Photo by Chad Runge / Creation Swap

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Religion or Relationship?

Last night at church I heard one of our pastors teach in Genesis about how Cain missed the point in his offering to God.  Abel, Cain’s brother, brought his offering before God in faith.  Apparently, Cain’s offering to God was not brought to God by faith.  This is explained in Hebrews 11, the chapter that talks about great men of faith:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.

So the question is how did Cain bring his offering before God?  It seems that it would be the opposite of what Abel did.  And what is the opposite of faith?  In the Bible, trusting God though you can’t see is the idea of faith (Hebrews 11:1).  So the opposite of faith has to be not trusting God.  At this point it’s irrelevant who or what you put your faith in or whether you have faith in anything at all.  If faith isn’t in God and having the assurance that your hope is in God’s promises then it’s a baseless and empty faith.

But there’s also a heart issue here, isn’t there?  If you trust God and you have faith that God will act on His promises though we don’t completely “see” or understand your heart is wholly toward Him.  I think that’s the idea of Matthew 22:37-38, “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.’”

This brings to mind then that Cain’s heart wasn’t wholly toward God.  In fact, couldn’t we say that Cain’s concern was only in appeasing God?  Obviously Cain did bring an offering to God, but it wasn’t satisfactory to Him.  In that sense, God was able to see into Cain’s heart and his motives and recognize that it wasn’t out of love or out of faith.

This begs a certain question then.  Why did Cain bring an offering to God?  Cain must have recognized, like many do today, that there is a God.  But instead of drawing near to God on God’s terms, Cain seemed to be going through the motions.  Which is to say he was approaching God in his way and on his own terms.  It’s sort of like knowing that there are rules but only obeying those rules out of obligation and only if he could do it in the way that makes sense to him.  Does that strike you as odd?  Does it sound familiar?  Doesn’t it sound like “religion?”

Let Us Reason Ministries defines religion in several ways.  Here are two of them:
·        Religion places the emphasis on principles, precincts, codes and creeds. 
·        Religion claims mans merit in the work he does.

In the study on a passage in Romans, we come across the Israelites that are encountering this same paradox.  Here’s the passage:

30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,

   "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
   and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."

Interestingly, the Israelites were approaching God the same way Cain did.  The apostle Paul was making a distinction between how the Gentiles (non-Jews) and the Israelites approached God.  What is striking is that the Gentiles are described as people who didn’t even try to pursue God.  At least not in the way that it makes sense to us.  Paul is saying that even though they didn’t pursue righteousness…that somehow they attained it?  What does that mean?  If we look further, Paul was contrasting the Gentiles experience with the Israelites.  The Israelites did pursue righteousness…through the law.  The paradox here is that if it were possible to attain righteousness through the law, they would have achieved the purpose of the law, which is to stand holy and blameless before God through man’s own effort.  (Scriptures tell us this is impossible.)  So this goes back to the idea of religion, doesn’t it?  Both the idea of placing the emphasis on the law (or principles and precincts) and claiming one’s own merit as the basis of attaining righteousness.

What the Gentiles did, and it shouldn’t be taken as something they should have patted themselves on the back about, was pursue the One that would give them His righteousness.  The emphasis is on Jesus Christ.  The point that Paul is making is that there is nothing that man can do to be made right with God in his own effort.  The righteousness comes only after man puts his faith in Jesus Christ.  There is absolutely no effort here except for believing and trusting in God.

The reason why Paul explains in verses 32-33 that the Israelites “stumbled over the stumbling stone” is because they couldn’t wrap their head around this idea that Jesus was the Messiah and that if they would only believe in Him they wouldn’t have to go through all that effort in pursuing righteousness through the law.  Through their whole existence, many of them believed it was something they did by their own effort.  Even though God gave them His laws and commands, it wasn’t meant for them to “merely obey.”  It was meant for them to draw near to God and recognize they were completely and wholly dependent upon Him.  God wanted them to pursue Him, to love Him with all their hearts, mind, and strength.  That’s a relationship.

And somehow, even though Jesus came down to their level and explained it to them, the Israelites still failed to recognize that He was the way they could attain righteousness that would be acceptable to God.  In that sense, He did become a stumbling block to them because they couldn’t make that make sense.  To them it was about their own effort and nothing that Jesus did was going to change that.  That’s the paradox.

But here are some questions for us to think about today.  Are we like Cain and the Israelites?  Do we place a higher emphasis on religion than we do on a relationship with God?  Many churches today are guilty of this very thing.  Instead of preaching the Gospel, which Paul explains has the power unto salvation, churches instead focus on teaching their congregations on doing things that will make them “look good” or “feel good” about themselves and who they are.  And in many cases, it’s by doing these things that will matter to God somehow.

Paul explains this about the Gospel:  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”  And what is the Gospel?  Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians:

The Resurrection of Christ
 1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

We should recognize that in many ways we are like Cain.  We like to think that if we do this or do that we’re going to look good to God.  On the surface, this is not a bad thing.  But it actually comes down to motive.  What is our motive?  If it’s to stand before God to purport our own righteousness and say, “Look at me!  I’m a good person, I’ve done good things. I’ve gone to church, I’ve given to the poor and I have even tried to take care of the earth with environmental causes,” then it’s futile.  Our efforts mean nothing to God unless it’s by faith.  And it’s not faith in ourselves, or anything or anyone.  No one, that is, but Jesus Christ.  Works has its place, but only if we don’t count on our works to be made right before God.  If anything, works doesn’t even matter until after you put your hope and faith in Jesus and Jesus alone (the Gospel) as the means to be found right with God.

So I implore you…are you trying to get to “look good” to God and get to heaven on your own merit?  Or are you instead putting your hope and faith in the person Jesus Christ?  There is a difference you know.  And the difference can mean an eternity spent with God, as described in Revelations 21-22, or an eternity in complete darkness separated from God, as described in Jude:

11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. 12 These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

My prayer is that you would choose faith in Christ.

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