(Ceremonies, Rituals, Traditions, Things - or Faith Alone)
Whether in the life of Israel or the Church, there has always been the perennial tendency of find physical ways to accomplish spiritual life. In other words, although God has always wanted people to come to him by faith alone, confessing their sin and trusting in his mercy and grace alone to give them salvation - to grant them justification by faith - they have persisted in trusting traditions, rites and rituals which subsequently have been thought to appropriate God's grace and goodness. This is misplaced trust. There has always been a great desire to have some means by which we can do something which will automatically cause the favor of God to fall upon us. We want something we can touch and feel to force God's hand to act - some way we can manipulate him to do what we would like him to do.
Whether in the more developed religions of the world or the most primitive, this principle is evident. Shamans know very well how to control the tribe with all kinds of rites, rituals and incantations which will force the gods to bring rain, grant fertility, favor the hunt, or heal the sick. They gain power over the tribe because they claim to understand the secret purposes of the spirits and to know how to coax their favor. Whether it be amulets or talismans of various kinds, great significance is placed on physical contact with these objects to influence the supernatural. Presenting sacrifices/gifts to idols also has had a place in giving worshippers some sense of being able to do something in order to coerce the god/gods to act on their behalf.
More developed religions:
Priests in more developed religions also claim power with the supernatural which the common person does not possess. Through them supernatural favor is thought to be dispensed to the faithful through various sacraments, ceremonies, rites and rituals. And unless one receives this supernatural favor in the prescribed manner, there is no salvation - no justification - with the deity. Consequently, the priest gains power in the community because only he is able to channel salvation/justification/forgiveness to the people. Great emphasis is placed on physical elements plus corresponding ceremonies to accomplish this -- whether it be water, food, oil, candles, beads, prescribed prayers or special words which must be used during rites and rituals in order to bring about the desired spiritual blessing. Priests will also usually have special miters, robes, cassocks, vestments, surplices, and/or stoles etc. to set them apart from the common people. Although this religion may be more developed, the similarity with lesser-developed religion is obvious. Something physical becomes necessary to be used in order to bring down divine favor upon common folk who otherwise would have no connection with the deity themselves. Also a priestly figure becomes necessary to mediate with the deity - whether in the less-developed or more-developed religions.
Why is this? Again, it is the inveterate nature of ours to want to do something to obtain the favor of God. We find it extremely hard to understand there is nothing we can do since everything we attempt is totally inadequate - stained with our impure motives and actions. Whether in the life of Israel or the Church various examples of what we might call "self-help" religion are numerous - when all the while what God has wanted is a contrite heart - humbly coming to God in faith for forgiveness - with nothing in our hands.
Exodus 32 is the classic setting of Israel's constant desire to substitute things for God himself - to ascribe power to objects rather to him alone. Imagine! They saw the power of God at work liberating them from Pharaoh by means of plagues - guiding them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night - leading them through the Red Sea while drowning Pharaoh's army - providing for them in the wilderness. Yet, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and instructions for the tabernacle, Israel reverted to their habitual desire to have a god they could see and touch - something within their power to control. Their words are classic in that regard: "Come, make us gods who will go before us." (v. 1) "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." (v. 4). To substitute anything in the place of God - or attribute supernatural power to anything material is always a serious offense to God. As a consequence of this idolatry, thousands of Israelites died.
Of many instances illustrating Israel's vain trust in things save them, we have the story of Israel and the Philistines found in I Samuel 4. As related in v. 3, the elders of Israel asked, "Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD's covenant from Shiloh, so that it can go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies." (underlining mine) So the ark was brought into the camp by Hophni and Phinehas, priests of Israel, who should have known better. Trusting in this small chest of gold-covered acacia wood, normally located in the tabernacle's Most Holy Place, they did what false religion always does: they thought they could physically force God to bring them victory because they were convinced He was somehow confined to this box called the ark. Surely, if they physically brought God into their camp the Philistines would be soundly defeated. Instead Israel lost thirty-thousand troops, the ark was captured, and Hophnis and Phinehas were killed.
