“Outside-In and Inside-Out Religion: Part 1”
October 1, 2023
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
We return this morning to the Book of Deuteronomy, as Moses gives instruction to the people of Israel, after forty years in the desert, on the verge of the promised land.
Moses has just finished recounting portions of Israel’s history, and the grace that the Lord has shown them. He next exhorts the people about how they should live in light of all that the Lord has done for them.
With that in mind, let’s turn to our text this morning from Deuteronomy 10:12-22.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
Moses said to the people:
10:12 “And now, Israel, what does Yahweh your God require of you, but to fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of Yahweh, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to Yahweh your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet Yahweh set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear Yahweh your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now Yahweh your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.
This is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, our eyes long for your salvation
and for the fulfillment of your righteous promises.
Deal with us, your servants, according to your steadfast love,
and teach us your statutes.
We are your servants, and so we ask you to give us understanding,
that we may know your testimonies.
As we attend to your word now,
help us to love it more than gold, even much fine gold.
Make us to hold to your precepts as right,
and to hate every false way.
Grant this, we ask, in Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:123-125, 127-128]
In our text this morning, Moses exhorts Israel to live as God has called them to, in light of all that God has done for them. He calls them to live lives of biblical faith.
What we see in our text here – what Moses points out to Israel – is that biblical faith is supposed to shape our lives both from the outside in and from the inside out.
And Moses makes that point initially, in part at least, in verses twelve and thirteen. Look at those again.
Moses writes: “And now, Israel, what does Yahweh your God require of you, but to fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of Yahweh, which I am commanding you today for your good?”
Do you see how the list Moses gives moves back and forth between the internal lives of God’s people, and their external lives – between their internal hearts and their external actions? [Block, 270]
He begins by calling them to “fear” the Lord – which speaks to the disposition of their hearts. Then he calls them to “walk in all his ways” which describes their external lives. Next, he calls us to “love” the Lord (which starts in the heart), and then to “serve” him (which is seen in our external lives). And then he adds that that service should be with all our heart and soul … and that it should involve keeping all the commandments and statutes of God. Moses moves back and forth between their hearts and their lives, making it clear that what God is calling for from them requires both: both the internal disposition of their hearts, and the external actions of their lives.
Biblical religion calls for both, and both are connected.
But most of us struggle with living out both dimensions of our faith … and with seeing the connection between them.
For some of us, religion and faith are an especially internal and personal thing. Our relationship with God is contained and centered in the secret places of our hearts. And then the external aspects of religion often seem … maybe okay … but not, ultimately necessary.
And that’s a common view among American Christians today. Over the last 25 years, approximately 40 million adult Americans who used to go to church at least once a month now attend it less than once per year. That’s a massive shift. And recently, Jim Davis and Michael Graham, both of whom work with the Keller Center, teamed up with two social scientists to study that shift with what they describe as “the largest and most comprehensive study of dechurching ever commissioned.” There are several very noteworthy and unexpected findings in this study. But today I want to focus on just two findings. The first is that in a survey of ten million people who had been attending evangelical churches but then stopped, half of them – five million of them – still confessed Christian faith that was in conformity with the Nicene Creed. They didn’t reject the content of the faith. But they did stop going to church.
That leads to a second question: Why did they stop going to church? The assumption often is that they must have had a very negative experience there … or maybe they actively rejected concepts of church authority or something like that. But actually in this study, they found that the number one reason people gave for why they stopped attending church … was that they moved. They moved and never found a new church. “In fact,” they write, “roughly three-quarters of the people who left the church did so casually, for pedestrian reasons including moving, the inconvenience of attending, kids’ sports activities, or family changes like marriage, divorce, or having a new child.” [Davis & Graham]
Now … there’s a lot to say and consider about those findings, but let’s focus on just one of them: For many of those 40 million people who stopped coming to church, the primary reason they stopped … was that they just didn’t see it as that important. They claim to still believe the foundational tenets of Christianity. But for them, their faith is an internal matter. External aspects of like public worship and the church community are just not that important.
And the truth is, even if we keep going to church, we can sometimes feel the same way. We feel a divide – a disconnect – between the internal aspects of faith and the external aspects of faith, and maybe, for you, the internal feels real, and the external feels kind of distant and disconnected … and not so real.
Is that you?
Or maybe, for you, it’s the other way around.
Because for others, your faith is an external matter … but if you’re honest, there is not that much of an internal component to it for you.
Perhaps you are driven largely by duty: You know you should go to church, you know you should live your life a certain way, you know you should believe certain truth claims, and so you do. It’s what’s right. You live the Christian life, but it doesn’t seem to connect much in your heart.
