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Religion (Part 1 of 3)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
The Truth Network Radio
October 1, 2021 4:00 am

Religion (Part 1 of 3)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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October 1, 2021 4:00 am

Many people consider religion worthless. They see it as merely an external display of rituals and routines that don’t really have value. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Learn about a religion that God accepts, on Truth For Life with Alistair Begg.


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There are many people who think of religion as worthless. They see it as an external display of rituals and routines that don't really amount to much.

But there is a form of religion that the Bible says is acceptable to God, and today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg outlines the marks of someone who's practicing that kind of true religion. Depending on what age you are, you will have grown up being told by your mother or your father that if you are going to engage in polite conversation, there are two subjects which are absolutely taboo. One of those is politics, and the other is religion. If you are going to be successful in business, if you're going to not be a dreadful problem at the average wedding reception, then make sure, we've been told, that you steer away from either of those two taboo subjects. I'm not so sure that that is true amongst a younger generation. I'm not sure if those who were born since, let's say, 1983, 1985, have any kind of concern about that at all.

Because when you listen to people in conversation today, it doesn't appear, at least on the surface, that there are any subjects that are taboo. If I'm right, though, in the observation that really it doesn't matter if you talk about religion, then that is helpful, because here in verses 26 and 27, James introduces us to one of the two formerly taboo topics—namely, religion itself. If anyone he begins considers himself religious, and then in verse 27 he begins with the noun religion that God our Father accepts is … and so on.

Now, we will be helped immediately by defining our terms. Let us use, as a simple working definition, James' use of religion in terms of the outward expressions of one's faith. The outward expressions of one's faith. So that when he's talking about religion here, he's talking about that which emerges from an internal reality—an external conformity to a pattern that is as a result of the inward working of grace. Now, you will see that as before, in verse 22, where he was concerned about self-deception—a deception that would be revealed in an approach to the Bible which just listened to it but didn't obey it—he comes again in verse 26 to the possibility of self-deception. And the deception about which he is concerned here is not familiar to many of us. Because what he's addressing is the possibility of maintaining a scrupulous commitment to an external frame of existence, to forms and to structures, to rituals and to routines.

And despite the fastidious commitment to all of that, to discover that it is all absolutely worthless. Now, this is actually quite helpful in this respect—that it is an uncommon week when we don't run into somebody who suggests that religion is worthless. And they'll say, I have no interest in religion, I would like to be a spiritual person, but I don't want to be a religious person at all.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, more wars have been fought in the name of religion. I'm not interested in organized religion. Religion itself is just a worthless exercise. Well, when the skeptics begin that way, we can say, in one sense, I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, what you're saying we might say by way of response is actually written about in the Bible. And we can turn them to James chapter 1 and verse 26, and we can show them that the phrase is in the Bible, religion is worthless. And the phrase is in the Bible, religion is worthless.

However, unless we put that phrase within the context of the preceding nouns and verbs and adjectives in the verse, then we can make it say whatever we want it to say. But we can go quickly to their side of the table and say, you know, there is, according to James, according to Jesus, an external display that bears no resemblance to reality and is in fact absolutely spurious and useless. However, we can say there is also a form of religion that is acceptable to God. So we might say, I wonder, have you ever considered the possibility not of a spurious and worthless religion but of a religion that God regards as acceptable? The person might say then, Well, what would that religion look like?

And then you would be able to say, Well, it looks like a lot of things, but it definitely looks like these three things that I can show you. I have my New Testament with me, and I'd gladly just point them out to you. In fact, let me read this for you, if you're not embarrassed or don't mind. Now, I like this better than the sort of standard response of many, which is, Oh, well, of course, I'm not remotely interested in religion. I'm into relationship, not religion.

I think it's time to cut that one out. I think the best thing to say is, Well, actually, I have agreed with you that the idea of externalism and modes and forms and structures that bear no resemblance to reality is an outmoded and useless thing. However, it doesn't have to be that way any more than other things which are external have to be divorced from an internal motivation and reality. So we can say to people, Well, God actually is concerned that we would have a religious experience that he deems as being acceptable.

Now, as soon as we go there, we confront an immediate danger. And there is a danger in these verses, particularly in verse 27, and the inherent danger is this—of using verse 27 to teach that we can reduce religion to charity and morality. Is that what James is saying here?

I don't believe so. James is not suggesting that acceptance with God is to be found by those who are honest and who are kind. James has already pointed out—and I'll show you this in just a moment—that it is by his grace, through his Word, that he has made us his own people in order that we might bear the family likeness. Now, the reason this is dangerous is because rationalists are very happy with this. And many of our friends are rationalists. And so although they are not remotely interested in what we're doing here on a Sunday, they are benevolent people, they are thinking people, and they want at the same time, within the standard of their own framework, to make sure that they're keeping their own rules. And so if they can reduce Christianity to that which fits their rationalistic perspective, then they have made a great gain.