The elders of Israel committed the classic error of transferring spiritual power to an object -spiritual power which belongs to God alone. They wanted the ark to go with them and save them from the hand of their enemies! So quickly the human tendency takes over -- ascribing God's salvation to something associated with Him - or symbolizing Him. Israel learned the hard way that God's power could not - and would not -- be contained in a box they could cart around with them. Sadly this kind of tragic error was committed again and again in the history of Israel.
Jeremiah's words at the Temple are similar to those of many prophets who in God's name condemned Israel for trusting in the shell of their religion without trusting in God himself - while at the same time worshipping foreign gods: "Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: 'Reform you ways and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.'" (Jeremiah 7:1-8)
What were those deceptive words? "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD." To understand the deceptiveness of this saying, we must realize the threat all Judah faced at the time. Babylon, the current world empire, was ready to devour the land -- and everyone knew it. Rather than flee in humble repentant trust to God, the people believed they were invincible. Why? Because they had the temple -- the great temple built by Solomon. They controlled the great power of God which they thought automatically resided in the temple - no matter what they did or what they believed. God would never allow his people to be destroyed as long as the temple was still standing. Actually, their trust was in their temple rather than in their God. Again, this is a classic example of attributing to a thing the saving power of God - believing the temple itself could somehow save them because of its association with God.
Again, the people of Israel learned the hard way. In 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar and his armies totally destroyed the temple, sacking its treasures and forcing men, women and children to make the long, forced march to Babylon. Misplaced trust is always disastrous. As Jeremiah warned, such misplaced trust is always deceptive - and so easy for us to fall into - since we like things to hold on to.
Numerous times Israel's prophets admonished the people because of their trust in the law itself -- as if those ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices and holy days could bring about justification. (Please see Isaiah 1:10-20 and Amos 5:21-24.) True to our human tendency, Israel reduced conformity to law observance as a means to force God to cleanse them from sin - to declare them righteous - something God never envisioned for the law. God never endorses our desire to do something in order that He might reward our human efforts. In other words, we always tend to reason this way: if we can just complete the "xyz" of the law (or any physical requirements), God will then have to cancel our debt of sin. Surely God wanted obedience to the law, but only as a sign of faith - a trust that God grants forgiveness when the worshipper comes to him in simple faith with a contrite and broken heart because of sin.
Listen to the words of David: "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51:16-17) In no way was David speaking against obedience to the Law. He was, however, speaking against faith in the total sufficiency of law-keeping. David did not trust in that; rather, he trusted in the grace of God applied to him if he worshipped the Almighty with an attitude of complete repentance for sin and dependence on the mercy of God. He knew nothing he could do would be able to earn this.
The teaching of Jesus:
Jesus had some harsh words for those who trusted in the traditions of men rather than the truth of God. "So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, 'Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean" hands?' He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written, 'these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. You have let go of the commandments of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." (Mark 7:5-8) In other words, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law had reduced the commandments of God to a meaningless, mechanical traditionalism. Just do these things, and God is sure to forgive. Because of this kind of traditionalism, they could take great pride on their accomplishments. This was just the opposite of God's intentions for his commandments. He desired his worshippers come before him with a great sense of humility, unworthiness and dependent faith knowing full well none of them could fully measure up to his standards.
Really, the Pharisees thought they could justify themselves by means of their actions. Jesus made this clear in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.'" (Luke 18:9-14) What Jesus taught here is the essence of this whole paper. Anything we think we can do to justify ourselves before God is worthless to Him. What He wants is the attitude of the tax collector in this parable. This is what God honors. This is what brings justification by faith.
