Not all traditions are wrong in themselves. For instance, in some congregations it is traditional to have the Lord’s Supper before the sermon, while others might do that afterwards. The number of songs led during a worship service is also often traditional—along with when the public prayers will be made. Congregations I have attended, for about the last 35 years, have usually observed (from week to week) the same format for the worship service, such as three songs and a prayer (or two songs in some groups), then a song to help prepare one’s mind for the Lord’s Supper, then the communion, followed by the collection (which is often announced as being “separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper”), followed by the sermon, then the invitation song, and lastly the closing prayer. Since God has not specified certain times for these observances, except for the Lord’s Supper and collection to be only on Sunday (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-3), each congregation has the right to select their own order of worship for observing these acts.
When an Acceptable Tradition Becomes Wrong
If, however, a man would try to bind one certain order for the acts of worship, as if it would be the only Scriptural format for how they can be carried out, then it would be wrong. For that would be a violation of binding where God has not bound, and thus wrongfully adding to God’s word, which we are prohibited from doing (cf. Rev. 22:18; Deut. 4:2; Gal. 1:6-9).
Traditions That Have Nullified God’s Word
In the New Testament, Jesus shows of some Jewish traditions that had made void the Scriptures. For these precepts were not from heaven, but simply man-made concepts that were believed by many to be essential for maintaining a right relationship with God, such as the distance (which the Lord had not specified) that a man could walk on a Sabbath Day without violating it. So violations of these Jewish traditions were regarded by many as a violation against God Himself; but since these doctrines were not of divine origin, trying to bind them on others would be a violation in itself. Consider, for instance, the following: “Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying, ‘Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.’ And He answered and said to them, ‘And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,” and, “HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH.” But you say, “Whoever shall say to his father or mother, ‘Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,’ he is not to honor his father or his mother.” And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, “THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN”’” (Matt. 15:1-9).
This is another case of individuals finding fault with the Lord’s disciples, but based merely on human tradition, rather than God’s divine word. For though, sanitarily speaking, it is good to wash one’s hands before eating, the Lord never instructed that it would be a spiritual defilement to not do so. It, therefore, was not a violation of the Lord’s disciples, as they had been wrongfully accused; and, ironically, the accusers were the very ones who had actually been guilty of transgressing the commandments of God “for the sake of their tradition.” For through their doctrine, they had even set aside God’s law to “honor your father and mother”; and, as a result, had “invalidated the word of God” (v. 6). Therefore, their worship to God was in vain and not acceptable to Him. For they were “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (v. 9).
Be Sure the Way of Salvation is the One Handed Down by God not Man
In the religious world today, many false doctrines continue to be handed down that have been around for so long that people have regarded them as gospel truth—but these teachings are far from that. For instance, the “sinner’s prayer” has been taught, preached, and practiced for many years by numerous people and often seen in denominational tracts as how one is to become a Christian. But nowhere in the New Testament do we find a person becoming a child of God in that way. It is true that Peter, in quoting Joel’s prophesy, states that “...everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21); but he never said this was done by praying. Rather, he shows it is accomplished by believing in Jesus (v. 36), repenting of sins, and being baptized (v. 38). Corresponding to that is Ananias’ instruction to Paul to “...Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). By submitting to the gospel plan of salvation—which includes hearing God’s word (Rom. 10:17), believing in Jesus (Jn. 8:24), repenting (Luke 13:5), confessing one’s faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9,10; Acts 8:36-38), and being baptized (Mk. 16:16; Rom. 6:3,4; Gal. 3:26,27)—one is calling on the Lord. This can also be seen in 1 Peter 3:21, where Peter declares “...baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience....” Notice that it is not merely by getting clean in the water that baptism saves; but, rather, through baptism one is making “an appeal to God for a good conscience.”
Praying for one’s sins to be forgiven, during the Gospel Age, is mentioned in the New Testament with only regard to the Christian who has sinned. For example, Simon was told to “repent of this wickedness of yours, and to pray to the Lord that if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). Why is it just one sin that Simon is to pray to be forgiven of? Because all his others had previously been blotted out when he believed and was baptized (vv. 12,13). But now Simon had transgressed by wrongfully offering money to the apostles to buy the gift that they had to impart the Holy Spirit to others (vv. 18-21).
When John writes, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9), the apostle was not writing to the world in general. Rather, he was writing to Christians: “Beloved, now we are children of God...” (1 Jn. 3:2).
When Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20), He was not addressing everyone in the world. Rather, this was said specifically to the church at Laodicea that had become lukewarm (indifferent to spiritual things); and Jesus is, therefore, urging them to repent. So He is declaring this to Christians who needed to turn from sin and pray for God’s forgiveness.
We can also point out that Paul and Cornelius had both prayed before they were saved, but they weren’t forgiven nor did they become Christians by those prayers. For they had to do what everyone else in the Gospel Age is also required, as mentioned above in God’s plan of salvation.
Especially in the case of Paul, he had been fasting and praying for 3 days after having met the Lord on the road to Damascus. Paul now knew that he had sinned against God in consenting to the death of innocent Christians; and, therefore, viewed himself as the chief or foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). So would he not have been praying for forgiveness? Yet, it wasn’t by those prayers that he was forgiven. Rather, it required baptism (along with the other necessary steps) for Paul to receive the remission of sins (Acts 22:16).
Traditions That Have Been Handed Down by God
Though we probably normally think of traditions as being strictly man-made, that is not always the case. For the term literally means, “a handing down” (W.E. Vine). So not only would that pertain to human teachings that have been passed on from generation to generation, but also to God’s word that has been handed down to us. As Paul makes clear, the message he delivered is that which he had “received from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23). And elsewhere he refers to the gospel in that sense of being a “tradition” (from God) that is to be observed. For instance: “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thess. 2:14,15). “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6).
If all we know is that which has been handed down by men then we are not reaching high enough. For the Bible is that which has been handed down from God in Heaven (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20,21; Acts 1:16; 4:25); and without it, even the wisest among us would never come to truly know God (cf. 1 Cor. 1:20,21).
Man often finds ancient artifacts an interesting connection to the past to have better insight into the world of that day. But how much greater it is to look to the book that links us with God and will lead to the world to come in heaven above! How thankful we should be for this wondrous message that God has handed down to us! May we, therefore, ever look to it and live by it! For it has been handed down, so that we (by our compliance to it) can be taken up!