Formalism's Ever-Menacing Peril

Formal religion, one consisting of mere doctrine, form, and ritual, easily maintains itself, for it has become rigid and set. The testimony of his­tory demonstrates this.

BY J. W. WESTPHAL

Formal religion, one consisting of mere doctrine, form, and ritual, easily maintains itself, for it has become rigid and set. The testimony of his­tory demonstrates this. Accordingly, the various forms of paganism have maintained themselves unchanged for millenniums. Mohammedanism, a religion in which the carnal nature is predominant, is still essentially what it was from the beginning, knowing no change of heart nor growth of spiritual life, there being no lower depths to which it could sink. Catholicism, without any real conception of spiritual life, continues as it has been for centuries. The secret of its changelessness is in the death stupor that en­velops it. It lives on in this condition because it has no spiritual life to lose.

Any church, after it has degenerated into formalism, may continue the same, or nearly so, almost indefinitely. Whatever of truth it has brought with it may remain, but stripped of its vitality. The same is true of the indi­vidual. He will maintain and proclaim his religious theories and fight to the death for them, and will pride himself on faithfulness to his creed and his orthodoxy, and all the while be devoid of spiritual life.

But it is different with a religion that is de­pendent on life, as is true Christianity. It also has doctrines and forms that are essential to its existence, but its virtue and the value of all its teaching lies in its life. This is its es­sence. When this takes flight, it inevitably de­generates into bleak formalism.

To retain this life, a continual conflict is unavoidable. The carnal nature will ever seek to assert itself, and it requires a continual fight to maintain the faith by which we lay hold of eternal life. "Fight the good fight of faith," says the Lord. Unbelief has always been the besetting sin of God's people, not as concerns correct doctrines and forms,—although it will also involve these,—but primarily with refer­ence to our personal relation to God as His children. This unbelief in Christ as our personal and experimental Saviour closes the channel through which the life current flows from the riven side of the Lord into the heart and life of the child of God. To retain this assurance and certainty requires continual consecration, unceasing spiritual meditation, denial of carnal desires, the suppression of self, with all that this includes, together with per­sistent, persevering, prevailing prayer.

In this is disclosed the reason why the church so quickly degenerates into formalism. Even those who have had the life, and the churches which have had it in abundance, lose it if they neglect the conditions of its retention. Doc­trines may be received as a heritage from fa­ther to son, but life must be received directly and constantly from God through Christ. Un­less this is kept to the front in all Christian teaching and practice, it will not be long before the husk alone remains, and of this the church or the individual may be unconscious in all the confidence of orthodoxy.

Here we have the reason why that noble vine brought out of Egypt, so carefully planted in a fruitful soil, and protected and provided for, degenerated into bringing forth only wild grapes. It is the reason for the change in the church represented by the change of the apoca­lyptic horse from white to red, then black, and pale,—where death and destruction followed. It has been the bane of Protestantism as a whole, and of Protestants as individuals, until today, as in the past, life is preserved only in a few—a remnant. And in these few life will be retained only at the cost of conflict, con­stant submission to Christ, and the appeals of sacred Scripture, with the Spirit's far-reaching application, and all in simple faith in our rela­tion thereto.

The danger is not less at present than at any time in the past. Since it is true that Satan has come down with great wrath at this time, the danger to the remnant church is vastly greater. His successful methods of the past he will now endeavor to use with even greater effectiveness.

A great system of truth in which the isolated truths of all time are gathered and placed in a new setting, that of the threefold message, is confided to us. Because of the light thus given, we are favored above any other people that have ever lived. But unless we, as a church and as individuals, maintain that living rela­tion to God through faith in Him as our per­sonal Saviour," we shall have ultimately but a shell of religion left, a beautiful theory that cannot save us. The inevitable result will be formalism, dependence on a creed, whether written or unwritten, as a hoped-for carnal security.

This is perhaps the most insidious peril that confronts us collectively as a movement, and in­dividually as workers in that movement. Let every soul beware of Satan's schemes, for none of us are exempt from his assaults.

Glendale, Calif.


Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

BY J. W. WESTPHAL

March 1934

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Romantic Story of "Codex Sinaiticus"

The announcement, made in the House of Commons, that the British Museum has the opportunity of acquiring, by purchase from the government of the Soviet Republics, the famous Codex Sinaiticus will send a thrill through the heart of very one who is interested in the his­tory of the Bible.

Floodlights on the Greek New Testament

How new insights and discoveries are shedding light on the New Testament.

Keep the Pulpit Tidy

In Israel's day God gave explicit instruction as to the care of His sanctuary, and later of the temple, not only concerning the outward appearance, but each piece of furniture was to be used only for that to which it had been dedicated. Should we not be as careful now with God's house of worship and furniture?

Editorial Keynotes

The Formation of the New Testament Canon No. 3

Has Our Vision Changed?

Are we still voices crying out in the wilderness?

Solemnizing the Baptismal Service

Any undue haste in the administering of this ordinance seems to detract somewhat from its solemnity.

The Better Workman

Improvement in Method and Technique

The "Lord's Day" of Revelation 1:10

A look at the meaning of kurios in the New Testament.

Marriage, And Ministerial Responsibility

Time and again I have been com­pelled by this instruction to decline to perform the marriage ceremony between members of our church and those of other communions, or of no religious faith at all.

Concerning the Ten Toes

Are the several divisions of the great image of Daniel 2 primarily anatomical or metallic? In other words, should we stress the "ten toes," or merely the divided, non-adhering aspect of the "feet" (including the unnumbered toes), in the final phase of the prophecy?

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All