|THE RELIGIOUS SPIRIT: THE COUNTERFEIT KINGDOM
HIS GLORY REIGNS
Jul 17 2009 08:00 AM
TWO GROUPS IN THE CHURCH
When our church first began to move into the things of the Holy Spirit, I made a startling discovery. I found that there
were two very different kinds of people in our church! Some members of the church were incurably hungry for more of
God. They were thrilled every time God broke through. They were anxious to receive all that God would give.
But others in the church had a very different response. They hated any overt manifestation of God. They did not want
to experience God's gifts. Every time the church began to move into a new realm of the Spirit, they would rise up in
Both of these groups seemed outwardly committed to the Lord. Both groups included diligent workers in the church who
supported the church financially, yet some were irresistibly drawn to the presence of God, while others reacted strongly
Some of this resistance may certainly be explained as a natural human aversion to change, but as time went on it
became evident that some members of our church, though genuine believers, were being influenced by a spiritual
power that was diametrically opposed to God's purpose!
Over the years, I've found that this is not unusual. In most churches and Christian organizations, we find a spiritual
entity at work that has an outward facade of religiosity but that is highly resistant to the progress of God's work.
What is this spirit of religion, and what insights do the Scriptures give concerning its operation?
TRUE AND FALSE WHEAT
I believe that Matthew 13:24-30 provides a key insight into the spirit of religion. In this passage Jesus tells the parable
of a farmer who planted good seed in his field. As his crop came to maturity and heads of grain began to form, the
farmer discovered that an enemy had sowed zizania (darnel), which is a false wheat sometimes called tares) in the
midst of the true.
Zizania is a weed that looks so much like wheat that it is, in its early stages, indistinguishable from the real thing. The
difference only becomes evident when the time comes to bear fruit. Instead of bearing edible grain, zizania produces
small dark seeds that often host a poisonous fungus. So in this parable, by the time the farmer discovered the enemy's
mischief, the true and counterfeit wheat where so entangled that he was forced to allow them to grow together until the
In the interpretation of this parable, Jesus explains that the wheat and zizania represent two kinds of people. The wheat
represents "the sons and of kingdom" (verse 3). These men and women live as representatives of God's kingdom and
produce good fruit for God!
But sown in the midst of the wheat we find zizania (tares), identified as "the sons of the evil one" (verse 38). They are
planted in the field to hinder the growth of the wheat. These sons of the evil one are not necessarily bad people. They
may include genuine believers who have been seduced by the enemy to oppose God's work. In Matthew 16:23 Jesus
even addressed Peter as Satan when He sensed that Peter was speaking under the influence of the enemy!
A TALE OF TWO KINGDOMS
The Bible describes two kingdoms operating in the world. The kingdom of God seeks to accomplish the Father's will on
the earth (see Matthew 6:10), which is to bring "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).
In opposition to God's kingdom, Satan has established the kingdom of this world. Satan's goal is to resist the
progress of God's kingdom and hinder God's plan of redemption. These kingdoms are locked in a conflict that will not
end until Jesus returns.
Most Christians are familiar with the nature of these kingdoms, but this parable tells us something important about their
appearance. By comparing the citizens of these kingdoms to wheat and zizania, Jesus reveals that the two groups
outwardly appear to be identical. Those under Satan's influence look exactly like the sons of the kingdom!
This flies in the face of our normal way of thinking. Most Christians assume that the sons of the Kingdom are good
people who go to church, while the sons of the evil one are immoral, wicked, nasty people. Christians who accept these
stereotypes feel that if they can get the nasty people in their community to become nice people and attend church, the
kingdom of God has prevailed!
Jesus, however, warns that this is not the case! The whole point of His parable is that the sons of the evil one do not
always look evil!
Satan's primary strategy against the kingdom of God is not an open manifestation of evil. Satan does not come as an
ugly monster with horns and a pitchfork. He appears as an "angel of light" (II Corinthians 11:14) to deceive the saints.
This parable reveals that the sons of the evil one look just like their dad! They look good! Satan's strategy is not to fill
the world with alcoholics, rapists, and murderers. He will settle for destroying lives in those ways if that's all he can get,
but his Plan A is to produce imitations of the sons of the Kingdom, ones who do good things but who lack a vital
relationship with Jesus.
Satan's goal is to counterfeit God's kingdom. By offering the world a dead imitation of the true Kingdom, the devil
attempts to hinder the progress of God's work by vaccinating the world against God's love! Satan's counterfeit of
God's Kingdom is called religion.
A "GOD'S EYE VIEW" OF RELIGION
Many Christians wrongly assume that religion is a good thing. Some think that God has won a victory when an
unbeliever "finds religion" and begins to attend church. That is a false assumption. God's goal is not to create people
who are religious. His goal is to bring men and women into a relationship with Himself!
