James Merritt - Losing Your Religion
Let me just say thanks for being here. I wanna say hello to our Mill Creek campus watching online, those who are watching by TV, those here at Sugarloaf. I wanna begin with a question and I wanna see how many of you will guess the right answer. Here's the question. What is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States today? Now you might hope or think evangelical Christians, you might say Catholics, you might say Pentecostals. But actually, it's a trick question, because by far and away right now the fastest-growing religious group in America are the nones. N-O-N-E-S. These are Americans who say, "We are completely religiously unaffiliated".
25%, an all-time high for our nation, 25% of people in America now say, "We don't wanna have any religious identity at all. We don't care anything about religion. We're not in the churches, we're not in the synagogues, we're not in the temples. We're just into it any way whatsoever". And in a way, you can't blame them because, to be honest, choosing a religion and trying to choose a religion can be very frustrating and very confusing. Because on the surface, it appears that religions are radically different, but yet they're really not. Because at the end of the day practically every religion in the world is trying to answer the same two questions. The questions they're trying to answer is, number now, how do you relate to God? And number two, how can you have a relationship to God?
Now, not only do all religions basically ask the same two questions, the interesting thing is they basically give the same answer. They couch it in different terms, they have different platforms, they'll taint it in different things, but at the end of the day, here's their answer to the question. How you live before you die determines where you go after you die. That's basically their answer. In others words, what you do this side of death will determine what happens to you on the other side of death. But then you've got all these religious debates that are going on, for example. I was in a home this week of a beautiful family, they're not believers, and we were having a good conversation, I got to share the Gospel with them. They may be they're here today, I hope they are.
But this is what they said. "It really doesn't matter which religion you practice. Just pick one. We're all trying to get to the same place, we're just kinda taking different paths". But then you've got some people on the other side and they say, "No, there's only one religion that has the right prescription, has the right formula. It's one-size-fits-all. And if you wanna be rightly related with God, you've gotta practice our religion". Well, when you realize that you've got over 4,200 options to choose from, when you realize the buffet of religions is so unbelievably huge and so big, it really isn't any wonder that more and more people are throwing their hands up and saying, "Alex, I'll take none for a thousand. I just don't think I'm interested".
And this is why this book that we've been studying called Galatians is not only relevant, it is so refreshing. 'Cause let me tell you what Paul is doing, and by the way, if you don't have a copy of one of these, get one before you leave today. We're in "The Year of the Disciple" and if you have one of these copies, if you'll just turn to page, I think it's page eight, yeah, page eight in this little book, you'll see where we're studying today. But here's what's going on in the Book of Galatians for those of you who are just joining us today. Paul was dealing with just one religion, Judaism. And the reason why Paul was dealing with Judaism was because he was a Jew.
Well, in this church, in this group of early believers called Galatians, there was a group of people called Judaizers. They were people who said, "Look, we're Christians like you are. We believe in Jesus like you do. However, Jesus is not enough, grace is not enough, faith is not enough. If you really wanna be right with God and know that you're right with God, you've gotta keep God's law. You've got to do good works. You've got to be Jewishly religious. You've got to live the right life to be right with God".
So Paul, who was a former Jew himself, wrote this book not just to Jews but also to all religious people who were trying to get right with God, and he's what he's saying, it's a mind boggling thing. Paul says, "It doesn't matter to me whether you are a conservative Evangelical, you're a Protestant, you're a Catholic," or just pick, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Church of God in Christ, Holiness Pentecostal, Pentecostal Holiness, Pentecostal Unholiness, it doesn't matter. I don't care if it's Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. Paul wrote this letter with one central message. If you wanna be right with God and if you wanna know you're right with God, buckle your seatbelt, you have got to lose your religion.
You say, excuse me, you're a pastor. Yeah, you heard me. You have got to lose your religion. Because as hard as it is to believe, I will tell you something that might shock you, being religious, trying to do the rituals, trying to obey the rules, trying to follow the regulations, trying to keep the restrictions, it may not only not get you any closer to God, it may wind up keeping you from ever knowing God. It may wind up ever even keeping you from God. We've been preaching this series on Galatians, we've entitled it "Free at Last" because one of the reasons that Paul wrote this book and one of the reasons he's talking to these believers in Galatia was to let us know, look, Jesus did not come to introduce us to a new religion. Jesus came to deliver us from all religion so we can actually enter into a relationship with a God who's not captured by any religion.
