The Deadening Effect of Ritualistic Formality

John 4:23,24; Revelation 3:1,2
       The hour cometh, and now is, when true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.
       And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, strengthen the things that remain, that are ready to die.

MATTHEW HENRY (1662-1714): This church was not really what it was reputed to be. They had a name to live, but they were dead; there was a form of godliness, but not the power; a name to live, but not the principle of life. If there was not a total [lack] of life, yet there was a great deadness in their souls and in their services, a great deadness in the spirits of their ministers, a great deadness in their ministrations, in their praying, in their preaching, in their converse, and a great deadness in the people in hearing, in prayer, and in conversation; what little life was yet left among them was, in a manner, ready to die.

ABRAHAM BOOTH (1734-1806): No worship is agreeable to the Messiah’s kingdom, which is not animated by heavenly affections. All the external services of religion are only so many means of exciting those holy affections, of promoting communion with God, and of cultivating a heavenly temper. Consequently, the worship of those who rest in exterior services, is quite superficial, and has nothing spiritual, nothing heavenly in it.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES (1899-1981): Formalism is the greatest curse in the Church.

JOHN TRAPP (1601-1699): God looks chiefly at the heart, and hateth all outside service and heartless devotion, Isaiah 1; Isaiah 66:3.

MATTHEW BARKER (1619-1698): Communion with God is the life of religion. It is but a dead thing without it.

MARY WINSLOW (1774-1854): What communion can a formalist have with God? Communion is supposed to be an interchange of sentiment, feeling, and expression. What communion could one have with a statue? You may speak to it, question it; but there is no response, no intimation of feeling, no communion. So is it with the mere religious formalist. He regularly says his prayers, but it is to an unknown God. He repeats the same again and again, but he knows not the Being he addresses. There is no response, no interchange of feeling; nor, above all, of love. There is no answer from the Lord, no bending down of His ear, no lifting up of His countenance, no cheering welcome; and the formalist is satisfied. He does what he thinks is his duty. He repeats his lifeless, heartless prayers, and thinks he has done well; so he lives and dies with a lie in his right hand, unless God, in His sovereign mercy, awakens him from his awful delusion, and shows him his lost and undone condition.

J. C. RYLE (1816-1900): If you love life, beware of formality. Nothing is so dangerous to a man’s own soul. Familiarity with the form of religion, has a fearfully deadening effect on the conscience. It brings by degrees a thick crust of insensibility over the whole inner man. None seem to become so desperately hard as those who are continually repeating holy words and handling holy things, while their hearts are running after sin and the world…They are gradually hardening their hearts, and searing the skin of their consciences. If you love your own soul, beware of formality.

C. H. SPURGEON (1834-1892): Let us not degenerate into formality, or we shall be dead while we think we live…Our Lord gave a very brief, but I think a very instructive description of what [real] worship was to be. If you observe carefully the words, you will see that it was a distinguishing kind of worship, for he mentions true worshippers. There had been but little distinction before; so long as they all passed through the same outward form they all seemed to be worshippers; but a distinction was now to be made clear and manifest. Merely outward worshippers were now false worshippers, and only those who pressed into spiritual worship were to be regarded as true.

WILLIAM JAY (1769-1853): And this marks the spiritual worshipper. He is not distinguished by always enjoying liberty and fervour in His holy exercises, but he mourns the want of them; while the formalist looks no farther than the performance itself, and returns from the house and throne of God without every inquiring whether he has had communion with Him.

J. C. RYLE: There are multitudes of people, I believe, who go to church or chapel every Sunday merely as a form. Their fathers or mothers went, and so they go; it is the fashion of the country to go, and so they go; it is the custom to attend a religious service and hear a sermon, and so they go. But as to real, vital, saving religion, they neither know nor care anything about it.

C. H. SPURGEON: Some congregations are dying of dignity, and must be aroused by real life. Some congregations are so very orderly that they are like a vault in which the corpses lie, each one in due place, and none dares to move or lift a voice loud enough to be called a chirp. This will not do.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES: It is very interesting to observe things from the historical standpoint. You will always observe that when forms of service become formal, the Spirit is less in evidence, and you move further away from the New Testament. The very characteristic of the New Testament Church was this spontaneity, this life, this living quality, this vivacity. But, as you fall away from the Spirit and His influence, everything becomes formal. So you have forms of service. You will find that the Church in every period of declension becomes much more formal in her services―she adopts forms of service and she tends to turn to liturgy, and to ritual. All this is a part of formal religion…
      It was when this craving for dignity and decorum, and scholarship, learning and culture came into the churches about the middle of the [19th] century that the Holy Spirit seemed to be withdrawn. Men began to “quench the Spirit.” Formalism is always the greatest enemy of the power and the life and the freedom of the Spirit.

VERNON J. CHARLESWORTH (1839-1915): In the year 1798, Rowland Hill commenced his first [preaching] tour in Scotland. He had, at first, but small congregations; but after a few weeks, 15,000 people assembled to hear him on Calton Hill. One Scottish minister stated that he never heard an anecdote from the pulpit until Hill began his itinerant labours there. The Scots complained that he rode upon the back of all order and decorum. Rowland Hill, after this, called one of his carriage-horses “Order” and the other “Decorum,” and when asked the reason, he answered, “Oh, I have given them these names that the people in the north may tell the truth in one way if they do not in another; but happy should I be to ride on the back of such order and decorum as they advocate till I had ridden them to death.”

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES: Do not misunderstand me, but I have a feeling that the Christian Church today is dying of dignity, dying of decorum. Services are beautiful, and perfect, but where is the breath of the Spirit?

STEPHEN CHARNOCK (1628-1680): Let us try ourselves concerning the manner of our worship. We are now in the end of the world, and the dregs of time; wherein the apostle predicts there may be much of a form, and little of the power of godliness, II Timothy 3:1,5; and, therefore, it stands us in hand to search into ourselves, whether it be not thus with us? whether there be as much reverence in our spirits as there may be devotion in our countenances and outward carriages.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES: Let me be quite direct and practical―Do you go to a place of worship simply because it is Sunday morning? Is it just an item in your programme? And it is just a matter of singing some hymns, hearing the reading of the Scriptures, and listening to a sermon, and so on? Just a matter of habit, repeating what you have done many times before. Is that the way in which you go into God’s house? God have mercy on you if it is!


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