If you profess to be a child of God, through repentance from sins and faith in who Jesus is and what He’s done, then He expects you to act like it. It isn’t legalism to tell Christians that God expects His people to do what He says. We instinctively understand this in the private sphere, but we’re often very reluctant to acknowledge it in the religious arena. For example, take a representative married couple having problems, and consider the wisdom of the following two responses:
- Guy #1: He wants peace and isn’t particularly interested in addressing the real problem. He stops by the grocery store on the way home to pick out a dozen roses and some nice chocolates. He comes home, presents them to his bride, apologizes, secretly hopes his gift will buy him some affection, and doesn’t change his behavior.
- Guy #2: He is genuinely sorry, buys the same flowers and chocolates, gives them to his wife, and takes her out to dinner. He confesses that he’s been a bad husband, asks what he can do to change, and takes concrete steps to do just that.
Guy #1 doesn’t care about his wife; he’s all about buying affection. Guy #2 does care, and proves it by his actions. The outward actions are identical, but the motivations are very different. A spouse knows the difference. So does God.
God hates externalism, rote formality and dead religion. The Scriptures make this explicit (e.g. Isaiah 1, Malachi, Amos 5; Micah 6, etc.). If this describes your relationship with God and your motivations for service, then God hates your efforts. It makes Him sick.
The prophet Isiah wrote about this. He told Isaiah to “not hold back,” and to “declare to my people their transgression,” (Isa 58:1). What was the sin? Simple; it was externalism. They were fakes. They were frauds. Some professing believers today are frauds, too. God explains:
Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God (Isa 58:2).
Outwardly, they do all the right things. They make the sacrifices. They attend the prescribed festivals. They go through the motions of rote conformity. But, they don’t do righteousness. They do forsake His commandments. They claim to love Him. It’s all fake. It’s just as fake as what some professing believers do, today. They tithe, they attend services, they sing the songs, they listen to the sermon, they hear it all … and they think it makes them righteous.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ (Isa 58:3).
This is what the people ask. “Don’t I do the right things?” “Don’t I mouth the right words?” Don’t I go through the right outward motions?” “Don’t I attend church?” “Didn’t I help with VBS this past Summer?” “Don’t I tithe?” Didn’t I pick up the missionary from the airport last year?”
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isa 58:3-5).
Their actions have no heart. The fasts are meaningless without right motivation. These kinds of works “will not make your voice heard on high,” (Isa 58:4). Is this what God wants? Why do you attend worship? Why do you help at VBS? Why do you do what you do for the Lord? Forget outward actions; think about motivation. Do you serve God because you love Him, or are you implicitly trying to buy His favor with rote conformity? Is that how you treat your wife? How long would it take her to see right through this? How long does it take God to do the same?
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? (Isa 58:6).
God doesn’t want externalism. He doesn’t want you to go through the motions. Real love for God produces spiritual fruit. Good works are the practical result of salvation; not the vehicle for it. It’s not that fasting is worthless per se; it’s that fasting without proper motivation is useless. Rote ritual won’t please God. What will? Try not being wicked. Try not holding fellow Hebrews in slavery beyond the time. Try loving your fellow Christian as much as you live yourself.
When James wrote, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas 1:27), he was saying this kind of piety is the real fruit of real salvation. He wasn’t saying real religion consists of these actions. He was saying real faith will produce real conformity, because of real love for God. You love God, so you’ll want to do what He says.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard (Isa 58:7-8).
Some Christians read these words without context, and assume God is pleased by mercy ministries divorced from the context of the Gospel. No. No. No. This is the same mistake with a prettier face; a sweet, liberal façade rather than a legalistic one.
These works are the practical outworking of real faith in a theocratic, Old Covenant context. In a dispensation when the Jewish nation was party to a mixed covenant of believers and unbelievers, one real proof of piety was to love your neighbor (i.e. fellow covenant member) just as much as you love yourself. If you don’t do that with a pure heart, then you don’t love God. All the fasts in the world won’t matter, then. Nor will all the flowers in the world for your wife.
But, if you begin to serve the Lord with the right motives, without hypocrisy, without a double-minded heart, then God will look and be pleased. In the same way, your marriage won’t get better until you prove to your wife you love her, by changing your behavior. All the chocolates on earth won’t matter unless and until that happens.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in (Isa 58:9-12).
God will bless you if you serve Him sincerely. This won’t necessarily be a material blessing; but it will be a blessing of peace and security. An inner peace and security. A peace in your heart that comes from knowing you have a right relationship with your great God and Savior. If you commit to actually tackling your marriage problems, everything changes. You re-discover the love you used to have. You go on long walks together, again. You remember why you became married. Your job, your salary, your car, your awful boss – it might all be the same, but the emotional and psychological aspect has all changed. Your darkness will have turned to light, and all will be right with the world.
Why? Because you now have peace in your relationship. It’s the same with God, only much, much better.
“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken,” (Isa 58:13-14).
God wanted the Israelites to being fake. He wanted them to follow the law because they loved Him, and to stop assuming rote, mindless conformity did the trick. It doesn’t do the trick. It doesn’t with your spouse, and it doesn’t with God.