Can you remember your early days as a Christian? Can you remember the joy, the excitement and the wonder that gripped your heart? Can you remember that powerful desire to know God and the longing to receive all that He has for you? How long did that last? Do you still feel that way now? Do you desire to know God more than anything else in the world? If you do, then I rejoice with you! Sadly as I’ve rubbed shoulders with my brothers and sisters in Christ over many years across the Church, I have been grieved to observe that many of them have lost a lot of that deep, passionate yearning for God. They no longer have that reckless abandon and desire to be an explorer and adventurer in the Kingdom of God. I also know this from personal experience because that’s exactly what happened to me many years ago.
As new believers we become part of the only community in this broken world where our new-found joy and excitement should be encouraged and fed (i.e. the Church) often to find that we are a square peg in a round hole. When we begin with the Lord, we are bursting with love for Jesus and love for others; we are involved in every ministry we can and this new-found relationship with God is absolutely wonderful and all-consuming.
Then, more often than not, something happens over time and the fire starts to lose its heat. Before long the inevitable happens, the square pegs start to lose their edges and very soon they are conformed to the round holes and now they fit in very well. The fact that this happens is sad, but the fact that most Christians are unaware of it is tragic! It’s a gradual process that most of us are not even aware of as our passion and zeal for God Himself is slowly replaced with programs, ministries, meetings and events. For many in the Church, their once-vibrant relationship with God is subtly overtaken by exhausting, life-draining religious activity.
We may not know it at the time but we are allowing Satan to take God’s people captive in the prison of religion. The Apostle Paul knew all about religion and the deceptive work of the enemy who always wants to hold God’s people back through false teaching and deception. As ‘Saul the persecutor’ he was an expert on religion. His religious qualifications, experience and performance were second to none prior to meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. But once his eyes were opened by the Spirit of God Paul declared in Philippians 3:8 that he considered all of that rubbish, that he may gain Christ.
I recall many years ago now a Pastor friend of ours was visiting our Church from interstate and I happened to be preaching on grace that day. At the end of the service he came to me and shared a vision he believed God gave him during the service. The picture he described was as simple as it was confronting. He saw a group of people in a prison cell and it looked like they had been there for some time and were very familiar with their surroundings. They were not stressed or trying to get out or protesting their lot in life. They actually seemed resigned to their fate. But when he looked closer into this vision he could not believe what he saw. This prison had no doors. They had been ripped off and there was a huge gaping hole where they used to be. Everyone was therefore free to leave this prison and yet they were so used to life behind bars, they either didn’t notice there were no longer any doors or they did notice but were too afraid to step into the unknown and embrace their freedom.
I have never forgotten that vision and over the following several years in that Congregation I had the incredible privilege of seeing hundreds of people finally venture out of that prison into the freedom which Christ died to give them. That prison is religion. That prison is what the visible Church will always become when God is not given free reign.
From the day the Church was born and thousands of people were set free from the chains of religion and brought into the freedom of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the enemy of God, Satan, has been running a relentless campaign to drag God’s people back under the bondage of the law. He has blinded so many believers to the spiritual reality that lies beneath much of the religious activity that can consume our time, energy and focus.
What grieves me most is that the majority of those believers who were taken captive again are no longer listening to teaching like this – because they have already gone. I preach this truth to those still in the Church because it is vitally important for us to stay alert and remain free from the chains of legalism and religion. But my heart is also breaking for the thousands of people who used to be part of the Church. In every community across our nation there are more ex-Church members than those currently involved in the Church.
Regardless of our location, I believe that if we could round up all those people who were once part of a Church ministry but have left, we would not have an auditorium large enough to fit them in. We have to face the fact that the ‘ex-Church community’ is now larger than the Church community. We can mourn that reality and wish it were different, or we can find out why this has occurred and change it. There are lots of reasons given by those who have left the Church and by those who may have willingly or unknowingly helped them out the door.
They didn’t like the Pastor or the music or the theology or the leadership direction – and the list goes on. I believe that’s all a smoke screen for what ultimately made it easy for them to walk away. In my opinion, and from observing this dynamic in the Church for over 50 years now, the main reason why such people chose to break fellowship with the family of God is far less complicated and far more serious. I believe they were no longer hearing or receiving the good news. The gospel of God’s amazing grace was not being role-modelled, preached, taught and lived. Consequently the living, reigning Christ was no longer observably present and central.
A community of faith which encounters the true gospel and understands grace in all its truth will always encounter God in their midst and when God is truly present in a community of faith, people are usually drawn to that community, not pushed away or given a reason to leave. As I have observed this dynamic over many years I now understand why Jesus spoke out so strongly against religion – He knew who was behind it.
We may think that Satan does his best work in the world. We may look at the sin, moral decay and desperation in the world around us and think that’s Satan’s best efforts at work. I don’t believe that’s true. The devil doesn’t have to work very hard at all to keep the world from encountering God – his greatest goal is to keep believers from truly understanding, embracing and living the gospel. If he can replace New Testament, New Covenant, Christ-centred, Spirit-empowered Christianity with religion, then he has effectively disempowered all that Jesus did in the life of the believer and all that His Spirit desires to do in the Church. Jesus tore off the doors of the prison of sin, death and religion, but so many believers are still living as captives, oblivious to their true freedom.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!” (Galatians 5:1). Jesus Christ came to set captives completely free and destroy the work of the enemy. When we first knew Jesus we felt the wonder of His grace and forgiveness. However, we put ourselves back into prisons of our own making when we believe the lies of the enemy. From beginning to end, our journey is by His grace, for His glory and through His Spirit. God has committed Himself to you totally, completely and forever. He has promised to bring you safely home. Understand that and you will understand God’s amazing grace in all its truth.