This Sunday, we were urged, from Mark 7:1-23, to get to the heart because external ritual cannot purify us from the inside-out defilement of sin. In Mark 7, we see how the Pharisees relied upon the traditions of the elders and the rituals of ceremonial washings to give the illusion of moral purity and superiority. They built fences to keep them and others from falling off the cliff of breaking God’s commandments, but they failed to see that the chasm of sin opens up anywhere a human heart exists. As John Calvin said, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
However, this leaves a question that we only addressed in passing in the sermon on Sunday, “How do we repent of our ritualism?” We said a number of times on Sunday that rituals, habits, or even traditions are not wrong in and of themselves. It is not wrong to have specific habits of Bible study and prayer, or to have guidelines that help you avoid tempting media, to confess your sins as a regular practice, or to attend church on a Sunday morning. These habits or “traditions” can be extremely helpful in helping us grow closer to Christ. The problem enters when we idolize the ritual or habit or tradition and think that it is the commandment of God itself. You could say the problem is not the ritual, but the ritualism. The problem is not the tradition, but the traditionalism.
And yet, as we mentioned from Jeremiah 17:9, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” Our rituals to avoid sin often sneak up onto the altar of our hearts. They become “functional saviors,” meaning that even though we say we believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord, we really trust the ritual or tradition instead. In effect, we replace our sins with the ritual itself, which is another form of idolatry.
Therefore, just as we must “get to the heart” in order to understand sin, we must also “get to the heart” in order to understand repentance. If defilement comes from a sin-sick heart, then purification must start by healing the heart. We read in Hebrews 9 that Jesus offered himself to purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Repentance must start with a change in what we believe will functionally save us, and it must result in works that no longer defile but serve the living God.
In order to repent in this way, the idol or functional god must not be replaced with a ritual, which is just another type of functional god. It must be replaced with the worship of Jesus Christ himself.
For example, if I find myself yelling at other drivers on the road, I must acknowledge the following series of truths:
My words come from within my heart, not from external forces. My yelling is not the result of the other person’s bad driving, the stress that is going on in my day, the example my dad set for me when I was a child, or anything else. I am defiled by calling that other driver a fool (or more common, an “idiot”) because of the sinful overflow of my own heart.
The heart produces defiling sin when it ultimately loves, trusts, seeks, or adores anything other than God. The problem is fundamentally a WORSHIP problem before it is interpersonal. This is what makes it sin. In the case of yelling at other drivers, I could be angry because I am worshipping my own superior driving ability. I could be yelling because I am over-attached to being somewhere on time and looking good to other people. I could be yelling because I feel out of control in another area of life, and so I’m grasping for control on the road. Whatever it is, I’m worshiping something more than God. Ask yourself, “What am I loving/trusting/seeking instead of God in this moment?”
The misplaced worship must be replaced by the worship of God. It is at this point that we could replace one false worship with another. We could feel so guilty about yelling that we try to say 10 nice things to someone when we arrive at the place we are going. We could try to overcome our anger by counting to 10 or getting our mind onto something else. But the only true resolution to the problem is to confess our sinful idolatry (whatever is the answer to the question at the end of point 2), to acknowledge Jesus’ sufficient, gracious, purifying work, and to elevate God in worship above the false idol we had been worshiping. This occurs as we relate to the Lord through prayer and the word by faith. Note: the operative word there is relate. Prayer and the word are not to be treated as rituals or as the end in themselves. They are the means to the end of relating with our Lord.
The heart-level worship of God must transform the way we relate to others. We cannot serve or worship the living God while still spewing anger or hatred to others (see James 3:9-10). But we don’t stop spewing anger or hatred through ritual or will-power. We stop by elevating Christ in our hearts. We repent by “changing our mind” and therefore changing our object of worship.
External ritual cannot purify us from internal defilement. That is why repentance must get to the heart. Ritual is only useful insofar as it helps us to truly relate to the Lord in worship, love, trust and heart-level obedience. This week, as you come to terms with the internal nature of your sin, seek a repentance that equally addresses your heart, worshiping the Lord above the prevailing functional saviors to which we run.