Or maybe you’re driven less by duty than by logic. The Christian life makes sense to you. It makes sense of the world like nothing else. And so you affirm it. It’s a fantastic theory of reality. And so you order your worldview according to Christian truth, and your actions flow from that … but, if you’re honest … it doesn’t seem to affect your heart that much.
Or maybe you’re driven less by logic or by duty than by a desire to belong. All “your people” are here in the church. It’s where your friends are. It’s where your family is. You want to be with these people – your life is tied up with this community … and that leads you to stay. You participate in the community … but the realities of the faith don’t often feel like they really grip your heart.
Now … embracing the duty, the logic, and the belonging of Christianity is not at all wrong in itself. The Christian faith is logical and true, living in light of it is good and right, and its community should be the place where we find our deepest relationships.
But for some of us … it can often feel like there’s not much more to the Christian life than that. As much as you may affirm that it’s good and right, it doesn’t seem like the goodness of the Lord himself stirs your heart very often. As much as you think about Christianity’s truth claims, you think less often about the Lord himself. As much as you want the presence of the community in your life, you don’t think as much about the presence of the Lord in your heart. Your external life may be saturated with Christian things … but your heart might feel several steps removed.
Now … don’t hear what I’m not saying.
I’m not saying that unless your heart is filled to the brim with internal Christian feelings and your external live is overflowing with Christian activity, then you’re not really a Christian. I’m not saying that.
But Moses here does make it clear that biblical Christian faith should have both dimensions: the internal and the external. And so if we see that one dimensions is especially weak in our lives – whether our lives have become disconnected from external Christian activities, or our hearts have become disconnected from internal Christian passion – if we see one of those areas as weak, then this text calls us to take note, and consider how we can grow, because biblical Christian faith should aim for both the internal and the external.
At the same time, if we see one of those dimensions is completely absent … then we should be concerned. Because if your faith is completely external, with no internal component, or if you think it’s internal, but there’s no external evidence of faith in your life, then you need to hear Moses’ words as a warning that your faith may not be sincere or authentic. And so you need to hear from Moses what a true, wholistic relationship with God is supposed to look like.
Moses here reminds us of how important both the internal and the external aspects of biblical faith are. Each of us has ways we need to grow in this. And so each of us needs to listen to Moses’s words.
And as we do, we’ll see not only that both the internal and the external are important in the Christian life … we’ll also see that the internal and external dimensions of our faith should be deeply connected to one another, so that the external aspects of our faith should reach our heart, and the faith in our hearts should reshape our external lives.
Moses addresses both of those movements in this text … and I had originally planned to speak about them both this morning … but as is often the case for me, the sermon got way too long. So, I had to split them in two.
So, this morning we’re going to talk about how biblical religion works from the outside in. And then next Sunday we will speak about how biblical religion works from the inside out.
So our focus this morning is that Moses tells us here that biblical faith is an outside-in religion: it is meant to shape our hearts from the outside in.
And this is a truth that we all need to consider.
If you’re someone who experiences religion mainly as an external thing, then you need to hear Moses’ words here, because if Moses is right, then it means that your faith – your Christian life – is not meant to stay external to your heart, but it is meant to work its way into you, and to penetrate and shape your heart.
But then, also, if you’re someone who experiences religion as mainly an internal thing, then you need to hear Moses’ words here because, if Moses is right, then you actually need the external aspects of faith more than you think, in order for your heart to be shaped as it’s supposed to be – in order for you to grow in your relationship with the Lord.
With all that in mind, how does Moses tell us that biblical religion is meant to work on us from the outside in?
Well, a good place to start is maybe verse sixteen. There, Moses makes a striking statement. He says: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”
What is Moses saying here?
Well, physical circumcision was an external sign that was to be placed on all the males within God’s people, Israel. It was an external act and an external marker. But Moses makes the point here that its spiritual significance was not meant to stay external. The external sign was meant to lead to an internal reality.
And this comes out even more clearly when we realize how this exhortation to internal circumcision relates to Israel’s external circumcision.
Because this generation of Israel that Moses is talking to had not yet been circumcised. They are standing at the edge of the promised land, and we read in Joshua 5 that they would be circumcised once they entered the land. And so Moses is giving them this exhortation in preparation for their circumcision, which is coming. He’s not telling them that they don’t need external circumcision in their bodies because they only need it in their hearts – rather, he is telling them that their external circumcision that is coming should lead to internal circumcision in their hearts.
