The Tragedy of the Superficial Church

Lesson 32: Romans 9:1-5

The Tragedy of the Superficial Church

by Bob Burridge ©2011

While I was pastoring a church here in Florida, I took a sad phone. Unfortunately it was not all that unusual. A woman was looking for help from a church. She asked how our denomination (the PCA) differed from other Presbyterian denominations. I wasn’t sure at that point if she was concerned about certain issues, or if she just saw different designations in the phone book.

At first I gave her a rather simple answer. I explained that we have great respect for the Bible’s authority and teachings. I told her that we hold to the conviction that it is God’s word filled with encouragement and help for the lost through the work of Christ. We try to follow what God tells us there about what we should believe, and how we ought to worship and live. Then I added that by grace alone God forgives things we have done in the past, and makes us his children by his unfailing love and infinite power made possible by only one thing, the death of Jesus as our Savior.

She said she didn’t care about any of that. All she wanted to know was did we have a large budget and active committees. She said she wanted a church to care for her financially, particularly for a family member’s psychological care.

When I explained about pastoral care, the biblical counseling we offer, and the importance of a church family, she politely said that was not what she needed, and that she would keep looking. That ended the call. She was not interested in what the Bible had to say. She wanted material benefits. That is what she thought the church was all about. She reflected a tragic fact about what is often seen as “Christianity” today. The biblical concept of the church is to a large degree lost.

Confusion about how God deals with his people has existed in every era of human history since the fall in Eden. We see this sad distortion of God’s promises in the days of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and the Apostles. It is tragically there today. Many churches which call themselves “Christian” simply are not according to how God himself defines it in his written word.

Four Kinds of Confusion

There are basically four major ways in which what is commonly called the church often becomes confused about itself. The same ancient errors Paul was addressing among the four sects of Jews in his era, are reflected in the world today. This is the focus of the section of Romans we now come to in this series of studies, chapters 9-11.

The first group is like the ancient sect called the Saducees.
Today, most of the large denominations believe the Bible is a flawed book. They say that we can find encouraging ideas in the Scriptures anyway. They see Jesus as just a great teacher, leader, and example of love, but not as God who took on human flesh to pay the price of sin for his people. They believe that social action and community involvement make up the real gospel. They see our belief in salvation as nothing more than bigotry and superstition. To them the most evil doctrines are those that teach that God holds us accountable for our sins, and that trust in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation.

This is classic religious liberalism and post-modernism. They worship a god who is not much more than an undefinable cosmic force. They put their faith in the physical sciences, psychology, sociology, and politics, yet throw in enough mysticism to keep the congregations feeling they have spiritual help.

I remember talking with a young man studying for the ministry in one of the large main-line denominations. He said he did not believe there was a real God, but he would talk about God to his congregation because most people need that kind of belief to face their struggles.

These humanistic churches believe that man is the center of all values and concerns, not God. They empty religion of any real truth and spiritual life. Yet for some reason they like to call themselves “Christians.” They confuse the watching world, and desecrate the honorable name of the Savior.

A second group today is like the Pharisees.
They believe that man determines his own future by his choices and decisions. They see God as a beggar for our souls, pleading to make his work on the cross successful. They emotionally sing about the Holy Spirit, but to be consistent they ought to be singing about their own permission which is really why they believe God blesses some and not others. To them grace is a good word, but its meaning has been lost, because it goes against what they would rather believe about themselves and about God.

They are moralists, mystics, religious humanists believing that man dictates to his Creator. Yet they claim they are the true Christians. They confuse the watching world with a message that makes them feel in charge of their eternal future.

Today many openly reject most of what is revealed in the Old Testament by saying it was just for the Jews. That makes it easier for them to deny the plain meaning of the New Testament texts that go against their theology. They ignore the fact that Jesus, the Apostles, and the New Testament writers all quoted the Old Testament as God’s support for their teachings. To them it is as if God regretted his first attempts to reveal himself, so he instituted a new body of believers. They see the New Testament as one more attempt by God to succeed with lost mankind.

Some recent fundamentalist groups have gone way beyond the fundamentals. Like the Pharisees they make up long lists of sins, even longer than what God reveals in the Bible. Personal decisions and abstinence from a list of things forbidden replace the fruit of the Holy Spirit as evidences of regeneration. They have lost the idea of true religion as James describes it. Instead of hearts transformed by grace into being humble servants submitting to God’s revealed principles and provisions, they live for emotional mysticism set in motion by man’s own choices and material self-denials. They do not believe in a God who is the Sovereign Lord over all.