What Israel did - and what the Pharisees did - is the perennial preference of humanity. So soon we leave the essence of faith alone in the provision of God's grace alone. As Jeremiah so aptly put it: "My people have committed two sins; they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." (Jeremiah 1:13)
The New Testament Church:
Surely the Church would learn a lesson from Israel. Not so. In his earliest letter, the letter to the Galatians, Paul admonishes: "I am astonished that you so are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel of heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned." (Galatians 1:6-9)
Further, Paul admonishes the Galatians: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you. Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing - if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? Consider Abraham: 'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.' So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." (Galatians 3:1-9, underlining mine)
Believers with a background in Judaism were trying to tie something to the Gospel - that is, trying to add something to the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. They were adding the necessity of circumcision - something outward and physical - something they could do - in addition to simple faith. This addition was roundly condemned by Paul because he knew absolutely nothing could be added to the cross. He knew that faith in what Jesus did on the cross is enough. "Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised so they can boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God." (Galatians 6:12-16)
By inspiration of the Spirit, Paul made crystal clear the necessity of faith alone for justification. In his debate with Peter (who had temporarily reverted to law observance for justification), he makes this powerful assertion: "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners" know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified." (Galatians 2:15-16)
The Galatian problem - trying to add something to the simple gospel - does not end with the New Testament Church.
The early Church:
Very early in ecclesiastical history, rites, rituals, ceremonies and traditions found their way into the Church again -- giving worshippers the opportunity to do something for their salvation - something tangible - something physical they could hang on to. Very soon after the Apostles were passing off the scene, there were those who began to add things to the gospel - because those physical things were so closely associated to salvation - so intimately designed by our Lord to symbolize our new life in Christ by faith. Very soon, trust in physical acts like baptism and communion began to take the place of faith alone in the finished work of Christ. Just like Israel with its symbols, rites and rituals -- the Church fell into attributing spiritual power to things in themselves!
Baptism, symbolizing the washing from sin and identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, began to take on a spiritual power all its own. In fact, very soon the tradition developed which would claim the necessity of baptism for salvation - this baptismal regeneration even being applied to infants. All this, of course, was an addition to the gospel of simple faith: "For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) The early church had the simple gospel in all its powerful simplicity, but that just could not satisfy their great desire to do something to be saved. Baptismal regeneration was not something taught either by Jesus or his disciples - although some attempt to find proof texts to the contrary. It was a tradition no more and no less than the Jewish traditions Jesus so fervently condemned as related in Mark 7.
The same thing occurred with communion which soon took on a power all its own. Very soon the Church began to teach the bread and wine actually conferred salvation on communicants - forgetting the simple gospel of faith alone in the finished work of Christ. "For by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works - so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9, underlining mine) If something physical like baptism or communion could give salvation, then one could boast as having completed those things. Then why was the cross necessary? As Paul so plainly explains, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Galatians 6:14) Nothing can ever be added to the cross. We can boast in nothing else! Only faith can appropriate the power of salvation from sin through the cross.
If Paul could have looked ahead to see how the Church would add sacraments, rites, rituals and ceremonies to the gospel, he would have said the same thing he did to the Galatians. It is faith only that saves - trust only in the cross of Christ whereby He died in our place for our sin. Absolutely nothing can be added to that.
Is it only sacramental churches which add things to the gospel? No. For some, there has been trust placed in the raising of a hand, the walking down an aisle, or the recitation of a certain prayer. The key question is this -- for anyone - whatever church or denomination may be involved: in what are you trusting? Where does your confidence lie? If you are trusting in any thing other than what Christ did on the Cross for you, your confidence is misplaced. No sacrament, no ritual, no ceremony, no recitation of certain words - no contact with any physical thing -- is able to give anyone salvation - only simple faith in the cross of Christ - his substitutionary death on our behalf for our sins. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:6)
Our trust is never in what we do: it is in what Christ did! Our trust in never in some ritual we have performed: it is always in the righteousness of Christ we receive by faith. Our trust is never in some words we may have repeated: it is in Jesus Christ, the living Word -- and the promise of life in him as given to us in Scripture.