So they might say, Well, as long as you keep the rules, as long as you do unto others as you would have them do to you, then, really, that's all that matters. Well, is that what James is saying? How can we determine whether it's what James is saying? Well, not by a constant reading of verse 27, but by us standing back from the panorama of the whole of chapter 1 and saying, Where are the high spots in this picture that he has painted, in this word picture that he has given us? Where, if you like, are the pivotal pieces?

Where does it turn? And your sight line will go very quickly to verse 18. What does he say in verse 18 that God has done? He has chosen to give us birth—that's his initiative—through the word of truth —that's the instrument that he has used—so that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created—that's the intention that he has. And the new life which is there in verse 18 is then expounded in 19–25 in the lifestyle that flows from it, birth in 18, life in 19–25, and then these characteristics of that life in verses 26 and 27. It is imperative that we understand that what James is addressing here in these closing verses is that which is consequential. What he describes here are consequences of the work of God within a life. What he is providing us with here is essentially evidences of family membership. What he is saying here—and we'll come back to say again and again—is simply this, that to profess to have the life of God and to be unchanged is unthinkable. To profess to have the life of God and to be unchanged is unthinkable. Therefore, we have to beware of reducing Christian living to charity plus morality. And at the same time, we must beware of a correlative danger, which is of suggesting that here in verses 26 and 27, James is providing a comprehensive summary of acceptable religion.

He can't be. Think of how much is missing. There's no mention of the reading of the Bible, no mention of the fellowship of God's people, no mention of sacraments, no mention of a righteousness that is fastidious in relationship to the keeping of the law, and so on. No, he's no more giving us a comprehensive summary here than is Micah in chapter 6 and verse 8. Remember, he has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

It's a pretty good framework, but it isn't comprehensive. It is illustrative. And what James does here is much along the same lines. James is teaching us what religion is, but he is not, I suggest, trying to tell us all that religion is. That's why you have to say verse 26 and 27 comes after all of the preceding twenty-five verses.

Birth in eighteen, life in nineteen to twenty-five—characteristics, but not all the characteristics in twenty-six and twenty-seven. If James is not providing us a comprehensive summary, he is at the same time, however, setting us with a sufficient test. Here's a sufficient test—not the only test, but a good test—to discover whether our professed faith is authentic or not.

How will we be able to determine that? Well, he says, I'm going to give you three marks of genuine Christianity. Number one is a controlled tongue. Number two is a compassionate heart. And number three is a clean life. A controlled tongue, a compassionate heart, and a clean life. These are the tests.

So we have to take the test. First of all, then, a controlled tongue. If anyone considers himself or herself, for that matter, religious, and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, or he or she deceives himself or herself and their religion, is absolutely worthless. But the danger that he addresses is clear—the danger of being precise and orthodox, in our expressions of praise, in our preaching, and yet at the same time to be guilty of thoughtless tongue-wagging.

That's the danger. That's the test. So here I am, and I love to sing, but I have a slandering tongue. Here I am, and I like to preach sermons, put sentences together that would build people up and encourage them, and then at the same time find myself able to use the same tongue to put people down and to despise them. First part of the test is challenging, isn't it? That's why someone said, If your lips would keep from slips, three things observe with care, of whom you speak and how you speak, and why and when and where.

Which pretty well covers the whole gamut, right? And don't try and sneak slander and gossip under the foliage of its truthfulness. Because something is true, it does not demand to be stated. William Blake, in the eighteenth century, the poet said, A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. If anybody considers themselves to be religious and does not bridle their tongue, that person is self-deceived, and their religion is useless.

How uncomfortable is this? Who can evade this? The antidote to this is to retreat always to the Scriptures, to be returned always to Jesus, to be reminded always that our acceptance and our standing with God is on the basis of the work and word of Jesus Christ.

So that I don't look at this and say, I'm going to have to try and fix this myself. Because what James is describing here is fruit. Fruit.

He's not describing plastic ornamentation. No, the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, remember, is love and joy and peace and kindness and goodness and gentleness, and I can never remember them all in order. But I know it finishes up with self-control. And where is it most obvious my absence of self-control? With your mouth.

Your mouth. Do you feel the penetrating gaze of God's Word? You know, he's talking about looking into the Bible.

The Bible's looking into us. This is like a CAT scan. I don't know why I was thinking about it. Maybe this was what was on my mind, but I fell asleep last night. I think one of the last things I said to Sue before I fell asleep was, I can never, ever have one of those MRIs. I don't know why that was on my mind. Maybe I was thinking about the searching gaze of something, the searching gaze of God's Word, and then that made me think about that horrible tube, and then about being claustrophobic, and then about, oh, I've never gone in one of those things, I'll die first. Great way to go to sleep, don't you think?

