What Is Real Religion?

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The United States is a religious nation—at least that is what people tell the pollsters. Yet it is also beset with burgeoning moral problems. Divorce, pornography, abortion and violence have all increased dramatically in recent decades. Does the religion we practice really square with what the Bible teaches?


America is a religious nation. At least that is what people tell the pollsters. Over 95 percent of the population professes a belief in God. In addition, nine out of ten households own at least one Bible. The overwhelming majority—87 percent in a Newsweek poll—believes that God answers prayer, and about half of the population claims to pray on a regular basis.

Religion is also big business. Americans contribute billions of dollars to churches and religious ministries. There are churches throughout the land. Late night radio and Sunday morning television are crowded with preachers and ministries coming in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Whatever you are looking for, it is out there! Whether you seek incense and ritual, or rock music complete with drums and electric guitars, there is a church that offers it. From stiff and formal to spontaneous and emotionally charged, there is a church to suit every taste and every emphasis—from "social action" to "soul-winning."

Yet America, while seemingly awash in religion, is also beset with burgeoning moral problems. Divorce, pornography, abortion and violence have all increased to an unprecedented degree during recent decades. Though politicians regularly invoke God and religion, political scandals abound. There appears to be a great contrast between what the nation professes and what it practices.

What kind of religion is truly acceptable to God? What is He really looking for in the lives of those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ? For centuries, our entire Western world has historically claimed to be Christian—and has, in fact, been exporting various forms of Christianity to the rest of the world. We should ask ourselves, however, to what extent the Christianity so common in our modern world really squares with what the Bible says.

In the Sermon on the Mount, given near the beginning of His ministry, Jesus Christ of Nazareth outlined what He expected of His followers. The claims He made on those who would be His disciples were truly radical. Jesus' pronouncements flew directly in the face of what passed for religion in His day—and they still fly in the face of what passes for religion in our day! But what demands did Jesus of Nazareth actually make upon His followers—and how do they apply to our lives today?

Three Pillars of Jewish Religion

Being viewed as "religious" in first-century Judea required the practice of what were considered the three pillars of piety—prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount, Christ described what really leads to true happiness and blessedness. Next, He focused on explaining the spirit of the law to His hearers. Building on these topics, Jesus Christ then addressed the heart and core of "being religious."

In Matthew 6:1–18, Jesus made plain that it is not just what you do that matters, but rather the attitude and motive behind what you do. Jesus took for granted that His disciples would pray, fast and give alms. After all, He said, "when you do a charitable deed" (v. 2), "when you pray" (v. 5) and "when you fast" (v. 16)—not if. His point was that the manner in which they did these acts was crucial.

Christ called those who practiced their religion to impress others "hypocrites." This English term derives from a Greek word that originally referred to actors on the stage. Jesus likened certain "religious" people of His day to those who simply played a part. Their religion was not a matter of personal piety, but rather of ostentatious display.

Christ emphasized that we are to live our lives before God, being deeply conscious of His watchful presence. When we seek to call public attention to our religious devotion or to our prayers, we are seeking the praise of men, not really worshiping God. So why do people do this? Simply because God is not very real to most people!

Note the attitude of many religious people in Jesus' day: "Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God" (John 12:42–43). The invisible God seemed far off and remote to these religious people. Sadly, He seems the same way to most today.

Christ emphasized to His disciples that prayer was private and personal communion with God, meant to be done from the heart, not according to rote and ritual. Ironically, many professing Christians have made the very words that Christ gave to His disciples as an outline for prayer (Matthew 6:9–13) into something rattled off by rote. Yet Christ gave the "Lord's Prayer," as it has come to be known, in the very context of exhorting His hearers: "But when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words" (v. 7). Christ was giving them instructions about how they should pray—not what words they should continually repeat, while praying.

He was not trying to convey that private prayer should never be lengthy, as some might interpret this passage. Christ Himself prayed at length on various occasions (cf. Luke 6:12). He simply wanted His followers to avoid meaningless, repetitive prayers. Our Father knows the needs of His children, yet He wants us to learn to ask Him for these needs in confidence and trust.

