“True Religion” (Philippians 3:2-3)

There are some things on this earth, that it just doesn’t really matter that much what you believe about them. It’s just not that important. For example, you may believe that pecans are God’s gift to humanity. But I myself am honestly just not that fond of pecans. Cheryl loves them; I don’t. But you know: what you believe about pecans doesn’t really make any meaningful difference in this world, does it?

But what you believe about religion DOES make a difference. Now, there are people who say that it DOESN’T matter what you believe; that one religion is just as good as another. But let me tell you: that is a foolish outlook. Religion deals with the nature of the reality of the universe; of what kind of God made all this, and how He deals with us, and how we can know Him — and whether we will live forever in heaven, or in hell. There is nothing in this world more important in life than getting your religion right. I hope you have given some serious, serious thought to it. 

Our passage for today, Philippians 3:2-3, warns us against false religion, and admonishes us to follow the one true religion. Let’s look at what God’s word tells us today about true religion — and make sure that you have it!  

I.  BEWARE of false religion.

There are a lot of religious beliefs in the world, and some people like to think that everyone’s religion is equally right, that all religious teachers are good and sincere, and that one religion is as good as another, and they will all take us to the same place. But unfortunately, the Bible tells us that is just not true.

Jesus Himself warns us in Matthew 7:13, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who will enter through it.” But He said in :14, “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” Jesus said NOT every way leads to heaven; there is only one very small way. (And He said in John 14:6 that He Himself IS that way!)

He also said in Matthew 24:11  that in the latter days “many false prophets arise, and will mislead many.” 

— I John 4:1 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

So both Jesus and John said that not a “few,” but “MANY” false prophets are out there in the world! And there are many false religions and false ways to heaven being taught. The Bible is very clear: all religions are NOT the same, and you CANNOT believe every preacher and teacher out there.

The Apostle Paul mentions some of the false religionists here in Philippians 3. He calls them 3 things here. He says: “Beware of the dogs; beware of the evil workers; beware of the false circumcision.” He’s warning the Philippians (and us) about false teachers of religion: 

— First, he says, beware of the “dogs.” Now, this may sound odd to some of us today; because when we think of “dogs” we think of our little pets; we think of Roxana’s spoiled little poodle that she’s always putting pictures of on Facebook!  But that’s not what they were talking about in Bible times. The “dogs” of those times were untamed scavengers that roamed the streets in packs; vicious, and ready to pounce upon any prey they could find. 

Paul says in the same way, there is a kind of false religious teacher, who is ready to “pounce” upon any unsuspecting soul who might be taken in by them. He says you have to watch out for this; MANY such false teachers abound in our world. Do not let yourself be taken in by them!

— Second, he says beware of the evil workers. Here he describes something of the NATURE of the false religion. False religion is always based on “works.” When Paul says “evil workers” here, he doesn’t mean they are going around stealing and shooting people, in that sense of evil work. He means that they are teaching that by our WORKS we can earn our salvation with God. That is an evil teaching of works, because the Bible says we can only be saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ (we’ll say more on that in a minute) but the false religionist teaches that by our works we can make ourselves right before God. Paul says “beware” of that kind of teaching; watch out for any religion or religious teaching that prescribes for you the “good works” you have to do in order to be saved.

— And then thirdly he says, beware of the false circumcision. Here he specifically identifies JEWISH false teachers. Circumcision was the first “good work” of the Jewish religious system. These Jewish teachers would tell everyone they needed to be circumcised — not just Jews but new Christians as well. They would come into new churches, and teach them that they needed to be circumcised, and observe a lot of other Jewish practices too, if they wanted to really be in right standing with God. And Paul is saying here, NO; this is a FALSE teaching; these are false teachers. Jesus came to die on the cross to save us from having to keep all these Old Testament Laws to earn our salvation. He’s saying, DON’T listen to these false teachers who are telling you you need to go back and observe all these Jewish laws and traditions. (By the way, this is a good warning to some Christians today, too: who seem to “glory” in going back to the Jewish nature of salvation; I’ve known “pastors” who liked to call themselves “Rabbi,” and use a lot of Hebrew words to describe everything, and who spent most of their time teaching their people all the Jewish feasts, and sacrifices — almost making “Old Testament Christians” out of their followers.

But the Bible here says NO! We do not need to go back and become “Jewish legalistic Christians.” 

— Galatians 2:16 says “a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus …”.  

— Ephesians 2:8 says “It is by grace that you are saved, through faith … NOT OF WORKS lest any man should boast.”  

The Bible makes it very clear: we are not saved by our works, not Jewish legalistic works or any other kind of good works, but through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Listen: any religion that gives you a “list” of works or things you have to accomplish in order to be saved, is a FALSE religion. It is impossible to earn your way to heaven, and you will never have peace about it if you try.

Samuel Johnson was a great English writer, who published a dictionary of the English language that made him famous in his generation (1700’s) and beyond: he was known by many just as “Dr. Johnson.” Johnson was a member of the Anglican (English) church, and had some Christian beliefs, but his biographer, Jim Bernhard, also said that he “was worried about his soul’s ultimate fate. Dr. Johnson told a friend, ‘No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension. His hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised …. namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, repentance. But no man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation.’”

Can you see what Dr. Johnson’s problem was? He thought that his salvation was based on his obedience — his works — (and then, on whether he had repented enough once had disobeyed, which we all do.)  ANYBODY who thinks that their eternal salvation is based on their own obedience is going to be insecure just like Dr. Johnson was — and for good reason! — because we can never obey enough. We are all sinners, and we have all disobeyed. If you think your salvation depends on whether you have obeyed enough, or repented enough, you will always be anxious; you will always be uncertain and insecure — because you are basing your salvation on your own efforts, which you know in your heart will NEVER be enough! 

The sad thing is, Dr. Johnson was a member of a so-called “Christian” religion — and yet at least in his heart, his religion was FALSE: it was based on salvation by works. And salvation by works is a false religion. Sadly, there are many so-called “churches” like that today, teaching salvation by works, with millions of people following them in their error.

Please make sure that you are not one of them. If you are a guest today, please make sure that when you join a church, you do not join a church that teaches that your good works will earn your salvation. That is false religion. And even in evangelical churches, even in a Baptist church, don’t be one of those people who somehow get the wrong idea that the good works you do in the church will save you. They won’t. Salvation by works is false religion — whatever church you are a member of. The Bible warns us here: Beware of false religion.  

II. Be committed to TRUE religion:

Paul says in :3 “For WE are the true circumcision” — in other words, we Christians are the TRUE religion of God — and then he describes that true religion in 3 phrases. Let’s look at these 3 phrases, and as we do, make sure that what he describes here is the kind of religion that YOU have:

  1. Worship in the Spirit of God

See, the Jewish legalists — and all false religions — think that we please God by performing certain “ceremonial acts”: like making sacrifices, keeping certain laws, repeating prescribed prayers a certain number of times, and doing good works. If you’ll just “do these things” in your worship, that will please God, they teach. 

But the Bible says here, NO! True religion is worship “IN THE SPIRIT OF GOD.” Jesus told the Samaritan woman in John 4:23 that “an hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”

God says He wants you to worship Him in SPIRIT; from your heart. Not just with “outward deeds.” To please Him in worship, our heart has to be in it.

We have a family Facebook Messenger chat where Cheryl & I keep up with our kids, and we talk with them on it about every day. Wednesday night, our oldest son Paul & I were laughing about a track meet he ran in, early in high school. Both our oldest sons were pretty good at track in high school, especially the 400 and the 800. But at one track meet, the coach decided to put Paul in the 2-mile run. Paul didn’t want to be in the 2-mile run. He wanted to do the half mile (the 800). I thought he could have done ok with it, but he did NOT want to be there. And, like some of our family members, Paul can be obstinate. So he went out there all right, but he just kind of “jogged his way” through that 2-mile race. He didn’t finish last, but I could tell all along that he was not really trying — and when he ran by our place in the stands, I let my frustration with him be known. A well-meaning lady sitting by us, said, “Well, at least he’s out there trying.” I said, “No, I wish he was trying. He’s not trying at all.” Technically he was “there” — but his heart wasn’t in it. He was just “going through the motions.”

Sadly, I’m afraid that’s how our Heavenly Father sees the supposed “worship” we’re doing for Him!  We’re “there” at church; we’re “checking everything off the list,” but our HEART’s not in it. We’re not really worshiping Him in the Spirit!  The very word “worship” literally means “worth-ship.”  In “worship” you are supposed to be showing God how much He is WORTH to you: you put your voice into it; you put your body into; you put your money into it; you put your commitments to service into it — you put your HEART into it — to show God how much He is WORTH to you. You show Him His “worth-ship”: THAT is worshiping in the Spirit.

Real religion is not just “showing up” at church to “do some religious stuff” that you “check off the list” and go home. Real religion is like Jesus said: “LOVING God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your might.” It’s praising Him from your HEART for Who He is and what He has done for you. It’s showing how much He’s worth to you. It’s not a “list you check off;” it’s a spirit in your heart. There’s a big difference. Real religion is “worship in the Spirit of God.”  

B.  Glory in Christ Jesus

Secondly, true religion is marked by “glorying in Christ Jesus.”  JESUS is the center of true religion. If your religion is not focused on Jesus Christ, it is a false religion. 

Only Jesus is our salvation. As we mentioned, true religion is not based on our “good religious works,” but on what Jesus did: dying on the cross, paying for our sins with His blood. JESUS is the only hope of our salvation. Jesus alone! 

If someone asks you the old question: “Why should God let you into His heaven?” Your answer should be something like: “He SHOULDN’T! But JESUS died on the cross for me!” THAT is true religion: not the “good works” that we did for God, but the good work that GOD did for us in Jesus:

— Our only hope of forgiveness is Jesus. 

— Our only hope of salvation is Jesus. 

— Our only hope of heaven is Jesus.

The  only trust and hope of true religion is “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”!

Some of you know I have been reading Robert Caro’s epic biographical series on Lyndon Johnson. Caro began writing the biography in 1976 at age 40, and he is now 87 and is getting CLOSE to finishing Volume 5! It is an amazing work of history — some say the best and most-researched biography of all time. I just finished reading Volume 3 this week. But one thing that was notable about Lyndon Johnson in his early years was his attachment to Franklin Roosevelt, who, of course, was a very popular President in 1937 when Johnson ran for Congress. So Johnson decided that since Roosevelt was so popular, he would “latch onto his coattails” and make his election about Roosevelt. He made Roosevelt his whole theme: Vote for me and I’ll support Roosevelt. He put pictures up all over the state of the time he shook hands with Roosevelt in Galveston. He promised, if you elect me I will support Roosevelt. He plastered signs all over the state: “Johnson and Roosevelt.” “Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt” — that was his whole campaign. (And it worked; he did get elected to Congress.)

But just as Johnson’s theme in 1937 was “Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt,” almost to the extreme, the theme of true religion is “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” — only we can never get “too extreme” with it! We glory in Christ Jesus. JESUS is the theme of true religion. 

We really need to get this, because I am afraid that for some generations, this has been lost or misunderstood:

— True religion is NOT “Go to church.” Now, going to church is good; but just “going to church” is not true religion. True religion is JESUS: who died on the cross and paid for our sins, and we come to church to worship HIM for what He did for us. But true religion is not just “going to church;” true religion is about Jesus!

— True religion is not just “living a good life.” Again, we SHOULD try to live a good life; but the truth is, we have all fallen short of living a good life, and we all deserve to be judged for it — but Jesus has saved us from that judgment by His death on the cross. True religion is Jesus.

— And again, true religion is NOT “don’t smoke or drink or dance” or some list of what you’re “not supposed to do.” For some years, many people thought “don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t run with girls who do” was what true religion was all about! And there’s some danger in some of those things. But true religion does NOT consist of just “NOT DOING” certain things. Paul says in Colossians 2:21 that true religion does NOT consist of decrees, like “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch;” true religion is not what we DON’T do; it is about what we DO: that we DO “GLORY IN CHRIST JESUS” and what He did for us on the cross!  

