“A Fair Shew in the Flesh” (Formalism Rebuked)

by Shawn Brasseaux

Galatia was a region in present-day north-central and south-central Turkey. On his second apostolic journey, Paul established a number of small, Christian assemblies in this area (Acts 16:6; Acts 18:23). Legalistic Jews (both saved and lost) were pressuring the Christians in Galatia to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-5 cf. Galatians 3:1-5; Galatians 5:1-6).

In effect, these false teachers were commanding the Galatians to ignore their position in Christ and discard the salvation that they already received through grace without works. Beloved, we are facing the same predicament today in regards to denominationalism and works-religion! The devil is still trying to corrupt the simple Gospel of Grace with man-oriented church tradition. In this Bible study, we want to study the Bible to see what God has to say about formalism (performing ceremonies, rites, and rituals for the sake of pleasing man).

* * *

In some of his closing remarks, the Apostle Paul writes in his epistle to Galatia (6:12,13 KJV): “As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.”

Notice, some Jews were pressuring the Galatians to be physically circumcised (just like the Law of Moses demanded; Leviticus 12:3 cf. Genesis 17:12). Those Jews knew that Paul was facing persecution because he was preaching the (anti-works-religion) grace message, and those Jewish teachers did not want to “suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.” Thus, they “played it safe.” These “denominationalists” avoided the persecution that Paul faced by agreeing with Paul’s opponents! This is why those Jewish religious leaders were preaching circumcision and Law-keeping for salvation.

There was another reason why these Jewish religionists were preaching their legalistic message. The Bible said in Galatians 6:12,13 that they wanted “to make a fair shew in the flesh.” They wanted others to see their new converts. They wanted to “glory in [the Galatians’] flesh.” In other words, “Hey, look everyone, we have some new members of our religion! Behold our humbling religious ceremonies and rituals!” Modern-day Christendom says the same thing!! How so?

Ever heard of making a profession of faith? Lighting candles and kneeling at an “altar?” Walking an aisle? Getting water baptized in a local church? Rededicating your life to the Lord? Repeating a prayer? Jumping and shouting during “worship time?” These activities identify perfectly with circumcision and Galatians 6:12,13. It is something that looks nice and it generates pride because it is something that you are doing in your own strength; hence the term “shew in the flesh.” Let me give you one example.

My family once went to a denominational church. For the two years we went there, we always saw one of the deacons going speak with the pastor at “invitation time.” Every Sunday morning after the service, I would see the same man go up to the front and talk with the pastor, or go off to the side in the front and kneel to pray. I found that rather odd. Why was this deacon going up so often? That question was unanswered for us; when we left the church over doctrinal issues, I asked a former deacon of the church what was going on, and his explanation shocked us.

Before my family ever went to church, it was losing members. The pastor had been pressuring his deacons to go up every Sunday. In doing so, this would encourage other members to go up, get water baptized, come to the front and pray, and so on. When this former deacon refused to go along with the charade, the pastor grew upset. One deacon complied, however… it the same deacon that we would see going up every Sunday! Furthermore, it was that same pastor that would pressure a friend of mine to walk the aisle and get water baptized, even though she was already saved and was complete in Christ (without having water baptism or walking an aisle; Colossians 2:10).

It is rather sad that this is going in so many “Christian” churches today. Not all churches are bad, just most of them. They are so caught up in denominational viewpoint that they miss the simple truths of the Bible rightly divided (dispensational Bible study).

  • Walking down an aisle does not save anyone any more than walking through a local park. (By the way, Matthew 10:32,33 has nothing to do with walking down an aisle.)
  • Making a so-called “profession of faith” is religion.
  • Water baptism does not belong in this the Dispensation of Grace (1 Corinthians 1:17; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:5).
  • Uttering repetitious prayer is paganism (Matthew 6:7).

“So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Faith does not motivate us to get water baptized, walk an aisle, and so on because God does not require us to do them. Faith would not cause us to do something God never told us to do. Only unbelief (rebellion, sin) would cause us to do something contrary to God’s Word to us.

