Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Zeal For God, Can it Save?

Romans 10:1-4 (ESV)
[1] Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. [2] I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. [3] For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. [4] For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Often people will say that because a person is zealous or rigorous or hard working for God, that they must be going to heaven. The most obvious example of this sort of thinking is Mother Theresa. They look at all the things she did for the orphans and needy in India. They see that she did it because of God, and they assume that she has now gone to heaven. They never ask any other questions, only say look at her zeal for God.

Do you see the thinking going on here? Those who are zealous for God, who work hard for God, must be going to heaven. However, is that really the case? Does working hard and giving up much for God mean that automatically a person goes to heaven? I would say that the clear answer in the Bible is, "No."

I say that because of verses like the ones we just read. There Paul is speaking about the Jews, his own people by genetic birth. His great desire is that they would be saved. That is, that they would be set free from their sins, and be made right with God. I'm sure there are many reasons behind that desire. They are his own people group and so he has a closer connection to them. They are the ones who God made the covenant with at Mt Sinai. They are the ones from whom Jesus traces his earthly decent. They are the ones through whom God gave his word in the law and the prophets. But, notice that because this is Paul's desire, that they would be saved, it means that at least some and very likely many of them are not saved.

What is important to our thought about those who are zealous for God is in the next sentence. After saying that his desire is that they would be saved, implying that many of them are not, we read, "I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge."

The Jews were zealous for God. They, for the most part, worked very hard to live for him. Among the Pharisees there was a great zeal for God leading to a whole oral tradition that was meant to keep people far away from breaking the commands of God. Yet, the implication of the previous sentence is that in spite of all this, for the most part they are not saved. That would point to zeal for God not being enough to save a person. They had zeal. They worked hard. But, they were not saved.

The reason given here is that their zeal was "not according to knowledge." That is, they were not zealous for God in the way they should have been. For that matter, they should have known better.

This is expanded in the next verse, "For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness." The lack of knowledge they exhibited in their zeal for God, was that through that zeal they had for God, they were trying to establish their own righteousness. This was not, and for that matter is not, what God desires. The knowledge they were ignorant of was that there is a righteousness that comes from God. Instead of seeking to be found righteous in that righteousness from God, they sought to be righteous on their own, zealously striving to do good.

Yes, they wanted to serve God. Yes, they wanted to keep his commands. Yes, they believed God is real and wants his people to be holy. But, where they went wrong, and why they were not saved, was because they were trying to be righteous in themselves. They were trying to make themselves acceptable or worthy before God.

In doing this they missed the very thing God had revealed in the scriptures. Abraham was not made acceptable by his good works, but as is pointed out in Chapter 4 of Romans, "For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness."" (Romans 4:3) The scriptures given to the Jews did not set out a way of making oneself righteous before God by zealous good works, but taught that one was counted or declared righteous by trusting in God and the righteousness that comes from him. That is why they were zealous, but not according to knowledge.

With the coming of Christ this has been made even more clear. As the final sentence reminds the us, "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." That is, Christ makes the truth of this clear. He shows in his perfect sinless life that, as the scriptures teach, only perfection will be accepted by God. He shows in his suffering and death what striving after righteousness in our own power, no matter how zealous for God we may be, results in, death and facing the infinite punishment our sins against an infinite God deserve. As was stated earlier in this letter, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." It is only by trusting in Jesus Christ that a person is made right, righteous before God. There is no other way. Because not only does he show that our zealous activity for God is not enough to save us, be he provides the perfect righteousness, the righteousness from God, that we need. He gives it to all who believe in him.

So, back to the original question, can a person be zealous for God yet still be lost? The answer is clearly that they can. They can believe that God is. They can work to please him. They can strive to do good and resist evil. They can do all this, yet still not be saved, because they are not trusting in Christ, but in their works.

This is sobering, because I know there is a constant tendency for me to want to trust the good things I do, to forget that they don't earn anything with God because no matter how good they may be, they are not perfect. Only Christ was perfect in his obedience. There is that constant tendency in all of us. I am sure you see it in yourself as well. But, zealous as you may be, it will not save you.

Instead, the call of this passage is to trust in Christ, not in your own imperfect attempts at righteousness. Trust in his perfect obedience which is counted to you when you trust in him. Trust in his suffering and death that satisfied the wrath of God against you and paid the price your sins deserved. Trust in his resurrection and ascension that show what he did was accepted by God and which guarantees, if you trust in him, that you will be raised up as well.

No matter how zealous for God you may be, if you neglect faith you are lost.


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