Empty Religious Claims and Base in Tag

Do children still play tag? I wonder sometimes with all the safety rules that are applied these days if that game is allowed any longer. When I was little, tag was one of the first games of choice on the playground. And sometimes you would play with a particular spot, maybe a tree or pole, as base. If you were touching base, you were always safe. You could never be tagged and made to be “it.”

I am thinking of tag and of the base in particular because of something I read in the book of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 7:3-4 – 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

In Jeremiah 7, the Lord has a message for the people of Judah. He is beginning to warn the nation that they are in great danger of facing his judgment. The people of Judah have begun to assume that they are always safe from the wrath of God because the temple of God is standing in Jerusalem. They just know that, no matter how badly they behave, no matter how much they do what God commands they never do, God would never let his temple fall.

In the text above, God asks them why they think they can violate his commands, turning against the covenant they agreed to, and be safe just by pointing to the building on the hill in Jerusalem and shouting the phrase, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” It was as if the people of Jerusalem were using the temple as base in tag. They thought they could sin all they wanted against the Lord but touch the temple and be safe no matter what.

In the following verses in this chapter, God points out that the people of Jerusalem are not safe. The temple is not base. They have no hope except for repentance. And if they will not repent, the temple itself will fall just as did the northern kingdom of Israel before Jeremiah’s day.

Jeremiah 7:8-11 – 8 Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 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? 11 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.

From verses 5-7, God told Judah that their hope was in repentance and faithfulness. But here we see that there is no safety for the people in continuing in sin, running to the temple, and thinking they will be safe.

Honestly, we have little trouble looking at this passage and feeling it is obvious. Of course no temple would protect the people from the judgment of God if they are living in open rebellion against him. No building will cover over idolatry, theft, murder, adultery, and all the rest. WE know, or at least we should know, that the people need to be under the grace of God, turning from sin, obeying his law, seeking his mercy.

But before we let ourselves really roll our eyes at the people of Judah from the seventh or sixth century BC, let’s ask ourselves an important question. Do we have a false notion of a religious lucky charm that makes us safe and allows us to continually live in sin? I think a lot of people do, people who use the label Christian for themselves.

As one example, there are many people who have an unbiblical view of the grace of God and the way we receive it. Some believe that grace can be gained through interaction with blessed objects. For example, if a person believes that they receive an extra dose of grace by receiving the bread and wine of holy communion, they are thinking of grace in a way that is foreign to the New Testament. Communion is a beautiful ceremony and is vital to healthy Christian life. But communion does not grant to the Christian extra forgiveness atop the forgiveness that God gives to believers at their conversion. Nor does a Christian find any extra grace from God in drinking water from a particular stream, in bowing at a particular site, or in venerating a particular relic. Simply put, the Bible does not teach us that grace is transferred to us through holy objects or sacred ceremonies.

The danger, of course, is that a person who allows herself to believe that grace is found in ceremony, physical objects, or the blessing of a priest is in danger of believing that personal faith, personal conversion, and personal striving toward sanctification are less important. She may indeed live in opposition to the word of God, and then declare herself safe before the Lord with similar words to the people of Judah, “I went to mass; I went to mass; I went to mass,” or the Protestant alternative, “I went to church, to church, to church.” The bread and wine, the words of another’s blessing, or even a beautiful building full of religious things will not grant us favor.

But the danger of thinking of religious ceremony as a safe base allowing us to continue in sin is not unique to a Roman Catholic mindset (or that of other groups that find great value in objects and ceremonies). I have met many a person who believes himself to be secure in Christ, not because of biblical evidence of conversion, but because of a prayer prayed decades earlier. A person responded to an evangelist at an emotional church meeting and convinced himself that, no matter what, his prayer and an emotional moment give him license to live however he pleases. But the New Testament is as unfamiliar with that kind of claim as it is of the idea that the grace of God is transferred to us because of what building we are in. God never suggested to us that there is such a thing as salvation in Christ apart from the lordship of Christ. God never has told a person that they can lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, pervert justice, hate others, forsake worship, ignore the church but then trot out the saying, “I prayed the prayer; I prayed the prayer; I prayed the prayer.”

Salvation is a free gift of God. The forgiven are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We are saved when God makes our hearts alive, we see our sinfulness before him, we understand Christ and his work, and we cry out to Jesus for mercy. But in that crying out to Jesus is a commitment to follow Jesus as our Lord. In that crying out to Jesus is a change in our very life purpose. In that crying out is our full surrender of self to the word and ways of the Lord.

Nobody has ever been saved by doing good deeds or practicing religious rituals. Nobody has ever received grace by touching a sacred object or having a special person pronounce blessing over him. And nobody has ever been saved by muttering an emotional prayer that does not lead to life-change. Yes, we are saved when we truly trust in Jesus. But when we truly trust in Jesus, change begins. And no person should ever assume that he or she has salvation without a commitment to submit to the word of God. Don’t get me wrong, struggling and failing from time to time is sadly part of living in this still-fallen world. And I surely would say to you that I have a great many failures in my past since my time of conversion. But, a claim of salvation without a desire to follow the Savior is like thinking that we can run to empty words or empty actions and claim them as base so God cannot tag us. Or, you might say that claiming salvation which does not result in following Jesus as Lord is like the cry of the Judeans, “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

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