The Religion of the Natural Man
May 30th, 1954
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-30-54 10:50 a.m.
You’re listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message. It is based upon the first part of the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Acts. In our preaching through the Bible, the last several Sundays we were in the twenty-seventh chapter of Acts which describes the shipwreck in a storm at sea that casts upon the island of Malta, which is south of Sicily, the apostle and 275 other souls. The twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Acts ends:
and the rest, some on boards and some on broken pieces of the ship,
gained to shore, got to land.
And so it came to pass, that they all escaped safe to land.
Now today, we begin with the twenty-eighth chapter:
And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita – modern Malta.
And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness; for they kindled a fire and received us every one, because of the present rain and because of the cold.
And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, "No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live."
And he shook off the beast into the fire and felt no harm.
Howbeit, they looked on him that he should have swollen or fallen down dead suddenly. But after they had looked a great while and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god – he is a god.
In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius, who received us and lodged us three days courteously.
And it came to pass that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever . . . to whom Paul entered in and prayed, and laid his hands on him and healed him.
So when this was done, others also who had diseases in the land came and were healed.
He uses a different word there. When Paul did it miraculously, he calls it iaomai [Acts 28:8]. When Luke does it and shares in it, he calls it therapeuo [Acts 28:9] "therapeutic." Luke was a physician.
Who also – this Publius – who also honored us with many honors; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.
And then after three months, they made their journey to Rome [Acts 28:11-16].
Now the sermon today is entitled The Religion of the Natural Man, and it is presented in order that we might contrast it with the revealed religion of God in Christ Jesus. You see, it is only by contrast that you’re ever conscious of anything. If the world were white, you wouldn’t be conscious of any color at all: all’d be white. You wouldn’t even know of color; but when you contrast a color – black – then white looks white. If it were all black, you would not be conscious of it; but if you have a white, then the black looks black. Blue and yellow and white: the contrast of the colors make you sensitive to them.
Now, it’s the same way about error and truth. I do not understand all of why God permits error in the world, but I do know this much – that were it not for error, we would never be conscious of truth. It is error here that points truth there. Or the other: it is truth here that so pointedly makes error what it is. Now, the same about religion: it is in the contrast of the revealed religion of Jesus Christ with the religion of a natural man that you find what revealed religion is.
So this morning we’re going to look at these barbarians. Now, may I explain that word "barbarian"? To us, a barbarian is a savage: an uncouth, uncivilized, untaught savage. He’s a wild tribesman. In the Roman Empire, there were four cultural groups of people: the Greek, the Roman, the Jew, and then it depended upon what nationality you were as to what you called the fourth one. A Roman would call the fourth one a provincial. A Greek would call the fourth one a barbarian. Now, the word barbarian did not mean to them as it does today that they’re wild savages, but it was the cultural attitude of a learned Greek. That’s one reason that I know Luke was a Greek. When he came to these Maltans, or these Melitans, he used the Greek term describing them. He called them barbarians: that is, they were not in the cultural family of either the Roman, the Jew, or the Greek.
Now, these barbarian people, they have a religion. Malta was a colony of ancient Carthage, and the Carthaginians themselves were colonists of ancient Phoenicia. So the religion of Malta in this day under the Roman Empire, the religion was Carthaginian-Phoenician religion which is but typical of all of the religions of the natural man in the earth everywhere – everywhere.
There are those who speak of the religion of the natural man – just any man outside of the pale of the revealed Word of God – there are those who speak of the barbarian and his religion as being altogether no good: nothing good in it. They describe the savage and the barbarian as half beast and half devil, and they see nothing good at all in their native, natural religion. And that’s not true.
You can go look at those people for yourselves. They have, in many instances, the same great spiritual and ethical drive that you have as a Christian. You’ll find a mother devoted to her child. You’ll find great ethical principles running through every one of the tribes.
The lowest tribe that was ever discovered was the Tierra del Fuegians that lived way down there on the tip end of South America. And when Charles Darwin saw them and visited them, he said they are the missing link between his evolutionary theory of man and an ape; and he said they were incapable of moral distinction.
A great Christian by the name of Captain Gardener heard that Charles Darwin said that, and he outfitted a missionary boat and went down to the Tierra del Fuegians. And though he slowly starved to death because his boat of supplies later didn’t arrive and the whole party perished, yet he so changed their life and character and so lifted up the innate qualities in the inside of that pagan, heathen heart that Charles Darwin himself became a subscriber to the great Christian missionary movement to lift the Tierra del Fuegians up to God and to Christ. They have in them the same great God-given moral qualities that you have in you.
On the other hand, there are some who look upon the barbarians and the savage as being all good. That’s the cynic who wants to say that civilization is nothing but a corrupting force; that a man in his natural state will be simple, childlike, unsophisticated, gracious, hospitable, kind – that he’s altogether good and it is only the corrupting influences of civilization that make men evil, and bad, and vile, and wicked, and greedy and all of those things. Nor is that true; nor is that true. These barbarians here: their ancestors, I say, were the Carthaginians; and when they won a victory against Rome, they took the chief prisoners and burned them alive as offerings to the gods who had given them such victory over the Romans.
You can trace this Carthaginian-Phoenician religion on back into the ancient days of the Old Testament. And many, many times did they, these Phoenicians, pull away Israel from God, and as the old prophet would say and as the Old Testament says, "cause their children, their sons and daughters to pass through the fire unto their gods" [2 Kings 16:3, 17:17, 21:6, 23:10; 2 Chronicle 33:6; Jeremiah 32:35; Ezekiel 16:21, 20:26, 20:31]. They offered them as burnt sacrifices to heaven. Many times these savages, being kind and hospitable to a friend, will eat and live off the body of his enemies.
If you’ve ever been down in old Mexico City and go out to look at the pyramids and the vast altars there and then go into the museum there right by the great cathedral square, you’ll see pictures drawn by themselves of their sacrifices. And inevitably, they’re all human – human sacrifices. They take living flesh and pour out its blood as a libation and an expiation before God.
No. Natural religion has in it great ethical potentialities because God put it in the man; but in itself, it has no sensitivity to the great moral values that you and I know in the Lord Jesus. And we’ll go back to it in a minute.
All right, another thing about the religion of the natural man: the religion of the natural man is based upon the persuasion that there is a nemesis that ever follows that which is wrong. When you do evil, there’s always retribution. When the barbarians saw that venomous beast, that poisonous viper cling to the hand of Paul [Acts 28:3] – see this is in late November, and the little animal had crawled into a little place somewhere to spend the winter, to sleep for the winter, to hibernate for the winter. And Paul, hastily picking up all of those twigs, picked up that sleeping viper [Acts 28:3]. And when he placed the twigs on the fire, the warmth awakened it, and it darted out and fastened its poisonous fangs in the hand of the apostle Paul [Acts 28:3]. Now, when that happened, these barbarians looked at Paul, and they said, "This man no doubt is a murderer. He’s a vile, villainous, and wicked man, who, though he escaped the terror of the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live" [Acts 28:4]. There is a nemesis of retribution. There are the whips and the scorpions of the furies that are following him, and he cannot escape.
That is the fundamental tenant of the religion of the natural world and of the natural man. It is the basis of all of the mythologies. The great Greek tragedies were written, without exception, on that basis of the Nemesis. She was the goddess of retribution; and when a man did wrong, she hounded him to his death.
The religion of the natural man is based upon the supposition that evil and judgment are always interconnected. Because a man has done evil, therefore he shall suffer for it. There is a sleepless avenger that by day and by night will follow him and will drive him. The sea will not bear up the murderer nor will the scorpions fail to sting him; but wherever he goes and whatever direction he turns, the man that is guilty will suffer the divine retribution of Almighty God.