Throughout the centuries, God raised up men and women of God who observed how the Church had strayed from simple biblical faith -much like Israel's prophets of old observed how the people of Israel had strayed from a simple trust in the mercy and grace of God. Although there were many who wanted to return to simple biblical faith prior to the Reformation (reformers such as Peter Waldo, Jan Hus and John Wycliffe), it was not until the Reformation that great change began to take place in the Church through the work of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Menno Simons, Bathazar Hubmaier, William Tyndale, John Knox and others. The main themes of the Reformation were straightforward -- sola fide (only faith), sola gratia (only grace), and sola scriptura (only Scripture). Also, there was great emphasis placed on the priesthood of the believer. These were corrections long overdue, but they were not accepted by the established Church; consequently, ecclesiastical divisions occurred. Also, sad to say, many reformers were killed for their reformation efforts by the established Church.
This entire paper has emphasized repeatedly the biblical emphasis of sola fide and sola gratia - really two sides of salvation. Only by faith, sola fide, (and not by means of anything we can do), we are justified only through the gratia of God - (his grace given as a free gift to those who believe). All this is supported only by the scriptura - and never by means of any church tradition placed alongside the Bible.
The Reformation also promulgated another much needed corrective: the priesthood of the believer. New Testament teaching rediscovered by the reformers eliminated the need of anyone to serve as a mediator between God and man. All believers are priests unto God and have full access through Christ to God the Father. "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all men - the testimony given in its proper time." (I Timothy 2:5-6) "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people unto God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (I Peter 2:9-10) It is ironic that Peter, reputed to be the first pope, clearly teaches the concept of the believer's priesthood!
The modern Church -- Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox:
Again, you would think with the history of Israel and the Church available to them - plus the availability of plain scriptural truth - no one in the modern church would have reverted to the same human predilection -- that something must be added to cross. It just can't be that simple. Simple faith in what Jesus Christ did on the Cross for forgiveness of sins just can't be the sole basis for salvation. That would be too easy. So, as might be expected, all kinds of rites, rituals, ceremonies and sacraments are still said to be necessary in order for God to bestow his salvific favor. All this in spite of clear biblical teaching: "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:40, underlining mine) "The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out an asked, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' They replied, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household.' Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family." (Acts 16:29-34, underlining mine) "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand." (Romans 5:1, underlining mine)
Over and over again Scripture emphasizes this great principle of the Reformation, sola fide, only faith. Nothing - absolutely nothing - can be added to the cross. If it could, then what Christ did was not enough! What a great summary statement Paul makes: "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." (Romans 10:1-4, underlining mine) It is our human tendency to continue to try to establish our own righteous by what we do rather than believing in what Christ did!
Why is it that we keep on wanting to add something to the cross? I suppose the reason lies somewhere deep within our human nature. We don't like to have anything simply given to us: we would much rather earn it. We would much rather do something in return for a favor - even when God is concerned. Simply believing in God's provision in Christ for our sin just doesn't appeal to our pride. Whatever we have - we want to know we have earned it in some way by what we have done! But Scripture won't let us get away with such thinking: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9, underlining mine) We can't boast about something we have not done -- or had no part in accomplishing.
In my thinking I keep on coming back to the thief on the cross. He wasn't baptized. He didn't take communion. He wasn't involved in any rites or rituals or ceremonies. He just believed! "'We were punished justly, for we are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.' Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'" (Luke 23:41-43)
If we have trusted in anything other than the cross, it is misplaced trust. In what are you trusting?
It is true, the magnificent pageantry of church rites, rituals and ceremonies does have a certain beauty and majesty to it. There is something comfortable about following elaborate traditions which have become second nature to us. You can appreciate all of the multi-layered tradition which has come down through the centuries, but you cannot trust in any of it to confer justification before God. That is misplaced trust. Only faith in God's provision given to us in Christ can bring justification before the Father.
So the key question remains: in what are YOU trusting? Remember misplaced trust is like walking on thin ice, it will not hold you up when you face the throne of God someday.