What exactly is it we believe about God? Better yet, what should we believe about God? The Scriptures are obviously our most important guide here for followers of Jesus. Recent results from The State of Theology survey conducted last year by LifeWay and Ligonier Ministries, however, suggests that folks who self-consciously identify themselves as followers of Jesus hold some beliefs about Him and about the Christian worldview that do not line up with the Scriptures in any way, shape, or form. Over the next few weeks leading to Easter, we are going to examine some of the most egregious examples and talk about why the truth is so much better. In this first part, we will address the idea that God accepts worship from all different religions. Let’s dig in to see what’s true and how we can live in light of that.
A few years ago, I was given a Kobalt 80V battery-operated leaf blower. All the leaf blowers I had owned to that point were ones you had to plug in. Being able to go cordless for the first time (and at a point when leaves in our backyard will pile up to a foot deep in the fall if we don’t stay on it) was fantastic. What I like even more than its power and portability, though, is the fact that its battery works in multiple different tools. I now own a leaf blower, a set of hedge trimmers, and a chainsaw that all use the same battery. That is just super convenient.
We love things with interchangeable parts. It makes it easier to get things done. If you have something like that and part of it goes bad, you just swap the bad part out for a good one and you can keep right on rolling. Who wouldn’t want that? But, when something is made with interchangeable parts, the reason those parts are interchangeable is because they are designed to go bad fairly quickly. They’re not built to last. The manufacturer or designer assumes that those are the parts that will break first, and so rather than upping the quality to account for that, they simply make replacing them easier.
When you want something that is truly high quality, though, you have to get it all custom-made. You want it built by hand and built to last. People will pay for this kind of thing too. The most expensive cars in the world are not built in a factory. They’re made by hand. Each vehicle is one-of-a-kind. They are carefully crafted works of art. It is this very artisanal nature that makes them so valuable. There is a place for things that are interchangeable, make no mistake. But the very best ones are unique.
Well, this morning we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series. This is going to take us from now until Easter. Over the next few weeks what we are going to be doing together is taking a look at some results from a survey done last year on the state of theology in the United States. Now, I’ll grant you that at first hearing, that probably doesn’t sound like it’s going to be all that exciting. After all, who spends time reading through survey results other than really nerdy people? (If you happen to be one of those like I am, you can find all the results and explore them for yourself at http://www.thestateoftheology.com.) But these particular results were pretty interesting…interesting enough, I think, to be worth our time.
Okay, but aren’t sermons supposed to be rooted in the Bible, not survey results? Of course they are. Accordingly, our look at these data is absolutely going to be rooted in Scripture. But given what these data tell us about not just the culture in general, but about the church, we can’t ignore this.
So then, what is this data that is so earthshaking that we simply can’t ignore it? It is the results of a survey done by Lifeway and Ligonier Ministries. Lifeway you have perhaps heard of. They primarily produce Bible study curriculum for Southern Baptist Churches. In addition to a curriculum department, Lifeway also has a research department that has been active for a long time in doing great work to provide the kind of data necessary to produce good literature. Ligonier Ministries is a discipleship ministry that was founded with the goal of training up disciples who understand well the deep and abiding truths of the faith. These two organizations partner together regularly to fund and produce research designed to help the church and church leaders know what kinds of things both the world and the church need to better understand about Jesus and the Christian worldview in order to become fully what He intends for us to be.
Every other year, these two ministries survey the country to find out what it believes about various key doctrines and truths of the faith. In addition to asking a whole variety of people these questions about theology, though, the survey also collects demographic data. This allows the researchers to filter the results through a variety of lenses to see what kinds of meaningful trends emerge.
Well, one of these categories is religious belief. Specifically, you can filter the data for just how committed to the historically orthodox, rooted-in-Scripture Christian worldview a person is. Well, in this year’s survey results, there were a number of different questions in which the nation as a whole expressed a belief about God or the Christian faith that wasn’t correct. This should not be a surprise. The world around us mostly isn’t following Jesus and so we shouldn’t expect it to believe things about Jesus that are right and true and in accordance with the Scriptures. What was surprising, though, was that on several of these occasions, people the researchers identified as committed Christians because of their answers to some separate theological questions expressed the same beliefs as the nation as a whole.
