December 18, 2008

A zeal for God, but not according to knowledge

The subject of Christian liberty and legalism has come up often at this blog. After having discussed it at some length, I took a reprieve from the topic. But then it came up again recently in the comment threads on a couple of recent posts. And this morning as I read Romans 10, I was struck with another discussion of the topic of legalism, or man-made religious requirements.

In Romans 10:1-4 Paul is continuing a discussion of who actually constitutes God's people. He emphasizes that it is not genetic or biological heritage that makes a person one of God's chosen people (as was thought by the Jews of Paul's day) but faith that places a person in the family of God.

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

As Paul describes these religious Jews he says that they have a "zeal for God, but not according to knowledge." These are not folks who think they are lost. They are looking at their works and thinking that they will be seen as dedicated God-people. And they likely will be seen in that way by others. But our concern must be how God sees us and not how others see us.

Paul describes these misinformed folks as being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own. They are living disciplined lives that the world can easily see as being disciplined—but they are living according to their own rules. And they are doing this, according to Paul, because they don't know or understand the righteousness that comes from God. And because they do not know or understand God's righteousness, they did not submit to God's righteousness.

What a terrible thing! This is why there will be people at the final judgment who are cast into hell with the words on God's lips, "depart from me I never knew you." These are people who will argue, "when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?" (Matthew 25:44). These folks truly believe that they are God's people. They believe that their actions prove their salvation. But they are seeking to establish their own [righteousness] and they are not submitting to God's righteousness.

So how do we submit to God's righteousness rather than living by our own rules? How do we know when we are following extra-biblical standards of righteousness rather than our own man-made religious standards?

Paul goes on to say that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. We need to spread the gospel to others—the good news that Christ died to pay the penalty for the sins of all those who believe. We need to call folks to repentance and to faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. We need to preach the gospel, exposit the Word, focus our attention on Christ—because we believe.

If we're focused on doing the deeds that we have been given—the good works for which we were created—we are not likely to have a desire to create our own man-made standards of righteousness.

People aren't confused by the gospel, they're confused by us. Jesus is the only way to God, but we are not the only way to Jesus.

This world doesn't need my tie, my hoodie, my denomination, or my translation of the Bible. They just need Jesus.

We can be passionate about what we believe, but we can't strap ourselves to the gospel because we're slowing it down. Jesus is going to save the world, but maybe the best thing we can do is just get out of the way.

What This World Needs, Casting Crowns


  1. Beautifully said. We've been under overcast skies for weeks and the sun broke through while I read this. Literally.

  2. Col 2:16,17 So don't let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new-moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules were only shadows of the real thing, Christ himself.

    Christ is our focus -- proclaiming Him, demonstrating Him, obeying Him, loving Him, knowing Him. Colossians and Galatians are excellent books. I've learned, though, not to argue these points with other believers (assuming that they are believers). I just take them to Colossians 2 and Romans 14, and let the scriptures speak for themselves. If they are stuck in this legalism, all my human arguements won't pull them out. Sometimes it seems to make them just that much more stubborn. The scriptures are sufficient, and I just let them deal with the Word.

  3. Mary - When I was in the college & career Sunday school class (that'd be back when I was at BBC) we did a study of Colossians. And it was interesting to see how people ejected the context of that book in order to make it fit their legalistic tendencies.

    The general consensus on first glance (before much discussion of context) was that Paul was telling the Colossians in the verses you quoted that they should live such rigidly circumspect lives that no one would be given the opportunity to condemn them. When, in fact, the context is showing that if you focus on those things, your focus is misplaced.


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