So he's dealing with these people called Judaizers who are trying to tell these early Christians what a lot of people still believe, what a lot of you still believe. There are many of you I believe you come into this church every Sunday, you hear me preach every week, and you still go out the door and you still deep down think this. If I wanna be right with God and if I wanna stay right what God, I've gotta keep the Ten Commandments to the best of my ability, I've got to obey the law, and I've got to follow the rules. Well, Paul does something that's just brilliant. Paul actually says why don't we go to the law and see what the law says about the law? Why don't we see if you can pull off what you think you can pull of by keeping the law?
And what you're going to find out is he appeals to that very law to show that what we want the law to do, the law can't do. What we would like for the law to accomplish, the law cannot accomplish. And he shows us even the law of God cannot get you to the God that gave you that law. So whether it's the law that's found in this book. Or you may have another book, your book may be the Quran, your book may be the Bhagavad Gita, I don't know what your book is. But Paul says, let me tell all of you, if you're trying to get to God through your particular religion and through keeping your particular law and following your particular rules, there are four things you need to remember about all religious law.
Number one: the law is a curse, not a cure for sin. The law is a curse, it's not a cure for sin. Now, Paul knows he's dealing with people who love the Old Testament. They're Bible scholars in the Old Testament, they love to quote the Old Testament. So he says, "Okay, let me quote the Old Testament and let me show you something that may surprise you. The law actually curses itself". 'Cause here's what we don't understand. The law does not commend people who try to keep it. What the law actually does is condemn people because they can't keep it. So here's what Paul says. Paul says, "For all who rely on the works of the law," for what? To be right with God, to get right with God. So just fill in the blank. I'm relying on my baptism, I'm relying on my church membership, I'm relying on paying my taxes, I'm relying on being faithful to my wife, I'm relying on giving money to the poor, I'm relying on not drinking too much, not smoking too much, I'm relying on not using bad language. Just add anything you wanna add.
Paul said, "If you're relying on the works of the law, you are under a curse". And then he quotes the law, as it's written. "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do," and can you guys see that word? Can y'all say it out loud? Can you say it loud? Yeah, what does everything mean? Yeah, great, you're on target, all right. It means everything. He's saying you're under a curse. If you're trying to get to God by being good, if you're trying to get to God by obeying the commandments, you're trying to be good by being religious, you're trying to be good by keeping the law, then you better continue to do everything written in the book of the law.
So Paul's been blunt. If you're trying to be religious enough, good enough, obedient enough to get to God, he said you're under a curse. You know what the curse is? The curse is not disobeying the law, that's not the curse. The curse is not perfectly obeying the law, that's the curse. He said you're under a curse. If you're going to perform your way to God, you gotta meet his standard, not yours. And God's standard is perfection. And since his law is perfect and since he is perfect, think about it. If the law of God is perfect, and it is, if God is perfect, and he is, and we're tying to have a relationship with a perfect God, logic itself says that I've gotta keep the law perfectly if I wanna have a relationship with God who is perfect.
See, here's the problem. One of the problems we have is we try to understand how God's law operates and we try to kinda see it the way that we think our law operates. Let me give you an example. When it comes to human laws, here's what we do. We grade ourselves on the curve. And let me tell you what I mean by that. I've heard this so many times. I said this to someone about two weeks ago. They were visiting our church and I said, "May I ask you a spiritual question"? They said sure and I said, "Do you have a personal relationship with God"? He said, "Well, I'm trying to". And I said, "What do you mean"? And he started, I knew it was coming, I've heard 'em all, "Well, I'm not perfect. I've told a lie but I've never committed perjury. I've cheated on my test but I've never cheated on my taxes. When I was little I stole a cookie but I've never robbed a bank. I've gotten in a lot of fights but I've never killed anybody".
