the disciples and others, including Paul, recognized, walked in and endeavored to perpetuate.  But religion martyred them and continued to march to its own tune, busily adding more twists and turns, opinions and traditions, rules and regulations, manipulations and deceptions and coming up with a new system called Christianity.  Two thousand years later, this newer, man-made religious concept that had evolved from Judaism exists in many different denominations, most of which have numerous splinter groups within the denomination or other religious groups that have separated themselves from the denominations.

I know what you’re thinking.  You know what you believe and why you believe it, so you’re convinced that you’re right and I must not be talking about you or the group you run with.  I am talking about you if you participate in any form of traditional religion.  If you’re thinking in terms of what I’ve just described, it only means that you’re probably sincere, that you’ve paid attention in class and learned to rationalize and systematize your religion in your mind so that it makes sense to you.  I know how that works; I went through that process myself.

But I don’t care if you practice Judaism or Christianity in any one of its many forms, be it Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Non-denominational, any other of the smaller groups deemed legitimate by Christian standards (whatever that means) or any of the more spurious groups deemed illegitimate by Christian standards (usually called cults) or if you fancy yourself an intellectual type that prefers atheism or agnosticism or if you’re one of these sympathetic, emotional types who all of a sudden find themselves drawn towards Islam or if you’re a little more adventurous and have embraced some form of Eastern mysticism; you’re putting your trust in a pseudo-spiritual naïveté that can never put you in right standing with God.  That’s what Paul is saying in Galatians 3:10-12, 19and 24, so now we’ve come full circle, back to where we started.

We all have a choice.  We can follow what has always been the majority into man-made religious systems, learn their doctrine and practice their rituals or we can turn to God and learn personally and individually from Him what He wants in our lives, so we can begin to define our relationship with Him through the real experiences we have with Him.  We can pay attention to the examples of those in the Scriptures who knew God on His terms; or we can make up our own terms, follow them and miss God altogether.  We can understand that moral codes and rituals were never intended to take the place of true faith, that following a list of rules that tell you what to believe, how to live and what to practice will never earn salvation for anyone.  And finally, we can come to the place where we understand the difference between man-made religious systems that have God’s name attached to them and God Himself.

Now just to show you what God’s attitude towards religion has always been and what He has always required of man, let’s look at a passage in Jeremiah 7:1-28.  To sort of set the stage let me first explain that Jeremiah’s ministry spanned the approximately 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians around 586 B.C.  Jeremiah’s message was clear: the whole nation had turned from God and become apostate.  They embraced an immoral, perverted form of ritual religion, which they had specifically crafted to justify their rebellious, wicked lives.  It was, in fact, a particularly foolish combination of a distorted view of both the moral and ritual codes from the Law of Moses and various forms of idolatry (sounds familiar).  And Jeremiah was sent by God to warn them of impending judgment if they refused to turn from their apostasy.  They refused to listen, as God told Jeremiah they would, and so judgment came.

It’s not necessary to go through this passage verse by verse; you can read it for yourself.  I’ll just hit the highlights to show you what I want you to see.  In verse 3God tells Israel that they must change the way they’re living and the things they’re doing and if they do He’ll allow them to continue living in the land.  This is another conditional promise, as most of God’s promises tend to be.  He establishes His conditions for keeping that promise in the verses that follow.

The first condition is in verse 4 where He says, "Don’t trust in the lying words of the false prophets who keep saying God will protect Jerusalem because His temple is there."  Here’s a bit of predictable religious garbage.  It sounds like religious leaders in this country who have always said that God’s hand of protection is on America because we’re a "Christian" nation.  Sure we are.  We’re a Christian nation that ignores God, perverts truth, runs towards evil, embraces idolatry, winks at wickedness and kills its unborn children.  And when trouble comes we wring our hands, call a meeting so we can light some candles, give one another a hug, say something encouraging (probably religious), wave our flag and keep right on doing the same things we’ve always done.  Why wouldn’t God’s hand of protection be on us?  It’s strange, but I haven’t heard much about this hand of protection from the religious elite since September 11th.  Well, I have to be careful; I’m getting off the subject.  Or am I?  Anyway, what these guys were really saying is that since the Temple of God is here and we’re doing our religious thing, God likes us and He’ll take care of us.  They were wrong.

Then in verses 5 and 6 God tells them that they have to stop taking selfish advantage of others.  They were to be fair and just.  They had to stop mistreating those who couldn’t adequately protect themselves, the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  They had to stop bribing false witnesses and dishonest judges to dispose of their enemies.  And they had to stop participating in the wickedness and perversion of false gods.  In other words, they had to quit fooling themselves into thinking that they could get away with living under a false, religious, distorted moral and ritual code that excused everything they were doing that violated God’s character and nature.

