Are We True Christians or Merely Religious People?
O Lord, as I enter into Your presence for worship today, fill my heart with a joyous understanding of Your grace and mercy and then instruct my mind with the truths of Your Word. Move me to live my life in ongoing faithfulness to You and in genuine love for my neighbor. I ask these things in the name of my Savior Jesus. Amen.
True Christians join David as he pleads for cleansing, prays for restoration, proclaims God’s praise, and promises to walk with humility before his God!
Stephen forcefully and faithfully proclaimed God’s Word. He was opposed by unbelievers, but he was never abandoned by his Savior. True Christians will often suffer opposition in this world, but they will be welcomed with joy by Jesus into the next!
On behalf of all of the disciples, Peter confessed that Jesus was the promised Christ, the Son of God! True Christians embrace that confession and proclaim a message of repentance and forgiveness of sin!
Text: Matthew 6:1-8
Jesus said: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”
In Christ Jesus, who desires that we be true Christians rather than merely religious, dear fellow redeemed:
Tests are a routine part of life. When you are young teachers give you tests in school to see how much you have learned. When you grow up as job applicants you take tests to determine your skill levels in various areas or to achieve licensure to work in certain fields. When you are old you go to the doctor and face a myriad of tests. Yes, tests are a routine part of life.
It should not surprise us, then, that the apostle Paul advises us as Christians: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified.” (2 Cor. 13:5) What significant truth is Paul emphasizing? He is reminding us that it is possible for someone to claim to be a Christian but really is not a Christian at all. Such a nominal Christian can, in fact, be very religious and still not be a true Christian. Consequently, Paul urges us Christians to “examine ourselves” or to “test ourselves” to see whether we are “in the faith,” to see whether “Jesus Christ is in you” or not. This is important, for we surely do not want to deceive ourselves into believing that we are something we are not, nor do we want to put at risk our eternal future in heaven.
Therefore, I would encourage all of us to ask ourselves—ARE WE TRUE CHRISTIANS OR MERELY RELIGIOUS PEOPLE? There is a difference! What is it and how can we know it? Jesus explains in our text. He informs us that merely religious people do good things to be seen as good, while true Christians do good things because God is good!
The words of our text are taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which He teaches us how to live a truly Christian life. It is important to remember that Jesus was talking to people who had been instructed by their religious leaders—the scribes and Pharisees—that their salvation was dependent upon keeping all of God’s laws and, thereby, earning God’s acceptance and that salvation. We are not talking about just the Ten Commandments. The scribes and Pharisees had combed the five books of Moses and counted up 613 laws. They had then developed over 1,400 regulations dealing with the “do’s” and the “don’ts” of the work restrictions placed on the Jewish Sabbath. While we today are not oppressed by such teaching, it should be recognized that all people by nature believe in salvation by works and so all of us have a tendency towards such thinking. Consequently, we must be on our guard against our natural tendencies and test ourselves regarding both our knowledge of and our approach to genuine Christian living.
Jesus speaks in our text regarding the doing of good and the reasons for such good, and thereby He distinguishes between being merely religious and being truly Christian. He points out that merely religious people do good things to be seen as good both by other people and by God. He says: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” Jesus goes on to share a second example dealing with prayer: “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” He then presents a third and final example: “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them.” Against what is Jesus warning? He is warning us that if we do good things, like contributing to charities or praying to God in public just to be seen and noticed by other people, so that they will then think well of us, then we are being merely religious, and we are not true Christians.
In Jesus’ day there were trumpet shaped receptacles in the temple into which people placed their offerings. You will recall that we are told in one Gospel account that Jesus once sat and watched people put their offerings into these receptacles. He was close enough to see the wealthy put in large amounts, while a poor widow put in two small coins (cf. Mk. 12:41-44). Apparently, many of the religious leaders of the day made quite a spectacle of themselves as they gave their offerings. They wanted everyone to see the size of those offerings, so that they would be thought of as good and praised by others. It was customary in Jesus’ day to pray standing up with your arms and hands uplifted to heaven. Apparently, many of the religious leaders stood in very prominent places out on the city streets and in synagogues, once again, so that they might be seen performing their religious exercises. They wanted the praise of men. Jesus tells us that they would indeed receive their reward from those around them, but they could not expect to receive anything from God, for they were being merely religious and not revealing the genuine faith of a true Christian. My dear friends, why do you and I give gifts to the church and to other charities? Is it so that others will see us as good and think highly of us? If so, we may well succeed in our object—to receive the praise of other people, but let us not think that such giving makes us true Christians!
