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Backsliders in the Assembly
Thomas R. Fletcher
Something doesnít add up. We have a large percentage of Americans regularly attending church services, yet no discernible lifestyle difference from those who attend no services. The problem is nothing new. The prophet Isaiah confronted the same issue in his day, Isaiah 1:10-20, where we see three points. God calls his people to "hear" His word (vss. 10-15). He calls on them to repent (vss. 16-17). He promises cleansing and restoration for the repentant and judgment for the rebels (vss. 18-20).
"Hear the word of the Lord you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!" (Isaiah 1:10 NIV). Isaiah cries out, not to literal Sodom and Gomorrah, but to Godís people, the nation of Judah. Backslidden, saturated in sin, Judah spiritually became Sodom and Gomorrah. "Hear," as used by the prophet, meant more than physical hearing. It meant "hear and obey." As New Testament writer James makes clear, physical hearing isnít enough, one must be a "doer" of the word. Biblically speaking, Godís word is never "heard," until it is obeyed.
The people in Isaiahís day were coming to "appear" before the LordĖtheir primary concern being appearance. They appeared one way, as they trampled the courts of the Lord, but their daily lives were something different. On the surface things looked fine. Appearances said: "Hereís a people dedicated to God." The reality was, the people were estranged from God. They lacked true heartfelt dedication to the Lord. Their "sacrifices" were nothing more than exercises in hypocrisy. They did not arise from hearts filled with devotion to the Lord. They were not offered in faith. Thus, the Lord rejected them. What had the potential to be a sweet savor to the Lord became a stench in His nostrils. He knew the peopleís hearts were far from Him.
"I cannot bear your evil assemblies," in verse 13, refers to what should have been "holy convocations." Instead, they were evil assemblies because of the backsliding hypocrisy of Godís people. The people lived divided lives. They were religious, but not faithful. Their lives did not align with Godís word. Doctrine and practice were divorced. They appeared one way in services, while living quite another outside. God wasnít fooled then, nor is He now.
Look at verses 11-14, the list of sacrifices, burnt offerings, New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations outlines the entire worship system of the nation. God was sick of the whole system. Why? He designed it. It wasnít the system, but what it became: empty ritual. The problem was with the hearts of His people, whose lifestyle did not meet their profession. Godís concern is more with relationship than religion. A true relationship to God is demonstrated in day-to-day living, not in religious services. Anyone can look good for 3-4 hours a week. God wants more than Sundays and Wednesday nights. He wants a relationship that touches all that you are and do.
The sacrifices made were meaningless because the people remained backslidden. They thought they were appeasing God, that their sacrifices would make Him happy. They had it all wrong. God didnít need their sacrifices. The sacrifices would have benefitted the people, had they been offered in faith.
Too many feel they are pleasing God by attending church. If you attend church while indulging and excusing known sin, you arenít pleasing God, you are angering Him. God isnít interested in church attendance for the sake of church attendance. What He seeks are hearts set on Him 24/7/365. He loathes seeing His people playing church, while clinging to sin. Yet that is the condition of the Church in America. I am not speaking only of the sins of the flesh, but accepted sins of the spirit: pride, judgmental attitudes, bitterness, jealousy, self-righteousness, and selfish ambition which permeate the Church. Sins of the flesh or sins of the spirit, it is all sin and God isnít pleased with the hypocrisy.
The people approached God as they would an idol: veneration without dedication. God says, you treat me like an idol, Iíll be like an idol to you. An idol canít hear and answer prayer. Neither will I hear and answer your prayers. Verse 15 makes it clear, God will not answer the prayers of those who hold to sin. Hands stretched out in prayer in services were hands filled with blood outside the services. Prayers went unanswered because hearts remained far from the Lord.
What is the solution? Verses 16-18 outline a path of repentance and restoration. Repentance is more than sorrow for sin, though sorrow is included. Repentance requires action. It means turning from the sin to God, through faith. "Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (Isaiah 1: 16b-17). These were works of repentance outside the religious services. Stop practicing sin, whatever it is. Adultery or pride, fornication or selfish ambition, itís all sin and sin brings a barrier between God and His people. Sin also brings a stain, and no amount of church attendance can remove it. Prayer without repentance canít remove it. People attempt to hide the stain through religious activities, but God sees the stain. The stain is significant. The "crimson" was a dye that would not wash out. Even though the people were directed to "wash" in verse 16, washing was in reference to repentance, to cleaning the filth from their lives, to stopping habitual acts and attitudes of sin. Their washing couldnít remove the stain. Verses 18-20 offers both hope and warning. Hope for those who hear and obey Godís word by doing works of repentance. He will cleanse the stain. Warning to those who refuse: judgment will follow. When Godís people obey and live a repentant life, He will do for them what they cannot do for themselves: remove the stain of sin.
Religion without true relationship was a problem in Isaiahís day. It remains a problem today. Far too many take sin too lightly. After all, "itís covered by the blood," they reason. Yet each act of sin has taken one further from the Lord. Each sin has left a mark, a mark the individual cannot erase, a mark only God can cleanse. Only God can make the crimson stain of sin white. His removing the stain, like in Isaiahís day, is contingent upon repentance. Repentance is more than mouthing a "Lord forgive my sin" prayer. Repentance is more than sorrow for the act. Repentance means taking steps to restore the damage sin has brought. Without a determined turning from the sin, without proactive steps to remedy the situation, there is no real repentance. Without real repentance, there can be no cleansing from the sin. The stain remains. Repentance means, not excusing habitual sin, but confronting it. Seeing sin as God sees it, with abhorrenceĖand acting accordingly. Godís people in Isaiahís day were backslidden. They werenít living up to the standards they knew God held for their lives. They rationalized their sin. They figured that if they were faithful in attending services, if they offered a lot of sacrifices, then surely God would overlook their habitual sin. They were wrong, just as those who hold such "greasy grace" beliefs today are wrong. Forgiveness, cleansing for the sin, is contingent upon true repentance or the stain remains. Just as surely as there was a "trampling" of the Lordís courts in ancient Judah through their futile religious acts, there is a trampling today. There is a trampling of the mercy of God as Christians rationalize their sin and refuse repentance. Sin and compromise mark the lives of too many who name the name of Christ. Living shallow, materialistic lives, weíve become a hollow people going through the motions of faith, while excusing sin.
"Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool" (Isaiah 1:18). Letís be reasonable. Itís time for some widespread repentance. The Church in America faces a choice: revival or ruin.