It is hard fact with which to come to grips, but it is such a fact nonetheless. Having grown up in the South where there is without a doubt a Christian religiosity that pervades the culture, one is hard-pressed to see where Christianity begins and where the culture ends. And though it is clear that it is not the entire culture that consists of this Christian influence, there is a strong subculture that calls itself Christian, speaks words that are Christian, and believes that it is Christian, though its Christianity is oftentimes in conflict with what seems to be the Christianity of the Bible.
And discerning this is terribly difficult task, especially when you have been brought up in such a culture. And to make things all the more difficult, there is not a black and white line that distinguishes the two, for there are within this Christian subculture many who are indeed in Christ and who serve him as best they know how in the mindset in which they have been raised. They, including myself, have been brought up hearing the name of Jesus Christ, the stories of his life, the teachings from his mouth, etc., and they follow these things according to the manner which their predecessors followed them, and their predecessors before them, and their predecessors before them.
And while such practices (i.e. traditions) typically have no bad in them in and of themselves, they do have behind them the same warning that Christ gave to the Pharisees, namely, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mt. 15:3). For though traditions often have their roots in godly discipline, they do have the tendency in time to become that which they were never meant to be–law. And these traditions in time have the power to so grip and to sway the Religion so that they slowly transform the Religion into a different religion. And while this transformation may take years to generations to take such a hold on the Religion, the slowness with which they grow gives little cause for alarm, much like a vine that slowly but persistently twirls itself around the trunk of a great tree until after years of careful onslaught it strangles the tree of its life.
It is therefore of great necessity that each generation examine its Root and remember what Christianity is and who is her Christ. We must be continually called to remember the Gospel–the true Gospel–and we must continually rid it of any influence that seeks to change it. For the apostle warned the Galatian church, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9), and as it was true to that church and that generation, so it is true to us and to the Gospel this day. We cannot afford to be apathetic with regards to the Gospel and its fruits, for as soon as we become thus, we give up Christ and the Christianity of God.
What is the Gospel?
If we were to step back and examine the Root (viz. the Gospel) of our faith (as we are indeed called to do), I believe the best and most concise definition of the Gospel is given to us by the apostle Paul in what is perhaps the greatest chapter in all of Holy Scripture. There he writes, “For God has done what the law weakened by the flesh could not do by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rm. 8:3,4). In this one statement we are given all of the elements of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are first presented with the ability and preeminence of God–that it is God and God alone who has accomplished this great Salvation in which we boast. Secondly, we are presented with man’s inability. No man, because he is weak and fleshly, can accomplish what needs to be accomplished for his salvation, even though he might have the Law of God. Man is utterly helpless and without hope apart from God, and there is none who can save him apart from God. Thirdly, we are presented with the means by which God has accomplished this great Salvation, viz. that he sent his Son Jesus Christ in the likeness of sinful flesh to fulfill the requirement of the Law which we would could not accomplish in our feeble state, and he was offered up “for sin”–as a sacrifice and as the ransom price for the sins which we who are in him have committed and will commit. It is a Salvation accomplished by God alone for the sake of God alone so that no man might boast in anything save the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
How Does Tradition Affect the Gospel?
When we speak of tradition and the Gospel, we are not speaking of those things which have been ordained by God as practices for his people. Those things are prescribed by him for our worship and adoration of him, and they are for our good and for the sake of the Gospel. We can think of such things as the Lord’s Supper which was given to Christ’s Church to be a memorial and a testimony of the Gospel, calling us to remember the Passover Lamb who was given as ransom for many. Those things that conflict with the Gospel are those things that man has instituted oftentimes for the sake of piety, and it is those things which must be continually weighed against the Gospel of our Lord. In the case of the Pharisees of Matthew 15, they laid charge against the disciples for not observing the traditions of the elders, namely, washing their hands before they ate. What had formerly been instituted for the sake of remembering the holiness of God had become a law to these religious leaders, and they in their delusion had remembered their traditions while neglecting the laws of God. What had once been a external practice for the sake of honoring God in his holiness had become to those leaders a means by which they thought themselves approved before God. Christ by his perception exposed their folly, condemning them for breaking a law of God (in this case, dishonoring their parents) for the sake of their tradition (withholding from their parents their due because they claimed what is theirs had been offered to God).
What is common among all traditions that usurp the Gospel and make its Religion a false one is their practice for the sake of God’s approval and/or for the approval of men. For the Gospel declares that no man and no work of man can cause him to be approved before God, for man is in such debt and is so feeble that he cannot make himself approved before God. No practice of man, no matter how good or how pious, can cause him to be righteous before a holy God, for even the righteousness of man is to God filthy rags (cf. Is. 64:6). And these pious practices, when practiced from a heart that desires to achieve its own salvation rather than receive it freely from him who achieved it, always leads to neglect of the weightier matters of God’s law. For as the Pharisees tithed their mint, dill, and cumin, they did so to the neglect of the greater of God’s laws, namely justice, mercy, and faithfulness (cf. Mt. 23:23). They indeed were those who cleaned the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence (Mt. 23:25). For they put on a good show and were esteemed as righteous before men, but they had no concern for him who knew their hearts and who alone would be their Judge.
Pharisaism and American Christianity
When we turn from the pages of Scripture and look to our own generation, much can be surmised by how we speak concerning the Gospel and our witness to it. I cannot begin to recount how often I have heard Christians speaking of their “witness” and then perceiving how little that witness had to the do with the Gospel of our Lord. More or less it has to do with not cursing, drinking, smoking, hanging out with bad friends after work, etc. in order that the world would perceive that they are different, not in that they are sinners who have been forgiven, but in that they are moral people. And while a Christian may or may not do these things because they have been changed by the Spirit of God, our witness to the Gospel is not to be about how good we are, but it is to be about how weak and despicable we are, and how great and powerful and merciful God is. Many times we are so concerned about putting on a show in front of the world based upon a morality that has nothing to do with Christ and Christianity rather than showing the world that we are still a people in need of a Savior. We instead go to great lengths to disguise our weaknesses and to highlight our strengths, when we should rather imitate the apostle Paul who said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2Cor. 11:30). For when we show ourselves to be weak, we show Christ to be strong, and when we show ourselves to be needy, we show Christ to be sufficient for those needs. For the Gospel has never been about us, but it has always been about God and his ability to call a people to himself and to make them holy.
Therefore, when we consider the state of our Religion and the practices we practice, let us never forget to test them by the Gospel of our Lord and by what is revealed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture. Let us never build up for ourselves a morality that is not demonstrated in God’s Word for the sake of putting on a show, but let us hold fast to what is revealed so that in all things Christ and his Cross might be preeminent. Amen.