Friends, when what we say we believe about Jesus matches what the world says it believes about Jesus, we’ve got a problem on our hands. And so, while I know that you guys are smarter than the average congregation, and your beliefs about Jesus are more on track than the professed followers of Jesus represented by these survey results, you may know some people whose aren’t. I want to make sure that you are equipped to teach them what is right because belief dictates behavior. If someone doesn’t believe consistently like a follower of Jesus, eventually they’re going to no longer behave consistently like a follower of Jesus. And when someone is no longer behaving or believing consistently as a follower of Jesus, it’s hard to keep calling them a follower of Jesus. This all means something else too. If one of these folks whose belief and behavior don’t line up with what is revealed for us in the Scriptures is a part of a church, this means that the church has failed at one of its most fundamental disciple-making jobs. We can’t abide either of these things happening. By making sure our beliefs are on the right track, we are equipping ourselves to keep friends and neighbors from drifting away from the path of Christ and to help those who haven’t started walking it in the first place understand why it’s worth their time. So, for the next few weeks, in a new series called, What We Believe, we are going to be talking about just that.
This all brings us to this morning. While this survey was rigorously scientific in its approach, our journey through it is going to be a bit more casual. We’re going to start with the first statement where the world and the church agreed and go from there. And the first statement where this overlap occurs is statement number three. The statement, which seeks a response of varying degrees of agreement or disagreement, reads like this: “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” Now, don’t answer this out loud, but think for just a second about how you would respond to that. Strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, I have no idea, somewhat agree, or strongly agree. Now, as a nation, we collectively said, “Yeah, that’s probably true,” 67% of the time. Of that group, a full 45% said, “Absolutely that’s true.” When you filter the responses for evangelical believers—that’s the group we fit in as a church—the percentage of folks who agree in some capacity drops to 55%. Now, that’s over half of evangelicals which is problematic in and of itself, but, of that 55%, 46% of it expressed strong agreement. In other words, a higher percentage of evangelicals said, “Yes, it is absolutely true that God accepts the worship of all religions,” than the culture at large.
That’s simply what the survey results were, though. What’s the truth? Well, it probably will not surprise you in the least to learn that I don’t agree with that statement. Otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about it. I don’t think you should agree either. Furthermore, I don’t think any of the guys who contributed to the Scriptures would agree with it, and that matters a whole lot more than what I think on my own.
Okay, but what’s wrong with this idea that God accepts worship from all different kinds of religions? I mean, if He’s really the great and sovereign God over all of creation, and if there really aren’t any other gods out there who can be worshiped, wouldn’t He want to receive all the worship rather than letting it go to waste? Besides, if He’s really the only God there is, then aren’t all these different religions and their followers worshiping Him anyway? If they are worshiping a god and He’s the only God, then technically they’re worshiping Him, aren’t they? Not so fast.
We worship something or someone when we ascribe a sufficient amount of worth to it to the extent that we are willing to adjust our lives in light of it. In this way, the object of our worship becomes the thing by which we define ourselves. Now, yes, it may be true that none of these other things actually exist such that they can consciously receive our worship, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still try to give it to them. That doesn’t mean we don’t still ascribe them sufficient worth that we are willing to adjust our lives in light of them. And if we are adjusting our lives in light of something other than God, for Him to pretend that we’re really doing it for Him wouldn’t make a lot of sense. It would be a little like a young man convincing himself that the girl of his dreams is really interested in him and is even in fact his girlfriend when she’s very obviously (at least to everyone but him) head over heels for someone else. We might look on that guy with pity over his being delusional, but we’re not going to think he’s right. Worship that isn’t directed at God isn’t accepted by God because He doesn’t want it. He doesn’t need it. It’s not for Him anyway.
But don’t just take my word for this. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 44, we find the prophet delivering a word from the Lord about people who worship idols. There were times in the Scriptures when God thundered against idolaters. He ranted and raved about how foolish they were and how they were all going to be made to suffer the consequences of their sinfulness. Here, though, He takes a somewhat different approach. Look at this with me with this idea in mind that God only accepts worship that is meant for Him starting in Isaiah 44:9.
“All who make idols are nothing, and what they treasure benefits no one. Their witnesses do not see or know anything, so they will be put to shame. Who makes a god or casts a metal image that benefits no one? Look, all its worshipers will be put to shame, and the craftsmen are humans. They all will assemble and stand; they all will be startled and put to shame.” Are you starting to get God’s drift here? To put this rather crassly, worshiping things other than God is dumb, and eventually it will be revealed as the stupidity it is. And when this happens, the folks who do it will be embarrassed as the truth about what they are doing is laid bare.
