The Pharisees were angry. The disciples were afraid. After all, they were identified with Jesus of Nazareth, they followed him and loved him and everyone knew it. But now he has deliberately offended Israel’s most important people. “Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, This people honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men,” (Matthew 15:7–9).
God is “a jealous God”
Why did our Lord feels so strongly the need for corrective teaching at this point? What is the issue involved? Is it really so important that apparently sincere people ought to be offended by our reaction to it?
Nor was it just another church squabble with incompatible personalities maneuvering and slandering for the sake of position and advantage.
There was a real issue. It can be stated thus: “May rules and regulations devised and enforced by men, rules that are contrary to or beside the Word of God, ever bind the conscience?” In other words, who is “lord of the conscience?” The Jerusalem delegation main wined that “the tradition of the elders” was binding (Matthew 15:2). They charge Jesus with teaching that this body of traditional laws regulating the conduct of the Jews was not to be obeyed. Their charge is based upon the fact that his disciples fail to wash their hands before eating.
Immediately our Lord replies with obvious indignation.
Does he deny that his disciples fail to keep this law? Does he claim to have been misrepresented? Or is he perhaps convinced that the “law” cited is of very little importance? The answer to all such questions is No!
“Ye have made void the word of God because of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6b).
There is the point! And this is always the point when it comes to the issue of a true, inward piety over against a false, outward piety. The honor of God, the significance of his Word, the glory of his Name is at stake! No wonder Jesus did not stop short of terrible indignation when this issue presented itself, regardless of the prestige of those through whom it came. He could not possibly tolerate a “piety” which denied the sovereign authority of his Father.
The core of true piety
True piety must work from the inside out. It cannot be super-imposed upon the individual. It begins with a new heart, out of which the fruits of godliness alone can proceed.
The Pharisees had forgotten that. It seemed so simple to them. Forget to wash your hands; your food becomes dirty as you eat; your body is likely to suffer because it has taken in contaminated food. We must not forget, of course, that sanitation was not the point in question. The motivation for this law arose rather from a fear lest the Jew might have touched a Gentile, or something owned by a Gentile. So he was commanded to wash his hands before eating in order that all non-Jewish “dirt” be cleaned away.
Against this outward, merely physical. unspiritual kind of religious practice Christ objects.
Calling the people unto him, Jesus preaches a sermon. He explains carefully that the piety-problem is a heart problem. “Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man; but that which proceedeth out of the mouth, this defileth the man…Perceive ye not, that whatsoever goeth into the mouth passeth into the belly, and is cast off into the draught? But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth out of the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings: these are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not the man” (Matthew 15:11, 17–20).
True piety is concerned, therefore, in the first place with what a man is, not with what he does. It must come forth out of a heart that desires to express itself through the rest of the man as godly, pious, devoted, consecrated.
There is a method for true piety.
The psalmist indicated it when he said: “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11) . This is the only method that really “works”! AIl other methods promise much, but accomplish nothing. “Evil cannot flow from a heart in which God’s law is lodged. That is the tree which sweetens the waters of the fountain.”2
This is the real antidote for all artificial “legalism.”
“Everybody is doing it”
“Legalism” is a beckoning siren, an ever-present temptress. And many there be who yield to her seductive call.
In Jesus’ day on earth “legalism” had all but won the day with the masses. In our own day millions are ensnared within her clutches. Think of the countless numbers who follow papal decree, anxiously fulfilling certain external, routine practices in the vain belief that such activity will bring spiritual profit. Think of the innumerable host among all religious groups who feel that the way to eliminate a thing is by “declaring it out of bounds” or banishing it out of sight.
Surely it seems as if “everybody is doing it.” It is a fearfully small minority that will not follow the “precepts of men.”
All of which illustrates a point. It is this: To externalize that which is necessarily “inward” in character is an ever-present tendency in the human heart because of sin. Beware!
Consequences of externalism
Superficially, intolerance, and insensitivity—these are the end-products of an external, legalistic “piety.”
Big words, to be sure, but unusually easy to understand, if you care to try.
The superficiality of those in the grips of a merely legalistic piety comes to manifestation especially at our ecclesiastical assemblies; among other places we may find it at congregational meeting, at consistory or session, at classis or presbytery, at general synod or assembly. How?
The order of the day brings a protest from some members of the denomination concerning a point of doctrine. Surely this will evoke some stereotyped answer to be adopted as reply to the protestant, and things continue on their way. But wait: the chairman announces that the report on “amusements” will now be read by the committee chairman. The place is electrified. Animated debate lasting several hours finally produces a decision. Cigarettes, wine versus grape-juice at the communion service, movies, Rook versus Canasta, these are the issues that arouse many Christians today. Meanwhile the church is languishing because of the ineffectiveness of a half-hearted discipline, our membership is unconcerned for the truth of the Reformed faith, and a dying world without is unimpressed with the measure of our consecration and sincerity.
