When Religious Actions are not Enough

I was reading Psalm 50 this morning and I had new insights hit me like a ton of bricks.

Right now I torahought to offer a disclaimer: I believe the Bible is inspired by God and is true.  I know this is not a belief that is held by everyone, but it is the background out of which I write this.

The entire Psalm is about living in relationship with God, and how that plays out both on the human side and the divine side.  Verse 5 has God speaking and he says, “Gather to my my faithful ones, who made a covenant with my by sacrifice!” (English Standard Version).  Obviously this is speaking about Israel and the covenant they made with God at Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19).  Given the fact that in Jesus Christ a new covenant was created, this can refer to those in Christ who have offered a sacrifice as well.  What kind of sacrifice?  Paul gives an answer to that.

He writes in Romans 12:1-2, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers [and sisters], by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

This ties in with what is further down in the psalm, as well.  As it progresses, the psalm shows God reminding the nation of Israel that the animal sacrifices they offer are not for God.  He explicitly states that he neither eats nor drinks any of the sacrifice.  He then states in verses 14 and 15, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”  What is a sacrifice of thanksgiving?  It is an attitude of gratefulness and humility for the grace given to us.  It is thankfulness for the work God does in our lives to spiritually transform us, enabling us to “perform our vows” by being transformed by the renewal of our minds so that we are no longer “conformed to this world.”

This in and of itself is good stuff.  As we used to say in seminary, “That’ll preach.”  But wait…there’s more!

For the rest of the psalm, God then thoroughly rebukes those who have a religious life, but live very worldly lives.  They do not obey, or even try to live up to, the covenant they made with God.  Then the shoe drops in verse 21 as God says, “These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself.  But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.”

Putting this all together, this is really a double whammy for us in the church today.  This is a rebuke of people who go through religious motions and allow their faith to stop there.  On the one hand it is a reminder that our relationship with God is truly a covenant, and that our part of the covenant is to offer ourselves to God.  Jesus was explicit in his requirements of anyone who would follow him, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whosoever would save his life will lose it, but whosoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).  It is not enough to know the religious language, or even to rightly perform all the religious actions.  We have to offer our very selves to God.  We have to allow God to continually be at work in us, making us holy.

On the other hand, this is also a warning to those who, rather than have an empty and ritualistic religion like the first group, believe that what they are doing and the causes they are fighting for in the name of God are right, when in reality they are wrong.  Just because God does not immediately come down out of heaven and pronounce moral judgment on a particular person or issue does not mean that he agrees with what they are doing.  When Paul wrote, “do not be conformed to this world,” the world was even more morally decadent than it is today.  There are those within certain denominations today that advocate for lifestyles and actions that were morally permissible in the Roman Empire of the first century, but not in the church.  It was those practices, attitudes, and beliefs that Paul calls the church away from so it can move towards God in an attitude of self-sacrifice.  The holy life we pursue with the grace of God is not one of our own invention.  Rather it is being conformed to the vision of life God has given us in the Bible, our record of his continuing action in the world.  We must take the whole scope of the Bible into account as we endeavor to find the holy life we are to have, and to know what things in ourselves have to die in order for God to be able to make us holy.

Religious actions are never enough with God.  We have to have a life of gratefulness for the transformation he is working in us–a transformation to live as he wants us to live–not in conformity to the world, but in conformity to Christ.

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