Are you still having trouble seeing yourself as an enemy of God? Can I suggest why that might be for some of us?
As P. Don talked about at the retreat we just had, we put on our coat of religion and we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not that bad.
Let’s look at the people in Jesus’ time.
Why did Jesus hang out with prostitutes and tax collectors and criminals and the scum of society? Because these people accepted and welcomed Jesus. They knew they were sinners. They knew that something was not right with their lives. They knew they had hurt and cheated many people. So when Jesus preached, you need to get right with God, he didn’t have to do much convincing.
All he had to say was, Look at your life — this is the result when you enthrone yourself and remove God from your lives. And he preached repentance and these people readily repented and were saved.
What about the religious leaders of his day? They had their religion. They had their reputations in the community to uphold. They had their comfortable way of life. And when Jesus taught, you are enemies of God and he preached repentance, they rejected his message.
Jesus kept trying to get them to see their sin. He called them pretty shocking things to get their attention. Like white-washed tombs. Clean on the outside, but filthy inside. Religious people can fool others, but God looks at our hearts. We may look nice on the outside, but inside, isn’t there hatred, greed, critical spirits, judgmental attitudes, selfishness, lack of compassion, lack of love for anyone but ourselves and our family?
For the past year, God keeps bringing this one message to my attention repeatedly and it is this — I feel like God wants me to preach repentance to religious people. Every time I open the Scripture, this message keeps popping up and God won’t let this one go.
We are all religious. We attend many activities. We are nice to others. And in addition to religion, we have so many other things going for us. And deep down, if we are honest, our lives are pretty okay even without the cross. Because we have so many things in our life that prop us up.
For some of us, we grew up in the church and that props us up. For others, we have our morality and our spiritual disciplines, we’re good relative to others and this props us up. For others, we have our bright future and our credentials to prop us up. And the message of repentance and offer of pardon for enemies doesn’t really hit us.
The drug addicts, the divorced, those with addictions, the irreligious, they may feel their need for Jesus. But for most of us, we have our support system, including our religion, and we feel we have everything under control.
And I want to say to you this morning that this kind of comparison and self-justification is a flat out lie. We are no different from the drug addict or the adulterer or the alcoholic or the guy in jail. That guy on skid row and the CEO of a company are no different. We are all sinners. Even if we may have a more polished exterior, and we wear suits and ties and we have letters after our name, this doesn’t matter to God. God looks at our hearts. And we forget that religious people, people very similar to you and me, were the ones that actually crucified Jesus.
And if you can learn one thing from this church, I pray you may learn this — that religion is one of the greatest obstacles to genuine salvation and intimacy with Christ.
Because on the outside, everything about religion makes you look proper and all the pieces of your life seem to be in the right place. But the only thing that guarantees salvation is when we fall on our knees and confess that we are enemies in need of mercy and forgiveness.
That’s why Jesus was constantly urging the religious leaders of his day to repent and they just didn’t get it.
Our sin of self gets expressed in all kinds of ways. Some express self through blatant sins: adultery, prostitution, murder. And these blatant actions against God serve as tangible reminders to the ones committing these sins that they need a Savior.
The most dangerous forms of sin are the hidden ones like self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. The sin of religion where we call the shots subtly in our hearts and bow down to a God of our own making.
Examine your conception of God. Is it Biblical? Do you read all of Scripture and let that form your view of God? God is gracious and loving and He is a servant leader, yes, this is true. But he is also holy and glorious and all-powerful and sovereign and we enter his presence, trembling before a holy God. And before we embrace Him as our friend, we must say, woe is me, with heads bowed low, prostrate, in reverent fear.
Our religion makes us unaware that we are enemies of God. This kind of religion that blinds us to our true condition and our true need for Jesus. That’s why religion is one of the deadliest expressions of self.
I think many of the Christians in the West fall into this category of false religion that masks our true need. We have so many resources, material resources, spiritual resources. You can listen to sermons and podcasts broadcast from all over the world. We have so many Christian books and discipleship programs and church growth strategies. We are very, very religious.
I think one warning is appropriate at this time — religion can’t save you, but it can certainly keep you from being saved.