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When religion becomes a sin

When religion becomes a sin
Posted on June 14, 2020  - By Tom Horvat

I like to compare the book of Isaiah — the largest prophetic book of the Old Testament — to a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms are sobering affairs that create fear in men’s hearts from the sheer force of electrical energy that announces its approach miles before it reaches us. We can be thankful that the rumble of the thunder usually heightens our sense of need for protection because of the sometimes violent destruction that accompanies it.  

The first 39 books of Isaiah serve as a spiritual thunderstorm. God begins with the rumblings of His displeasure against the grievous apostasy of His chosen people. Along the way, there are passages of grace and mercy that act like sunlight through the breaks in the thunderstorm’s clouds, but before grace, there must be an understanding of why grace is necessary. Before we are saved, we must understand why we must be saved. We will explore this in depth as we proceed.

Right actions, wrong reasons 

Christians see sin as the root cause for all the sorrow, trouble, war, poverty, disease and every form of evil we see in the world today. That is correct, but very few think of religion as sin. Religious expression in the world is not evidence of man seeking the true God, but man seeking to be accepted by the gods of their imagination.

Religious expression in the world is not evidence of man seeking the true God, but man seeking to be accepted by the gods of their imagination

Even fewer would think of the Christian religion as sin, but it can be. We find in the opening chapter of Isaiah this revelation, that not only is pagan worship and idolatry sin because it changes the truth of God into a lie, but the very practices that God Himself ordained for His worship became sin when it became a cloak for atheism.

The rebuke of the Most High begins immediately in chapter 1:4: Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.

The language used here may seem harsh and judgmental to modern ears more concerned with hurt feelings than truth. The Bible is a book of absolute truth dealing with a reality we find uncomfortable: that we all fit into the description here and in the following verses. Truth finds us out even as we go through the motions of worshipping God.

The startling revelation in verse 4 is given to a nation outwardly observing the law in religious exercises (v. 11), gathering for the scheduled events on the Jewish calendar, including prayer meetings, feasts and solemn meetings (vv. 12-15). The Jewish nation received the only God-ordained form of worship for men under the Old Covenant. They were doing the right things in the wrong way. While they conformed externally to the requirements given by God through Moses, they were worshipping false gods in their hearts. 

Lest we consider these passages lightly because we are within the beauty of the New Covenant, we must be mindful that we abide with the God who changes not; the impeccable and absolute purity and holiness of His nature is the same as when Isaiah saw Him high and lifted up in the temple (6:1-5), and which brought him to cry out for the defiled nature of the nation and of himself.

Beloved reader, the holiness of God is ignored so egregiously in contemporary life that sin is taken lightly and grace is used as an excuse to walk in darkness!  Let us examine our hearts before the scriptures which are designed to instruct, reprove, correct and guide us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Truth finds us out even as we go through the motions of worshipping God

The need for holiness

Israel was a nation that became self-content as the chosen people.  One would think that this high and holy calling would cause them to be circumspect, wise and holy as they lived in a very vile and rebellious pagan world. Soberingly, the reason we have the “major” and “minor” prophets is because Israel walked contrary to the righteous rule of law that God provided for their benefit and blessing, and those prophets were used to call them back to Himself.  

Holiness grounded in God’s moral law, not the religious observances, was the primary attribute that would separate the Israelites from the rest of the world. All pagan religions had a ‘form of worship’.  Like Israel, they sacrificed to their gods, prayed to their idols and often exceeded Israel in uprightness (observe Genesis 20).

The civil and ceremonial laws of Israel acted as tutors until the Messiah came. They were all designed to point to Christ, not make them righteous. They were only the shadow while Christ is the substance. David could partake of the showbread because he understood this. An erroneous religion is one that focuses on what we do rather than on what God has done. As Stephen Charnock says, “The reason we have such hard thoughts of God’s will is because we have such high thoughts of ourselves.” 

To conclude, I want to leave you something to meditate upon and evaluate in light of Isaiah 1. The worship of Jesus is a wonderful thing only if He is the object of our worship. We must ask ourselves as God asks in Isaiah 1:11: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?  Or v. 12, When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts

Beware, my brethren, of substituting a relationship with Jesus with a religion using the name of Jesus.

Tom Horvat

About Tom Horvat

Tom Horvat completed his BA in education and theology at Washington Bible College. He pastored a house church for 15 years and served as a volunteer chaplain in a local prison for 20 years. He is now retired and pursuing interests in hiking, kayaking, nature study and wood crafting. He is passionate about ecology and published a book entitled New Creation Ecology that is available on Amazon. Tom has seven children and 13 grandchildren with his wife of over 40 years.



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