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Religion - A Devotional Paraphrase

Sermon 7 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, “The Way of the Kingdom"
By: Michael Roberts

“The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15


“The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” These words point to true religion, described by our Lord as “the kingdom of God.” These words also point the way to this kingdom, “Repent and believe.”

We start with the nature of true religion or the kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul uses this same term and says, “The Kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Rom 14:17). So, true religion is not “meat or drink.” Paul said this because so many within the young church were demanding that certain rules and rituals be followed, especially those that revolved around the dietary laws of the Holiness Code. It was the big issue of the day. Should we, or should we not, follow the rules about clean and unclean foods? Many were saying that the law must be kept in order to be saved. (Act 15:1,24; 21:20). Laws around circumcision were also prevalent. It was believed that Gentiles must submit in this way if they wanted to be a part of true religion.

The Apostle Paul boldly proclaimed that true religion is not found in any law external to the heart. The whole substance of true religion is found through relationship with the One who brings righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. While certain rules and practices may be very helpful, and even appointed by God as good, they are not the substances of true religion. All rituals and rules are means to a larger end. If they take over our hearts; if they become ends in themselves, then they become an abomination to the Lord. Let no one dream that they are more – even those rules and ways that seem so dear to us.

To continue, true religion does not consist in Orthodoxy or right opinions. A person may be orthodox in a zealous defender of doctrine. This person may think rightly concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation and every other doctrine and creed that we uphold, and still have no religion at all. Such a person may be as orthodox as the devil, as this one who knows that Jesus is God’s son, but does not follow but rather subverts the message.

This alone is true religion – righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. First, righteousness. We cannot misunderstand this term if we stay focused on the two great commandments, on which “hang all the law and the prophets, namely love of God and love of neighbor as a part of yourself.” The first great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. To love God is to delight in serving God and growing in God’s love. In this love, the heart’s desire is to glorify – illuminate, magnify – God in all that we do and say. The second commandment is to love your neighbor as a part of yourself. It is to embrace others with the most tender good-will, and to seek for him or her every possible good. Within these callings are planted the virtues that lead to the fruit of righteousness in the world – humility, kindness, gentleness, and patience (See I Cor 13, Eph, Gal 5).

True religion, or a heart right towards God and humanity, also implies happiness as well as holiness. It is not only “righteousness” but also “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” This peace from God banishes all fear, the fear that torments the soul, the fear of the misery that surrounds us in the finite word, and the great fear of death. This is the peace that passes all human understanding. The joy that comes in true religion is more than mere happiness. This joy is a deep happiness that rejoices in the assurance that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and called beloved children of God.

True religion joins holiness and happiness into one. That’s the kingdom of God. Whenever the gospel of Christ is shared, God’s kingdom comes. It is right there before us. True religion is less about what God wants “from” us and much more about what God wants “for” us.

And so we hear the voice cry out, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repentance is the call to “know yourself,” to look inside and see that you are a sinner, corrupt in every way. In this corruption, our passions and desires are “out of frame,” distorted and disorienting. In this corruption, we might say deep in our heart, “Who is the Lord that I should serve him?” “Let him serve me, if anything.” This corruption breeds a love for independence, for pride, for greed, for thinking that we have all the answers. From this evil fountain flows the bitter streams of vanity, thirst for praise, covetousness, and lust of the eye. From this fountain boils up anger, hatred, malice, revenge, and envy, along with the fruits of contention, gluttony, drunkenness, luxury, vain sensuality, and adultery. If not prevented, we are likely to drown in everlasting misery.

And so, we are called to repent – to recognize and turn. The call comes with much urgency. Repent. And then “believe.” Believe in the Gospel. The Gospel is good news for all guilty helpless sinners. It is the word we use to connote the whole revelation of God made through Jesus Christ. At its core is this: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Or, to put it another way, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, to the end that we might not perish, but have (even right now) everlasting life.”

Believe this and you are walking in the kingdom of God. Your sins are forgiven. Righteousness, peace, and joy surround you.

Only beware that you do not deceive your own soul and think that this faith is just an assent to the truth of the Bible, or the articles of our creed. Even devils believe this – “that” God exists and “that” Jesus is God’s son. The faith to which we are called is so much more. This faith is a sure trust in the mercy of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. It is a confidence in a pardoning God. It is a divine conviction that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and not counting our sins against us. It is believing “in” God and trusting in God’s presence and guidance.

Do you believe? If so, then the peace of God is in your heart and sorrow and sighing is fleeing away. Do you believe? If so, then your soul magnifies the Lord and your spirit rejoices in God your savior. You rejoice in the hope of eternity. Do you believe? Then the love of God now fills your heart. You love God because God first loved you. God’s love comes to you on its way to another. Being filled with love, peace, and joy, we are also filled with patience, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, humility, and temperance, and all the other fruits of the same Spirit. You are in the image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another.

According to Mark’s Gospel, it is the first thing Jesus says. He looked out upon so many weighed down by religion and the so-called wisdom of the world, and he said, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent. Turn and find, right before you, the blessings of forgiveness, love, righteousness, peace and joy. Trust in this good news. It will change everything. Everything. Amen.