The third group is like the ancient cult of the Essenes.
They are the isolationists who will not submit to the church authority God himself places over them. They look to independent Bible studies, radio or TV preachers, and books for their spiritual guidance. They see membership in a local church as optional, or even hypocritical. They quickly and ignorantly dismiss biblical church order as mere “denominationalism”. They are left to disobey the many commands in the New Testament which require believers to respect and submit to Elders ordained to shepherd God’s church (Hebrews 13:17).

When they do come together to form churches, they use the methods of democratic-socialism. They water down the biblical offices to make them mere servants of the majority.

While saying they have “no creed but the Bible”, they have many man-made dogmas about the end times, what they consider worldliness, how to dress, and the arts, none of which are supported by a study of the Bible alone. Instead of being the salt of the earth, they fail to become involved in the world around them. They leave the movie industry to Hollywood, government to Washington, schools to the state, and TV to the Gallup polls.They form a closed culture, and just pull back ignoring the world as much as they can.

They are like the Essenes of Jesus time who went off into monastic desert camps. They are isolated cells calling people to come in, but then avoiding their duty to the world. Yet many see these extreme separatists as being Christians. They confuse the watching world about what Christianity is really about.

A fourth group is like the ancient Zealots.
Some have become violent revolutionaries. They become impatient with God’s timing and take the law into their own hands. They disobey police and defy the courts in illegal public demonstrations. They show anger and hatred but little mercy, no real humble repentance or trust in God’s grace. Some even set off bombs to kill unbelievers. They desecrate God’s holy law.

They justify breaking good laws because they want to protest bad ones. They will not represent the fruit of the Spirit toward those they perceive as the enemy. They will not even love their neighbor if the neighbor’s needs might inconvenience them. They judge others without biblical authority and reduce the glory of Christ’s kingdom to mere material victories limited to this fleeting world of our present age.

Yet these too are represented by the media and others as being “Christians”. They confuse the watching world and desecrate the honorable name of the Savior.

Many churches today are like those of the Jewish nation in the time of the first century.
Jesus contended with the popular preachers and the successful synagogues of his day. The Apostles were condemned, beaten, jailed and put to death by those who claimed to be the chosen people of God.

There are Super-Churches, growing in leaps and bounds. Tragically, many of them abandon God’s ways, trading them for what appeals to the values of those who will increase their numbers and budgets. They have the means to provide the programs and fun activities so many prefer over the true teachings of the word of God. They quote many portions of the Bible, but use them in ways that compromise their true message. They strongly appeal to expectations rather than to real spiritual needs. They are not super in honor or obedience when compared with God’s word. They are super in only one way, they are Super-ficial.

What is the True Church?

This next section of Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapters 9-11) deals with this problem directly. What is the true church? What is wrong with what most people think of as the church? What can we do to redeem the name of Christ from the disgrace of those who distort his church? What importance is the church to be in the lives of individual Christians and their families in very real daily struggles?

In Paul’s time Israel had fallen into a spiritually diseased condition. Though the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots had all twisted God’s truth in serious ways, there were also those who still hoped in a suffering Messiah who would redeem men from sin. They understood the message of the Bible as it was intended. They were scattered throughout the Jewish world, and were not very popular. It was these faithful Jews who were rapidly becoming Christians forming the early church.

The rest of the Jews strongly criticized Paul as he corrected their distorted views. Paul was originally a Pharisee,
a Jew by birth, and a rabbi by training. When he discovered that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, the large majority of the Jews thought he had rejected all that God had said before. This was far from the truth.

He was rejecting the artificial teachings of a superficial church. He rejected their twisting of the law and prophets which led to their cultish ideas and ways. He had discovered by God’s grace, the fulfillment of the ancient promises in Christ. Real Judaism had been lost by the majority. Paul had found it again. More accurately, it had laid hold of Paul by the work of God’s marvelous grace.

In the first 5 chapters of Romans Paul showed that according to Scripture all were lost, and in need of redemption, Gentiles and Jews alike. He explained how the human race had fallen when Adam, who represented them, sinned.

He then showed that the only hope of being restored to fellowship with God was that the promised Messiah had come as a perfect Redeemer, that he died representing those God promised to bless, that in their place he satisfied all that God’s justice demanded. He found that aside from these ancient promise, there was no other way to be made right with God.

In chapters 6 through 8 Paul explained how Jesus Christ gives victory in the believer’s continuing struggle with sin. It is not by the works of the priests and the keeping of the law, but by spiritual transformation of the soul by grace. Real spiritual change produces repentance, a true faith, and a desire to live in God’s ways.

This did not mean that Paul was now an enemy of the Jews. Far from it. He was calling them away from their corruptions back to the original promises. He wanted an end to the confusing sects and their distorted denominationalism. He wanted them to understand his passion for them to become Christians, followers of the promised Messiah.

