Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Heart of True Religion
Text: Psalms 116:1
Date: May 2, 1999
Location: Taree, NSW, Australia
Ask an ordinary Aussie, 'What is a football fan? Many would say, 'Mate... someone who just loves his footy!' And some might add, 'You can tell the real fans: they don't miss a match. They're always talking about footy, especially their own team. They decorate their cars with team colours, and wear team tee shirts. They're fanatical fans!'
What if you were to ask an unchurched Aussie what he thought a Christian is, I wonder what he would say? 'Someone who goes to church on Sundays.' 'I thought all good people are Christians.'
How many would say, 'Someone who loves God.' 'Someone who's rapt in his religion.'
Isn't it a sad commentary on us that most people don't even perceive Christians as fans or supporters of the Christian Faith, let alone lovers of the Lord!
Yet this is how God describes true Christians. Not in terms of their outward appearance, but their inward heart-attitude towards himself. If you were able to apply a spiritual stethoscope to the heart of every true Christian, you could hear these words: 'I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.'
Real Christian faith doesn't consist first of all in outward religious observance, but in inward religious experience and commitment: 'I love the LORD.' Can you honestly echo these words? Could people inscribe on your tombstone, 'S/he loved the Lord'?
At the end of life's brief day, that is all that really matters: without this fundamental heart attitude, all that we may do will add up to nothing. It is the essential ingredient that transforms all that we do into a sacrifice that pleases God.
Love Is Essential
Love for God does not come naturally to fallen human beings. The Apostle Paul writes: 'the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so' (Rom.8:7).
As just one example, think how ready people are to blame God when things go wrong... If we really loved him, wouldn't we be keen to give him the benefit of the doubt? To suppose that he knows what he is doing?
How can people move from being hostile to God to loving him? It is not a process of natural evolution, but of spiritual revolution--a spiritual rebirth brought about by God himself.
The Apostle Paul gives us a remarkable description of this process in Eph.2:1-10. How does this text describe our pre-Christian days? Verses 1-3 spell it out: we were not just damaged, but dead; not free, but slaves to wickedness; not God's friends, but the objects of his just wrath.
What has God done? In verses 4-7, we read that he has made us alive, saved us from wrath, and raised us up with Christ!
And why has he done it? '...because of his great love for us' (v.4a). A love for the unlovely that has acted to rescue us from our just deserts.
And for what purpose? That we should do the good deeds that he has prepared for us to do (v.10).
God brings people from death to life, and he does so because of his amazing love, so that they will live for him.
According to the New Testament, this new life in the Holy Spirit is marked by three things: faith, hope and love (eg. Rom.5:1-5; 1Cor.13:13; 1Thes.1:3). And the greatest of these is love.
One part of God's gracious work of spiritual renewal is that he only asks from us what he first gives us in Christ. This is supremely true of love for God. It is the prime fruit of the Spirit--the certain mark that a person is born again. But God only calls on us to love him, having first demonstrated his love for us! 'This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us' (1Jn.3:16).
Do you possess this indispensable mark of being born again? Of knowing Jesus as your Lord? Do you love God? Can you echo the Psalmist's words, 'I love the LORD.' Has God's love been 'poured out' in your heart by the Holy Spirit?
No Substitute for Love
It is important to remember that love is not just an emotion (although our feelings are fully involved). It is not only a commitment or a promise, although these are important aspects of biblical love.
We should recall that John 3:16 says that God loved the world thusly... 'he gave.' Love is a response of my entire being to God's love for me, demonstrated with finality and perfection in Christ. To love God means being devoted to him. In my:
Heart: the centre of my being is directed towards him.
Soul: all my feelings are in tune with his will, and set on fire with desire to please him.
Mind: all my thinking is shaped by his truth revealed in the Bible.
Strength: all my strength and energy is devoted for his service.
But here is the great danger that faces professing Christians: we can so easily begin to mistake the fruits of love for love itself. It is sadly all too possible to become very religious, without loving the Lord our God.
What do I mean? Let me illustrate from Scripture... I will mention three errors that I will call doctrinism, experiencism, and formalism.
First, doctrinism (Rev.2:1-7)
The church in Ephesus had enjoyed great privileges. They had received Paul's sublime letter. They had been very zealous to uphold sound doctrine and godly living--and note that Christ commended them for these! (vs.2,6). But something was missing--a vital element: 'Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.' The love of their first betrothals had grown cold: their zeal for truth and godliness had become motivated by something other than love for God.
Make no mistake: we should regard with great concern all departures from the historical Christian faith, and godly living, and maintain our confession. But as Douglas MacMillan said, "There are many and varied ways in which the Christian believer can profess faith. There is no higher confession of faith than this--'I love the Lord.'"
No amount of concern for doctrinal correctness, purity of worship, or right living can substitute for this: Do I love the Lord?
Second, experiencism. (1Cor.13:1-3)
The members of the Corinthian church were being divided over the issue of spiritual gifts. Some were exalting particular gifts; others were no doubt disparaging them for it. For those who possessed the gifts, this was their assurance of God's favour, and being in the right. We can almost hear them say it: 'A man with a doctrine is no match for a man with an experience.'
Paul tells these tongue speakers and prophets in no uncertain terms, 'Unless your gift is exercised in love, it is worthless.' All your talk is just a big noise, if you don't have love--love for God who gives the gifts, and love for other believers whether they possess them or not.
No amount of Christian experience can substitute for this: Do I love the Lord?
Finally, nominalism. (Rom.2:28-29)
Nominalism is Christian in name only--a religion that appears to be Christianity on the outside, but there is no real substance or spiritual power within. Like an imitation Rolex, made in Taiwan--it may look good, but won't keep time, or keep out the rain.
Sadly there are many folk whose religion merely consists in observing formal religious ceremonies. They don't particularly want to join with God's people, but they see it as a duty, and so they turn up once a week. They don't love to worship God, but think that they should. They don't know their Bibles and take no joy in reading them. Their prayers are purely formal: an address to a distant deity, rather than an appeal to a loving Father.
But no amount of religious formality can substitute for this: Do I love the Lord? Really love him?
What must I do if I detect any of these tendencies in my own heart? We give thanks that Christ held out hope for the church of Ephesus: 'Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place' (Rev.2:5).
Repent--return to God with confession and sorrow over your former lovelessness, your dependence on outward forms, correct belief and right behaviour, or religious experiences.
Tell him that you haven't loved him but that you want to change. Why don't you stop reading right now, and speak quietly with God about these things. Maybe you have some things you need to say to him...
Make no mistake--there is no substitute for loving the Lord your God. Do you? Can you say, 'I love the LORD, because he heard my cry for help'?
God looks for many responses from us to himself, but above all else he is looking for people who love him from their heart.
That is what the Lord Jesus told the OT expert: this is the Great Commandment, the prime thing that God wants from you and me.
Do you love him?
Perhaps you ask, 'How can I change?' How can I shed my formalism, renew my soul?' Remember that God is infinitely gracious: 'God only asks from us what he first gives to us in Christ.'
Is your trust in Jesus? Have you given your heart to him for repairing? Then ask him, Lord give me a clean heart; renew a right spirit within me. I want to love God with my whole heart; Lord unite my heart to fear your name.
Maybe there's something on your heart that you need to say to the Lord... Maybe you just need to thank him for his love to you. Why don't you do that right now...
This sermon, "The Heart of True Religion," is from sermon notes on Psalms 116:1. This sermon was preached by the Rev. W.P.Gadsby at Taree, NSW, Australia, on 2 May 1999. W.P.Gadsby is a devoted Reformed theologian and pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia.