And as he [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. – Mark 10:17-18
In this story from the Gospel of Mark, a rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Assumption: he can do it.)
In the first part of His answer Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” In other words, ‘God is the only one who is good; do you call me good because you believe I am His Son?’ You can not be good enough to earn eternal life; the only way to gain eternal life is to believe Jesus is the Son of God who died to pay the price for your sins.
If you are a follower of Christ, you have probably believed you can not be good enough to earn eternal life since the day of your conversion.
But how easily we live as if we can!
For many today it is a settled fact that truly good people practice certain practices. The list varies with geography, but you’ll probably recognize it: daily Bible reading, planned Scripture memorization, a prayer routine, regular church attendance, serving the poor, etc.
Let’s call these rituals we do to express our beliefs “religious practices” — in contrast to expressions of character — or moral practices such as compassion, mercy, kindness, generosity, etc.
How should I view religious practices?
Are religious practices essential to spiritual growth or to gain God’s blessing? Is neglecting them a sign of unbelief or of disregard for God? Please notice that I am not asking whether or not religious practices are good things to do; I’m asking what our attitude toward them should be. The answer is not simple black and white.
Like every good thing, performing religious practices with the wrong attitude is dangerous. Too easily we develop the notion of the rich young ruler: “I’ve done all these things, God now owes me.” Religious practices– no matter how stellar they are –are wrong when done with the attitude that God owes me. Insofar as I do them it is God’s gift to me, not my gift to God.
Religious practices do not cause spiritual growth. Religious practices result from growth.
Whatever joy I find in Bible study is because God has given me a longing to know Him better. Whatever gratitude or trust I feel that results in prayer stems from God teaching me to worship Him. Whatever encouragement I find in regularly attending church and fellowship with other believers follows from God giving me a love for the things He loves including other people.
But you will say to me, ‘you’re missing something. Religious practice are commanded. They are part of obedience. There is value in doing them, whether we feel like it or not, because we are being obedient.’
And I would answer, the practices themselves are not commanded, but the moral principles behind them are. A routine of Bible study or prayer is an expression of the moral command to love the Lord your God with all your heart. A ritual of memorizing Scripture is an expression of the moral command to seek God with all your heart. In each case, the moral principle is the necessity. The ritual is one expression of that moral principle — but not necessarily the only expression of it.
No one except God is good enough. Our religious practices are evidence of maturing faith, not the cause of it. When we see evidence of growth, like a desire to pray, study the Bible or serve the poor, we ought to thank God — not our own good deeds.