The Spirit Of Religion Or The Spirit Of Holiness?

The Coming War Against The Religious Spirit

“For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22 NRSV )

“I say then, Walk in the Spirit and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.” (Gal. 5:16-18)

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6)

Though we’ve heard much about strategic level warfare, there is a more intense war unfolding that will make the warfare some of us have previously been involved in seem like mere skirmishes. This war will personally involve every born-again believer, and ultimately each and every believer will find themselves having to choose sides. In this war, we will find the enemy among us, up close and personal, in our midst, and even living inside of us. The Holy Spirit is even now leading the church into the conflict of the ages, the war against the spirit of false religion. The Holy Spirit and the religious spirit have constantly been at war since the creation of man, but as the time for the return of the Son of God draws nearer, this war is set to escalate dramatically

One thing is for certain in this particular war – if we don’t learn to recognise and resist the influence of false religion in ourselves first, we will not be able to stand against it manifested in the world. To overcome in this war, it is absolutely imperative to firstly acknowledge that in the flesh nature of each one of us dwells a measure of false religion. To say this is not necessarily to imply that believers are under the influence of a demonic spirit. There is a specific demonic entity called a spirit of religion that is actively at work in the world and in the church today, just as it was in Jesus’ day. There is also, however, a degree of false religion within each one of us because we are the seed of the first Adam. We are delivered from this false religion as we submit to the Cross in our daily lives and “reckon ourselves dead.”

So, what is the root of false religion, and when did it enter into man? Basically, it stems from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and it entered into man when Adam and Eve ate of that particular tree. At the root of the false religion is the fear of death. It causes man to try to earn salvation and strives to keep from man the revelation of grace inherent in the shed Blood of Christ. The only deliverance we will find from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is in the Tree of Life – Christ Himself.

“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” (Gen. 3:7) After Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they suddenly became aware of something else dwelling in each of them – the sin nature. They became self-conscious, because sin had become locked into their very flesh.

Part of God’s ensuing judgment on the serpent in the garden was that there would be “enmity between the Seed of the woman and the serpent’s seed” (Gen. 3:15). We know that the Seed of the woman is Jesus. What then is the seed of the serpent? In John chapter 8 Jesus told the Pharisees “You do the deeds of your father. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do…..” If we follow the context of this chapter, we find that Jesus was involved in an ongoing discourse with the Pharisees as He taught in the temple. He was addressing the religious spirit, the seed of the serpent. It was the religious spirit, the spirit of anti-christ in men, which ultimately conspired to put Jesus to death. It springs forth from Satan himself and is his seed.

In this article, we will take a look at how Jesus dealt with the religious spirit displayed by the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and lawyers. In seeking to understand the workings of the religious spirit, we will compare its motives and methods with the teachings of the One this counterfeit spirit emulates, the Holy Spirit. Firstly, however, it will help us to know a little cultural background knowledge about the people Jesus was dealing with in the scriptures we are looking at.

The Pharisees were a religious sect who sought holiness through the Law of Moses, but who also placed teachings by the Jewish rabbis on an equal par with, and often above, the Commandments of God. They loved tradition and followed elaborate rituals to keep themselves clean and “separated”. In fact, the word Pharisee actually means “separated.” The Sadducees were a powerful religious sect who denied there was any life after death or that there was any spirit in mankind. The High Priest and his family at the time of Jesus were Sadducees. Scribes and lawyers were responsible for interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures. They were academics who considered themselves intellectually superior to both the Pharisees and Sadducees. They spent their time debating and teaching in the synagogues, rarely mixing with the common people. Their emphasis was on education and study and learned argument. They expected the best places at feasts and in the synagogues and wore certain clothing that set them apart as religiously “superior”.

The Religious Spirit in the Gospel of Matthew

Let’s now turn to Matthew’s gospel and look into the way the religious spirit works within man compared with the working of the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist had warned the Pharisees and Sadducees “Do not think to say to yourselves “we have Abraham as our father” for I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” (Matthew 3:9) The religious spirit takes pride in physical heritage and genealogy, which is the fear of man. The Holy Spirit, however, says that we have a spiritual inheritance that is reserved for us in Heaven, and that we have this solely through the mercy of the Father in Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3,4)

In Matthew 9:2-7 some scribes accused Jesus of blasphemy because He forgave a sinner. The religious spirit focuses on the power of sin, rather than the power of God. However, the Holy Spirit says “Where sin abounds, grace abounds more” (Romans 5:20 ). Another thing we observe in this passage: the scribes were quick to accuse Jesus of blasphemy, regardless of the miracles they saw Him performing. The religious spirit is often overly concerned about defending God’s honour, (Matt 9:3). In fact it’s usually more concerned about God’s honour than God is.

