Behold, you are called a Jew, and rest in the law, and make your boast of God,…
Most men want to have a religion of some sort. If they do not want to have it while they live, yet, recognizing the importance of eternity and the judgment, they want to have it before they die. Hence men who never think of religion in their hours of health and activity, will send for the minister when they are on a bed of sickness. Hence you have such cases as that of the great Emperor Charles V. of Germany, who had been a man of war and restless ambition almost all his days, retiring into a convent for the closing years of his life, and seeking within its cloistered walls that preparation for eternity which he had so long put off. But we want a religion not merely to die with, but to live by. After all, it is but a poor religion which a man puts on as if it were to be his shroud. What, then, is true religion? Where is it to be found? The answers are so various and so contradictory as to perplex the earnest seeker after truth. Old ecclesiastical systems contend that theirs, and theirs only, is the true religion, and in consequence of that belief, and in order to make others conform to it, they have persecuted, and imprisoned, and tortured, and burned those who differed from them. Then, in our own day, we have little companies of sincere and well-meaning people breaking away from all existing Churches, claiming for themselves that theirs only is the true religion, and excommunicating all others. But we come here as immortal souls, seeking after truth, and we turn from all human answers on the question of religion to the one infallible guide of faith and practice - the Word of God. That Word is the lamp to our feet, and the light to our path. I come, then, to this Divine Word; I come to the Father of my spirit; I come to Jesus, the Saviour and the Teacher of the world; I come to the Spirit of truth; and, as a humble and unworthy sinner, I ask this question - What is true religion? The answer to that question is given by the apostle in the verses now before us.
I. WHAT TRUE RELIGION IS NOT.
1. True religion is not observance of the sacraments. "What!" some one may say, "you tell us that the sacraments are of Divine appointment, that a sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, and yet you tell us that religion does not consist in the observance of the sacraments!" Even so. Christ instituted the sacraments. But what for? As a means to an end. As the symbols, the outward signs, of spiritual truths. They are helps to religion. They teach us the foundation of all true religion - the death, the sufferings, the cross of Christ, as set forth in the Lord's Supper. They teach us the meaning of true religion - the cleansing and purity and change of heart, as set forth in the sacrament of baptism. But they are not in themselves true religion. If they were, would not more stress be laid upon them? St. Paul says here, "Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the Law" (ver. 25); and again, "Neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh" (ver. 28). The outward ordinance, though it signified, did not create or cause a change of heart. Observe the attitude of our Saviour himself towards the sacraments. We read that "Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples" (John 4:2). If the sacrament of baptism had such regenerating power as is attributed to it, the Saviour would surely have used it on every possible occasion. We may notice also how St. Paul speaks of baptism in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. "I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gains; lest any should say that I had baptized in my own name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel." St. Paul did not think that religion consisted in the observance of the sacraments, or he would have put the sacraments in the very forefront of his work. Yet how many are resting entirely on the sacraments! They have been baptized. They have been regular communicants at the Lord's table, and therefore they think they are Christians. Ah! religion is something more than this. The sacraments will not save our souls. We need something more than the observance of sacraments, if we are to enter into the kingdom of God.
2. Religion does not consist in the observance of any outward forms. "He is not a Jew, who is one outwardly" (ver. 28). In the verses from the seventeenth to the twenty-fourth, the apostle shows how many who are called Jews, and make their boast in the Law, are among the chief transgressors of the Law. Through breaking the Law they had dishonoured God; so much so, that the Name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles by reason of their conduct (vers. 23, 24). Although St. Paul was a Jew himself, he was a candid and impartial observer of human life, and he found that Jews, like other men, were guilty of dishonesty and impurity and other sins. They had the Law, but instead of living up to it, they trusted to the form of religion instead of the reality. Paul shows them the uselessness of this. The form is useful along with the reality. But without the reality the form is utterly useless. "For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the Law: but if thou be a breaker of the Law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision" (ver. 25). It is just as if he said to a professing Christian, "Your profession of religion is right, is useful, if you show the spirit and obey the teachings of Christianity; but if your life is in opposition to that spirit and teaching, then your Christianity is no better than heathenism." "Faith without works is dead."
3. Religion is not to be regulated by the opinions of men. "Whose praise is not of men "(ver. 29). The religion which our Saviour found among the Jews in his time was very much a worship of human opinion. Their leaders taught for commandments the traditions of men. The Pharisees and scribes gave their alms and said their prayers to be seen of men. Their object was to have praise of men. And Christ tells us "they have their reward." Such a religion reaches its end in this life. It has no aim, and it certainly will have but poor results, in the life that is to come. It has always been an injury to true religion when it has been influenced too much by the opinions of men. It was so in the history of the Jewish religion, when the kings of Israel corrupted it by their desire of imitating heathen nations. It was so in the early Christian Church. The more the Church came under the control of the state, under the control of human authorities, the more worldly it became, the further it departed from the simplicity and spirituality of apostolic times. Thank God for the clear-headed, Christian-hearted men, who in all ages have resisted the intrusion of human authority and human opinion in matters of religion. Such men were the Waldenses in Italy, the Reformers in Germany and England, France and Spain, and the brave Covenanters of Scotland. It is a great principle, worth dying for, worth living for too, that religion is not to be regulated by the opinions of men. Human influence, human authority, human rank, are of little account in this matter. This is true as regards the Church of Christ, and it is true also as regards the individual.
II. WHAT TRUE RELIGION IS.
1. Religion is a matter of the heart and spirit. "He is a Jew, who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter" (ver. 29). Religion, therefore, is a personal matter. The outward form is useless without the internal reality. We want inward Christians - Christians in heart, Christians in spirit. All other Christians are useless, and worse than useless. They are deceiving others, and perhaps they are deceiving themselves. We want Christians whose everyday life is a song of praise, who meditate on God's Law day and night, who walk not in the company of evil-doers, who sit not in the seat of the scornful, and who commune with God in silent but earnest prayer. As I stepped one day into the office of a leading man of business in New York, I noticed over his desk a portrait of a citizen who, as he afterwards told me, had been a dear friend of his own. Beneath the portrait were words so beautiful that I got the owner's permission to copy them: "Whose face was a thanksgiving for his past life, and a love-letter to all mankind." It is Christians like that we want, who carry in their heart and on their face love and gratitude to God, and also love to men. Christians like that would soon transform the Church. Christians like that would soon transform the world. "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."
2. Religion is to be regulated by the commandments of God. There is no true religion where there is not obedience to the Law of God. "Thou that makest thy boast of the Law, through breaking the Law dishonourest thou God?" (ver. 23). Whether in doctrine, or worship, or practice, God's Word is to be our guide, and to please God is to be our aim. "Whoso praise is not of men, but of God" (ver. 29). We are too much influenced, even in matters of religion, by the opinions of men. While our religion is to influence us in our dealings with our fellow-men, and while we are to influence them so far as we can by the power of true religion, we are not to permit men to dictate to our conscience, or to regulate our doctrines or our worship. That is a matter between God and our own souls. Whether men will praise us or whether they will blame us, matters very little, if we are serving God as his Word and our own conscience direct. From all the clash and conflict of human opinion, let us turn for light and guidance to him who is the Light of the world.
"Some will hate thee, some will love thee,
Some will flatter, some will slight.
Cease from man, and look above thee;
Trust in God, and do the right." May we earnestly and diligently cultivate this true religion. "For he is not a Jew, who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew, who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God." - C.H.I.
Parallel VersesKJV: Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God,