We can do all the activities that appeal to the flesh—recall the candle-burning, the “solemn” prayer time, the walking down an aisle, getting water baptized, et cetera—but if there is no underlying faith in God’s Word that motivates us to do these activities, then it is a waste of time. God is not looking for our “beautiful outward appearance” because deep down we are all sinners. The deacon I mentioned earlier, he was simply going forward because the pastor wanted him to do so (there was no underlying faith in God’s Word). Let us further consider this matter.

During His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ extensively rebuked Israel’s religious leaders because of their “formalism.” Basically, they were performing the religious rites and rituals with impeccability, making sure everything was done perfectly, but all done in unbelief (no faith). Look at Matthew 23:3. The scribes and Pharisees disobeyed God’s instructions given through Moses, but they commanded everyone else obey the Law of Moses. Verse 5 says “but all their works they do for to be seen of men.” Whenever these religious leaders did good deeds, it was just to be seen of others. They wore long robes, they loved the greetings of “Rabbi,” and they enjoyed the special seats at feasts and in the synagogues. What pride! Mankind naturally loves to boast in something he did.

Matthew 23:13-ff. shows us just how hypocritical these religious leaders were. Rather than letting God’s people hear God’s message, these corrupt religionists would hinder God’s work, suppress God’s Word, and kill/persecute God’s prophets and apostles (verse 13). According to verse 14, they “devoured widows’ houses, and for a pretence made long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.” It was all a show for everyone to see and praise them; it was “pretence,” a false display (it looked good, but it was evil). It was “a fair shew in the flesh.”

Verse 15 says Israel’s religious leaders would win converts to their religion, but their converts were never told God’s pure message of salvation—they made the proselyte (convert) “twofold more the child of hell” than they were, the Lord Jesus said!! We see just how dangerous “a fair shew in the flesh” can be. It looks so good on the outside, but inside, it is nothing but satanic deception—formalism plays on our emotions. The deception is so great it actually distracts people away from the message of salvation in Christ Jesus. It generates unbelief, even in the hearts of Christians! It emphasizes man’s works rather than stressing Christ’s finished work on Calvary!

Now, I am not saying that all church leaders are evil or untrustworthy. There are some good Christian men who are serving the Lord and leading churches as God has called evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do, but that number of saints is very small, and it seems to be getting smaller and smaller as the years pass. Most of Christendom is filled with church members participating in mindless religious activities. How do you suppose God feels?

We should exercise extreme caution when it comes to rituals, ceremonies, and rites in a local church building. Lighting candles, uttering repetitious prayers, kneeling before altars or statues, walking aisles, and so on are oftentimes vain worship, and God is not pleased with it. In fact, Isaiah chapter 1 (11-15) speaks of God hiding His face from Israel’s religious activities. JEHOVAH was so sick of Israel’s formalism that He actually said (Isaiah 1:13) “I cannot away with; it is iniquity!” In other words, God said: “I cannot stomach it, get away from Me with your vain worship. It is nothing but wickedness!”

Undoubtedly, God would repeat this in regards to most of Christendom today! “I am sick of all the denominationalism. It is nothing but a fair shew in the flesh. I am not at all fooled.”

CONCLUSION

Do not let someone lead you to faithlessly mimic God’s program for Israel—this includes water baptism, tongue-talk, work to prove your salvation, reciting the “Lord’s prayer,” confess your sins, and so on. God wants people (saints) who have a firm understanding of His Word to them: this is why dispensational Bible study is so important.

God does not want imitation, or empty performance; He wants people who actions reflect their inward (heart) state. God does not want people who merely claim to be His children, but who are His children and who live lives that please Him and reflect the grace life described in Paul’s epistles. God does not want people who simply act like the Bible, but who actually believe what God’s Word says to them. The foremost issue is the attitude of the heart (faith or unbelief).

If we are to be in accordance with God’s will today, we need to break away from all the mindless “worship” and rituals of Christendom—the formalism—and start focusing on the sound doctrine that Paul’s epistles, Romans through Philemon, teach. We should not be doing things to boast in what we did. Our motivation for doing good works is not to be seen or praised of men, but to reflect the sound doctrines in the Pauline epistles.

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