The Requirements of True Religion Micah 6:8
Micah 6 records one of Scripture’s classic declarations of God’s definition of true religion. A contemporary with Isaiah, Micah preached both when apostasy was at its nadir (Ahaz) and when religious reform was at its peak (Hezekiah). During both extremes, religion in one form or another dominated life and in many ways blinded people to the problem of sin. Religious people are often the hardest to convict of sin because they assume that what they are doing is what God wants. In order to prove that these religious people were not right with God, the inspired prophet summoned them to court. With irrefutable evidence, he proved that their religion did not satisfy God’s spiritual demands and that rather than appeasing or distracting God with their ritual, they merited His just punishment. Though this court session concerned ancient Israel, the issues are universal and timeless.
Verse 8 is the heart of God’s refutation of Israel’s religious self-defense. With penetrating precision, the Lord makes it clear that they had no excuse because what He regarded as acceptable and what He demanded was a matter of record: “He hath shewed thee, O man.” The word translated “shewed” means to report or announce by putting something conspicuously in front of someone. Not only had God told them what He wanted, but He had told them clearly in unmistakable terms. They had no excuse for not knowing, and neither do we.
Three summary expressions demonstrate the elements of true religion by showing that genuine piety encompasses all of human life and duty, both to God and to man. Although salvation begins on the inside and shows itself on the outside, this statement reverses the order: outward, inward, and upward. The logic is clear: failure to behave properly toward men destroys the legitimacy of any profession of being right with God. Outward behavior is an index to the heart.
The first requirement is doing justice. Although this word occurs in judicial contexts referring to a legal decision, claim, or suit, it also has a social or ethical sense, focusing on the fulfilling of or conformity to legal requirements. Moses set clear demands concerning responsibilities and obligations to others (e.g., Deut. 24:17-22). The prophets clearly identified justice as fulfilling these legal and social demands “between a man and his neighbor” (Jer. 7:5). Isaiah 1:17 defined justice as relieving the oppressed, defending the orphans, and pleading for widows. Christ confirmed this unchanging demand when He summarized the law and prophets by saying
all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.Matt. 7:12
Similarly, the Savior’s synopsis of the two greatest commandments affirms the necessary link between a right relationship with God and men: love God totally and love neighbor as self (Mark 12:29-31). The apostolic definition of pure religion in terms of caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27) further reveals that this divine requirement is something that continues to be conspicuously set before men. Social justice is not the essence of saving faith, but it is an evidence of it. The gospel cannot be defined in terms of social welfare, but disregard for and mistreatment of our fellow man is incongruous to true spiritual religion.
The second requirement is loving mercy. More than an emotional expression of affection, the verb “love” means to set or incline the will toward the chosen object. God demands that genuine religion be marked by a will bent to mercy. Any exercise of the will involves the heart; thus, this second requirement moves away from outward displays to inner motives. Best rendered “loyalty,” the word “mercy” is uniquely associated with the covenant and often involves reciprocity. That God faithfully demonstrates His everlasting loyalty to His people is a constant and frequent theme of the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 136). The focus here, however, is on the loyalty that the Lord expects from the heart of His people. Though this word may find expression in acts of kindness to others, it includes much more. An attitude that produces appropriate action, “mercy” sums up the motive and duty of true religion. In simple terms, the only loyalty that man can render God is obedience. Comparing 1 Samuel 15:22 and Hosea 6:6 justifies this conclusion. Whereas Samuel’s pointed rebuke to Saul was “to obey is better than sacrifice,” Hosea conveyed God’s statement “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice.”
Loyalty to God, expressed by obedience, takes precedence over mere acts of religion. Religion without heart is idolatry, an abomination. Obeying God’s commandments, on the other hand, is evidence of true love for Him: “if ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). A sincere heart that is bent to observe loyalty will gladly perform every duty God specifies, whether social or religious. It would do well for us to remember Christ’s words to the Pharisees: “go ye and learn what that meaneth, ‘I will have mercy…’” (Matt.9:13).
The third requirement is walking humbly with God. Walking is a frequent image that refers to the customs, habits, or way of life. The word “humbly” occurs only here in the Old Testament and has the idea of living cautiously or carefully. This cautious lifestyle is in the presence of the Lord (c.f. Eph. 5:15, 17 – “walk circumspectly ... understanding what the will of the Lord is”). The message is clear. True religion is not a historic decision without consequent effect on life, nor an occasional act of goodness performed with faith. True religion consists in a whole life lived in awareness of God. To walk aware of God, who is unseen, is to walk by faith. It is this submissive faith that is required of any and all who would please God (Heb. 11:6). This demand is foundational. If this requirement is satisfied, the other two will inevitably follow. It is this submissive faith that yields the evidences of grace. It is not surprising and not without significance that Christ exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by accusing them of omitting the most important matters of the law: judgment, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). In essence, Christ referred to Micah 6:8. What condemned the Jews of Micah’s day condemned the Pharisees of Christ’s day. Indeed, the requirements of true religion never change.
The Scripture is explicitly clear that God has never been nor will ever be satisfied with external religion or empty profession without a true heart of faith on the inside that authenticates itself by true holiness on the outside. True religion links belief and behavior. We must remember that what happened to Israel happened for our example and for our admonition. The New Testament’s repetition of the same divine requirements for true heart religion highlights the need for constant application to the church. That Micah uses the court scene as the literary means to make his point to Israel reminds of the coming Day of Judgment when all hearts will be open and naked before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. The judgment on that day will be infallible, and the verdict will be eternal. It behooves us all “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.”