Paul was struggling with a sincere and deep grief in his heart over their condition. He was about to tell them something very hard for them to accept. Their distorted ways were bringing down the condemnation of God. They were confusing the world about what God’s Covenant was all about. Soon God was going to end their national privilege.

Paul’s Sorrow for the State of the Church

Romans 9:1, “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit,”

He begins this section of the book with a series of affirmations. The Jews needed to hear the truth. They needed to understand that there was something they had been missing, something good, something that could re-unite them around the gospel promise of a gracious covenant.

Paul wanted them to know how personal his compassion for them was.

Romans 9:2-3, “that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh,”

Paul uses the Greek word anathema (αναθεμα) which is here translated “accursed”. Literally it means something separated from something. The most common use in the Bible is of something condemned and rejected as offensive.

Paul is not saying that he really expected to redeem them by his becoming accursed by Christ. The original grammar here sets up an hypothetical condition: If it was possible for him to give up the greatest blessings God gave him, he would do it for the Jews, because of his deep concern for them as God’s covenant people.

Words should not be pressed beyond their obvious intended use. It would be foolish to think that Paul actually considered such an exchange to be possible. The plain meaning is sufficient when taken for just what it says and no more.

God’s blessings had been corrupted by the covenant people

Romans 9:4-5, “who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.”

Israel had been entrusted with great national privileges and blessings, but she had not honored God with them. She had perverted them and confused them. Israel was set up by God to display his glory to the rest of the nations. She was to preserve the promises and covenant to prepare the world for the coming of Messiah. However, by the time Messiah came she had for the most part corrupted what God entrusted to her. [We will look into the specifics of these blessings in our next studies.]

The same is sadly true of many who call themselves the Christians today. They promote a different gospel and a different God. They hold forth beliefs, agendas, and values other than what is revealed in Scripture by God. Yet this is what the media, educators, our neighbors, and the world at large think of as Christianity. This is tragic! The message is so confused.

What did Paul do in this situation? The masses of Jews had totally distorted the message and the worship of God. Did he get depressed and give up? Did he learn to live comfortably with the unbelief of the Saducees? Did he give-in to the Pharisee’s man made rules and dogmas that implied man’s ability to manipulate God? Did he withdraw like the Essenes to create a little community wrapped up only in itself? Did he turn to revolution and join up with the Zealots?

There is a better way. He told the truth with great compassion and persistence. That is what we need to do too. We need to work on reforming God’s church. It is not enough to guard our own worship, feed our own family spiritually, make correct statements about morality and spiritual birth. We must represent the transforming work of Christ with true compassion to the lost, to our neighbors, families, co-workers, and to others who are part of the family of the Redeemed at large.

If God calls his people his “family”, there must be similarities with our earthly families. We manage our homes to protect against things that will do harm to our loved ones . We do not defend germs that might creep in. We try to keep things clean and healthy. We guide chidren as they grow up, rather than let them take dangerous or foolish chances. We do not allow guests to bring illegal things into our homes. Similarly we should love the church so much that we do our best to guard against wrong beliefs about the Bible, or having teachers who have a poor understanding of God’s word and ways. We should not tolerate clearly sinful behaviors that go uncorrected.

The church is Christ’s family. It is to be organized and run for the benefit of the children he loves. It is to preserve the dignity of God, and the principles he teaches us as the Father of our spiritual family.

The True Church in Romans 9-11

In these next studies in Romans 9 through 11 we will see a view of the church which is very different from the one that most see today, perhaps different from what we ourselves expect to find.

Our goal and duty is to come to God’s word ready to be taught, ready to abandon every idea not found in his written testimony. We should be ready to faithfully trust in, and to boldly obey what ever we find in our Bibles, ready to improve our understanding of the wonderful message we have for the world.

Our job is to lead others to the shelter of the faithful church of Christ. That is where God promises to administer true peace and comfort to his children.

Our own little children do not need candy for food, lies to built their dreams upon, or pain killers instead of doctors to make them feel healthy when symptoms come. Neither do people need churches with entertainment instead of worship, false but comfortable doctrines, or promises that cater to their feelings only. They do not need churches considered to be good simply because they have big budgets and big committees. They need a gospel with a big Savior and a church that humbly trusts in him.

We do not help hurting sinners with promise God has never made. They need the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We cruelly deceive the lost struggling soul if we offer deadly pacifying substitutes. People may want to be entertained, but they need the blessings of the Covenant of Grace.

Let us make Christ’s church what God wants a church to be. We are commissioned to diligently call others to join us in a restored worship of Christ as a faithful and thankful family of God, upholding one another in the promises which cannot fail.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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