And as he tells them that, he is also warning them that that’s not always the case.
He tells them in verse sixteen that they should circumcise their hearts, “and be no longer stubborn.” That word, “stubborn” is the same word Moses used a chapter earlier to describe the first exodus generation – the parents and grandparents of those he is speaking to … the people who had rebelled against the Lord, and so perished in the wilderness. They were circumcised in their bodies … but not in their hearts … and it led to spiritual disaster for them. Moses is warning this second generation not to make the same mistake.
They should be circumcised externally, in their bodies. But they shouldn’t let their circumcision remain only external. It should penetrate their hearts, and shape their hearts, so that they remain faithful to the Lord.
But how do they actually do that? By what means would Israel internalize the external act of circumcision?
Well, I think verses fourteen and fifteen give us a clue. Take a look at those verses again. Moses says: “Behold, to Yahweh your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet Yahweh set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.”
Now … if you are someone whose relationship to God mainly feels external … then verse fourteen feels natural to you. Yahweh – the Lord – is the God who owns the heavens and the earth. He rules over the world we live in. He makes sense of the world we live in. You see that he is high and lifted up – and you look up to and admire him. And so, you love verse fourteen here.
But verse fifteen … you might struggle with more. Or at least you maybe spend less time thinking about it. That the Lord set his heart, in love, upon you … that the Lord chose you, in love, above other people … that you maybe think about less often.
Or maybe, for you, it’s the other way around. You think of the closeness and love of God often … but not his majesty and power in the world around you.
But either way, Moses puts these two truths side by side here, and links them.
The God of the Bible is not only the Creator and Sustainer of the universe – he is not only the first cause and the unmoved mover … he is also the loving Father, who chose to set his heart on you and to love you when you were without hope.
And the God who is so close to you is not just an intimate helper, but he is also the powerful King of the cosmos, who does not need you to be complete, but who set his love on you anyway, to make you his own.
And when we recognize both of those things, at once, it should shape our hearts from the outside in.
I’m going to tell a baseball story to explain this … but it’s not really about baseball. So … this doesn’t count as one of my baseball illustrations – this one is more baseball-adjacent.
Aaron Boone is the manager of the New York Yankees. And I want to help us see what our text this morning is getting at by considering the difference between my relationship with Aaron Boone … and the relationship that a young man named Jeanel has with Aaron Boone.
I’m a fan of the New York Yankees. Enough so that I’ve spent a good bit of time listening to Aaron Boone over the last six months or so – watching his post-game press conferences, listening to his longer interviews. As the manager of the New York Yankees, he has a lot of power and control over something I care about, and I pay attention to what he does, and I often try to better understand why he does it.
Now … after this season, I have some gripes and complaints, but for the sake of this illustration, let’s set those aside and just say that in many ways I look up to and admire what Aaron Boone does and has done.
My relationship to Aaron Boone is one of appreciation and admiration and attention … but it’s also one that is only external and distant. Which makes sense because I know about him … but he doesn’t really know or care about me.
But it’s different for Jeanel.
In 2012, Jeanel was a young boy living in an orphanage in Hatai. His life was difficult, and without much hope – especially since an earthquake had ravaged Hati two years earlier.
Jeanel heard that a mission team from an evangelical church from Scottsdale, Arizona had come to his town area to help build a medical clinic. And he showed up to help dig mud for it. It was there that he met Laura. Laura was there on the church mission trip … and during her trip there she got to know Jeanel and his situation. Not long after the trip ended, she returned to Haiti with her husband, Aaron Boone, and who met both Jeanel and his younger brother Sergot.
The Boones already had two kids at home … and they weren’t looking for more … but their hearts went out to these two boys. And so they began the process to adopt them, and by 2014 Jeanel and his little brother Sergot were part of the Boone family, living with them in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 2018 they all moved to New York.
A couple years later, in 2020, when Aaron Boone was asked, during a press conference, about racial tensions in America, Boone broke down in tears as he tried to talk about what those tensions meant for his sons Jaenel and Sergot.
He broke down in tears as he thought about those issues for Jeanel and Sergot because he loved them. He had set his heart on them. To him, they were not just two more of his fans, or two more individuals dealing with issues of race in America. They were his family. And he cared deeply about them. [Elman; Jacobs]
He wept over their troubles. But Aaron Boone’s never going to weep over my troubles.
Now why do I tell that story? Why do I make that point?
Because here’s the thing: When it comes to your relationship to God, if you have trusted in Christ, then you are like Jeanel in that story … but you often act like you’re me in the story.