But I guess when you have it, it shows up everything. And when you come here to James chapter 1 verse 26, there's really no place to hide. And for those of you who are quiet people—temperamentally quiet, don't talk very much, won't say boo to a goose—who are sitting there going, Oh, this is terrific. This is wonderful.

I love this. It's all about the tongue. No, well, I got news for you. You will be judged for the thoughts. You'll be judged for your thoughts. Just because you didn't have the guts to actually say what you were thinking, you're not going to get out of it that easy. And furthermore, you'll be judged for the motives that gave rise to the thoughts that gave rise to the words. Why would I even feel the way I feel in order to think what I thought so that I might say what I said?

There's no way out of this. None at all. Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

In other words, they had the externals down. I mean, there was a great crowd on Palm Sunday giving the welcome, the songs of ascend. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest! It didn't take very long for many of it to change to crucify him. We will not have this man to reign over us. Eventually, our lips will declare the reality of what's in our hearts.

That's what makes this so devastating. Have you been struck by the fact that when Isaiah, the prophet of God, is confronted by God in Isaiah chapter 6, when he sees this amazing manifestation of God, and he falls down before God, and he cries out, Are you struck by what it is he cries? Depart from me, O Lord, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live in a whole company of people who also have unclean lips.

Somebody outside of that looking on, I say, Wait a minute. What do you mean you have unclean lips? Your lips have become the mouthpiece of God. Your lips are the lips that convey the good news to the poor. Recovery of sight for the blind.

Those are your lips! Yes, says Isaiah, but before the search and gaze of God, I know what I'm really like. Alexander White, in the nineteenth century, was a famous minister in Edinburgh—and with this I'll stop, because our time is gone.

He was the minister at Free St. George's, which is a building that is still there down the west end of Princess Street. He was known as being a monomaniac about sin. They asked him about Darwin and why Darwin said the things he said, and Alexander White said, Because he doesn't he can very much about sin.

He doesn't can very much about sin. That was his approach. So a man comes to him one day in his vestry and tells him that there is a visiting evangelist who has come to the city of Edinburgh, and in a public meeting just a couple of nights before, he has been criticizing a number of the ministers in the city. And the man tells Alexander White that the visitor had publicly said that the Reverend Dr. James Hood Wilson of the Berkeley church was not a converted man.

Alexander White, the biographer says, jumped up out of his seat, angry and indignant, saying, The rascal, the rascal! Suggesting that Dr. Wilson is not a converted man. That wasn't all, the man continued. He said, Dr. White, that you're not a converted man either. And White stopped short, sat back in his chair, and for a long minute said nothing. And then, with awful earnestness, he told his visitor, Leave me, friend.

Leave me. I must examine my heart. It's no surprise that on a subsequent occasion Alexander White, somewhat playfully but nevertheless honestly, taking a leaf, as it were, from the book of Murray McShane in an earlier era, told his congregation that he had discovered the name of the wickedest man in Edinburgh.

And his name, he told them, in whispered tones, is Alexander White. You're listening to Truth for Life with Alistair Begg, part one of a message titled Religion. Alistair will close today's program with prayer, so please keep listening. Here at Truth for Life, our mission is to teach the Bible in a way that supplements, not replaces, your local church. And with that end in mind, we want to tell you today about a book titled Devoted to God's Church, Core Values for Christian Fellowship.

This is a book written by Alistair's friend Sinclair Ferguson. Given our experiences in 2020, what it was like to be physically separated from our church, Sinclair takes us back to the basics to help us understand the value and importance of fellowship within a local church. Many people have not yet returned to in-person church life, and Sinclair clearly explains why engagement and in-person fellowship is vital for us as believers, foundational for our families.

Sinclair explains that the church is not a weekly add-on. It ought to be central to every aspect of our Christian life. The book Devoted to God's Church gets to the heart of what it means to be a member of the local church, what to look for in a church. In fact, Alistair and the elders at Parkside Church recently dedicated time to reading this book together.

You can request a copy of the book when you donate today at slash donate. Now here is Alistair with our closing prayer. Father, we thank you that you haven't left us without your word of truth to which we can turn as uncomfortable as it is to face this test. We hear the words of Paul, let a man examine himself to see whether he is of the faith. So look into our lives, oh God, we pray, and change us for your glory and for our good. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and always. Amen. I'm Bob Lapine. We hope you enjoy your weekend and time spent worshiping and serving your local church. Join us again Monday when Alistair examines what our response to the needs of others says to those around us. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-18 06:05:54 / 2023-08-18 06:14:09 / 8

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