In Matthew 6:12–15, Christ highlights the importance of asking God for forgiveness. He emphasized that in order to receive forgiveness for ourselves, we must also give it to others. Of course, our forgiving others does not somehow earn God's forgiveness for us. Rather, it is evidence of the humble and contrite heart that God requires of those who receive His mercy.

First Things First

We live in a world where myriads of "things" compete for our attention and our affection every day. Demands are made on our time from seemingly every corner. In this day of cellular phones and pocket pagers, fewer and fewer seem ever to really "get away from it all." Whether driving down the road in an automobile or eating in a restaurant, people are often trying to do two or more things at once.

In our materialistic age, advertising tries to lure us to "have it all." Whatever we already have, there is probably a new and improved model that, as the ads tell us, we cannot afford to be without.

The multiplication of two-career households has radically changed the American family in recent decades. Increasing numbers of couples are either forgoing having children altogether, or are limiting themselves to one child. Day care centers have become a major industry. Consequences of our society's materialistic, hedonistic perspective are increasingly evident in the horrendous problems of our youth. How are we affected by these societal attitudes? Sadly, priorities in the lives of most professing Christians show very little difference from the rest of society.

Yet if we take seriously the pronouncements of Jesus Christ Himself, it is obvious that He judged materialism harshly. The Bible nowhere condemns wealth in and of itself; in fact, various men of God in both the Old and New Testaments are described as wealthy. Abraham had great herds and flocks, and Philemon had a home large enough to serve as a meeting place for the entire Colossian church. It is a matter of priorities. Wealth, and its pursuit, becomes a problem when it consumes our primary energy and effort—when we are putting material things before God. This is a very real danger in our materialistic society. Christ explained that no one can serve two different masters (6:24). Attempting to do so will involve us in a struggle with conflicting loyalties, so Christ told His followers that they could not be servants to both God and money.

God should always come before everything else. This is a foreign concept to our secular world, for though most people are in favor of religion, they often compartmentalize it as just one small area of their lives. The true religion of the Bible, however, is an entire way of life that should determine all of our other priorities, whether in the realm of family, employment or even entertainment.

Perhaps the most fundamental principle of the Bible is that no one ever truly gets ahead by putting God last. Christ said: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [your needs] shall be added to you" (v. 33). God knows that we have physical needs—and He will certainly provide for them. After all, He is the One who designed us as physical creatures. Christ continued: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself" (v. 34, NIV). If we are truly walking with God in all our ways, worry and anxiety will be put away. We will be developing a firm reliance upon and confidence in God in all aspects of our lives. This is the result of putting first things first.

Judging and Asking

What did Jesus mean in Matthew 7:1 when He instructed His hearers not to judge? After all, every time we make a choice we render a judgment. From the time we rise in the morning until we go to bed at night, we are confronted with choices and decisions to make.

Contemporary Western society prides itself on being very non-judgmental. Behaviors once defined as deviant or perverse are now considered acceptable alternative lifestyles. For example, in many schools, this approach is being actively promoted to young children. Elementary schools have used books such as Heather Has Two Mommies to present homosexuality as "normal." Many have roundly condemned the Boy Scouts for their supposed intolerance and judgmental attitude. Why? Because they refuse to put homosexual men in charge of groups of young adolescent boys to take them into the woods on camping trips! Is this what Jesus had in mind when He instructed His followers not to judge?

The Greek verb rendered "judge" here, krino, has a wide range of definitions. It can mean "to make a judicial ruling" or "to condemn" or "to discern." As The Expositor's Bible Commentary explains, Christ was not forbidding "all judging of any kind, for the moral distinctions drawn in the Sermon on the Mount require that decisive judgments be made. Jesus himself goes on to speak of some people as dogs and pigs (v. 6) and to warn against false prophets (vv. 15–20)" (vol. 8, p. 183).

Rather, in Matthew 7 Jesus is exhorting His disciples not to be judgmental and condemning when dealing with people. We are not to have a negative, critical, "holier-than-thou" attitude toward others. One who takes it upon himself to stand in judgment of the hearts of others is usurping the place of God, the Judge of all mankind. Christ says that such a person will be called into account, and judged, by the very One whose role he usurps!

