Formalism in Christianity

Samuel Smith

Formalism in Christianity

This topic deserves serious attention at any time. But it deserves special notice in this age of the Church and the world. Formalism and false profession has never been so common in the world since our Lord Jesus ascended into Heaven, as there is in these evil last days. Now, more than ever, we ought to examine ourselves, and search our hearts, that we may know what sort it really is. Let us try to find out whether our Christian profession is only a mere outward show or a genuine profession from the heart.

Formalism and mere outward show of Christianity are a part of the great sins of this day, under which the whole world groans. There is more light than there was, but less life; more profession, but less holiness. We must learn first, that "formal Christianity is not Christianity, and a formal Christian is not a Christian in God's sight." What do I mean when I speak of formal Christianity? This is a point that must be made clear. Thousands of us, I suspect, do not know anything about it. Without a clear understanding of this point, this whole article will be useless. My first step will be to paint, describe, and define formalism in Christianity.

When we are Christians in name only, and not in reality--in outward things only, and not in our inward feelings--in profession only, and not in practice--when our Christian profession is a mere matter of form, or fashion, or custom, without any influence on our hearts or lives- -in such a case as this, we have what I call a "formal religion." We possess indeed the "form," or shell, or surface of religion, but we do not possess its "substance" or its "power."

Let us look for examples among the thousands of us whose whole Christian behaviour seem to consist in keeping religious ceremonies and ordinances. We regularly attend public worship. We regularly go to the Lord's Table. But we never get any further. We know nothing of true heartfelt Christianity. We are not familiar with the Scriptures, and take no delight in reading them. We do not separate ourselves from the ways of the world. We do not differentiate between godliness and ungodliness in our friendships, or matrimonial alliances. We care little or nothing about which of the various doctrines of the Gospel in our world today are true and which are not. We appear completely indifferent as to what we hear preached.

Should people find themselves in our presence for weeks, from what they will hear or see on any day, they might easily assume we are atheists. What can be said about those of us that are like that? Clearly, we claim to be Christians; and yet there is neither heart nor life in our Christian walk. There is but one thing to be said about those of us in this sad condition--we are formal Christians. Our Christianity is only a FORM.

I would ask all my Readers to look in another direction at those hundreds of us whose Christian profession seems to consist of a lot of talk and forms. Most of us know the theory of the Gospel with our heads, and profess to delight in the Truth. We can say a lot about the "soundness" of our own views, and the "ignorance" of all who disagree with us. But we never get any further! When people examine our inner lives they find that we know nothing of practical godliness. We are neither truthful, nor loving, nor humble, nor honest, nor kind, nor gentle, nor giving, nor honorable. What shall people say of those of us who are like that? We claim to be Christians, and yet there is neither substance nor fruit in our behaviour. There is but one thing to be said-- We are formal Christians. Our Christian profession is only an empty FORM.

My beloved Brothers and Sisters, this is the formal Christianity which I wish to raise a warning voice against this day. Here is the rock on which many of us from every part of the world are destroying our souls. One of the wickedest things that was ever said was this: "Don't worry about your Christian lifestyle, but only the appearance of it." Such notions are from the earth. No, rather they are from beneath the earth: they smell of the pit. Let us beware of them, and stand on our guard. If there is anything about which the Holy Bible speaks expressly, it is the sin and uselessness of FORMALISM.

Any of us can be a Christian by outward profession--a member of a Christian Church--baptized with Christian baptism--faithful in receiving the Lord's Supper--and yet in God's sight, not a Christian at all. During the days of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth, what did we find Him saying of the Jews of His day: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men" (Matthew 15:8-9). We see Him repeatedly denouncing the formalism and hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, and warning His disciples against it. Eight times in one chapter (Matthew 23:13) He says to them, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!"

But for the worst of sinners He always had a word of kindness, and held out to them an open door. But formalism, He would have us know, is a desperate disease, and must be exposed in the severest language. To the eye of an ignorant man a formalist may seem to have a very decent "quantity" of religion, though not perhaps of the best "quality." In the eye of Christ, however, the case is very different. In His sight formalism is not true Christianity at all.

What shall we say to the testimonies of Scripture against Formalism within Christianity? It would be easy to add to them. They do not stand alone. If words mean anything, they are a clear warning to all those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians. They teach us plainly that as we dread sin and avoid sin, so we ought to dread formalism and avoid formalism. Formalism may take the hand of each and everyone of us with a smile, and look like a brother, while sin comes against us with drawn sword, and strikes at us like an enemy. But both have one end in view. Both want to ruin our souls; and of the two, formalism is the one most likely to do it. If we love life, let us beware of formalism in our Christian behaviour.

Nothing is "so common" than formalism in Christianity at this end of the world. It is one of the great family diseases of the whole race of mankind. It is born with us, grows with us, and is never completely cast out of us till we die. It meets us in church, it meets us among the rich, and it meets us among the poor. It meets us among educated people, and it meets us among the uneducated. It meets us among the Roman Catholics, and it meets us among Protestants. It meets us among the leaders of the church, and it meets us among the newest member. Go wherever we will, and join whatever Church we may, we are never beyond the risk of its infection. Any of us who think that there is no formal religion in his or her church, need to look again. If we love life, let us beware of formalism.