And so here's what we say, well, I think I'm good to go, because my good outweighs my bad. And I'm not as bad as the guy on death row, I mean, I'm not. And in a way we're right, in a way it makes sense. You're not going to jail for telling a lie if it's not perjury. The IRS is not gonna come after you if you cheat on a test, just don't cheat on your taxes. You're not gonna be locked up for stealing a cookie, just don't rob a bank. The problem is God's law doesn't operate that way. God doesn't grade on the curve. So let me put it this way. I don't know how it is now 'cause things have changed. When I was a boy, when I was going to school, there was a grading system. So an A would be 90 to 100, B was 80 to 89, C was 70 to 79, D was 60 to 69, F was anything below 60, okay? That's not the way it is in God's school. In God's school, there are two grades. A+ and F. That's the only two grades. You're ready for this?
Let's see how good you are at your math. So if you make 100 on God's test, what do you get? A+. What if you make 99, what do you get? You get an F. Now you may say, Lord, he is a hard-nose professor. No, that's not the problem. He's holy and he's perfect, and he only has one standard, and that is holy perfection. And here's our problem. He demands a holiness from you you can't produce. He demands a perfection from you and you can't get there. All of my life I've had people say this to me. They worry about what they call cheap grace and I've had people really debate me on this. They say, "You guys preach the grace of God, you guys preach it's all about grace, it's all about faith. God loves you, he sent his Son. You give your life to Jesus and man you're good to go and then you can live any way you want to".
Well, let me stop right there, I've never preached that, and I don't believe that. I do believe you're saved by grace through faith, but I believe when you're saved by grace through faith you don't live the way you want to, you live the way he wants you to, that's the difference. However, that said, I'm not worried about cheap grace. You know what bothers me? Cheap law. You say, what do you mean? We've got this idea that God will somehow grade us on the curve and accept anything less than perfection and especially anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus.
So here's the central point. Paul's just getting right to it, I mean, he's not pulling any punches. If you're trying to do enough, give enough, be enough to get God's approval and God's acceptance, you are under a curse, and it is the curse of trying to be good enough. You say, why is that a curse? Because you will never, ever be good enough for God. It isn't going to happen. The law is a curse, it is not a cure for sin. But then he goes deeper. He says the law is a barrier, it's not a bridge to God. The law is a barrier, it's not a bridge to God.
Now, if what Paul said is true, then the next conclusion just naturally follows. Listen to what he says in verse 11. He says, "Clearly no one," what does no one mean? Ah you're sharp, you're with me. "No one who relies on the law is justified before God". So Paul says if you're relying on keeping God's commandments to justify you before God, you're automatically condemned because you've not perfectly kept God's commandments. Because the one thing that every person that's ever lived or ever will live needs to be right with God is to be justified. I've got to somehow get God to look at me and say, even though I'm guilty, even though he knows I'm guilty, even though I know I'm guilty, even though I know that he knows that I'm guilty, even though he knows that I know that I know he knows I'm guilty, somehow I've gotta get that God to look at me and say, "Innocent, acquitted, justified".
And Paul said and the law can't get you there. The law will never justify you. It is not a bridge to God, it is a barrier God. The law's not the way you get to God, it's actually the wall that separates you from God. Now, by the way, what many religions are trying to do, and they'll tell you this, is they're trying to get you justified before God and here's what they'll all say. You wanna be right with our God? Do this, don't do that, go here, don't go there, say this, don't say that, keep our laws, keep our rules, keep our regulations, and you just might get there. And Paul says, "No, won't happen". So you may be asking a very legitimate question right now. I would be asking it.
Well, wait a minute. So if God's commandments and God's law won't help me get to God, here's a simple question. So why did God give the law to begin with? Why did God give the commandments? Well, I'm glad you asked the question, I'm sure gonna let Paul answer the question. Here's what he says in verse 21. "Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God"? In other words what he's saying is, so is the law a bad thing? He says no, the law is a good thing. Nothing wrong with the law, the law's perfect. "Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin". And here's what Paul says. This is where I want you to listen here, I want you to join real close and listen. The law was never given to show how good we are. It was given to show how simple we are.
