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Being “religious”

| Monday, February 28, 2022

The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). There is much we don’t know about our own hearts. So many are the idols there, and how little we understand the depths of them. We oftentimes surprise ourselves with our own actions. When faced with temptation and conviction to let go of our sin, we begin to scratch the surface of just how sinful we are.

Some idols can be pretty obvious. But others can be more hidden and sneaky, yet just as powerful and terrible. Outwardly, actions may seem noble and God-glorifying, but they are nothing of the sort, for they flow from evil inclinations in the heart. This was true of the Pharisees’ lives. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus said. “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

It is possible to be very religious and yet not know Christ. “Being religious” can be an idol. Theological knowledge can be an idol. Not that piety or studying theology are bad things. They certainly aren’t. But they can be warped and turned into idols and vehicles for pride and self-righteousness. “[W]e may come to love knowledge — our knowing,” C.S. Lewis, borrowing from the “Theologia Germanica,” says, “more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.” We may realize that so much of what we thought was zeal for God was really a self-righteous zeal, a desire to make our name great rather than His. We may desire to read many Christian books simply to have read them, not because we wanted to truly understand what they say. We may read a Bible chapter a day so we soothe our conscience and think we’re “not such a bad person.” We may sing so we can create some emotional feeling and thereby gain our own worthiness. Even at church, we can be so fixated on ourselves, how we look to others and our own righteousness, that we cease to truly think about God at all. All such religion is not true worship at all but mere duty and a desire to create your own righteousness. 

This isn’t to say Christians can’t struggle with pride and self-righteousness (they definitely do). But religious knowledge that causes us to worship ourselves rather than the Savior is no good at all. For the religious but unsaved person, Heaven holds no joy for them. All theological debates have ended. Pride and self-righteousness have forever been excluded. The only boast is in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31, Jeremiah 9:23-24). It is the Lord who saved you. You can take no credit for your salvation, and you can never earn it or become worthy of it. It will always be of grace. You have been saved just like the thief on the cross, the prostitute and the tax collector. “He must increase,” and you “must decrease” (John 3:30). This is torture for the self-righteous religious person, for the modern-day Pharisee. Like the Jews described in Romans 9:30-10:3, “they do not submit to God’s righteousness,” that is, “the righteousness that is by faith,” but rather are bent on “[establishing] their own” righteousness by their good works. They refuse to accept God’s grace because they are too prideful to come with nothing to offer. Thus, they never come and die in their sin.

Is there any hope, then, for the Pharisees of today, for the self-righteous, unsaved religious person? There most certainly is! Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37), and “whoever” truly means everybody (yes, you too!). “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Are you a sinner? If so, salvation is offered to you. Do not think that your sins are too great for Christ. He died for real sins, and His blood paid for them all (1 John 1:7). He saved prostitutes and tax collectors. He saved the worst of sinners, Paul (1 Timothy 1:15). Can He not then save you? He is able to save you, and He is willing, for that is why He came (John 3:17, Luke 19:10). And now, even now, after all you’ve done, He bids you “Come to” Him (Matthew 11:28). Go to Him as a beggar, as the wretched sinner you are, for He did “not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32), and be assured He “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) through faith in Christ’s blood. You must give up on all your hopes to save yourself. You have sinned against the Almighty and stand guilty before Him. If you stand on your good works, which are as “a polluted garment” to the Lord (Isaiah 64:6), you will surely be condemned. In Him and in His blood alone is your salvation won. It was there that He “bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24), that He paid the penalty for our sins and satisfied God’s wrath. He has done it all. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Before you is a powerful Savior and a great salvation. Give up on your own works, your own religious feelings and efforts. Go to Him just like any other sinner, with nothing and no righteousness of your own. Fall on Him, and your soul will be saved.

Andrew Sveda is a junior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science with a supplementary major in theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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