Speaking through the prophet, though, God goes on: “The ironworker labors over the coals, shapes the idol with hammers, and works it with his strong arm. Also he grows hungry and his strength fails; he doesn’t drink water and is faint. The woodworker stretches out a measuring line, he outlines it with a stylus; he shapes it with chisels and outlines it with a compass. He makes it according to a human form, like a beautiful person, to dwell in a temple. He cuts down cedars for his use, or he takes a cypress or an oak. He lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a laurel, and the rain makes it grow.”
Are you with Him still? Do you have this image in your mind? There are these craftsmen who are all experts at their art. They apply their skills with care and intentionality. They harvest the finest materials and even make huge investments of time in order to make certain they are working with the finest of products. They work hard and even wear themselves out creating beautiful pieces of art intended for people to bow down before and worship.
And that may be enough for you right there to convince you of the silliness of the whole thing, but listen to what God says next: “A person can use it [the tree; the materials out of which they are creating these works of art intended for worship] for fuel. He takes some of it and warms himself; also he kindles a fire and bakes bread; he even makes it into a god and worships it; he makes an idol from it and bows down to it. He burns half of it in a fire, and he roasts meat on that half. He eats the roast and is satisfied. He warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm, I see the blaze.’ He makes a god or his idol with the rest of it. He bows down to it and worships; he prays to it, ‘Save me, for you are my god.’ Such people do not comprehend and cannot understand for he has shut their eyes so they cannot see, and their minds so they cannot understand. No one comes to his senses; no one has the perception or insight to say, ‘I burned half of it in the fire, I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and ate. Should I make something detestable with the rest of it? Should I bow down to a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes. His deceived mind has led him astray, and he cannot rescue himself, or say, ‘Isn’t there a lie in my right hand?’”
Now, there’s a lot going on here, but let me ask a very simple question. The people being described here are worshiping. They are worshiping in the context of a religion other than the religion of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Does it sound to you like God is accepting their worship? Of course He’s not. And why? Because it’s not directed at Him. Why would He take something intended for someone else? Last time I checked, that’s called stealing. Yeah, but surely God is big enough He can sort out what these folks mean versus what they say. But you see: That’s just the problem. He can do that. Someone who makes the claim that God accepts all worship misunderstands the nature of God, and shows disrespect for these other worshipers.
Let’s start with that second one. If you try to claim that someone worshiping something other than God is really worshiping God, what you are telling them is either that they are dumb or that they are wrong. Either they are not smart enough to grasp what it is they are really worshiping, or else they are mistaken thinking it is one thing when really it is another. Let me ask: Do you like to be told you’re either ignorant or mistaken? I’m not terribly fond of it. I tend not to think very highly of the person who does that. How arrogant of them to make such an accusation of or assumption about me! Yes, of course, as a follower of Jesus I wish everyone was worshiping the God I know to be real instead of the myriad of options that aren’t, but for me to insist they are when they say they aren’t isn’t loving or kind of me. It’s arrogant and dishonest. God is neither of those things, and so He doesn’t accept their worship. He shows them the respect of taking their claims at face value. So should we.
Going back to that first thing, it is vital for us to understand the character of the thing or person we are worshiping. That is actually a third option here. It could be that we are the ones who are woefully ill-informed. It may be that they understand perfectly well what it is they are doing. But we don’t. We don’t understand the nature of what they are worshiping or the nature of the God we profess to serve well enough to grasp the differences between the two. God is God and nothing else is. And just like you are probably pretty insistent on being treated as you really are and not as someone else misunderstands you to be, so does God. Being God, He rightfully expects to be treated like He’s God. It’s not simply, then, that God won’t accept the worship of other religions because it isn’t actually directed at Him. He won’t accept the worship of the Christian religion when it’s not actually directed at Him.
Stay in Isaiah with me, but flip back to the first chapter. He opens his writings by blasting the people of Judah for getting God wrong in their worship. They constructed their worship along the parameters laid out in the law, but their character wasn’t reflecting the character of God. This meant that while they were going through the motions God had laid out for them in the law, they weren’t actually worshiping Him in spirit and in truth like Jesus would later tell the woman at the well is right and proper for His followers. As a result, look at what He said to them starting in v. 10: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! ‘What are all your sacrifices to me?’ asks the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams and the fat of well-fed cattle.’ I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs, or male goats. When you come to appear before me, who requires this from you—this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing useless offerings. Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons and Sabbaths, and the calling of solemn assemblies—I cannot stand iniquity with a festival. I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals. They have become a burden to me; I am tired of putting up with them. When you spread your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look at you; even if you offer countless prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.’”
