“Faith still brings solace to millions”, states the caption to a picture illustrating a recent cover article in Time magazine, on Christianity in Europe. And the article’s subtitle claims: “The faith is reappearing – and thriving – in all sorts of unexpected places”. But the question arises: What kind of faith?
There can be no doubt that mankind is incurably religious. Even in today’s increasingly secular Europe, in every country except the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, over 70% of respondents to a survey stated that a religious service is important at death. Yet figures for attendance, even once a month, at religious services are typically a long way below those for attachment to a religious denomination; in Britain, for example, the figures are 19% and 83% respectively. Clearly, religion for most people is of value for what they can get out of it – the “solace” of the Time caption, for instance. But how much of contemporary religion is based on a sense of the holiness and majesty of the great God who is our Creator? “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God”, said the Saviour, “and Him only shalt thou serve.” Worship, if it is to be acceptable – if, on a lower level, it is to be a worthwhile exercise – must be addressed to the one living and true God.
And it must conform to God’s requirements. He has given us His Word, which, as the Shorter Catechism teaches, is “the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him”. The lesson every generation needs to learn is that what matters in religion is truth. In the Scriptures God has inspired, we find religious truth – but nowhere else. We have to bear in mind that mankind has fallen from the state in which our first parents were created. That fall has drastically corrupted our understanding of things spiritual, and one serious result of that corruption has been the emergence of false religions. The Creator has declared His uniqueness: “The Lord is the true God, He is the living God, and an everlasting king: at His wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide His indignation” (Jer 10:10); He does not regard it lightly when people do not give Him their exclusive allegiance. Such scriptures as that just quoted no doubt contain some of the “harsh doctrine” which the Time article refers to as driving people away from Christianity. But the first question is not: What appeals to the natural heart and will gather the multitudes into the Church? The question rather is: What is true? In other words: What has God said?
Sinners find the idea of spiritual independence attractive. It has been so since the Fall. Then the devil applied his vast intellectual power to tempting Eve to become spiritually independent of God. He asked her, “Yea, hath God said?” It was the thin edge of the wedge. And he drove in the wedge to its full length; he followed his first question by a direct denial of God’s authority: “Ye shall not surely die”. God had warned Adam and Eve: “In the day that thou eatest [of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], thou shalt surely die”. Satan asserted the direct opposite. But the fact is that God revealed truth, while Satan tempted Eve to believe what was false. Thus it has been throughout the history of religion: God has revealed what is true, but corrupt human hearts, under the influence of Satan’s temptations, have been much more willing to believe what is false.
We have many examples of this in the Bible. In the history of Israel there are repeated examples of departure from true religion, many of them in the time of the Judges. It was a time when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”, rather than what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Micah, with his graven image and molten image, expressed his confidence for the future after he had appointed a Levite to take care of religious observance in his household: “Now know I that the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest”. He had taken some ideas from true religion and mixed in with them heathen idolatry. And today many people welcome a pick-and-mix religion. Time reports on an Anglican church in London that provides “a popular program called Alternatives, which offers talks and workshops on a rich assortment of unorthodox spiritual realms in order to emphasise the ‘radical inclusiveness’ of the gospel”. And an academic at a university in Bremen is quoted describing how “people tend to construe their own patchwork religion that takes elements from Buddhism, for instance, or aspects of Hinduism that they find interesting, to create their own belief system”. Truly everyone is doing what is right in his own eyes. There is no regard for the unique authority of the one true God.
In all of this, there is a refusal to face reality. We do well to echo Job’s words: “We are but of yesterday, and know nothing”. We cannot by our own intellectual powers devise any valid form of religion; we must be utterly dependent on revelation from the true God. And, in His kindness, God has communicated to us everything we need to know, for time and for eternity, in the religious realm. In particular, He has revealed to us His fundamental requirements for acceptable worship. In the words of the Saviour to the woman of Samaria: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
J C Ryle comments: “Our Lord here declares to the Samaritan woman the true nature of God. Let her cease to think that God was such a one as man, and that He could not be found or approached or addressed, like a mere earthly monarch, except at one particular place. Let her learn to have higher, nobler and more exalted views of the Being with whom sinners have to do. Let her know that day that God was a Spirit. . . . Our Lord draws this broad conclusion from the statement of God’s nature which He has just made. If ‘God is a Spirit’, it behoves those who would worship Him acceptably to worship in spirit and in truth. It is unreasonable to suppose that He can like any worship which does not come from the heart, or can be so well pleased with worship which is offered through types and ceremonies as with worship offered through the true way which He has provided and is now revealing. The importance of the great principle laid down in this and the preceding verse can never be overrated. Any religious teaching which tends to depreciate heart worship and to turn Christianity into a mere formal service, or which tends to bring back Jewish shadows, ceremonies and services, and to introduce them into Christian worship, is on the face of these remarkable verses most unscriptural and deserving of reprobation.”
Nowhere more than in Roman Catholicism do we find a hankering after Jewish ceremonies. There, for instance, one finds the attempt to perpetuate sacrifice in what is described as the unbloody sacrifice of the mass – in the face of the clear Scripture testimony that Christ has “offered one sacrifice for sins for ever” (Heb 10:12). There is no need for any further sacrifice, and to attempt to offer one is highly offensive to the Most High.
It is spiritual worship that God requires, worship from a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit. Apart from this, no one can have a sense of the holiness and majesty of God. Apart from this, it is impossible to please God; our worship cannot be acceptable to Him. But those who have a real sense of God’s holiness and majesty will see their need of being saved in a way consistent with His justice. This is the way revealed in Scripture; Christ said, “I am the way . . . no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me”. Those who come by this way are willing to submit their intellects to the revelation of the omniscient God. They know they cannot go wrong if they receive His testimony. So they feel no need to add to it or to take away from it. Here is a faith with which they are completely at home. They would say with Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. They and only they will find a solace in religion which will never be taken away from them.