I preached last Sunday night on “Give Me that Old Time Religion.” But my text wasn’t from Jeremiah 6 about the old paths. In fact, the message itself wasn’t about the “old time religion” in the sense of preserving a culture from earlier days of fundamentalism.
From a strictly chronological view, “old time religion” is relative. And depending on what a person wants to emphasize, they think of “old time” as starting at different points. Some are thinking of fiery preaching, so old time to them is the era of their favorite preacher. Some are thinking of music, so old time to them represents Fanny Crosby’s days. Some are thinking of other issues—such as modesty or abolishing liquor, so old time to them is whatever was the peak moment for that issue. We could reasonably conclude that in the not-too-distant future, people will look back to 2011 and think of today as “old time.”
So if we want the “old time religion,” I suggest we look back to the first century and notice how James defined the pure religion that pleases God.
If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1:26–27)
Generally, the word religion has a different connotation than what we are seeking. In fact, the Bible never calls the Christian faith a religion. It is a miracle, a new birth, a divine life with a personal relationship with God—but not a system.
Religions tend to promote self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. True spirituality, however, encourages humility and dependence on God. So when James defines “pure religion,” he isn’t about to list several more rules to add. He’s talking about what pleases God.
Academically, we know this. As independent Baptists, we shun the religious rituals that demand works to earn salvation. But in our pride, we often develop our own set of rituals. And too often, we call this new set the “Old Time Religion.”
I know many Christians who have a solid list of rules and a carefully-chosen range of conservative activities, songs, and dress. But somewhere along the way, they lost their fervency for God, their compassion for souls, their vision to reach their community for Christ, and their heart for pure humility before God. Frankly, I don’t want that kind of “Old Time Religion.”
To the extent that other time frames had a biblical model of spirituality and godly living, I absolutely want what they had. (And I’m thankful for the many before us who have taught us to uphold biblical standards of godliness.) But it’s important to recognize that when Scripture speaks of “pure religion” it’s not highlighting a particular style or culture of Christianity.
In fact, before James even begins to define what “pure religion” is, he emphasizes what it is not. In this two-part blog, I’d like to look at both sides. First, let’s examine what pure religion is not:
It is not pompous show
Often those who “seem to be religious” are putting on a surface appearance of something they are not. Outwardly, they are committed and wise—and they are only too eager to help those who are using “old methods.” But the fact is, they have no personal fruit.
I’m constantly amazed by Christians, including too many preachers, who choose to be heavily influenced by fruitless talking heads. Many of these lend their voices through blogs, facebook, and other forms of social networks. They gain an online following, but in real life, they are not engaged in touching lives through vibrant local church ministry.
But lack of experience doesn’t stop them from correcting your methods for doing something that they have never even attempted. For instance, there are the non-soulwinners who complain online about door-to-door soulwinning being outdated. Or they may be emergent church philosophers who complain about harsh leadership in local New Testament churches.
Whatever the case, they are full of opinions, but they lack the type of fruit that Christ instructed us to bear. Like the legal Pharisees that they accuse others to be, they are eager to expose and condemn. This is false piety.
Truly pure religion looks to serve and win others to Christ. I would rather have a pure frontline ministry serving Christ than a pompous sideline opinion.
It is not sowing discord
The first indicator that a person who seems to be religious is really walking in false piety is that he can’t hold his tongue. “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue….”
Proverbs 6:19 includes “he that soweth discord among brethren” in the list of things that are an abomination to the Lord. Why then are we so quick to engage in hurtful slander and gossip? Of course, if we want to seem religious, we don’t call it gossip. We call it a “prayer request” or a “special burden.”
Yet, is it not reasonable to conclude that a large percentage of online conversations or sharing centers around slander or discord? We must be so careful with our words. Remember, written words are recorded permanently.
Why the religion of false piety is dangerous
Pompous, discord-sowing religion is a serious danger to pure religion. First, because it deceives the heart. As James said, the man who seems to be religious but can’t hold his tongue “deceiveth his own heart.”
Somehow we believe that if we have more rules and condemnation for others, then we truly are more spiritual than those who don’t live by our rules. God calls that self-deception pride.
Second, this religion is dangerous because the pompous religionist is living a vain life—“this man’s religion is vain.” Why would we want to be saved from an empty life so we can live a different kind of empty life? Pompous opinions coupled with hurtful slander make for an incredibly empty life. Fruitful living is fulfilling.
Yes, many believe that the “Old Time Religion” can be regained by going back to an era of days gone by. But no set of convictions or practices can be blessed by God if they are lived from empty hearts of pride and vain religion.
What, then, is the answer? It is to practice genuinely pure religion. We’ll examine what pure religion is in our next post.