By Dr. Norman H. Wells
Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas
under Dr. J. Frank Norris been 1947-1949.
Pastor of Central Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio
from 1950 until his homegoing in 1978.
"Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell?" (Matt. 23:33) It was shots like this that Jesus fired as he began attacking the entrenched position of the organized, established, religion of his day! The religious atmosphere began to crackle with the intensity of the charges he leveled. These were not powderpuff taps but sledgehammer blows. When Jesus engaged the religionists in combat it was not just a routine, minor skirmish between competing religious scholars over some minor theological question but was a declaration of all out war ... a fight to the finish. There was no mistaking his language nor to whom it was directed. It was not aimed at the drunk in the gutter nor the harlot on the corner but to the respected, refined religionists quarreling over the uppermost rooms in their ornate houses of worship! This was not language that was refined with subtleties and niceties until it lost any force. This was a punch in the nose and there was no mistaking the intent because it rocked the religionists right down to their broad phylacteries.
It became immediately obvious that Christ saw no hope in reclamation or revitalization of the existing religious establishment. He looked upon it as a failure and a hindrance and set about to plow it under in order to plant a new crop. Slugging it out in head to head conflict with the religionists is a part of the ministry of Christ that receives little attention yet the blow by blow account of this struggle runs through all four Gospels. Jesus Christ versus religion!
The battleIines were drawn and Jesus quickly identified the enemy. The religionists would march up to Jesus in all their regal splendor and he would shoot them down by declaring, "Ye are of your father the devil." (John 8:44) They reeled back in utter, disarray as he charged that theirs was "the greater damnation." (Matt. 23:14) The population listened in amazement and in the heart of some there began to grow the thrill of recognizing that here was one, openly and bravely, voicing that which they had, timidly and secretly, long felt to be true. The furor increased and there was no room left for compromise as Jesus cried out that the religionists were the children of hell who were not going to enter the kingdom of heaven! He said they opposed God and persecuted His spokesmen. This was a showdown and in this conflict there would have to emerge a victor and a loser ... there would be no in-between, no compromise.
The long robes of the religious leaders must have trembled as they shook in rage before the onslaught of Christ as he charged, "Ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men." (Matt. 23:13) This was a body blow, Not only, Christ declared, were these religious leaders not entering into the kingdom of heaven but they were keeping others from entering. Not only did Jesus describe them as children of hell but said they were guilty of enticing those they were leading into the same condition. To have been accused of cutthroat murder would have been mild in comparison to this charge.
In all probability the righteousness of the religious establishment had never been questioned. No one would dare! Their piety and holiness were known and spoken of far and wide. A great part of their activities dealt with virtue and cleanliness. Christ acknowledged this well known trait when he said, "Ye outwardly appear righteous unto men," but shot it down when he added, "but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." (Matt. 23:28) Hypocrisy! How this charge must have cut. Christ said they were only concerned about cleaning the outside of the cup while within were extortion and excess. (Matt. 23:25)
Hypocrisy! Over and over this charge was hurled. As the religious leaders piously stood in the streets making long prayers Jesus said it was all a pretense and he warned that the religionists "say and do not." (Matt. 23:3)
To demonstrate their love for the Scriptures the religionists would strap portions of the Scriptures around their head and arm. Christ looked at this practice and declared the only reason they had for doing this was, "to be seen of men." (Matt. 23:5) Pride! Making a show of their religion! Christ exposed this pride when he said they "love the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues." (Matt. 23:6) He added that they loved to hear themselves addressed by fancy religious titles. Their chief concern in their religion was to impress other men.
Jesus recognized that all reality in religion had been buried under the multiplied minute precepts and distinctions of the pompous religionists. The inner experience had been sacrificed to the outward appearance. The spirit had been smothered by hundreds of interpretations of the letter and this had finally led to an acceptance of error in preference to the truth. Jesus said the religionists had "taken away the key of knowledge" (Luke 11:35) and were "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." (Matt. 15:9) They were "blind leaders of the blind." (Matt. 15:14)
After recovering from the first stunning impact of this onslaught the religionists counterattacked with vigor. "He hath a devil," (John 10:20) they cried. They accused him of blasphemy and held councils how they might entangle him in his talk and discredit him before the people. They made repeated attempts to destroy him and finally succeeded as they delivered him up to be executed.
One cannot read the Gospels without being aware of this conflict between Christ and religion. He deliberately exposed the sham, deceit, hypocrisy, pride, error, and failure of the established religion and warmed against its deadly, smothering effect. He knew it had to be swept away before the reality of the truth that he brought could be felt. In our generation the worship and service of the God of the Bible again finds itself encrusted with the same kind of accumulation and the desperate need is to again allow the words of Christ to expose this condition and destroy it that the truth and reality of religion might again shine forth. Religion today bears the same characteristics that Jesus so vigorously condemned. The four or five sects that represented the worship of the living God in the time of Christ have been replaced by the dozens of different denominations and cults of today, but the same deadly disease still plagues them: deceit, sham, hypocrisy, pride, error, and failure. One does not have to be an authority on religion nor make an in-depth study of each of these denominations to arrive at these conclusions. All one has to do is look at the product of these denominations, that is, Christianity, as it is in America today.
