While listening to a sermon by Alistair Begg, I was struck by a comment that he made. He said, “Religious activities impressed upon the soul of man from the outside in cannot cleanse the conscience.” History is marked by men and women who have tried to reach God through outward activities rather than an inward commitment.
Martin Luther is a famous example. In his attempts to come close to God, he joined a monastery, willingly suffered many physical penances, constantly went to confession and often struggled with guilt in between times of confession, studied, prayed, and did everything he was advised to do in order to be close to God. When that didn’t work, he pursued mysticism, the idea that if he just loved God and loved Him as a father, he would draw closer to God. But, he had a strained relationship with His earthly father and found that he couldn’t relate to God in that way without feeling hostility and hatred. He was even made a pastor and professor in Wittenberg in the hopes that he would find peace. All of the outward experiences and activities he tried to force on himself only led him to realize how far away from God he was.
The change, for Martin Luther, came when he was teaching the book of Romans. As aware of his struggles to know God as he was, he was shocked when he realized that the righteousness of God and faith in God were both gifts imparted to us by God (Romans 1:17). No matter how hard he worked at being righteous and faithful, he couldn’t truly be righteous and faithful without accepting those gifts from God. God gives that gift based on His own righteousness and to His glory. When we realize that God’s gift comes first, that he reaches to us first, it changes things. It humbles us to realize that the gift He gives us has been totally paid for by His Son. No activity we do can earn it. We come as beggars and we receive the King.
In his letter, James tells us that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). Understand this, brothers and sisters, James is not telling us to work our way to faith. God graciously and abundantly gives us faith. We surrender in that faith and live in that faith. That gift of faith comes first and with that gift comes the declaration of our righteousness. It is an inward change, it is new life, it is a new heart, and a new record. From that faith, eternal life flows. It is only when faith comes first that the outward works follow. It is then, and only then, do the religious activities matter. Alistair is right, “Religious activities impressed upon the soul of man from the outside in cannot cleanse the conscience.” Our cleansing comes through the grace of God extended in the saving work of His Son. It comes through our surrender and acceptance of the faith that He offers and the righteousness that He imparts to us. And, finally, our activities flow from that cleansed heart and life!