Many are shocked to learn that God is not particularly religious! God does not put a high value on religious activity.
James 1:27 tells us that there is such thing as pure religion that pleases God, but surprisingly, the Bible does not
usually present religious activity as a good thing in itself.
In Malachi's day, for example, the people were proud of their religiosity. They assumed that their religious rituals were
pleasing to God, but God indicated He was looking for something more:
pleased with you," says the Lord Almighty, "and I will accept no offering from your hands" (Malachi 1:10, NIV).
The outward forms of religion are not what God is looking for! He would prefer that someone locks the church doors
than perpetuate lifeless forms of religion!
In the New Testament, religion is denounced in the harshest of terms. In the first century, the concept of religion was
epitomized by the Pharisees. Pharisees were very good people. Many people think of the Pharisees in negative terms,
but if we had lived when Jesus lived, we would have viewed them as the pillars of society. They were fine, upstanding
people. They studied the Bible diligently, and they took the lead in defending what was good, righteous, and moral.
They always went to religious services and made a point of obeying God's laws. These were men you would like your
sister to marry!
WHAT JESUS THINKS
If you want to see what Jesus thinks of religion, look closely at what He said to the Pharisees! Jesus never minded
"sinners." He often ate with drunkards and prostitutes. He freely extended grace to the woman caught in adultery (see
John 8:11). But He reserved His harshest condemnation for the Pharisees:
becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are (Matthew 23:15, NIV).
greed and self-indulgence (verse 25, NIV).
but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean (verses 27-28, NIV).
What was Jesus' problem with the Pharisees? The Pharisees took God's truth and turned it into a religious system!
They replaced the inner reality of a relationship with God with a system that focused on outward appearances. The
New Testament consistently portrays the religiosity of the Pharisees as an evil thing!
In I Timothy 1:15 the apostle Paul makes a surprising statement about himself. Paul portrays himself as the "worst" of
What terrible sin was Paul guilty of? Was he a rapist, an alcoholic, a thief? There is no evidence that he was guilty of
any of those things. Before he came to know Jesus, Paul was a Pharisee of the highest order. He was meticulously
careful to keep God's law.
What did Paul do that he considered such a terrible sin? I believe that Paul is talking about the "sin" of Phariseeism.
Paul recognized that much of his life had been dominated by a religiosity that directly opposed God's purposes. His
verdict was that this was the worst kind of sin! His religious Phariseeism was far more of a threat to God's kingdom than
a "lesser sin" like theft or murder!
I believe that Paul understood the evil nature of a life dominated by a spirit of religion! Those who are under the
influence of the spirit of religion are like zizania planted in a wheat field. They hold an outward form of godliness without
the power to bear fruit. They are planted in the world to "choke out" God's kingdom and to hinder its growth. One of
the most destructive strategies of the enemy is to instill attitudes and mindsets through the influence of the religious
SYMPTOMS OF THE RELIGIOUS SPIRIT
Religion is a satanic counterfeit of a relationship with God. Under the influence of the religious spirit, an individual may
do the right things, but for all the wrong reasons. To follow are seven characteristics of those oppressed by the
1. There Is an Overemphasis on Outward Form
The religious spirit wants you to say the right words, do the right things and have the right look. There is always fear of
what others will think. This brings a resistance to change and a hesitancy to try anything new. Michal, Saul's daughter
and David's wife, was horrified by David's exuberant dance because it went beyond what she was used to and caused
her to fear criticism by his servants (see II Samuel 6:14-22).
God places heart attitude above outward appearance. His goal is that whatever we do be motivated by an all-
consuming love for Jesus (see Mark 12:30).
2. There Is a Sense of Condemnation and Fear
The religious spirit always condemns you if you don't "get it right." There is a continual fear of failure.
In God's kingdom, there is mercy for those who seek God. David was guilty of terrible sins, but he was a man after
God's heart. Because he loved God, he repented and experienced forgiveness.
3. There Is an Attitude of Pride and Judgment
If you are able to keep its external standard, the religious spirit will give you a self-righteous pride in your
accomplishment. You feel you are better than others, and you may become critical of those who don't measure up.
When the world stereotypes Christians as mean and judgmental, that's an evidence that the spirit of religion has been
In God's kingdom it's all of grace. We can never achieve God's standard, but we can always turn to Him and find mercy.
There is no room for self-righteousness. As we receive grace, we walk in humility and compassion.
