When Obedience Is A Sin

Farid Esack is an internationally known Muslim scholar from South Africa.  I recently read a quote from him that made him sound sort of like a baptist from south Georgia.

“One can be totally committed to Islam and yet not have it touch one’s inner being.”

Translation: Shut up and follow the rules.

I didn’t grow up Muslim but I did grow up around the same mentality that Dr. Esack speaks of.  The first really big rule that I remember breaking was watching Star Wars.  In so many words, someone told me that Luke Skywalker was going to make me become a New Age hippie and trade in my Bible for a bag of crystals and a unicorn.

There were more prohibitions to come.

“Don’t watch wrestling because it’s fake and God hates things that are fake.”

This one was a real downer for me because in just one simple sentence I found out that wrestling was fake and that God hates Dusty Rhodes.  I was devastated.

“Any song with a beat faster than a heartbeat, even if that song is about Jesus, will make you want to do romantic things that you’re not old enough to be doing yet.”

Ah, nothing puts you in the mood like Anthrax.  The person that told me this one obviously never heard a song by Marvin Gaye or Sade.

It didn’t take me long to figure out a couple of things.  First, the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about the beat in songs or Dusty Rhodes.  Second, keeping these kinds of rules can do a lot for you on the surface but not so much at the heart level.  As I grew up, I met plenty of perverts who never really cared for Star Wars, pro wrestling or Anthrax.

In the community where I pastor, I’m not aware of any gangs or underground crime syndicates.  There is no meth or heroin epidemic here.  And for the record, Anthrax has never had a tour stop here.

No, the big sin that I keep coming across in my community is more of a hidden danger.  It’s the sin of rule keeping.  Rule keeping is the false gospel that convinces people that being good is enough.  Don’t drink, smoke, cheat or lie and try to show up to church when you can and maybe even send your kids to a Christian school and you should be just fine.  Who needs Jesus when you’re so good at rule keeping?  Now he’s free to go and save the real sinners.  Win, win!

Many people in the Bible belt have taken Dr. Esack’s quote and made it their own.

“Jesus, I’ll try my best to keep your rules just as long as you don’t go messing with my inner being.”

The Bible reminds us that rule keepers can look really good on the outside but still miss Jesus.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Matthew 23:25-28 (ESV)

This is one of the many things that separates authentic Christianity from Islam.  It is impossible for one to be committed to Jesus without one’s “inner being” being invaded and transformed by the Holy Spirit.  For rule keepers, obedience is an effort to win God’s approval.  For Christ-followers, obedience is an act of worship to the One who won God’s approval on their behalf.

By God’s grace and through faith and repentance, people who are really, really bad at keeping rules are set free from their spiritual masquerade by the only perfect rule keeper who ever lived.