In Matthew 9:10-13, we read that the Pharisees were offended when Jesus sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners. The religious spirit leans to exclusivism and isolation, and satisfies itself with good works. It separates itself with the attitude – “I am good, you are bad, therefore you will contaminate my goodness.” However, the Holy Spirit says “there is none good, all have fallen short”. The religious spirit separates itself physically from the world through fear of defilement. The Holy Spirit separates God’s people from the world through a process of sanctification, but does not take us out of the world. (1 Thess. 5:23; John 17:15,16)

Further on in the same chapter, verses 32-34, we see Jesus casting out a demon from a man who was mute. The scriptures say “the multitudes marveled, saying “It was never seen like this in Israel!” But the Pharisees said:”He casts out demons by the ruler of the demons.” The religious spirit will stand against any new thing God does that does not fit within past experience. Therefore, the Pharisees reasoned since it was never seen like this before, God wouldn’t do it, so the source must be the devil. Notice that the religious spirit often gives the devil too much attention and God too little glory. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, tells us to discern the holy from the demonic by the fruit that’s manifested (Matthew 12:33).

Matthew 12-8: When Jesus and His hungry disciples plucked and ate heads of grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees, again looking for any opportunity, accused Him of “breaking the law”. In doing so, they were actually misrepresenting the law, which stated that it was lawful to hand-pluck your neighbour’s grain, but not to use a sickle (Deut. 23:25). The religious spirit loves to accuse by quoting scriptures but has no love of the truth. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, utilises God’s word to convict and to free, rather than to condemn. “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

The scribes and Pharisees made another mistake in Matthew 15:2: “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” The religious spirit confuses traditions of man with the holiness of God. This is utter deception. As Paul the Apostle found, the Holy Spirit is willing for us to abandon all human tradition that would hinder us from a deeper relationship with Christ. “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:4-8) The religious spirit says “I have a holy tradition”, but the Holy Spirit says “I require holy fruit” (Gal 5.22)

“Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven.”(Matthew 16:1) They wanted a sign, not from Jesus, but from heaven. In Jewish superstition it was believed that demons and false gods could give signs on earth, but only the true God could give a sign “from heaven” The religious spirit values experience above fellowship with God. It values God for the “thrill sensation” rather than for His Holy nature. It either craves feeling and emotion, or denies them altogether. Both are extremes. We tend to stereotype the religious spirit as conservative, gloomy and cruel. However, the religious spirit can also manifest itself through a life that seeks continual spiritual “experiences”, rather than being rooted in the Word of God and a growing knowledge of Christ. The Holy Spirit says “Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness.” (Matt. 6:33) (Please don’t write to me and accuse me of being anti-charismatic. No-one loves it more than me when the Holy Spirit manifests Himself, however I am talking here about a faith that is dependent wholly on manifestations.)

Then, in Matthew 21:23-27 we are told that the chief priests (Sadducees) and the elders of the people confronted Jesus as He was teaching, and said “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” Having failed to destroy the work of God by argument and accusation, the religious spirit will try to use confrontation and disdain. This spirit upholds the authority of man and does not acknowledge the authority bestowed by God (until that authority exposes and evicts it). On the other hand, the Holy Spirit endorses and confirms the Father’s delegated authority on a human vessel, whether or not that authority is recognised by men. “The baptism of John, where was it from – from Heaven or from men?” Matt. 21:25

Matthew 22:15-22 When confrontation doesn’t work, the religious spirit appeals to the flesh (ego). This was the next tactic the Pharisees tried with Jesus. “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think?…..” This was nothing more than an attempt at flattery. Jesus was not deceived, however, saying “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites!” the Holy Spirit’s teaching is clear: “receive not honour (glory) from men” John 5:41

Next it was the Sadducees turn. They presented Jesus with a “hypothetical” they apparently thought would be beyond His spiritual knowledge (Matthew 22:29). Sadducees were adamant there was no resurrection of the dead, and they denied supernatural power. The religious spirit will either deny and scoff at such things as miracles, healings and deliverance, or it will go to the opposite extreme and use supernatural power for its own gain. Remember James and John wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village? Jesus rebuked them, saying “you do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” In other words, “That’s not the Holy Spirit motivating you, boys, that’s religious!” (Luke 9:52-56) The religious spirit often appears deeply spiritual, but in reality denies the supernatural power of God, trusting instead in it’s own strength and self-righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:1)

Matthew 22: 34 After Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees returned to test Him one more time. The religious spirit is often so convinced of its own righteousness it is unteachable. It is divisive and factional. The Pharisees had learnt nothing from Jesus’ dealings with the Sadducees. Instead they became puffed up with their own earthly wisdom, seeking to show their superiority over their religious rivals. The Holy Spirit, however, speaks the Father’s wisdom, rather than man’s wisdom: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.” (James 3:13-15)

Fleshly wisdom cannot contend with Holy Spirit wisdom, for we are told after this that “no-one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore.” (Matt 22:46)

The Religious Spirit is of the Spirit of Antichrist

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.(1 John 4:2,3)

The religious spirit is intrinsically linked to the spirit of antichrist because it DENIES Jesus CHRIST. Christ is the Hebrew Word for “anointed One”. The spirit of antichrist is against “christ, the anointed one”. It refuses to submit to the “anointing”, the Holy Spirit. It may confess Christ with the lips, but will not confess Him with a submitted, holy life.

