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.