And I say, that seems to be an instinct in natural religion. You come across it all the time. The whole Book of Job centered around this. Job fell into evil. He fell into all kinds of sorrow: lost his home, lost his children [Job 1:18-19], lost his property [Job 1:14-17], lost his health [Job 2:1-8]. So Job’s comforters came to comfort Job [Job 2:11-13]. And this is the way they comfort him: They said to Job, "Job, confess your sins. You have done evil. Therefore, all of these bad and terrible things have overtaken you" [Job 4:1-5:27, 8:1-22, 11:1-20, 18:1-21, 20:1-29, 22:1-30, 25:1-6, 32:1-37:24]. And that’s the Book of Job as they talk about that. Job says, "I have not done evil, and it is not because I have sinned that these terrible calamities have overwhelmed me" [Job 6:1-7:21, 9:1-10:22, 12:1-14:22, 16:1-17:16, 19:1-29, 21:1-34, 23:1-24:25, 26:1-31:40]. Now, that’s the Book of Job. Do you see it? "Because evil has befallen you, therefore you have sinned." That’s the Book of Job.
All right take it again, and just for a minute, using illustrations. There came to Jesus men who said, "The Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices – they were sinners above all the other people in Jerusalem because such things happened to them" [Luke 13:1-3]. Now the historical incident to which that referred, we don’t have it in profane history. But there were some Galileans who were worshiping there in Jerusalem, and Pilate fell upon them with his sword and slew them. And when they died there in the blood of their own sacrifices, the people said, "These men were wicked above all other men. A nemesis has fallen to them, and there they lie in their own blood."
Another instance: they came to Jesus about "the eighteen men on whom the tower of Siloam fell" [Luke 13:4]. The wall fell on them and killed them, and the people said those eighteen men must have been vile and wicked men because "look at the terrible calamity that has overwhelmed them and overtaken them. They were vile above other men. Look what happened to them."
Disciples did the same thing as they walked by and saw a man born blind. They asked Jesus, "Lord, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he is born blind?" [John 9:2]. He’s blind. Therefore, it has to be a nemesis has overtaken him. That’s the way life is put together. "That’s religion," says the natural man. "When you do wrong, there’s a retribution; and when this man is blind, therefore, somebody has sinned."
I preached a sermon here several evenings ago, and one of the most discriminating men to whom I have ever preached in my life, Brother George Cobb, who always sits right here in front of me, wrote me a long letter. The sermon was on the judgment day – the final judgment of Almighty God; and George wrote me a letter and started it off. He said, "Pastor, I haven’t read Emerson’s essay ‘Compensation’ in forty or fifty years, but after your sermon I went back and read it again."
Now, Emerson’s essay on "Compensation" begins – he had been to church and he had heard a pastor, his pastor, preach on the judgment day of Almighty God. And Emerson wrote that famous essay – one of the most famous in the earth and one of the great literary masterpieces of all time. He wrote that essay "Compensation" in refutation of what the preacher had to say. And the thesis of Emerson is this: that as a nemesis in this world, in this life, and in this time, and whoever does wrong and whoever is guilty is overtaken in this world and in this time by those avenging furies. So I just copied this from Emerson’s essay on "Compensation" that you might see how he says it.
Every act rewards itself . . . Men call the circumstance retribution . . . It is inseparable from the thing . . . Crime and punishment grow out of the same stem. Punishment is a fruit that ripens within the flower . . . This is that ancient doctrine of Nemesis who keeps watch in the universe and lets no offense go unchastised. The Furies, they said, are attendants on justice, and if the sun in heaven should transgress his path they would punish him . . . When the Thasians erected a statue to Theagenes, a victor in the games, one of his rivals went to it by night and endeavored to throw it down by repeated blows, until at last he moved it from its pedestal and was crushed to death beneath its fall.
[From "Compensation," by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841]
Now, that’s from Emerson’s essay on "Compensation." Whenever you do wrong, there’s a nemesis that will follow you; and in this life, all of these things are balanced out: wrong and judgment, evil and retribution.
