The more familiar I get with the Bible through reading it daily the more obvious it becomes what King Solomon wrote is true: “…With great wisdom comes great frustration; whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). I take his words to mean that to know the truth is to feel overwhelming sorrow for those who don’t. When I see people bewildered and terrified by all the violence swirling around us my heart bleeds. Folks will buy into any trendy idea for fixing mankind but refuse to consider, even for a moment, what the Scriptures have to say. All their modern theories about how the world got so messed up are merely variations on very old themes. Previously I showed God’s Word has told us all along what the root problem is: Humans have a sinful nature. But the Bible doesn’t leave us hanging. It also provides us with the only answer in existence – Jesus Christ.
All Christians feel sadness over those who aren’t saved. It comes with the territory. Look back at how the apostle Paul ached for his fellow countrymen. It grieved him deeply that they wouldn’t accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. Those who should’ve been first to recognize the Deliverer of God’s people were the ones who most vociferously denied and vilified Christ. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “They who were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah didn’t recognize Him when He came. They who declared themselves anxious to be just with God were rejecting the one way whereby mankind can be justified before God.” Paul expressed his angst well: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God on behalf of my fellow Israelites is for their salvation. For I can testify that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not in line with the truth” (Romans 10:1-2). Notice that Paul didn’t disparage their sincerity. That’s because sincerity wasn’t the trouble. It was their strict reliance upon it. They thought their zeal made them infallibly right but, alas, they were guilty of being sincerely wrong. Their zeal kept them from utilizing the Scriptural knowledge they had. Their sincerity blocked out the truth. And it’s still happening today in both the secular and religious realms. There’s a strong but nevertheless flawed tendency to equate sincerity with truth.
We see it everywhere. The general but mistaken notion is that if a man or woman is truly sincere about what they believe it has to be considered truthful. It’s not unlike the stance the Jewish leaders took 2,000 years ago. Open-mindedness took a back seat to their zeal for the law while logical deduction was tossed out the window. The only difference today is that fervor now trumps even moral law. The rightness or wrongness of a person’s views is deemed irrelevant as long as they’re sincere about what they’ve put their faith in, even if it’s themselves. If you question whether or not it’s the truth they’ll wave you off and say, “Hey, I’m just being honest.” Evidently holding the right view isn’t all that vital as long as they hold some view sincerely. Crazy, is it not? Yet that’s the 21st century litmus test. It’s yet another result of modern society’s adverse reaction to traditional theology, foundational knowledge and common sense morality. They sneer at all that stuff, labeling those things woefully outdated. Since everyone’s entitled to make their own rules these days the only thing that supposedly counts is their genuineness and passion for obeying their own rules. Now, don’t get me wrong. Sincerity in one’s search for the truth is essential to finding the truth. Insincerity gets you nowhere. But so does confusing sincerity with truth.
Take a closer look at Paul’s statement. His Jewish contemporaries were placing more value on zeal than knowledge. They were remaining rigidly beholden to custom and ritual while ignoring the prophetic info they’d studied all their lives. As so many do, they failed to realize the true definitions of zeal and sincerity. So what are zeal, earnestness and sincerity, anyway? The fact is those terms simply describe the manner in which a person does something or gets behind a particular cause. Zealots are serious to their core about whatever it is they wholeheartedly believe and usually they have some kind of goal in mind. Nothing will deter them because they’re so dedicated. It’s all about championing and defending their honest devotion to their ideals. But sincerity can be faked. For example, a pastor can preach the gospel sincerely or not. A politician can make promises sincerely or not. It’s a matter of personal integrity. We all know that. The danger arises when otherwise good people become more concerned with how sincere they are than being correct. Sadly, that selfish mindset has spread like an epidemic. Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The whole emphasis is on the quest, and on the way in which one searches. Seeking has become more important than finding.” No wonder sincerity and zeal are so admired these days! Mankind has created a lot of havoc over the years by adhering to the adage of the end justifying the means. But doing away with the end altogether in favor of the means can be just as destructive. An individual must have a true and worthy goal they sincerely strive to reach else they’ll eventually see all that striving was in vain.
