The Inadequacy of Modern
William James once said that religion is either a dull habit or an acute fever. And John Dewey observed: "Nowhere in the world at any time has religion been so thoroughly respectable with us . . . and so nearly totally disconnected with life." These statements remind us that religion is a word with many meanings. It can mean the frenzied orgies of a jungle tribe, or it can mean the meditative, intelligent worship of the Lord God. As a term, "religion" appears only twice in the King James Version of the New Testament, once in Acts 26:5 and again in James 1:26, 27.
When men speak of religion, they do not always speak of the same thing. For all definitions of religion are governed by two magnetic poles, the naturalistic and the theistic. The naturalistic pole is what the Apostle Paul spoke of when he wrote that men "changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things" (Romans 1:23). The theistic pole is embodied in the teachings of the Bible with its revelation of man's beginning, fall, and recovery through redemption.
When Cain approached the first altar with his offering of "the fruit of the ground," this was his way of trying to regain paradise without accepting God's plan of redemption. Cain, in his selfishness and arrogance, decided to come his own way. He rejected God's plan. Times have not changed. Millions today want salvation, but on their own terms. They want to come their own way, and so have hundreds of
schemes and plans devised by men to regain paradise. They have given rise to many sects, each shouting its own particular plan of salvation.
The sin of Lucifer was pride. The sin of Adam was pride. The sin of modern man is pride. He does not want to admit his weakness and helplessness in the face of life's insoluble situations. He feels that somehow, someway, he can make his own salvation. Cain brought the evidences of his own culture, amounting to a salvation by works, while Abel obeyed God and humbly offered a sacrifice of blood, there by acknowledging that sin deserved death and could be covered before God only through the substitutionary death of a guiltless sacrifice. And it was this plan that Cain deliberately rejected.
Natural Religion versus God's Plan
There, back in the very beginning, was the introduction of natural religion upon the human scene as an effort to circumvent God's plan. Natural religion, however, is not always a crude invention of early man. Today it is the full-time effort of many intellectuals to circumvent God's plan. Some of them are professors of religion in our universities; others are even leaders in the church.
The Apostle Paul said of man's corruption of God's general revelation into a naturalistic religion: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools . . . who changed the
truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever" (Romans 1:20-25). This is a Biblical picture of man's perversion of God's revelation, with all its primitive crudity, sensuality, fetishism, superstition, and magic. It has passed through many refinements and much refurbishing. Today it presents itself in the forms of intellectual respectability, but in primitive cultures it still exists in the same forms of debasing sensuality and deceit.
Natural religion is opposed to divine revelation, which accepts the Bible as the authoritative source of the ideas of sin and justification by faith in the atoning death of Christ. Natural religion rejects almost everything in the Apostle's Creed.
This is not to say that natural religion does not contain elements of truth, or embody some high ethical standards and moral values. Some of its followers at times employ terms that recall the language of the Bible. While the morality encouraged by natural religion may win the approval of men, it neither secures acceptability with God nor reflects His full moral demands. In fact, some of the crudest immorality in human history has had the sanction of natural religion, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in the Epistle to the Romans.
The Bible teaches that Satan can transform himself into an "angel of light," adapting himself to every culture and every situation, even at times deceiving true believers. Counterfeiters always try to make their counterfeit money look exactly like the real thing. This is how Satan operates today. Thousands of people have been herded even into the church without a vital experience with Jesus Christ. They have substituted good works, community effort, social reform or a religious rite for personal salvation. Many people have just enough natural religion to make them immune to the real thing. Every time I go to the Far East I take cholera shots, and usually I get sick from the shots. Actually I get a small case
of cholera, which makes me immune to the dreaded disease, should I come in contact with it in my travels. This is true of most vaccinations. And it is also true in the realm of religion. There are many people who have just enough religion to be immune from a genuine personal experience with Jesus Christ. Therein lies the grave danger for thousands of professing Christians.
There is no doubt that naturalistic religion has invaded the church today. Many of our concepts of the church are secular. Even the mission of the church is often changed from a Biblical basis to a secularized one.
There is a strong movement, especially in Protestantism, to recast the Christian message in order to make it acceptable to modern man. These people contend that the intellectuals reject Christianity today because "they cannot accept certain traditional beliefs which were really the envelope in which the message was sent, rather than the message itself."1 Yet these modern theologians fail to agree among themselves as to which part of the New Testament is to be retained and which part is to be thrown out. Many regard the resurrection as a subjective experience of the disciples rather than as an objective historical event. These theologians call God "the ground of being." They deny absolutely that Jesus Christ was supernatural. They say that He was a man who was so good and unselfish that God's love shone through His humanity rather than in the Biblical terms of the Incarnation. Karl Barth, the European theologian, in a scathing denunciation of these demythologizers, says: "They have thrown out the baby with the bath water. In trying to make Christianity
plausible for skeptics, they have succeeded only in making it meaningless."
All the way through the Bible we are warned against false prophets and false teachers. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves . . . wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:15, 20). Sometimes it is very difficult even for a Christian to discern a false prophet. There is a close resemblance between the true and the false prophet. Jesus spoke of false prophets who "shew great sings and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect" (Matthew 24:24). Paul tells of the coming Anti-Christ, whose activity in the last days will be marked by "signs and lying wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9). Satan's greatest disguise has always been to appear before men as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).