There is nothing "so dangerous" to our own souls than formalism in our walk with God. Familiarity with the form of religion, while we neglect its power, has a fearfully deadening effect on the conscience. It brings up by degrees a thick crust of insensibility over our whole inner man. Nobody seems to become so desperately hard as those of us who are continually repeating holy words and handling holy things, while our hearts are running after sin and the world. Leaders of our society, who go to church just for show, to make everyone think they are religious--fathers who have family prayers formally, to keep up a good appearance in their homes--unrepentant pastors, who every week are reading prayers and lessons of Scripture, in which they feel no real interest--unrepentant church members, who are constantly reading responses and saying "Amen," without feeling what they say--unrepentant singers, who sing the most spiritual hymns during every church service, merely because they have good voices, while their affections are entirely on things below--all, all, all are in awful danger. We those who in this deadly condition are gradually hardening our hearts, and searing the skin of our consciences. If we love our own souls, then we should guard our walk with God against formalism.

Can those of us that are formal Christians really suppose that the mere outward Christianity we profess will comfort us in the day of sickness and the hour of our death? That is impossible! A painting of a fire cannot warm, and a painted banquet cannot satisfy hunger, and a formal religion cannot bring peace to the soul. Can we suppose that God does not see the heartlessness and deadness of our relationship with Him? Though we may deceive our neighbors, acquaintances, fellow worshippers, and pastors with a form of godliness, do we think that we can deceive God? The very idea is absurd. "Does He who formed the eye not see?" He knows the very secrets of the heart. He will "judge the secrets of men" at the last day. He who said to each of the seven Churches, "I know your works," has not changed. He who said to the man without the wedding garment, "Friend, how did you get in here?" will not be deceived by our little cloak of outward religion. If we don't want to be put to shame at the last day, once more I say, let us beware of formalism (see Psalm 94:9; Romans 2:16; Revelation 2:2; Matthew 22:11).

We should not fail to lose sight of the important fact that the heart is the seat of true Christianity, and the true Christian is the one who is a Christian in his or her heart. The heart is the real test of our character. It is not what we say or what we do by which we may be always known. We may say and do things that are right, from false and unworthy motives, while the heart of each and everyone of us is altogether wrong. The heart defines us. As we think in our heart, so we are (Proverbs 23:7).

The heart of each and everyone of us is the right test of our Christian walk. It is not enough that we hold to correct doctrine, and maintain a proper outward form of godliness. What is in the heart of each and everyone of us? That is the great question. That is what God looks at. Are we new creatures? Do we really believe in Christ? Are we really living righteous lives?" These are the grand questions that we must seek to answer. When our hearts are wrong, all is wrong in God's sight." Many right things may be done. The forms and ordinances which God Himself has appointed may seem to be honored. But so long as our hearts are at fault, God is not pleased. He will either have all our hearts or nothing at all.

The things I am emphasizing here may sound strange. Perhaps they may oppose all the notions of some Readers into whose hands this article has fallen. My dear Reader, perhaps you have thought that if a man's religion is correct outwardly, he must be one with whom God is well pleased. But as you can see from this article, that is not correct. Outward correctness without a right heart is neither more or less than living like a Pharisee. The outward forms of Christianity such as Baptism, the Lord's Supper, Church-membership, Giving, Bible reading, and the like practiced coldly for its own sake WILL NEVER TAKE THE SOUL OF ANY OF US TO HEAVEN.

There are churches at this end of the world where all the outward things of Christianity are done to perfection. The building is beautiful. The service is beautiful. The singing is beautiful. The forms of devotion are beautiful. There is everything to satisfy the senses but God is not pleased. One important thing is lacking; which is the heart. If God does not see converted, renewed, broken, penitent hearts, then He is not pleased! Bowed heads, bended knees, loud Amens, eyes lifted to heaven, all, all are nothing in God's sight if our hearts are not right. For it is on the inward things of the heart that God's eyes are mainly fixed.

However, let me only give one word of caution to all of us. Let us not in any way suppose that because formal Christianity will not save, and so therefore, the forms of Christianity are of no use at all. We should watch out for such extremes. The fact that a thing is misused is not an argument against its right use. The blind idolatry of outward Christianity that is common in our world in these last days is not a reason why we should throw away all the outward forms of Christianity. We should always bear in mind that anybody who has only an outward form of Christianity is a hypocrite; and a person that does not obey the outward forms of Christianity is almost an atheist. The mere outward forms of Christianity cannot save us, but we should not despise and reject them. A light is not a man's home, and yet it helps a man find his house when he is traveling home on a dark night. Let us use the forms of outward Christianity diligently, and we will find them a blessing. We should only remember that in all our use of the outward forms of Christianity, our hearts must be right with God.

Paul Fonsi