We are sons and daughters of the Lord … but we often think as if we’re just his fans, or his distant admirers. He has set his heart on us in love … but we often tell ourselves that he’s generally indifferent to us. We act as if our relationship to him is just external … when, in truth, our relationship to him has penetrated his heart, and that fact should penetrate our hearts as well.
He is not just the God who explains the world, or rules it at a distance … he is the God who plucked us from ruin and desperation when we were cosmic orphans … he’s the One who set his heart on us, and who told us that he is now our Father, and he loves us.
That point is made when verse fifteen is added to verse fourteen. But it’s driven home when we read verse eighteen. There Moses reminds Israel that Yahweh, their God, “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Now, Moses means that in a literal way – and we’ll say more about that next week. But there’s more than that going on here. Because as Moses reminds them in the very next verse, the Israelites were sojourners. As he told them just a couple chapters earlier, the Lord had given them food, and preserved their clothing. Israel was an orphan and a widow in the world. And Yahweh had loved them. He didn’t need anything from them. He was complete and content in himself – the whole universe was his. But nonetheless, out of the whole world he set his heart on them in love. He became their Father, and they became his sons and daughters. And that powerful truth should break through their exterior lives and transform their hearts.
And circumcision, for Israel, was meant to be a sign and seal of that great, heart-shaping truth.
In the Old Testament, circumcision was a sign of Yahweh’s loving choice of Israel. The men of Israel needed to remember their circumcision because it meant that the God of the universe had chosen them, and their families.
And now, for us, as Christians today, our baptism is meant to have the same effect. We’re called on to remember our baptism – to remember that we are baptized.
Because in baptism, the God of the universe has claimed us as his own. In baptism, the all-powerful One who reigns over the heavens and the earth – the sovereign King of all existence … has told us that he is also our loving Father. As verse fifteen puts it, he has “set his heart in love” on us, as we “are this day.” That is astounding.
And one way that external sign and seal of baptism should shape our hearts as we consider, and meditate on, and believe more and more that truth that it proclaims: that the God of the universe has chosen us and made us his own. It’s a truth that was proclaimed to Israel in circumcision. It’s a truth that’s proclaimed to us in our baptism.
But while those sorts of initiatory rites are highlighted in verse sixteen … in some ways they’re also just a part standing in for the whole. Because the life of Israel, as well as the Christian life, is full of external acts that reinforce God’s fatherly love for us, in ways that should shape our hearts.
In prayer, we adore and worship the Maker of heaven and earth. And at the very same time, Jesus instructs us to address that all-powerful God as “Our Father.”
When we read the Scriptures, we read the inerrant and infallible Word of the God who is Truth … but we also hear the words of our loving Father, addressed to us personally, as his children, where he reminds us again, and again of his love for us.
When we gather for worship, we gather, formally and properly, as subjects before our King. But we also, at the very same time, gather as children before our heavenly Father.
And when we come to the Lord’s Table, we come to a mysterious, sacramental means of heavenly grace … and we also, at the very same time, are gathering for a family meal, around the table of our loving Father.
Like circumcision, every external act of worship we are called to is something that connects God’s transcendent majesty to his intimate, immanent, and personal Fatherly love for us specifically. And for that reason, each of those external religious acts should penetrate our hearts, shape our internal world, and strengthen and deepen our relationship with God.
The external should shape the internal in our relationship with God.
And that might seem odd to us … but actually, it’s a lot like what happens in our other relationships.
Because in all of our closest relationships, our repeated, external actions are meant to shape and strengthen our heart-level connection with the other person – to knit our hearts closer to theirs.
Think about a couple who’s dating. They do a lot of external things. They go out for dinner together. They go to a movie together. They go for a quiet moonlit walk down by the water, holding hands.
Those things are all external actions: eating together, viewing something together, walking, hand-holding. But they’re not meant to be external only – they’re meant to be connected with each person’s heart.
But they’re also not just meant to be expressions of what’s already in their heart. They’re meant to shape their hearts. Walking together in the moonlight, holding hands doesn’t just express something that’s already in their hearts. It also strengthens the feelings of their heart. It deepens those feelings. It maybe brings about new feelings. The external aspects of the relationship shape and mold the internal affections of their hearts.
And that’s true in other relationships too. Shared family meals are not just an expression of how close a family feels already. The external act is supposed to deepen family connection and closeness. Meeting with a friend over coffee on a regular basis is not just an expression of how important that friendship already is to you, but it’s meant to deepen and strengthen the relationship itself – knitting the friendship closer together. Repeated moments of marital intimacy are not only an expression of the love and connection that is already there, but they are meant to deepen the love and connection between a husband and wife.
