IS YOUR RELIGION FORMAL
A Tract by J. C. RYLE, Bishop of Liverpool. (1880-1900)
THE question which heads this page deserves your serious attention at any time. I take it for granted that you have some religion. You are not an infidel. You profess and call yourself a Christian. Well, is your Christianity formal or spiritual? Is religion with you a matter of form, or a matter of the heart? Is it form or heart?
The question deserves especial notice in this age of the church and world. Never since the Lord Jesus Christ left the earth, was there so much formality and false profession, as there is at the present day.
Two hundred years have passed away since a mighty Puritan divine said, “Formality, FORMALITY, FORMALITY, is the great sin of England at this day, under which the land groans. There is more light than there was, but less life; more shadow, but less substance; more profession, but less sanctification” (Thomas Hall, on 2 Tim. 3. 5, 1658). What would this good man have said if he had lived in our times?
Formal religion is not religion, and a formal Christian is not a Christian in God’s sight. What do I mean when I speak of formal religion? This is a point that must be made clear. When a man is a Christian in name only, and not in realityÂ—in outward things only, and not in his inward feelingsÂ—in profession only, and not in practiceÂ—when his Christianity, in short, is a mere matter of form
or fashion, or custom, without any influence on his heart or lifeÂ—in such a case as this the man has what I call a “formal religion.” He possesses indeed, the form, or husk, or skin of religion, but he does not possess its substance or its power.
Look for example at those thousands of people whose whole religion seems to consist in keeping religious ceremonies and ordinances. They attend regularly to public worship. They go regularly to the Lord’s table. But they never get any further. They know nothing of experimental Christianity. What can be said about these people? They are Christians by profession; and yet there is neither heart nor life in their Christianity. There is but one thing to be said about them: They are formal ChristiansÂ—their religion is a form.
Look in another direction, at those hundreds of people whose whole religion seems to consist in talk and high profession. They know the theory of the Gospel with their heads, and profess to delight in Evangelical doctrine. They can say much about the “soundness” of their own views, and the “darkness” of all who disagree with them; but they never get any further! When you examine their inner lives, you find that they know nothing of practical godliness. They are formal ChristiansÂ—their religion is an empty FORM.
Such is the formal religion against which I wish to warn you this day.
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says. We find Him saying of the Jews of His day, “This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me. But in vain do they worship Me” (Matt. 15. 8, 9). We see Him repeatedly denouncing the formalism and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Phanses, and warning His disciples against it. Eight times in one chapter (Matt. 23. 13), He says to them, “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.”
Formalism may take your hand with a smile, and look like a brother while sin comes against you with sword drawn, and strikes at you like an open enemy. But both have one end in view. Both want to ruin your soul; and, of the two, formalism is far the most likely to do it. If you love life, beware of formality in religion.
The heart is the right test of a man’s religion. It is not enough that a man holds a correct creed of doctrine, and maintains a proper outward form of godliness. What is his heart?Â—That is the grand question. This is what God looks at. “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16. 7).
The heart is the place where saving grace must begin. It is naturally irreligious, and must be renewed by the Holy Ghost. It is naturally closed and shut against God, and must be opened.
The heart is the seat of true saving faith. “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness” (Rom. 10. 10). No one ever lays hold on Christ, and receives pardon and peace, until he believes with the heart. It is heart-faith that justifies.