4. There Is an Oppressive Legalism
The religious spirit offers a legalistic system with no flexibility. It wants to produce a method that can replace the
dynamics of a relationship. Under a spirit of religion you are given an artificial standard and graded by your ability to
The Spirit of God leads many believers to make a prayer list and pray through it daily. As they follow the Spirit's
leading, they thrive spiritually and much fruit results!
The religious spirit, on the other hand, would turn this into a legalistic method: "To be a committed Christian," it would
say, "you must have a prayer list and pray through it every day! For some people, this would be a dead work and would
produce no fruit.
The Holy Spirit works with each of us individually. We need to develop sensitivity to what He is saying. As we respond
to His leading, good fruit is produced. Righteousness is the joy of living to please the One we love, not an oppressive
5. There Is A Need to Figure God Out
Religion reduces God to a subject for intellectual study. The goal is to understand God and make Him predictable. It's
an attempt to put God in our box. New moves of the Spirit are rejected if they don't match our understanding of how
The focus of the Kingdom is not understanding God, but knowing, serving, and loving Him. God is a God of infinite
creativity. We can never fully understand Him, but we can know Him and enjoy Him forever.
6. There Is a Dependence on Self-Effort
Religion seeks to gain righteousness by self-effort and discipline. Under a system of religion, everything depends on
you! The spirit of religion tells you, "You failed because you didn't try hard enough. Try harder and discipline yourself
In the kingdom of God, righteousness is obtained through the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:4). Righteousness flows from
a relationship with Him. The more we yield to Him, the more His holy character is expressed in our lives.
7. There Is an Undue Emphasis on Tradition
The religious spirit will cause you to attach great honor to the work of God in the past, while standing in opposition to His
will for the present. That is what happened when a spirit caused the children of Israel to burn incense to the bronze
serpent (see II Kings 18:4). God wants us to remember His great deeds in the past without turning them into idols.
Both God's kingdom and the counterfeit look very much the same. Both can appear to be righteous, but there is a
dramatic difference. In religion it's all a facade. In God's kingdom, righteousness flows from an internal reality.
BUILDING YOUR OWN APPLE TREE
My favorite illustration of religion is the story of the counterfeit apple tree.
Let's suppose you were looking through a magazine and saw a picture of an incredibly beautiful apple tree. As you
beheld its beauty, you decided, I want a tree just like that in my backyard!
How would you go about getting an apple tree in your yard?
One way would be to take that picture of an apple tree, have it enlarged and study it in detail. From that picture you
could draw up plans for the construction of an apple tree that would look exactly like the one in the picture.
You would start by building the framework of trunk and branches. You would determine the right size and shape of
each branch and then join them together in just the right way.
You would buy lumber and carefully carve each branch, finishing the surface to look as authentic as possible, and
finally fit them together according to your plan.
When the framework is complete, you would paint it to exactly match the tree in the picture. You would purchase a
vast quantity of silk leaves and carefully glue each one in place. Finally, you could go down to the grocery store and
buy the best apples you could find, bring them home and hang them all over your tree.
At last, you could stand back and admire the beauty of your apple tree! If you are skilled enough at your work, it would
look just like the one in the picture!
WHERE IS THE LIFE?
There is only one problem: your apple tree has no life! It is only a dead imitation. It will never produce one apple, and
any apples you hang on it will rot! That is religion. It is a human attempt to duplicate the righteousness of God by
sheer ability. From a human perspective it may look good, but it does not please God.
There is a second way to get an apple tree. You could get an apple seed, which is very small and doesn't look
impressive. But within the seed is life. You plant that seed in good soil, you water and nurture it, and from that seed
will grow an apple tree. It may take a while; but if you continue to water and nurture it, it will produce apples!
That's the principle of the Kingdom. God wants to plant His Spirit in the good soil of a humble and repentant heart. As
a relationship with the Spirit develops, the fruit of the Spirit is manifest: love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest
(Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit of the Spirit is the essence of righteousness. It is the character of Jesus being formed
in you. If the fruit of the Spirit is operating in your life, you are automatically keeping God's commandments (see
Romans 13:8,10). As the Spirit does His work within you, God's law is written on your heart, and the righteousness of
God becomes part of your life.
Just as it takes time to grow a real apple tree, so it takes time to build a relationship with God. There are no shortcuts.
There may be times of failure, but if we are truly seeking God, there is grace to cover sin.
A real apple tree may not look as perfect as the one in your picture. It may have been wounded by lightening strikes
and been twisted by strong winds. But it has life. It is real, and it can bear fruit.
BEAUTIFUL ON THE OUTSIDE, BUT DEAD ON THE INSIDE
The Pharisees looked good. Their lives were the outward picture of perfection, but Jesus saw them as whitewashed
tombs - beautiful on the outside, but dead on the inside! (see Matthew 23:27).