Religion in the United States today is a failure in the same manner as religion during the time of Christ's earthly ministry. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, as worthless as a religion that does not work. To be weighted down with a worthless religion is a constant frustration. One of the truly amazing things is why a people who will not tolerate failure anywhere else will so meekly accept it in religion. Practically everyplace where religion is supposed to exert an influence it is being defeated. It is failing to meet the spiritual needs of the individual. Instead of the love, joy, and peace that religion is to impart we have a continual increase in tension, anxiety, and fear.
Real religion is a deterrent to crime, yet we find ourselves caught up in a constant increase in crime and lawlessness. Disregard for law and order has become an accepted way of life and today's religion is having little or no effect. The moral strength of this country is in a steady decline. Everywhere materialistic values are being substituted for the spiritual ones. Religion is failing while immorality is flourishing and juvenile delinquency is on the rise. The moral standards that religion has set are flouted and ridiculed. Pornography and smut are accepted and preferred in our literature, movies, and stage shows and religion seems to make no impact. Drunkenness continues to be one of our greatest problems and increases year after year. Again, religion has failed. A nation founded upon deep religious convictions is now systematically purging itself of this identity. In every aspect of life where religion is a factor it is failing.
Is it possible for anyone today to even briefly entertain the thought that if Christ walked our streets on any Sunday morning, looked at the hundreds of fine church buildings, heard the organs and singing, listened to the sermons, and observed the people that he would again cry out, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of Hell?" (Matt. 23:33). In all probability no one would give this kind of thinking much, if any, consideration. It is too easy to prove that religion is a "success." Religion has more money, more people, more prestige, more buildings, more schools, more hospitals, more missionaries.... just about more of everything than at any time in all history.
Why, just about everyone belongs to some church ... the government leaders, the bankers, the doctors, the lawyers, the movie stars, the leading sports figures, etc. How much more religious can you get? It is almost impossible for today's religionist to even for a moment think that the language of Christ could apply to today's religion as well as when the words were first spoken. It was surely our generation that Jesus had in mind when he said, "Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." (Rev. 3:17) Any honest appraisal of religion today would reveal that spiritually it is wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, but religion will not look ... it is too busy impressing everyone with facts and figures that prove success. Why is it so difficult to be honest about religion?
In every aspect of human life where religion is a factor it is failing. This failure is obvious but the amazing thing is that no one seems to be willing to acknowledge it is happening. Most religion goes right on making the colossal pretense that all is well and that religion is marching victoriously onward and upward. This refusal to admit failure and the insistence upon keeping up the pretense of success has produced a religion that is a deliberate deception. Too often religion has chosen to deny its obvious failure and to give itself to a promotion of a pretense of success.
Not only is today's religion failing but it is also looked upon as a fake. It no longer is fulfilling its purpose for existence but continues to pretend that it does. Deliberate deception with the design of securing unfair advantage or allegiance is fraud. Most of religion today would come under this indictment. It operates under false pretenses. It promises but does not deliver. It blatantly demands respect for its deceits and solicits support for its fraudulent designs. This is a racket, a religion racket!
The amazing thing is that so many recognize that most of today's religion is a fraud and yet approvingly accept it as such. Our inherited respect and reverence forbids us to unmask this religion racket. In honesty we cannot accept it and our spiritual need won't let us reject it. To be at least half safe we give it token toleration. To a great number the deliberate deceptions and fraudulent claims of much of today's religion have become so obvious that they look upon it as a ridiculous farce. And it is!
The tragedy is that real religion is buried under the maze of contradicting claims, tired traditions, and deliberate deceits of this racket in religion. It has cloaked itself in superficial sanctity and hides from honest appraisal. It is time to bring today's religion out into the light of a full investigation of its reality ... not its pretense.
Reliable religion has to do with man's relationship to his God and to his fellowman. It will saturate his entire being and bring about a conformity of his heart and life to his religious beliefs. The effect of a man's religion will reveal itself in every aspect of his life. It will express itself in dedicated worship, sacrificial service, and holy, honorable living. It determines our morals and eternal destiny. Religion has to do with the spiritual, the supernatural, and the eternal. Religion, by its very nature, must be accepted as of supreme importance or be utterly rejected. Here, above all else, we should be true and genuine. There should be a profound sacredness that would penetrate and influence our entire existence.
Sacred and spiritual things should demand solemn, serious, penetrating consideration. Our worship should express a reverence, bathed in respect and esteem. Our purpose is to exalt and to magnify in humble adoration. In religion man is to find the fulfillment of his purpose for existence. Its fruitage is the realization of the peace, joy, and love that man must have.
Contrast real religion with the current crop of counterfeits and we will find nothing more than shallow substitutes.
Are we ready for this?
Are we willing to refuse the substitute and to demand the real thing? Are we ready to discard our sacred shams and pompous pretenses? Are we ready to be honest about religion?
If all this sounds vaguely familiar to you it might be because it has all been said before. One of the prophets wrote, "This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me." Christ described the religionists of his day as hypocrites that, "say and do not." He also said, "All their works they do to be seen of men" and that "for a pretense make long prayers." Christ denounced the pretense in his day in no uncertain terms. He said, "Ye also appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." When he looked at their worship service he said, "In vain do they worship me." It was said of church goers, "They profess that they know him, but in works they deny him."
This condition had to be exposed and destroyed before Christianity could be born. It will again have to be exposed and destroyed if Christianity is to be reborn in our generation.
-- From Dr. Wells’ book The Religion Racket.