The Bishop: Useful Forms and Deadly Formality

“Yet all this time there is no heart in their religion. Anyone who knows them intimately can see with half an eye that their affections are set on things below, and not on things above: and that they are trying to make up for the want of inward Christianity by an excessive quantity of outward form. And this formal religion does them no real good. They are not satisfied. Beginning at the wrong end, by making the outward things first, they know nothing of inward joy and peace, and pass their lives in a constant struggle, secretly conscious that there is something wrong, and yet not knowing why. Well, after all, if they do not go on from one stage of formality to another, until in despair they take a fatal plunge, and fall into Popery! When professing Christians of this kind are so painfully numerous, no one need wonder if I press upon him the paramount importance of close self-examination. If you love life, do not be content with the husk, and shell, and scaffolding of religion. Remember our Saviour’s words about the Jewish formalists of his day: ‘This people draweth nigh with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship’ (Matt. 15:9). It needs something more than going diligently to church, and receiving the Lord’s supper to take our souls to heaven. Means of grace and forms of religion are useful in their way, and God seldom does anything for his church without them. But let us beware of making shipwreck on the very lighthouse which helps to show the channel into the harbour. Once more I ask, ‘How do we do about our souls?’” —J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion

Backstage Immorality Ruins the Show (Jeremiah 7:1–15)


“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’

Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 7:4, 8–11)

Judah worships the true God with a false heart so that she might worship false gods with a true heart. Her worship is full hypocrisy. It’s all paint and no reality. It’s two dimensional. It’s flat. It’s on display but it isn’t living. Like painted fire, there is neither heat nor light. Samuel Rutherford once wrote, “You may paint a man, you many paint a rose, you may paint a fire burning, but you cannot paint a soul, or the smell of a rose, or the heat of a fire.” Judah is all paint and no soul. She is all paint and no aroma. She is all paint and no heat.

Judah’s puts on the theatrics of covenant fidelity so that she can fund her life of immorality backstage. She comes to the temple not seeking refuge from sin, but unto sin. In this way she makes the house of Yahweh a “den of robbers.” When Jesus says this in Matthew 21, because of the flipped tables of the money changers, we think we understand all that is meant by the metaphor. But that square peg doesn’t fit as nicely into this round hole. There’s more to this. The den of robbers would have been their hideout between jobs, where they could lie low after one heist and prep for the next one. This is how they come to Yahweh’s house. They think they can take refuge there, not from their sin, but unto sin.

They have a mystical and sentimental view of the temple. They treat the temple as though it were some kind of talisman they could wield. They thought they had God trapped in a box, forgetting that that box was only His footstool. Play with the footstool and expect a kick.

Deceptive words abound in the American Church today. Many are shouting “We are delivered!” only so that they may return to their abominations with a clear conscience. There’s no fruit, but they declare the tree good, and thus, not destined for the fire. Some think they’re good because of who planted the tree, others, where the tree was planted, and some, how it was planted. A preacher cannot deliver you; it matters not if he be the apostle Paul. A church cannot save you, not even if it is a sound and healthy church. A method cannot save you, no prayer will save you, no matter how true the words of the prayer are, if your heart isn’t true.

Hosts think they are delivered because of sentimental-deceptive words, or mystical-deceptive words. They may say “Falls Creek, Falls Creek, Falls Creek!” or “Baptist church, baptist church, baptist church!” or “Baptism, baptism, baptism!” or “Sinner’s prayer, sinner’s prayer, sinner’s prayer!” But neither should you think you are delivered for true words. Deceptive trust in truth is as deadly as trusting in deceptive lies. Do not say to yourself, “Doctrine, doctrine, doctrine!” As one pastor put it, “Doctrine without… life is like spelling everything right on the tombstone.” Believing truth about Christ isn’t the same as trusting in the true Christ. False doctrine can damn you but true doctrine cannot save you; it can only point you to the true Christ, in whom is salvation.

Because of all these deceptive words, many houses called by the name of Christ are really dens of robbers. They are not assemblies of the saints, finding refuge in Christ to live holy lives unto His glory; they are assemblies of the wicked, where they come from wickedness to go to wickedness, but with their consciences eased thinking they are delivered. But God sees such hypocrisy, and none of the talismans of evangelicalism stay His hand of judgment. 

Purifying a Fount by a Fount (Matthew 23:13-36)

Pharisees prioritize outards over innards. They fret more over an external behavioral scab than an internal existential cancer. They have ornate solid silver water bottles without a speck of tarnish on them that they have polished to a mirror shine, yet the inside is a cesspool. They only care to be seen drinking from such a bottle. They are a book wishing to be judged only by the cover.

The point isn’t about their cups and plates, if it were they would only redouble their efforts and scour all the more. The point is that they are the bottle.

The heart is the fount. All of our behavior flows out of it. You can’t purify a fountain by going down stream and laboring endlessly at gathering buckets of water, purifying them, and then dumping them back in the stream. This is what all attempts at moralism, behavioralism, and self-salvation are. If you try to cap off the flow of wickedness in one area of your life be assured pressure will build and the pipe will burst elsewhere, or more likely, in the same already compromised spot, causing greater damage. The hearts gotta flow. If it is pumping life is coming out. If you try to pump good into it, you only increase the pressure and that inflow is still filtered through your poisonous heart and thus contaminated. All self-righteousness is like trying to clean an already dirty house with a vacuum filled to the brim with refuse that has a gaping hole in the bag. All our work only adds to the mess.

And yet, our only hope for our innards is on the outside, but further out that the surface of your skin. Our hope is all the way up in the highest heaven, and yet is in flesh; Heaven enfleshed. Our salvation is achieved by someone behaving perfectly—for us—from a pure heart. There is a purifying Fount. There is a stream, that when it flows into your heart, purifies. The Outside comes in, and purifies from the inside out.