Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
Read: Romans 10:1-17
Being born into a “Christian” family, never missing church on Sunday, tithing more than ten percent, reading a passage of Scripture every morning, and praying every night before bed: surely these disciplines are pleasing to God and incur his favor.
This is the thought of many today, but let me put these in a different context and see if the thought still carries over. Being born into a tribe of Israel, never missing Synagogue every Saturday, tithing more than ten percent, and observing the fast and feast days. Surely these things are pleasing to God and incur his favor.
If you didn’t before, do you now see the problem? As Christians, we immediately throw away the second scenario because we understand that the Jewish people got Christ wrong and were therefore no longer worshipping the one true God, even though they thought they were. Despite their religious heritage, unbelieving Jews are separated from God and liable to his wrath (Rom 9:1-3).
But the truth is that neither scenario is correct. Reading the Bible, tithing, joining the fellowship of the saints—all of these activities, if done with the right heart, are truly pleasing to God (Ps 51:16-17). However, even if they are done with the right heart, the one who does them does not gain God’s favor for doing them. If you hold to the first scenario—you are engaging in these church-related activities in order to elicit God’s favor—you too are separated from God and his wrath abides on you today. “But I am devoting my entire life to God! I’m obedient, I do many good works, I’m a good person, and I avoid sin,” you might object. But the righteousness of God is not attained by zeal. A zeal for God, no matter how fervent, is insufficient to save. Like the Jew, you are fundamentally ignorant of the righteousness of God.
As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” If you’d like to try to meet God’s standard in the law, then go ahead. In fact, that’s what the law is there for. But know that the law, and its promise for life in exchange for obedience, requires perfection. If you fail in even the smallest point of it, you’ve broken the entire law and all of its curses will come upon you (Jam 2:10; Gal 3:10). It’s an impossible standard to meet.
In truth, we failed before we ever began because we are fallen in Adam (Ps 51:5; Rom 5:12-21). It’s impossible because the perfect and holy God demands perfection and holiness (Matt 5:48; 1 Pet 1:16). God knew that his people could not, and would not, meet his standard when he gave them his law, which is why he also gave them the sacrificial system. The purpose of both the law and the sacrifices were to drive the people to the grace of God. God wanted his people to learn that they could not earn their own righteousness, and that apart from putting their faith in God’s gracious acceptance of the sacrifices, they were without hope.
However, as all sinful people do, Israel fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the law and the sacrificial system. They viewed both as a checklist of righteousness. “Alright, it’s almost bedtime, so I’d better check column A to see how righteous I am. Do not murder. Check! Do not steal. Oh no, I stole a goat from John. Well, I better go to column B and see how I can make this up to God. Sacrifice a bull. That sounds kind of expensive, but it will make me even with God.” But when this system started to fail because Israel couldn’t even keep the sacrifices, they had to start making loopholes in the form of traditions that would ease their guilty consciences. But of course, those too failed, and so they needed more loopholes in the form of more traditions. This is the hamster wheel of works. The hamster really thinks he’s making great progress, but in reality, he is going nowhere. This is scenario one: “I go to church to earn God’s righteousness.” No amount of zeal is enough. Take it from Paul,
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.Phil 3:3-8
Christ accomplished what you could not. He was born without sin and only did what was pleasing to God in his life (John 8:29). God’s perfect standard? Fulfilled. True righteousness according to the law? His in spades. And yet, he died smitten by God and afflicted. Pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. Only by his wounds are we healed, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). You don’t have to do impossible works, like flying to heaven or digging to the land of the dead to find Christ (Rom 10:6). You just have to know him, in his person and work, and believe. Believe that on the cross he took on your unrighteousness and has given you his perfect righteousness. Only then will your zeal for God amount to anything worthwhile, because your heart will have been washed clean and you will finally be capable of living in a way that truly pleases God. A zeal for God is good, but only when it is grounded in the righteousness of Christ and not in one’s belief that their zeal is earning them God’s favor.
Discuss and Pray Together: Discuss how we need both a true knowledge of Christ’s person and work and faith to be saved (vv. 8-17). Finish by thanking God for his mercy and grace in offering his own Son as the sacrifice for sin.