The underlying principle of all Satan's tactics is deception. He is a crafty and clever camouflager. For Satan's deceptions to be successful they must be so cunningly devised that his real purpose is concealed by wiles. Therefore he works subtly and secretly. No Christian, however spiritual, is beyond the seductive assaults of Satan. His deception began in the Garden of Eden. "The woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat" (Genesis 3:13). From that time to this, Satan has been deducing and beguiling. "But evil men and seducers," Paul warned Timothy, "shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:13). He also warned the church at Ephesus: "Let no man deceive you with vain words" (Ephesians 5:6);
and again: "That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive" (Ephesians 4:14). Yes there will be more and more false teachers, as the age draws toward its end. As the Apostle Peter said: "There shall be false teachers among you, who privily bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of who the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not" (2 Peter 2:1-3).
Satan does not build a church and call it The First Church of Satan. he is far too clever for that. He invades the Sunday school, the Bible class, and even the pulpit. He even invades the church under cover of an orthodox vocabulary emptying sacred terms of their Biblical sense. Paul warned that many will follow false teachers, not knowing that in gulping down and feeding upon what these apostates say, they are taking the devil's poison into their own lives. Thousands of uninstructed Christians are being deceived today. False teachers use high-sounding words that seem like the epitome of scholarship and culture. They are intellectually clever and crafty in their sophistry. They are adept at beguiling thoughtless, untaught men and women. Of them the Apostle Paul wrote: "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy" (1 Tim. 4:1-2). These false teachers have departed from the faith God revealed in the Scriptures. The Bible states plainly that the reason for their turning away is that they gave
heed to Satan's lies and deliberately chose to accept the doctrines of devils rather than the truth of God. So they themselves became the mouthpiece of Satan, speaking lies.
True and False Religions
Because the church, in turning to naturalistic religion, increasingly proclaims a humanistic gospel, thousands of laymen and clergymen alike are asking penetrating questions about the purpose and mission of the church. Thousands of loyal church members, particularly in America, are beginning to meet in prayer groups and Bible study classes. Multitudes of Christians within the church are moving toward the point where they may reject the institution that we call the church. They are beginning to turn to more simplified forms of worship. They are hungry for a personal and vital experience with Jesus Christ. They want a heartwarming, personal faith.
Unless the church quickly recovers its authoritative Biblical message, we may witness the spectacle of millions of Christians going outside the institutional church to find spiritual food.
In order to compete with God for the dominion of the world, Satan, whom Christ called "the prince of this world," was forced to go into the "religion" business. Although expelled from the Garden, man still carried a God-consciousness within his heart. Satan's strategy was to divert this innate hunger from the Lord God. Thus came the advent of what we call false, counterfeit, or naturalistic religion and its history is long and tragic. The Bible differentiates clearly between true faith and mere religiosity. Nothing could be more wrong than the old cliché that says any religion will do just as long as one is sincere. In no other area of life is there so much error, deception, and charlatanism as in religion.
The two altar fires outside Eden illustrate the difference between true religion and false religion. One belonged to Abel who brought of the firstling of his flock as the offering to the Lord God. He offered it in love, in adoration, in humility, and in reverence. And the Bible says that the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering. The other belonged to his older brother Cain, who had brought a bloodless, cheap offering to the altar, and the Bible says that "unto Cain and his offering God had not respect." How could the Lord God be so capricious? After all, did not Cain attempt to please God, and was he not perfectly sincere?
This story was put in the Bible to teach that there is a right way and wrong way to make contact with God. Abel made his sacrifice humbly, reverently, and sacrificially, bringing his very best to God and he came in God's way. Cain made his sacrifice grudgingly, selfishly, and superficially but he also disobeyed God in the way he came for he came without faith. When God did not sanction and bless his sacrifice, Cain became angry and killed his brother. Abel truly loved God and worshiped Him. Cain's worship was a meaningless religiosity, as empty and hollow as his whole life became. Leaving his family, he walked the earth embittered, crying unto the Lord: "My punishment is greater than I can bear" (Genesis 4:13).
Here we see the emergence of a stream of religiosity, branching off from the mainstream of true worship of the Lord God. Throughout history this stream is destined to become an ever-widening river. Man is eternally torn between the true and the false, the worship of idols and the worship of the Lord God, the lure of religiosity or the recognition of the plain Biblical teaching of the way of salvation.
Even while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the tablets of stone "written with the finger of God," humanistic religion was breaking out in the camp of Israel.
The people said to Aaron: "Up, make us gods which shall go before us." Aaron submitted to their demands and said: "Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and your daughters, and bring them unto me . . . And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:1-4).
As time moved forward, other idolatrous tributaries flowed into the mainstream of religion Baal, the god of the tribes of Canaan; Chemosh, the god of the Moabites; Dagon, the god of the Philistines; and Molech, the god of the Amorites. If all the gods of history were listed by name, a good-sized volume would be needed to hold them all.
The inescapable implication of a counterfeit is that the real thing exists. No one ever counterfeited a seventy-five-dollar bill. Every counterfeit bears witness to the reality of the currency it copies. So in the midst of all the plans and programs men have devised to satisfy their religious urge, true religion does exist and is available for all who will come to God on His terms.
1. John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963).
Chapter 9 || Table of Contents