On the other hand, people like Abraham, David, and Peter were far from perfect, but they loved God, walked with Him
and were counted as righteous.
There are two ways to get an apple tree: One comes by human effort. The other grows from an inner principle of life.
But only one is real.
What makes the religious spirit evil? The religious spirit tells you that you can build your own apple tree. It tells you that
if you say the right words in the right way, do the right things and have the right look, you will be the man or woman God
wants you to be.
But it also tells you that you never have to go to God in humility to receive mercy. You never experience His grace.
You conform to an external standard, but you never face the wonderful uncertainty of trying to seek His face,
hear His voice, and respond to His leading.
The ultimate condemnation of the religious spirit is found in Matthew 7:22-23. In the last day there will be many who say
"Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?"
(NIV). Their boast is, "Lord, we did it all! We got it right! It looked good!"
Yet Jesus says, "I never knew you! Depart from me!"
Jesus says there are many who think they are saved but who only have religion. Religion can separate you from God
Almost as distressing are the many that are saved but who are robbed of their rightful inheritance by the influence of
the religious spirit. Just as Christians can be afflicted by spirits of lust, anger, or infirmity, so they can also be
oppressed by a spirit of religion. Many true Christians have been seduced by a spirit that gives them a religious
appearance while cutting them off from the joy of knowing God. Their corporate presence in the Church is one of the
primary hindrances to the progress of God's work in the earth!
DELIVERANCE FROM THE RELIGIOUS SPIRIT
I believe that Matthew 13:27-30 gives us a word of caution on dealing with people who are influenced by the religious
spirit. In this passage Jesus warns that there is a danger in trying to root them out! Since the religious spirit works to
counterfeit the true Kingdom, it's not always easy to tell the true from the false. In trying to root out zizania, true wheat;
may be harmed.
We must be cautious in accusing others of having the religious spirit! There are many who appear religious but who
actually are just immature in their understanding. Someone from a legalistic background may seem "religious" to me but
may actually be experiencing great freedom in the Spirit!
In trying to expose the religious spirit, we must also take care that we are not ensnared ourselves. The religious spirit
will try to drive us to extremes. In confronting people who have the religious spirit, I may be driven to the opposite
extreme and end up just as religious as they are!
The key to dealing with the religious spirit is to draw very close to the Holy Spirit. We must stand against the influence
of this spirit with firmness and gentleness, while demonstrating the love and power that are found in a true relationship
Those afflicted by the religious spirit are not our enemies! In fact, there is a great hope for them! As a Pharisee, Saul
of Tarsus was dominated by the religious spirit. He resisted the new work of God with all his might, but God had a way
to set him free!
Dealing with those dominated by religion requires great patience. Those who are influenced by the religious spirit are
highly resistant to change because they are convinced that they are doing the will of God. The lie that the spirit tells
them is that God likes their religious activity, that He is pleased by mere outward performance.
But when the grace of God breaks through and individuals experience the life of God, they can be set free!
SET YOURSELF FREE!
In the introduction to my book Experiencing the Spirit, I share how I grew up in a Bible-believing home, served on the
staff of a leading evangelical ministry and graduated from a leading evangelical seminary. I strongly resisted the work
of the Holy Spirit, but I was convinced that I was right. I knew all the theological arguments to defend my position! I was
good and moral and proud. In short, I was a Pharisee. Then the Holy Spirit fell; and literally, overnight (without my
asking) I was baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.
The night before I was inundated by God's grace, a close friend had a very strange word for me. He said, "I see that
you are looking at everything through a stained-glass window [symbolizing religion] and can't see clearly. But God's
going to do something, and you will see.
Several hours later, while I slept, God smashed the stained-glass window! He set me free from the religious spirit that
had kept me in bondage and brought me out into the joy of a relationship with Him.
If you feel that you are bound or inhibited by the spirit of religion, you undoubtedly need deliverance. You can go to a
respected deliverance minister and seek help. Before you do that, however, you may want to read my book Set
Yourself Free! In it I explain how God has given individuals the authority and the spiritual power to confront and
overcome a considerable number of personal demonic afflictions, including bondage to the spirit of religion through self-
Whether through self-deliverance or through the ministry of another, modern-day Pharisees can be set free! By prayer,
intercession, and the manifestation of God's love, the stained-glass windows of religion can be broken. I repeat: Those
afflicted by the religious spirit are not the enemy. The bright light of God's grace can be released to shine on them as it
did on Saul of Tarsus. Let God give you faith to see yourself and other captives set free - even from the spirit of
FREEDOM FROM THE RELIGIOUS SPIRIT, by C. Peter Wagner, Copyright 2005, Regal Books.
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