And in each case, while those family meals, or meetings with a friend, or moments of connection with a spouse – while those moments may at times feel magical and special … they don’t need to feel magical in order to still shape your hearts. Often, it’s not the one amazing family meal that shapes the heart of a family for years to come … as much as it’s the hundreds or thousands of ordinary family meals. Even there, even in the ordinary, in our relationships, our hearts are being shaped from the outside in.
And the same should be true in our relationship with God.
If you’re someone whose faith often feels mostly external to you, then you may need to push back against your tendency to put up a wall between your external and internal worlds. As you read the Scriptures or hear a sermon, you may need to more intentionally push yourself to ask how what you read or hear should apply to your heart, as a child of the God who is speaking to you. You may need to push yourself in all sorts of ways to remember that the God you are worshipping or studying or obeying is not only the Lord of heaven and earth, but he is also your close and loving Father who chose you to be his treasured possession before the foundation of the world. You may need to be intentional in remembering that, so that the external realities of your faith shape your heart more deeply.
And if you are someone who experiences your faith internally, but often struggles to see the value in the external, then you need to remember that relationships are sealed and strengthened in the external actions of life.
Because a relationship without the external can be a fantasy. It may not be real at all. If a man claims to love a woman, but he does not speak to her … he does not listen to her … he refuses to share meals with her or spend time with the people who are most important in her life … but then he still claims at the same time that he treasures and adores her in his heart … then it’s possible that that relationship in his heart is with an imaginary facsimile of that woman rather than with that woman herself.
Now God is closer to our hearts than any human being can be – it’s true. But ordinarily, he shapes his relationship with us through external things: his words to us in the Scriptures … our words to him in prayer … our gathering with his family on Sundays … or eating from his Table in worship … our baptism, which places his name upon us, and reminds us that he has set his heart on us in love.
Biblical religion is meant to shape our hearts from the outside in.
What does that mean for you? How have you disconnected the external from the internal in your relationship with God? How have you denied that the external really does shape your heart and faith? What do you need to do differently, in light of the fact that biblical religion is meant to shape our hearts from the outside in?
Of course, there is still more to say about all this. Because the transforming power of God not only works from the outside in. It’s also meant to work from the inside out. But we’ll say more about that next Sunday.
For now, we have enough to consider from that first truth that Moses puts before us here.
The Lord works in so many ways to shape our hearts from the outside in. We should not devalue or dismiss the good external means of grace he gives us, because in them he communicates his Fatherly love for us. And we also should not float through those external actions thoughtlessly – without remembering that they are not just formalities, but communications of love that come from our loving heavenly Father.
And it’s as we receive that communication in faith that the Lord will make it a deeper reality inside us, and that he will circumcise our hearts.
This sermon draws on material from:
Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: Norton, 2004.
Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Davis, Jim and Michael Graham. “5 Misconceptions About Dechurching in America.” The Gospel Coalition: The Keller Center. September 5, 2023. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/misconceptions-dechurching/
Elman, Jake. “Why Did Yankees Manager Aaron Boone Adopt 2 Children from Haiti?” SportsCasting. August 29, 2020. https://www.sportscasting.com/why-did-yankees-manager-aaron-boone-adopt-2-children-from-haiti/
Jacobs, Jake. “Haiti trip created brotherhood. Now sons of Yankees’ Aaron Boone are Greenwich teammates.” CT Insider. August 31, 2021. https://www.ctinsider.com/gametimect/article/Jeff-Jacobs-Haiti-trip-created-brotherhood-Now-16426510.php
Theopolis Podcast. Episode 652: “New Tablets of Stone (Deuteronomy 9-10).” With Peter Leithart, Alastair Roberts, Jeff Meyers, and John Bejon. June 21, 2023. https://soundcloud.com/user-812874628/episode-652-new-tablets-of-stone-deuteronomy-9-10
Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.
Note: In my preaching I often cite and draw from a range of sources, which includes material from Christians within my theological tradition, Christians outside my theological tradition (in keeping with our church’s core value of “Reformed Catholicity”), and also (following the Apostle Paul’s example in Acts 17) non-Christians who are well outside of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. And so, when I cite an author or a source, that citation should not be understood or construed as me necessarily agreeing with, endorsing, or recommending to others anything else from that author or source, except for what I explicitly say I agree with, endorse, or recommend. When engaging with different materials and thinkers, all Christians must exercise wisdom and discernment to determine what is helpful, appropriate, and edifying for each person, taking into account their current needs, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.
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