So let me put it to you this way. The law illuminates our faults, it cannot eliminate our faults. It can illuminate 'em, it can't eliminate 'em. So here's what the law does. The law tells you, okay, you wanna live a godly life? This is what a godly life looks like. You go, great! And then the law turns right around and says, ha, but you can't do it. You can't pull it off. It is an absolute impossibility. You can't keep it. God's law cannot make you innocent, it can only prove you guilty. Here's an illustration. You're in a trial and let's say it's a judge, not a jury trial, it's a judge trial. Now, if you're in a judge trial, you already know going into that court room there's only one person in this court room that can either condemn me as guilty or confirm me as innocent.
There's only one person in this court room that can either punish me or pardon me. Who is that, who's in the room, who is it? It's the judge. He's the only one who can do it, right? The prosecuting attorney cannot find you guilty. Your defense attorney cannot find you innocent. There's only one person in that court room that can justify you. There's only one person in that court room that can say, "You are innocent, you are free to go". It's not your attorney, it's not the prosecuting attorney, it is that judge. And likewise, the one thing we need to even be allowed into God's presence, to have God's approval, to receive God's acceptance, we've gotta be justified by the Supreme Judge. And Paul says you will never be justified by your religion and you'll never be justified by your righteousness. There's nothing you can do to justify you.
You can only be justified when the Supreme Judge declares you are justified, which leads to the third point. Paul says the law is a reference for, not a rival with Jesus. It is a reference for, not a rival with Jesus. So let me just kinda, here's our problem. I think hopefully now you understand it. The law's perfect, we're not. Only a perfect person on their own can have a relationship with a perfect God. And the only we can ever be perfect on our own is to achieve perfection, but we can't do that.
So what's our problem? We're under a curse. You say, boy, we're hopeless. Oh no no no no, the law's still gonna help us out. You say, really, yeah. Because the same law that just said to us you can't keep me, you're not gonna get to God through me, as a matter of fact, you're under a curse because of me, that same exact law turns around and refers us to the One who is perfect and who can remove our curse because he perfectly kept the law, and his name is? Jesus, that's right. So listen to what we read. By the way, Paul is just going back, he's just quoting the law, that's all he's doing. He said, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law". How did he do that? "By becoming a curse for us". How did that happen? Paul has written, "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole".
Now, you see that word redeemed? I'm sure a lot of you, if you shop, you know what that means. If you redeem something, you buy it back or you cash something in. How many of you, just out of curiosity, how many of you remember green stamps? I know a lot of you are going, what is a green stamp? Don't worry about it, but you'll understand. Back in the day, back in the day, my mom used to collect green stamps. Some of you remember that, some of you remember green stamps, right? So if you collected enough green stamps, you could go to the store, do you remember green stamps?
Okay, okay. We're getting old. So green stamps, mom would collect all these green stamps and I used to go with mom, there was a store down in Flowery Branch, there was a store and we would go to that store, it was exciting 'cause she's saved all these green stamps and you could go and you could redeem something in the store, you could trade in those green stamps for something in the store. That's what that word means, it means to buy back. It's a legal term and it refers to how a slave's freedom would be bought or redeemed by another person.
Now, the reason why Paul brings redemption into the conversation is very simple. Because the only remedy for our faults and our failures and our fallings and our mistakes and our mess ups is redemption. Not religion. Not righteousness. Not rules. Not regulations. Not restrictions. Redemption. Well, why do we need redemption? Because our problem is not that we're just sinners and we fall up and we sin. We are actually slaves to sin, we're born in slavery to sin. And if you know anything about slavery, you know there's only one antidote to slavery, only one. Freedom, that's all a slave wants. If you're a slave, you just one thing, you want freedom. So the only antidote to slavery is freedom, however, the only way that freedom will come is by redemption.
For example, let's take two slaves. Let's say that one slave is a bad slave and one slave is a good slave. Let's say that one slave lies like a dog and the other slave always tells the truth. Let's say that one slave goes to church every Sunday and the other slave never goes to church. Let's say that one slave is been baptized and the other slave has never been baptized. Jack, I'm gonna be good to you today. Let's say one slave is a bulldog, one slave's a gator. At the end of the day, what's true about both of 'em? They're still slaves. It doesn't matter whether you're a good slave. Listen, both slaves can get up one morning and they can say, "You know, today, we're gonna be the best slaves we know how to be". That's fine. The problem, you are still a slave. You will never be good enough to get out of your slavery. The only way you'll get out of your slavery is somebody's gotta redeem you out of slavery.
