Gospel Substitutes Part 1: Formalism

(Eds. note -- several of our church members are in the process of taking counseling courses from CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation).  These classes have inspired us to begin a new blog series that we hope will be helpful to you; we will analyze several modes of thinking that tempt us to replace the core message of the Gospel with something else.  The thoughts below and in subsequent posts in this series have been heavily influenced by Dr. Tim Lane’s lecture on Counseling in the Local Church). 

Jared was there most every time the proverbial church doors were open. He helped with set up, participated on the greeting team, faithfully attended the mid-week small group and sang on the worship team. Everyone loved Jared. Who wouldn’t? He was willing to help in any way. Well, except for Children’s Ministry. As a late 30’s single guy he drew the line there. It’s not that he didn’t like kids; he just liked them from more of a distance than teaching Sunday School allowed. And no one cared because Jared served in most every other way. He was one dependable guy.

One day, though, his pastor got a call from a panicked Jared asking if they could meet right away. It was then Jared confessed a couple of sexual encounters with co-workers and a recent immoral incident over Skype with someone he met online. A former lover discovered she knew someone from Jared’s church and threatened to expose his “two-faced hypocrisy.” Jared knew it was time to bring his secret life out into the open.

Over time Jared came to see that formalism had replaced God in his life. Formalism “reduces the gospel to participation in the scheduled meetings and ministries of the church” (Tim Lane). Serving God in public had slowly replaced pursuing God in private. Jared was broken, confused and ashamed.

Jared didn’t realize he had exchanged his relationship with God for robust service to the church. He didn’t set out to excuse his immorality with a view of grace that says, “God understands. He forgives. And I’m sure He’s okay because of all I do for my church.” In fact, he was theologically astute and thus would have argued with anyone who suggested that active involvement in the church means secret sin isn’t really that bad.

But self-deception had nonetheless leaked into Jared’s mind and heart.

Formalism shrouds genuine and passionate pursuit of Christ Himself. And it’s common. As a pastor’s wife of over 40 years, I have had my share of seasons of formalism. In one season in particular I was busily teaching my kids regularly about the gospel through morning devotions, overseeing an active women’s ministry in our church, meeting with women privately for fellowship and mentoring, doing some professional writing on Christian issues and speaking at various churches or conferences on women’s issues. But my private devotional life was sporadic and dry. My pursuit of God was too limited to preparing to minister to others rather than feeding my own weary soul.

I wasn’t having hidden sexual encounters with anyone. Yet the same self-deceptive pride that elevated private ministry over personal engagement with the person of Christ made me and Jared much more alike than we were different.

Do you struggle with formalism? Here are some possible symptoms for you (and I) to consider. Do you regularly:

• Show up to meeting more out of duty than delight in being with God and His people?
• Seek acceptance and approval from others by serving or being the “go to” person when help is needed?
• Skirt conviction of hidden sin by reminding yourself of how dedicated you are to your church?
• Read the Bible primarily to check your devotions off for that week rather than to experience God in the scriptures?
• Give financially to appease your conscience rather than out of joy at the privilege of participating in your church’s vision and mission?
• Hide sin or recurring temptations from others while continuing to serve and attend meetings faithfully?

When formalism replaces personal pursuit of God, believe me, the delight of working alongside people in advancing His glorious kingdom slowly eeks the spiritual life out of you. Over time the very serving that once brought you joy and the heart that said, “Yes! I get to be with God’s people today!” is replaced by dutiful and mechanical behaviors.

The fact is this: God will have no other gods before Himself. I’ve found that making my personal pursuit of God a priority is much harder work than teaching Sunday School or preparing my house for a church party or getting my heart ready to meet with a gal I’m mentoring. One of the dangers of formalism is that the behaviors it requires make the spiritually anemic Christian look really good.

And formalism isn’t the only gospel-substitute that robs us of life-giving and vital spiritual health. In the coming days we’ll talk about legalism, mysticism, activism, psychologism and socialism – ism’s all rooted in good and God-honoring things like church involvement and serving – that can slowly creep into my heart as substitutes for the kind life-changing and Christ-pursuing that God is calling us to.

Am I saying that staying home to pursue God means we don’t have to attend meetings or serve in the church? Certainly not. These things are not only needed but are also commanded in scripture.  We should absolutely continue to attend meetings, serve and give faithfully even if we don't feel like it.  But Jared and I learned that sometimes serving God can become a counterfeit for loving Him. Mary and Martha learned that lesson, too. Remember?

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