Christ taught that before we can take the "speck" out of someone else's eye, we must first get rid of the "log" in our own eye (Matthew 7:3–5). How can we help others by pointing out some small mistake or fault when we are a thousand times more guilty—and are thus blaring forth our hypocrisy? Rather than pointing the finger at everyone else, we need to go to God and ask Him to reveal to us our own faults, so that we can change. Then we can effectively serve others, helping them to overcome their weaknesses.

We must come to see that God is very real and really does answer prayer. Christ told His disciples to ask, seek and knock (v. 7)—and said that God would be there to provide. Even human fathers, with natural human selfishness, would never dream of giving something hurtful when their children were hungry and asked for food (vv. 9–10). Christ emphasized how much more willing our Heavenly Father is to give good gifts to His children when they ask (v. 11), for God's way is a way of give—of love and outflowing concern.

God's way must become our way. "So in everything," Jesus said, "do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (v. 12, NIV). Known as the Golden Rule, this familiar statement helps to summarize all that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Here He showed the true direction to which all of the instructions of the Old Testament pointed. Interestingly, the rabbis of Christ's day taught this principle in its negative form. Quoting a statement by Rabbi Hillel, dating from around 20ad, the Talmud states: "What is hateful to you, do not to anyone else" (b Shabbath 31a). But by stating it in the positive form as He did, Jesus included sins of omission as well as commission.

Two Paths, Two Trees and Two Houses

In the conclusion to His teaching on the Mount, Christ drew a series of contrasts. If we are truly to be disciples of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, then we must learn to make right choices while rejecting wrong ones. From the days of our first parents, Adam and Eve, God has intended that mankind confront contrasting choices—and thereby learn to choose what is right.

Jesus depicted the pathway that leads to eternal life as a narrow way walked by comparatively few. He contrasted it with the wide and popular pathway where the many are to be found. Those who follow in the footsteps of the Messiah will find that the path is often difficult and fraught with peril (Matthew 7:13–14). As the Apostle Paul explained, the pathway that leads into the entrance of the Kingdom passes through many hardships (Acts 14:22). It is also the pathway of righteousness and is illuminated by the lamp of God's Word (Psalm 119:105).

Jesus drew a contrast between two trees. One yielded good fruit and the other yielded bad. The fruit each tree produced testified to the kind of tree it was. Christ told His listeners that they would encounter false prophets, but that they could discern the true from the false by examining the fruit they produced (Matthew 7:15–20). False prophets would, of course, claim to be true ones—but the evidence of their life and teaching would belie their claims.

Simply paying lip service to Jesus Christ as "Lord" (v. 21)—as our present society does—is not enough. The word "lord" means owner or master. If Christ is truly our Lord and Master, we will be following His instructions. Asked about the way to eternal life, Christ told his followers that they should keep His Father's commandments (Matthew 19:17). God's commandments reflect His will, and only those who actually submit to and practice His will can enter His Kingdom. Those who claim to profess Christ with their mouths, but whose message and actions proclaim them as workers of lawlessness, will find themselves denied entrance into the Kingdom that Jesus Christ came announcing (7:21).

Christ's final teaching in the Sermon on the Mount involved a contrast between two houses. One was built on solid rock and the other was built on sand. When storms came, one house remained standing and the other collapsed—"and great was its fall" (vv. 24–27). No building can be more substantial than the foundation upon which it is built. Jesus likened those who listened to His words, and proceeded to put them into practice in their lives, to the man who built his house upon rock—who built upon a solid, sure foundation.

It is not enough to merely hear the Truth, to know it academically or even to acknowledge that it is true. The Truth of God is something that must be practiced in our everyday lives. Jesus the Messiah came with a powerful message that directed His followers toward radical transformation of their own lives—including their priorities and even their innermost thoughts, attitudes and motives. His listeners stood amazed, for He did not teach them in the way that they were accustomed. Rather, "He taught them as one having authority" (v. 29). Indeed, He did have absolute authority, as He was Immanuel—God with us.

Now, almost 2,000 years later, the teachings of Jesus still have authority. His words are indeed the very words of life (John 6:63). In the Sermon on the Mount, the Messiah outlined His teachings to those who aspired to inherit the Kingdom that He came proclaiming. If we wish to inherit that Kingdom, then it is also imperative that each of us personally takes those same words to heart. We must put them into practice in our own lives—today and always. That is what real religion is all about!

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