“We don’t do that”
A legalistic “piety” has very weak foundations. One of the weakest is its appeal to custom and tradition. “We don’t do that”‘ is supposed to silence all those who differ. This is cruel intolerance, and utterly foreign to biblical, Reformed piety. Not that a sound tradition is not to be appreciated. Nor is anything traditional or customary by that taken wrong or suspect.
But tradition and custom are also to be submitted to the test of God’s Word. If they fail to agree, precious as they may be, we shall be compelled to leave them forever. Still more: if they prove to be “aside from the Word of God,” that is, if it becomes plain that they are merely traditional or customary, we must acknowledge this, and never judge others on the basis of such customs and traditions!
Otherwise in the name of piety, we shall be guilty of that merciless judgment that amounts to spiritual murder.
A third consequence of an outward, legalistic “piety” is spiritual numbness—spiritual insensitivity to the real issue involved in any particular activity.
Peter VanAmster has three children ranging from five to ten years of age. They have been watching “Howdy-doody” on the neighbor’s television set. Naturally they are enthusiastic, and they begin to pester “pa” to buy a set for their own home. “Pa” doesn’t know if he should, because he has heard that there are many very poor programs, that much misleading advertising is shown, and that it is hard to control the use of a set in a home with children.
Gossip soon reaches the VanAmster household that certain of the local ministers are using television sets in their parsonages. That settles it. The VanAmsters order a set, and the children need no longer bother the neighbors. If the minister has one, then they can have one too.
This is a pathetic story. It reveals a spiritual impoverishment which is bound to end in spiritual destruction. But this is the end-result of an externalistic piety—the desire to solve problems on the basis of some manmade law or human example.
What shall be our first step toward a genuine. heart-centered piety? It is all wrapped up in that all but forgotten biblical admonition; Repent!
When has a sermon last moved you to do something about your spiritual state? When last did you truly confess before God your unworthiness and sorrow for sin?
These are words which many a church-member today fails completely to understand. Routinely he goes about the business of being a church member. At least once, often twice on the Lord’s Day he worships in God’s house. One hundred or more times a year he listens to God’s Word proclaimed from the sacred desk. He participates in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He brings his tithes.
But he never “hears” a single sermon!
So encrusted with custom and routine is his church attendance that nothing seems to be able to “get under his skin.”
As ministers we need to preach, and as congregations we need to hear God’s Word and use His means of grace as if these meant something. Fearful are the judgments of God upon those who hear but refuse to practice.
The first manifestation of true piety will always remain a true sorrow for sin, and a genuine seeking after God’s will.
Love the brethren!
When you sit in the pew on Sunday do you really think of those about you as your brothers and sisters in the Lord?
Another evidence of the weakness of current spirituality, and of the effect of an outward piety, is the fact that we can go through the motions of congregational life without feeling the slightest compassion for the poor, the unfortunate, the aged, the ill, the sorrowing, the confused, the distressed.
Piety may never be self-centered. Sometimes one gets the impression that spiritual things serve as a kind of hobby, as something with which we can toy around. The popularity of certain “devotional classics” might be an indication of a kind of piety which is “a lot of fun” for people with a certain bent of mind.
A second step toward a healthy piety would be the rededication of ourselves to the Lord and to those who with us are one in Him. “If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vain glory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.” (Philippians 2:1–4)
Serve the Lord!
A third step might well be the restoration of none less than the Lord himself as the one whom we serve.
Church politics is always a bad game at which to play. Not infrequently rumblings are heard that our “common people” feel quite disgusted with the way in which church offices are gained, certain friends are “taken care of” and personal animosities are allowed to determine one’s stand on church issues. The result of this is that personal vindication often seems more important than the welfare of the cause of God.
To be active in the affairs of the church is every member’s duty. But when our own cause is the primary consideration; when our membership in ruling bodies and boards, our personal influence recognized or unrecognized becomes a serious matter for us, then we may well wonder if we are really trying as godly men to seek first the Kingdom of God, or if we are seeking first ourselves, using the Kingdom for personal self-expression.
True piety seeks the glory of God!
Only when we from the heart concentrate all our activity upon Him, will we avoid the evils of a merely external, outward piety. Only then will we be able to enjoy our Covenant God forever.
1. Westminster Confession of Faith, XX, 2.
2. Alexander Maclaren, The Expositor’s Bible, Vol. III, pp. 248, 249.
ALEXANDER C. DE JONG is the pastor of the Boston Square Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.
EDWARD HEEREMA is public relations secretary of the Notional Union of Christian Schools and on ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
JOHN H. PIERSMA is the pastor of the Franklin Street Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.