"This man is a murderer, who though he has escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffer him not to live. Look at that! That venomous snake has buried its poisonous fangs in his flesh, and we’ll watch him die. We’ll watch him die" [Acts 28:4-6]. That’s the religion of the natural man. That is the religion of the natural man; but it is only in poetry, and in mythology, and in Emerson’s essay that it is true.
Actually and in experience, it is not true. It is not true. I have seen the most sainted of all Christian people I ever pastored – I have seen them die in agony, in pain indescribable and excruciating. I’ve seen God’s people rise in sorrow and in suffering. I have seen an alcoholic whose much drinking had so weakened his heart that when he came to the end of the way, though a young man, sweetly, quietly, peacefully, he just quit breathing. His heart quit beating, and he went out in the most sublime manner you could ever describe.
I have seen wicked people prosper and never be touched by ill health and never seemingly be touched by sorrows that afflict some of God’s sainted members in this church. You say that because the tyrant has done evil, therefore his sleep is afflicted with all of the misery and the haunting memories of the evil that he’s done. That’s not so. He goes to bed and, in many instances, he sleeps like an innocent child.
You can look this earth over, and you will never find that principle and that doctrine illustrated with unerring accuracy. The wicked do not always find themselves hounded to death by that nemesis, nor do you always find it is the wicked who are bitten by that venomous serpent. Sometimes the innocent are. Sometimes God’s children fall a prey to the most dire, sorrowful misfortunes that you could ever describe or know [Psalm 73:1-28].
All right, I have one third thing and then we go back to the three. The religion of the natural man: its god. They looked to see him die – swell up and die. He didn’t die. Then they said, "He’s a god. He’s a god" [Acts 28:6]. Two times here in the New Testament does Paul come in contact with these barbarians: once in [Lystra] [Acts 14:8-11] and once in Malta [Acts 28:1-6], and in both instances he is taken for a god.
The religion of the natural man is the worship of the mysterious, the wonderful, the miraculous, the inexplicable. They stand in awe before a thing they cannot explain, and that becomes their deity, their god [John 6:26-27]. They look up into the firmament at night and they worship the stars and the moon, or into the skies of the day and they worship the sun; or they look around them, and they worship the phenomena of life into which mystery they cannot enter – the oak, the mountain, the tree, the river, the stream; or sometimes they take animals who represent great qualities of the true God, and they worship the animal in token of the quality of the god [Psalm 106:20; Romans 1:22-25]. For example, the hawk-eyed deities of ancient Egypt represented the omniscience of god and they, and the ox, the Apis, the Apis – the god Apis which is an ox – representing great strength. And even in Israel, they worshiped the brazen serpent which represented healing [Numbers 21:6-9; 2 Kings 18:4]. They worshiped the miraculous and the inexplicable. And they stand in awe before the wonderful, and that becomes their god.
When I went to visit the king of Arae, the tribal king among the Urubus, there in his hallway were all kinds of little old things hanging down – maybe a gizzard of a strange African bird, or a chicken head, or a funny-looking stone, and all kinds of little old things hanging around for he lives in dread and in fear and he’s full of superstition about the things he cannot explain. So he worships in a world that he cannot understand and stands in awe before things that he cannot receive.
The first thing that happens to that kind of a religion, it turns to atheism which is the religion for the most part of America: religious atheism, intellectual atheism. For when you are able to explain the thing, then you don’t accept it as a god anymore. When the Spaniards came over here to America, the American Indian received them as a visit from the deities. They’d never seen ships like that before. But when they came to know the Spaniards better, they didn’t worship any longer – not they. When the savage first saw the European firearm, he bowed down and worshiped before a god. Later, when he became accustomed to the arm himself, he used it. When the Laplander sees the eclipse, he stands in awe and adoration before it. When he can predict its coming with unerring accuracy for a thousand years to come, he doesn’t worship any more.