So here's the statement I want you to hear. I hope this will turn the light on. The reason why keeping the commandments won't get you to God, being religious won't get you to God, doing your best won't get to God is real simple. Hear this. The law wants your heart to write a check that your life can't cash. The law wants your heart to write a check that your life can't check. The law says do this and don't do that. Well, guess what? Sometimes we do what we shouldn't do. And the law says say this but don't say that. But guess what, sometimes we say what we shouldn't say. And the law says go here but don't go there. Well, guess what, sometimes we go where we're not supposed to go. And yet we think, well, if I could just maybe do my very best, God will cut me a break.
And here's what we've just seen, that's an insult to God. It's an insult to the law of God. It's an insult to the holiness of God to say, can you just cut me a break? Can you just give me, I mean, listen, okay, I didn't make 99, I didn't even make 90, but I did make 73 and it beats a 40. God says no, that's not way the law operates. The problem is we are all enslaved to sin, we're failures in the eyes of God, we've all broken his law, and the cold heart truth is all of the king's horses and all of the king's men cannot put us together again. And if you think that's the way it's going to operate, you're under a cure, and we've got to realize that the fact that we cannot keep the law shows us one thing.
If I can't keep the law, I need someone who can. I need someone who did. And this is why I love the fact that God called me into the ministry. This is why the one thing that excites me more than anything in my life. I've got one of the most beautiful granddaughters on the planet, she's sitting right there, her name is Presley. She wanted me to say that, so Presley, you're one of the most beautiful granddaughters on the planet. Okay, are you a happy girl? Good. Pop loves you, you're pop's baby doll, all right? I love that girl. I mean, I'm telling you, I really do love that girl, but that's not what excites me the most every morning I get up, nothing. I've got a great marriage. I'm excited about being married to my wife but that's not the thing.
What really drives me more than anything is the Gospel. There's somebody that did for me what I couldn't do for me. I didn't keep the law, you didn't keep the law, none of us have kept the law, but he kept the law. And because he kept the law for us, he can remove the curse of the law from us. Because he kept the law, he can remove the curse of the law by taking our punishment for breaking the law. See, the law was given to show us two very simple things. Number one: we're not perfect and we can't keep the law. And listen, if you don't believe that, I can't help you, and I'm wasting your time. You are not perfect. And I know you're saying you know that, yeah, but it' worse. Quit trying to keep the law, quit trying to obey the commandments 'cause you think that's what's gonna get you to God, 'cause you can't do it perfectly.
But then it shows us a second thing. We need a Savior who is perfect who can keep the law. So it says the law-breakers and the law-breaking have to be punished 'cause God's holy. God doesn't say, well, boys like be boys, let bygones be bygones. He can't do that to be a holy righteous judge. So because it has to be punished, he sends Jesus, and here's what Jesus does. Obeys the law perfectly. Never says the wrong thing, never does a wrong deed, never utters a wrong word, never thinks a wrong thought. Keeps the law perfectly. So Jesus took our punishment. He took the curse for us so he could take the curse from us.
That's why the one thing we've got to have to be free from sin, free from shame, free from guilt, free from grief, is not found in religion, it's not found in rule keeping, it's not found in regulations, it's not found in righteousness, it is found in redemption, and that is only found in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, period. So, here's the point. You will never be right with God You will never be right with God until you lay down the law and lose your religion to Jesus. You'll never be right with God until you lay down the law and you lose your religion to Jesus. And that leads to the last thing, you ready? The law is an advocate for, not an addition to faith. The law is an advocate for, not an addition to faith.
Now Paul comes at this climatic statement when he reminds us the law will tell you what to achieve, but the Lord will tell you what to receive. So he says this. "Clearly," that is, look, by now I think you've got it figured out, clearly. "No one who relies on the law is justified before God". Why? "Because the righteous", i.e. the justified, "will live by," and say that word out loud. Faith. They'll live by faith. And then Paul is so brilliant, I mean, Paul knows how to twist a knife. He says okay you Judaizers, you Jewish boys and girls, you wanna go back to the law and the lawkeepers and all that? Okay, let's go back to the father who got all this stuff started, let's go back to Abraham. He says this. "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit".