Instead, the antichrist, religious spirit exalts the flesh, and is therefore idolatry. One way it may do this is through stringent denial of the needs of the body, which the Bible calls “self-imposed religion” and says is useless. “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using–according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:20)

The religious spirit will also embrace compromise in order to avoid persecution. “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.” (Gal 6:12) The religious spirit cannot embrace the Cross of Christ through fear of death. Instead it embraces good works, the “law”, because it believes in a system of punishment and reward. It fears punishment, and craves reward. The Pharisees had trumpets blown before them when they gave money to the poor. They would have to let people know they were fasting, because the flesh seeks recognition and gratification. It screams, “I want my reward NOW.” Jesus said “they have their reward” (Matthew 6:2). He meant they have it NOW through the gratification of their flesh. But for those led by and submitted to the Holy Spirit, the reward, the glory that will be revealed in us, is worth waiting for. (Romans 8:17)

A Return to the Fear of God

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Prov. 9:10)

“But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.” (Gal 4:29)

Those who are coming into freedom from the religion of the flesh will always be persecuted by the religious spirit. The religious spirit displays a counterfeit holiness and a fleshly fear of God. The Holy Spirit, however, brings forth in us a genuine, scriptural fear of God, the fruit of which is a deep desire for holiness (2 Cor. 7:1) You cannot truly walk in holiness without an increasingly deep fear of God. Fear of God is more than reverence for Him. It is knowledge of Him, Who He is, and the holiness of His character. As the Holy Spirit progressively reveals in us a growing knowledge of God we become increasingly aware of His absolute sovereignty and authority, which in turn brings us to a place of awe that He should be so merciful to us. We cannot become aware of our need for redemption apart from the revelation of the Holy Spirit, and we cannot fear God apart from the ongoing sanctification of the Holy Spirit.

The church of Acts lived in the fear of the Lord, (Acts 9:31), but the church has largely lost a conscious fear of the Lord as we have become more and more fearful of man. As we are set free from false religion, the fear of the Lord is returning to us and we will walk in it once again.

Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)

The religious spirit is concerned with what it can DO to make God happy. It will bring forth token acts of piety to appease God because of its fear of punishment, or desire for approval and reward. The religious spirit believes it can pay for sin through sacrifice. In this passage concerning Ananias and his wife Sapphira, the “certain part” Ananias brought to the apostles was a sacrifice. It was under the old system of the law. Ananias’ piety was counterfeit, coming forth from the religion of the flesh, not from the Holy Spirit. There was no compulsion on Ananias and Sapphira to sell their property, or to donate the proceeds to the church. Others had done so through the leading of the Holy Spirit, and they thought it would be good to imitate them. False religion will cause us to walk in the “goodness” of the flesh, rather than the righteousness of Christ. It was a different spirit.

Ananias’ sin was that he desired to appear holy, rather than BE holy. Sapphira’s sin was that she agreed with him. It is impossible both to walk in the fear of God and deliberately insult the Holy Spirit. The apostle Peter exposed what was in both their hearts – they were testing the Spirit of the Lord, as false religion will always do, because it does not know true fear of the Lord. The results of their action were, of course, deadly serious for Ananias and Sapphira. The result for the church, however, was an increase in the fear of the Lord. “So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.” (Acts 5:11)
One of the most tragic examples of the religious spirit operating today is in the suicide bombers of Islam. In their case the religious spirit works alongside a spirit of deception that masks the fear of death by promising immediate gratification to the flesh. (Sadly, many of these believe that as a result of their actions they will be transported directly to Paradise and rewarded with the desires of their flesh.) The martyrs of Christ, however, are not motivated by either reward or revenge. Most often, they are martyrs because they’ve already died to their flesh. They have faced the fear of death and overcome it, because they have a Holy Spirit revelation that they are crucified with Christ already.

” I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:20)

When we submit to false religion, we are proclaiming that Christ died for nothing. It’s time to war against the spirit of religion, within ourselves, and wherever else we find it in the world or in the church.

Cheryl McGrath
Great South Land Ministries, Australia


Copyright Cheryl McGrath, Great South Land Ministries, 2003 May be distributed freely with copyright intact. Permission is needed for reproducing this article or any part of it on a website.