Those are pretty jarring words. What makes this even more uncomfortable, though, is that they weren’t directed at one of Judah’s pagan neighbors. They were directed at Judah. These were people who in their hearts and minds were worshiping the Lord. Does it sound to you like God is accepting their worship? It sure doesn’t sound like it to me. Friends, the fact is that people—whether out in the world or here in the church—who try to claim that God accepts worship from anybody because He just loves to be worshiped are wrong. I know that’s not popular to say. It certainly doesn’t feel very good. But it doesn’t make it any less true for that. God respects us and the ability He has given us to make meaningful and consequential choices too much to try to claim that we’re doing something other than we are actually doing. When someone is worshiping someone or something other than Him—whether that is happening consciously because they are part of a different religious movement or unconsciously through the misguided and sinful rhythms of their life—He takes their actions at face value. He doesn’t pretend with them and expects us not to do that either. Perhaps to put this in terms that will take us back to where we started: Worship is not an interchangeable activity wherein we can just swap out the parts and pieces and still achieve the same end. God is exclusive about this.
Yet none of this means that God doesn’t really want our worship. Just the opposite. He demands it. He knows better than anyone else that He is singularly worthy of it and that it is right and proper for us to worship Him and nothing else. Because of this, when we aim our worship in His direction, He gladly accepts it. God accepts all worship that is meant for Him. The challenge we have to wrestle with is this: Is our worship really meant for Him? For the people of Israel to whom Isaiah was sent to prophesy the answer to that question was no. The scary part for us is that they didn’t realize it. They thought they were worshiping the Lord, but by failing to get His character right, they were really worshiping their vision of Him rather than Him as He actually is. In other words, while they were perhaps using the right weapon, they were aiming at the wrong target. This, of course, just brings up another important question: How can we know our worship is really directed at Him?
One of the psalmists gives us a clue as to the answer to that question. Listen to just a bit of Psalm 115. “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your faithful love, because of your truth. Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Our God is in heaven and does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk. They cannot make a sound with their throats. Those who make them are just like them, as are all who trust in them.”
Here is something that is true about our worship that we dare not forget: We become like what we worship. The thing you worship will gradually come to shape your character such that, over time, you will come to resemble it. If your worship is truly directed at God, your character is going to come to reflect that. People who are worshiping the God revealed in the pages of Scripture will eventually start to look more and more like that God. If you are worshiping Jesus, you are going to behave like Jesus. If you’re not, you won’t. God accepts all worship that is meant for Him. If ours is, the evidence for that will be written all over our lives. If it isn’t, then whatever we may claim, we are worshiping something else. And God won’t accept that worship because it’s not meant for Him. God accepts all worship that is meant for Him. By our character, we demonstrate both to the world and to ourselves that ours is.
So then, here are two really practical things you can do with this. Number one, you can be confident in what is true. If you encounter this idea in the culture around you—whether in the church or out—you can humbly insist on what is true. When someone says, “God accepts worship from anyone,” you can respond with something like this: “I don’t think He does because He respects us enough to be honest about what we’re really doing rather than trying to take credit for something that isn’t meant for Him.” That kind of a response isn’t looking for an argument, and it may invite more conversation which could allow you to steer things in the direction of the Gospel. At the very least, it will allow them the opportunity to reflect a bit more seriously on exactly who God is and who they are really worshiping. God accepts all worship that is meant for Him. Your humble honesty may help this person redirect their worship so it actually goes where they intend for it to go.
The second thing you can do is to check your own worship. And you can do that by checking your character. Before you go swiftly concluding that of course your character lines up with Jesus so your worship must be fine, give the question some real thought. Are there places in your life right now where your character doesn’t line up with the character of Jesus? Like it or not, if the answer to that question is, “Yes,” that’s an indication of a place where your worship is not aimed in the right direction. Use this revelation not as an opportunity for self-loathing, but through some uncomfortable questions to allow the Holy Spirit to help you get back on track. God accepts all worship that is meant for Him. This will help make sure that yours is. And together, we can by this show the world just why He is so worthy of our worship.