Jesus is the center of true religion. Jesus is the theme of true religion. He’s the Savior of true religion; He’s the Lord of true religion; Jesus is the beginning of true religion; and Jesus is the end of true religion — when the final curtain of history falls, and this world and all that is in it passes away, we will all fall down at the feet of Jesus forever, singing “Jesus is the Lord” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus sweetest name I know …”!  It’s gonna be Jesus, Jesus, Jesus for all eternity. 

True religion is all about Jesus. If you don’t love Jesus; if your religion is not all about Jesus; most especially if your own personal trust is not in JESUS and what HE did on the cross for you, then you have got the wrong religion. True religion glories in Christ Jesus.  

C.  Put no confidence in the flesh

Paul says the flip side of “glorying in Christ Jesus” — putting all our confidence in JESUS for our salvation — is that we “put NO confidence in the flesh” — in our own good deeds to save us. 

In New Testament times, Jewish people were tempted to put their trust in the “good deed” of circumcision for their salvation. Today many are tempted to put their trust in baptism to save them. Now, baptism is important; we just baptized 3 people today, and thank God for that. Jesus commanded us to be baptized, and we should. But our confidence and our hope for our salvation is NOT in our baptism. Baptism is a “work of the flesh;” it is putting water over your flesh. Putting water over your body cannot wash away the sins of your soul.

It always troubles me when I ask someone if they are saved, and they say, “Yes, I was baptized at such and such a time.” Well, maybe they mean by that, that they trusted Jesus as their Savior, and then they were baptized. That’s good. But I hope it does NOT mean that they are trusting that because they were baptized, that they are going to heaven. Because baptism itself does not save us; it does not wash away sins. NO DEED THAT WE CAN DO IN OUR FLESH CAN SAVE US:

— not baptism

— not circumcision like these Jews were teaching

— not the physical act of going to church 

— not taking the Lord’s Supper 

— not any other outward physical act— not even walking down to the front of the church during the invitation. That physical act does not save you.

I remember hearing a young lady share her “testimony” years ago, and she said, “Before I went down to the front, I didn’t know if I was saved, but then I went down to the front, and ever since I went down to the front, now I know I’m saved. I’m so glad I went down to the front. If you need to be saved, go down to the front! ”  Now, I hope that maybe she was just wording her testimony poorly, but for all the world it sounded like her trust that she is going to heaven was based on the fact that she “went down to the front”!  But folks, “going down to the front” does not save you!  

NO physical act you can do will save you. That is false religion. You should have NO confidence that there is any “deed” you can do that will save you. True religion, the Bible says here, puts “no confidence in the flesh.” It trusts JESUS ALONE for salvation. 


So … I’ve said a lot of things this morning about false religion and true religion. Now comes the important question: which do YOU have?  

Bethan Lloyd-Jones was the wife of perhaps the greatest preacher in England in the 20th century. But one night as she listened to her husband preach, she realized that she had a “religion,” based on going to church and trying to do good deeds — but she didn’t have TRUE religion, based on faith in Jesus and what He did on the cross. And that night she put her faith in Jesus ALONE for her salvation, and she got TRUE religion.

What about you? 

— Do you have a false religion, based on something YOU have done to save you? Maybe you’re like Bethan Lloyd-Jones, and you’ve been going to church for years — but you realize your faith has been in the wrong place. You’ve had a false religion. And today you need to put your trust in JESUS alone for your salvation. 

— Or, when you think about it, can you say that you really do have the one true religion, that you really ARE trusting JESUS, JESUS, JESUS, ALONE for your salvation? And you know in your heart that your only hope of heaven is Him?  

See, THIS is what is important. THIS is the most important thing. It doesn’t really matter whether you like pecans, or poodles, or the Astros, or the Olympics, or the beach or whatever … it just doesn’t really matter. But THIS matters: do you have the one true religion, that will forgive your sins, help you walk with God right now, and take you to heaven one day? And if you would honestly say in your heart, I don’t have that; you CAN have it, right now!  The Bible says “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” — and that Lord is “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” alone. If you’ve never done it before, why don’t you ask Jesus to save you right now — and give you the “true religion”?        

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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