In verses 9, 10 and 11 God asks two penetrating questions.  I’ll quote them for you. "Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, worship Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known, then dare to come into My house, which is called by My Name, and stand before Me carrying out your religious rituals, and then say, I’ve done my duty before God, I’m free of guilt?  Has this house, which is called by My Name, become a place of refuge for you between your acts of wickedness?"  Like it or not, God has just exposed the religious nature of man.  Basically it goes like this: I’ll live my life the way I want to live it, then I’ll make up for it by doing something religious, then I’ll go back to doing what I want to do, then I’ll make up for it by doing something religious, then….you get the picture.  It’s a continuous cycle of man doing what he wants to do, then giving lip service to God, then going back to what he wants, etc.  Man has always wanted the ability to atone for his own sin, but avoid any direct contact with God and his solution is religion.

God answers the false prophets in verses 12 through 15 by reminding them that some 100 years earlier He had destroyed Shiloh, where He had first established His presence in the Ark of the Covenant.  In verse 14 He plainly tells them that He will do the same to Jerusalem and to His Temple.  And here I’ll simply remind you that there is absolutely nothing made with men’s hands out of wood and stone that could be more sacred to God than His Name and His Integrity.  And in verse 16 God proves that His judgment is set when He says, "So do not pray for these people, do not mourn them and do not try to intercede for them, for I will not hear you."

Verse 18 is a parable.  "The children gather wood, the fathers get the fire going, the mothers mix the dough, all helping to make the cakes dedicated to the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offering to false gods, to provoke Me to anger!"  It simply illustrates that everyone was involved in this apostasy.  And in verses 19 and 20 that follow, God says that since the wickedness was inclusive, the destruction would be inclusive as well.

Then God takes another sarcastic jab at religion.  Over the past several years I’ve been accused of being sarcastic in my criticism of religion.  Guilty as charged.  But I try to explain (to no avail) that I’m really not a sarcastic person by nature.  Could the problem be that when truth is put alongside religious deception, many times it looks like sarcasm to to those involved in religion;  but to those who are not involved in religion, it simply looks like truth?  In reality, there are many examples of sarcasm in Scripture and it almost always comes as a result of the clash between truth and error.  But don't try to tell me God can't be sarcastic.

Verse 21 is a great example.  "Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat as much of the flesh as you can; it won’t do you any good."  What God is telling them here is that if they’re starting to get worried about all this gloom and doom judgment stuff, maybe they should increase their religious activity.  And in carrying out those rituals that required them to eat part of the roasted flesh (illustrating reconciliation between them and God), maybe it would be a good idea to eat as much of it as they possibly could, just to be on the safe side.  Of course the truth God is expressing here is that no amount of symbolic, religious activity will ever accomplish true reconciliation.  Only real obedience to what God requires will do that.  That's the difference between ritual and reality.

Now we come to verses 22, 23 and 24, and what I think is the really telling part of this whole passage.  And keep in mind that this follows immediately after God’s comment on the futility of religious activity.  This is what He says.

"Because during the time that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not say anything to your fathers, nor did I give them any instructions concerning ritual offerings and sacrifices.  Only one thing did I command them, which was this: Listen to Me and obey My voice, and I will be your God and you will be My people; and walk in all the ways that I instruct you that it may be well with you; but they would not obey, they would not listen.  Instead, they followed what was in their own minds to do.  They followed their own twisted stubbornness.  They were determined to go backward, instead of forward."

In plain English God is saying that He never required religious activity, He never commanded it, He didn’t want it then and He doesn’t want it now. Instead, all He wants is a personal relationship where people listen to Him and obey Him.  He never intended for us to twist what He says, make up our own religious systems and try to atone for our rebellion and failures with religious activity.  Yet that is exactly what the world has always done.  The religions of the world do not represent God.  God did not authorize them. They have no spiritual authority.  Participating in them will not gain you God’s approval; it will not get you close to God.   Instead, your religious activity makes you go backwards, away from God.

Then in verses 25 and 26 God reaffirms His faithfulness when He says that He has persistently sent His messengers with the truth, but the people would not listen.  Instead, each generation seemed worse than the one before.  And finally in verses 27and 28 God speaks these words directly to Jeremiah.

"Speak all these words to them, but understand, they will not listen, neither will they obey; even if you confront them directly, they will not answer.  So, you will say to them, This is a people that would not obey the voice of the Lord or receive His instruction; therefore truth has perished and is cut off from them."

As He had done before and would do again, God withdraws and leaves people to their own devices.  Essentially what He says is that if these people are so determined to follow religion instead of Me, then so be it.  I’m through with them.

So, is there a difference between going to God and going to religion instead? I think so.  It’s clear to me.  But, the issue is whether or not it’s clear to you.  If it isn’t, I hope you’ll continue reading the articles on this website.  And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to write to me.  I want to help you if I can.