So Paul said all of this to make one central point. You wanna be accepted by God? God wants to accept you. But he will only accept you his way. And it has nothing to do with your performance, it has nothing to do with your position, it has nothing to do with your popularity. It is not a matter of what we do for him, it is simply a matter of accepting by faith what he has done for us. And let me tell you, this is something, I mean, Paul is so brilliant. Why does he keep quoting the law? Why does he keep going back to the Old Testament? Why does he go back to Abraham? He's making a point and I don't want you to miss it. You know what he's telling these Judaizers? "Hey guys, this grace by faith thing I've been preaching, that's the way it's always been. It's never changed, it's never been different".
So let me just disabuse some of you of a notion you've carried out all of your life. You say, yeah. In the Old Testament, people were saved by keeping the law. No they weren't. Go find that in the Old Testament, you can't find it. You won't find anywhere from Genesis to Revelation where anybody, not Moses, not Joseph, not Abraham, not Daniel, not Isaiah, not Jeremiah, not Ezekiel. You won't find anybody anywhere in the Bible where is says they were saved by keeping the law. That's not how they were saved. A matter of fact, you know what? The Jews even understood they couldn't keep the law perfectly. You know how I know that? Because millions of lamb and millions of gallons of blood flow throughout the whole Old Testament.
Why do you think the Jews everywhere they went from the very beginning of their religion, why do you think they set up shop? So they could sacrifice lambs. Why do you think they did it, why do you think all these lambs were killed? Because it was a picture of redemption. A price had to be paid. You do the crime, you pay the time. So every time the Jews would get together, they watched that priest slit the throat of that lamb, and he'd poured out that blood and that sacrifice would be placed on the altar, here's what they were doing, here's what they were saying. "We get it, we understand it. All of our good works don't mean anything. Trying to keep all those commandments? It can't happen". So by faith they trusted that God would take the sacrifice of that lamb, and through that sacrifice and until the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus Christ came and made, he would accept that sacrifice as payment for and redemption of their sins.
That's why, hear me loudly and hear me clearly, the message of the Old Testament is no different than the message of the New Testament. It's exactly the same. How are we saved in the New Testament? We're saved by grace through faith. How were people saved in the Old Testament? They were saved by grace through faith. The law always pointed to grace, it never pointed to goodness. It always pointed to faith, it never pointed to fulfillment. And that's why there's always going to be only two choices you can make when it comes to having a relationship with God, finding acceptance with God, and knowing God. Okay, you're gonna make one of two choices, and you can't have it both ways. You're either going to try having a relationship with God with your goodness or God's grace. You can't have it both ways. You're either gonna try having a relationship with God with your religion or his redemption.
So here's where you gotta decide what you are. You're either the Home Depot do-it-yourself guy. You're trying to do it all yourself. You're trying to do all you can for God. And you're hoping, man, I hope he takes it, I hope he accepts the paper that I've written. I hope he takes the life that I've lived. I hope that my good outweighs the bad. And maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe he'll take me. Or you're coming to God and saying, I wouldn't trust the best five minutes I've ever lived to get me to you. I'm putting all of my trust in what Jesus has done for me. That's the ballgame. That's what you gotta decide. That's what you've got to understand. Because from one end of the Bible to the other, if you'd like to know, let me just tell you this.
And I'll wrap this up, I'm getting through early, I've got 2 1/2 minutes and I'm not even gonna take it, so Merry Christmas.The Bible's not hard to understand, it's really easy. No, there are part of it that are hard, I get that. But as a whole? No, it's real simple. Can I give you the message, you might wanna write this down, can I give you the message of the Bible in one sentence? It all has to do with the law. Okay, you ready? This will be worth coming to church for, here's the message. The lawmaker became the lawkeeper and died for me, a lawbreaker. That's the message of the Bible. The lawmaker became the lawkeeper and died for me, a lawbreaker. And when you finally understand that, here's what you'll do. You'll lay down the law, you'll lose your religion, and you'll find what I found as a nine-year-old boy. Everything you ever need at the foot of Jesus Christ.