You see, when you’re able to explain or understand the phenomenon, then it loses its awe, and you become an atheist. So the people used to think of God’s lightning as being bolts from heaven. When you go to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933 and see them make those same terrific bolts in a laboratory and the philosopher experiments with them, then you don’t worship anymore and you become an atheist. So the intellectual and the professor and the scientist: as he learns and he probes, he pushes the things back and back and back and back until finally he leaves God out of the universe, and he is a material atheist for practical purposes. He has no god and no religion at all.
Now in summary: that I’ve tried is the religion of the natural man.
The religion of the Lord Jesus Christ. The revealed religion of the Lord Jesus Christ – what is it like? First, in its virtue, in its merit, and in its worth. The virtues of revealed religion are the virtues in the mind and the heart of Christ Jesus. How did He treat an enemy? That is revealed religion. How did He treat those who persecuted Him? [Luke 23:34] That is revealed religion. What was His attitude toward those who cursed Him? [1 Peter 2:23] That is revealed religion. Revealed religion in Christ Jesus – His heart and mind and spirit – shows the same front to those who hate us as it does to those who love us. And I’m frank to tell you, I stagger at it most of the time, but that is revealed religion.
The second thing: what is the attitude of revealed religion toward sin and suffering? First about sin, the nature of sin: in revealed religion sin becomes an attitude and a character of a man; so, it is inward [1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Corinthians 1:4-5]. The publican and the harlot in the New Testament went into the kingdom of God, but the Pharisee stayed outside [Luke 18:9-17; 7:36-50]. The prodigal boy who had wasted his substance in riotous and wicked living came back to his father while the elder son in pride who said, "At no time did I ever transgress thy commandments," is despicable in the sight of all who read the parable [Luke 15:11-32]. Sin becomes a matter of the soul. I am a murderer if I hate [Matthew 5:21-22]. I am an adulterer if I lust [Matthew 5:27-28]. It’s a matter of the inside, and it brings us all to the Lord Jesus for healing and atonement.
He is wicked and therefore the nemesis is after him; and I’m righteous, therefore there is no nemesis after me. No. He is a sinner, and I am too [Romans 3:23]; and he needs to be saved, but I do too [Romans 3:9-20]. And it ill behooves me to point my finger at him, unless I also point my finger at me [Matthew 7:3-5; Luke 6:42]. That is revealed religion. We’re all lost. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23], and nothing condemns us but one sin: that we refuse the propitiatory, expiatory – the love and grace and atonement of Jesus on the cross [John 3:15-18]. All sinners alike, all saved alike, all glory to the Lamb [Romans 3:21-30; Ephesians 2:8-9]; that’s revealed religion.
And now hurriedly, the last: the God of revealed religion, the God of the New Testament. Did you know there is almost – to use the word contemptuous is not right, but I don’t know what other word to use – there is almost a contemptuous attitude in the Bible toward the miraculous and the awesome? The reason I had you read the passage of Scripture this morning was this: the twelfth chapter of the Book of Corinthians closes, the twelfth chapter closes, with a word about the miraculous gifts: healing, speaking in tongues, working miracles [1 Corinthians 12:28-30]. But Paul almost contemptuously says: "Yet I plead with you to seek after the better gifts . . . the more excellent way" [1 Corinthians 12:31]. Which is what? That you be able to work a miracle? That you be able to command the lightning of God? No!
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and I do not have the breath and the pulse of love in my soul, it is nothing.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, though I have all faith, so that I could move anything, do anything, and I do not have the love of Jesus in my soul, that is nothing too.
[1 Corinthians 13:1-2]
You see what is the miraculous? Nothing. Could I say that Jesus had that same attitude too without being thought blasphemous about His miracles? One time Jesus said, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe" [John 4:48], and again He says, "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, but no sign shall be given it" [Matthew 12:39]. I’m not quite right when I use words like this, but I don’t know how else to say it: Jesus looked upon miracles and signs and wonders almost contemptuously. They were just verifications of the great eternal truth that He came to reveal [John 20:30-31].
