The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character
Gardiner Spring, 1829
3. FORM OF RELIGION
Nor can the mere form of religion be relied on as conclusive testimony that man is born of God. The religion of the Bible possesses a body and a soul; it has an appearance and a reality; it is endued with a form and a power. The body, the appearance, the form—is a very different thing from the soul, the reality, and the power. Now a moment's reflection will convince any man that, while the power of religion cannot exist without the form—it is very possible for the form to exist without the power. The Scriptures speak expressly of those who having a form of godliness, deny the power thereof (2 Timothy 3:5). They present very many painful instances of this character and criminate and condemn them.
The foolish virgins put on the form of religion. They took their lamps and thus made a profession of religion before the world. They had oil in their lamps also, though the event proved that it was not such as would burn a great while. They went with the wise virgins; their profession was not an idle profession; they frequented the worship of God and the ordinances of the temple, and performed many of the duties which befitted their standing in the visible church. And when the cry was heard, "Behold, the Bridegroom comes!" they arose, trimmed their lamps, and went forth to meet Him. But, bitter result! Their lamps had gone out, the door of the Kingdom was shut! (Matthew 25:1-12).
There was a period when the great body of the Israelites possessed only the form of religion. God says of them, "They seek me daily; they delight to know your ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinances of their God; they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God" (Isaiah 58:2). They were also much engaged in the more extraordinary duties of devotion "Why have we fasted," say they, "and you see not?" (Isaiah 58:3). And yet, God reproves and condemns all this as the greatest hypocrisy! Our Savior said of the Pharisees that they outwardly appeared righteous unto men, but within were full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
Would to God, my brethren, this evil were confined to other days! No doubt there are those who are rigid in their observance of all the external duties of piety; who read the Scriptures, pray in secret, in private, and public; who profess to be on the Lord's side; who give up their children to God in baptism; who come to the sacramental table and engage habitually in the public commemorations of the death and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus; who, notwithstanding this, are at heart as ignorant of true religion as the prayerless and profane. Nor is it difficult to account for this from considerations which fall far short of the operation of grace on the heart.
Multitudes are formalists from the force of education. They have been brought up in the regular performance of the external services of piety, and are as much attached to them as the worshipers of dumb idols are to their deities of wood and stone.
Multitudes are formalists from the force of example. They have no wish to be singular in anything and consent to float along with the current though the tide issues from the waters of the sanctuary.
Multitudes are formalists from the force of public opinion. A due regard to the institutions of piety is too creditable a thing to secure the esteem and confidence of a virtuous society without it.
Multitudes are formalists from the influence of erroneous teachers. There have been from the beginning and still are false teachers who lie in wait to deceive; and there is reason to believe that they are too frequently successful in their soul-destroying purpose. Those who are deceived themselves take the most pains to deceive others and are more likely to succeed in spreading their pernicious and false sentiments.
There is no point of instruction on which the world is more willing to place implicit confidence in its teachers, and more willing to be deceived, than when it is taught that the form of religion supersedes the necessity of the power. In the Church of England, in the Church of Scotland, in the Church of Holland, and in very many of the churches of the United States, the sentiment is taught that it is the duty of all men to put on the form of religion though they may be entirely destitute of every holy exercise of heart.
Multitudes put on the form of godliness from the force of natural conscience. When the mind is awake to the perception of its obligations, there can be no semblance of compromise with the conscience short of external godliness.
Multitudes put on the form of godliness from the force of fear. They cannot bear to abandon their hopes and yet they know they must abandon them if once they are made to feel there is no religion in their external services.
And there are not lacking those who substitute the shadow of the substance from the love of error. It is a common and just maxim that men easily believe that to be right which they wish to be right. That true religion consists in mere external forms is a very agreeable sentiment to a wicked heart, and it is not strange that multitudes should mistake error for truth, and the way of death for the way of life.
There are very many who, from some of these causes or all of them combined, carry the form of godliness to every possible extent and are nothing more than sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. It is an easy thing to make clean the outside of the cup and the platter—but to what purpose is it done? God cannot be mocked. To what purpose is the multitude of such sacrifices? No, God cannot be mocked! Bring no more vain oblations. Your corrupt heart corrupts all the fair forms of your devotion, and you are still in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity.
Beware of an assurance that you are saved, that will at last bite like a serpent, and sting like an adder!