In the same way Jesus tells us not to “use vain repetitions” when we pray, as if somehow the sheer volume of our words will impress God and lead Him to think that we are good and therefore worthy of His acceptance and blessing. Pagans do that with their mantras and even some professing Christians do that with rituals such as the rosary, but, my dear friends, God is not impressed with being merely religious! “Without faith it is impossible to please Him (God)” (Heb. 11:6). It is faith in God and trust in Jesus Christ that makes you and me true Christians! To do good things just to be seen as good by either other people or God is an expression of work righteousness and betrays a lack of understanding of the biblical truths leading to salvation. The apostle Paul declares: “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin!” (Rom. 3:20) ARE WE TRUE CHRISTIANS OR MERELY RELIGIOUS PEOPLE? Merely religious people do good things to be seen as good! They will indeed receive their reward in this life, but they ought not expect to be rewarded in the next!
In stark contrast, true Christians do good things because God is good! The purpose of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is commonly misunderstood. Many people—perhaps the majority of people—believe that the Sermon on the Mount reveals what it means to be a Christian. If you live in the way described in that sermon then you are a true Christian, it is believed, but that is not true. Our good works never make us true Christians. A true Christian is someone who has been led by the Spirit of God to confess his or her sins and who has come to believe in Jesus Christ. Such a faith-filled and true believer in Christ will then quite naturally do what is good, because of the love produced by the gospel and in appreciation for the love God has shown him or her. This is so clearly presented by the apostle Paul when he writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10) Notice how Paul plainly says that we are not saved by our good works but rather saved for good works. These are done out of love and gratitude for God’s grace!
In our text Jesus emphasizes this truth when He explains: “When you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” We need not spend our time wondering, “How can I do something with my right hand without my left hand knowing?” Such a thing is impossible. Jesus’ point is not that no one should ever know that we have done something good, or that somehow if someone else finds out that we have done something good, then the goodness of that good deed is lost. His point is that if our purpose in doing good is to show off and gain the recognition of men—to build ourselves up in the eyes of others and gain their favor, then our motivation is wrong and displeasing to God. God can look into our hearts and see the motivation behind everything we do or say. The psalmist David says: “You understand my thoughts afar off” (Ps. 139:2b). Genuine goodness is achieved through faith-generated love. The apostle John reveals this truth so simply when he writes: “We love Him because He first loved us!” (1 Jn. 4:19)
Jesus further explains: “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” Once again, we do not need to be troubled by the thought, “Is Jesus saying we can never pray in public?” Believers have always prayed together in public worship services. There are any number of such examples of God-pleasing prayer in the Bible. Note that the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Jesus in this same Sermon on the Mount begins with the pronoun “our” rather than “my.” Jesus’ point is that prayer is direct communication between a believer and God. Such communication is intended primarily to be a private conversation between you or me and our heavenly Father. What Jesus is explaining is that if the purpose of our prayers, once again, is to impress other people with our religiosity, then we may well impress those people, but we will not impress God. Our heavenly Father, as Jesus goes on further to explain, already “knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Prayer, after all, is not something God needs us to do for Him, but rather it is a privilege God extends us, because He knows we need to share our thoughts with Him, so that we might receive the fullness of His blessing.
My dear friends, tests are indeed a part of our lives on this earth from the time we are young until the time that we grow old. Let us examine ourselves, yes, let us test ourselves to see whether WE ARE TRUE CHRISTIANS OR MERELY RELIGIOUS PEOPLE! Merely religious people do good things to be seen as good. True Christians do good things because God is good! May we all find ourselves to be true Christians responding to God’s love for us in Christ with genuine expressions of love for each other! Amen.