Well, what is that great eternal truth? It is this. It is this: the great eternal truth that Jesus came to reveal is that God our Father, God our Father, is known by another faculty that you have in your soul. I have the five senses. I can see, and taste, and hear, and smell, and touch. I have my five senses which are the great five avenues and the knowledge of the scientists. He can wave this thing; he can see this thing; he can smell this thing; he can look at that thing; he can go to that thing; and he can demonstrate that thing.
But the Lord Jesus says there is another tremendous faculty in the soul, and that faculty is faith – faith. I can understand, and I can know, and I can respond, and I can receive great revelations and great truths, and I can commit myself to great things by a faculty of the soul – faith [Hebrews 11:1-40]. Couldn’t demonstrate them to save my life. I couldn’t hold it in my hand. I couldn’t wave them. I couldn’t show them to you, but they are actual and known by great faith.
And with regard to Himself, the religion of Jesus Christ is not the standing in awe and in wonder of an incomparable miracle – the mysterious, the inexplicable – but the religion of Jesus Christ is the devotion and love, the adoration of a glorious Person: the Lord Himself [John 17:3; 1 Timothy 1:5]. I become a Christian not like a heathen bowing down before a thing I cannot explain or cannot know because finally that’ll make an atheist out of me! As we know more, and know more, and probe, and probe, and push this thing back and back, finally, I conclude, there’s not anything in my universe that holds God in it. If I just knew enough, I’d know it all and there’d be no God in it at all – make an atheist out of me.
But if I interpret my religion in the turn of the character and the revelation of Jesus Christ, why there He is. There He is. In Him is all knowledge [Colossians 2:2-3]. That’s right – omniscient [Matthew 12:25; Luke 6:6-11]. In Him is all power. That’s right – omnipotent [Matthew 4:24, 8:1-13, 9:20; Mark 5:1-43; Luke 7:11-15; John 11:1-46, 18:1-6]: dunamis. Ubiquity and omnipresence [Matthew 28:20; John 1:47-], that’s right; and in His hands are all of the creative works of the universe [John 1:3; Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:16], that’s right. That’s right.
But my religion is not like a heathen and like a savage, bowing in awe before a thing I can’t understand – fearful of an awful mystery into whose secret I cannot enter. But my religion is the love and adoration of a wonderful Somebody: God in the flesh whose words I have [John 1:1-4, 1:14, 4:23-24] whose Spirit I feel [Romans 8:16], to whom I can call and pray [Hebrews 4:16, 1 Peter 5:7], who remembers us in the hour of weakness and trouble and sorrow [John 14:16-21], who knows that evil will befall me – age, and sickness, and death – but there He is standing by to help [John 16:33], to remember, to save and to keep [John 10:27-30], and to provide for the more glorious life in the world that is to come [1 Corinthians 2:9; Ephesians 3:20-21; 1 Peter 1:13]. Well, may the Lord bless what I’ve tried to do today.
Now may we sing? While we stand and sing – whoever it was that said "Christianity is Christ, that’s all; the religion of the church is Jesus, that’s all. It’s not a system. It’s not a theology. It’s not a code. It’s not a creed. It’s the Lord Jesus – that’s all." Whoever said that said it right. We’re not bound down by organizations, or institutions, or miracles, or the inexplicable, or the awesome, or the mysterious. We’re bowing down before Somebody: a Character, a Person – God in the flesh. That’s Christianity – all of the mysteries are hid in Him, all of the explanations are in Him, all of the final "to be’s" – the denouement of time and the meaning of life, destiny to come – it’s all in Him [Colossians 2:2-3].
And to be a Christian is to accept the Lord as our all in all now in age, in death, in forever [John 1:12]. Would you do it today? "Pastor, today, best I know how, I give my heart in trust to the Lord Jesus. I too will bow down at His shrine and worship Him, pray to Him, love Him, give Him my life." A child, a youth, somebody you, a family – however God shall say the word and lead the way, today would you come? Make it now while we stand and while we sing.