No doubt many will accuse me of exaggeration. They’ll avow that in no way are they worshiping zeal like they would an idol yet in the same breath they’ll insist that sincerity guarantees the truth will be discovered. The error in that line of thought lies in thinking one of zeal’s reliable qualities is its ability to determine the rightness or wrongness of the goal. No way. Zeal is just a noun, folks. It doesn’t decide or authenticate anything. Zeal simply motivates us to get up and get going. It fuels our flame. It’s no more than an expression of locomotion. It helps us go in the direction we aim ourselves. But we can so often be wrong. I can gas up my car, hit the road and confidently zoom up to 80 mph but that doesn’t mean I’m going the right way. No matter how streamlined the automobile’s design is it has no say in whether I’m headed east, west, north or south. Zeal and sincerity can be good or bad and still be correctly identified as zeal and sincerity. Therefore, if we’re not careful, we can be sincerely wrong concerning just about anything. Paul’s a case in point.
The apostle openly admitted that, prior to his conversion, he persecuted the church by doggedly hunting down those who followed Jesus and punishing them severely. He sincerely believed he was right to try to wipe the whole Christian movement off the face of the earth. He wasn’t doing it because he was a bloodthirsty maniac; he was doing it because he was absolutely certain he was doing God’s will. To say he was enthusiastic about getting the job done is an understatement. He never once thought of himself as a hypocrite. On the contrary, he thought he was being honestly true to his calling and to his religion. Then he came face to face with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and he knew he’d been terribly and tragically mistaken. Afterwards Paul didn’t try to rid himself of his zealousness, rather he redirected it and God used him and his boundless energy to change the world forevermore. Saul of Tarsus had been sincerely wrong. The new creation who was the apostle Paul was sincerely right. Jesus Christ was the difference-maker. Paul’s pre-conversion behavior is a prime example of how misdirected sincerity can instigate horrible cruelties when it’s “…not in line with the truth.” There’s a lot of wisdom in the old saying, “Fire’s a good servant but a bad master.” When it’s under control fire can augment our life thousands of ways. But when it’s out of control its vicious fury can be devastating. The same applies to sincerity. That’s what Paul was trying to convey to the Jewish leaders. Their zeal was blinding them to the truth that the long-awaited Savior had arrived; that their bus was going full speed but headed in the wrong direction.
That’s what’s happening in the world today. People will adamantly argue their search for “the truth” is 100% authentic and sincere. But they have no compass. Thus they can’t stop and get their bearings to make sure they’re on the right path. Since most of them aren’t certain there’s a God at all, they’re foolishly trusting in the power of their own inertia. Knowledge is no longer a necessary ingredient. They think they have all the answers so please just stay out of their way. They’re right and you and your worn-out Bible are wrong. How arrogant! How futile! Imagine someone experimenting with chemicals despite having never been educated in the science of chemistry. Sincere or not, in time they’ll blow themselves up because they don’t know what they’re dealing with. In retrospect they’ll understand that knowledge would’ve been critical to the success of their endeavor. In any area of life one must gather all the data their brain can absorb before moving forward or they’ll be skating on thin ice. When it comes to zealously and sincerely serving God it’s infinitely more important to know and study what He’s revealed to us in His Holy Word or we could tear off willy-nilly down the wrong road and do more harm than good.
In Paul’s sermon he presented to his former peers some of the most cohesive arguments found in ancient literature. One thing he spotlighted was the fact that the Jews, in giving too much credence to their zeal and sincerity and too little to the prophecies they knew by heart, were doing nothing other than proclaiming their own righteousness. They were so dead set on defending their pride they failed to see God had fulfilled His promise to them. Paul was echoing what Jesus Himself had told the Pharisees to their face in Luke 16:15; “You are the ones who justify yourselves in men’s eyes, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly prized among men is utterly detestable in God’s sight.” I probably shouldn’t be but I’m frequently astounded by the belligerence and stamina of the human ego. The New Testament puts it on display for all to observe in the interactions between the Jews on one side and Paul and Christ on the other. The Jewish leadership sat there feeling good about their zeal and sincerity, their charitable works and their pristine morality. They fasted and prayed religiously and did their best to see that the poor widows were taken care of. They were so pleased with themselves they couldn’t imagine they were still “…like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your [God’s] sight” (Isaiah 64:6). They were playing by their rules, not God’s. By obeying their own guidelines and traditions for so many years they were sure they’d amassed a huge amount of gold stars in God’s ledger. They sincerely thought they’d earned their ticket to heaven. Through working hard to feel better about themselves they were convinced everything they did was for the glory of God. They’d conveniently detoured around what God had predicted in the Scriptures and they missed the boat altogether.
My church recently went out and asked some average men and women how one goes about getting into heaven. The majority said, “Be a good person.” Evidently they don’t see any pressing need for the Bible or church or fellowship or prayer or even a savior who’ll pay the penalty for their sins. They’re basically doing what the Israelites were doing in Paul’s day. They think they’re shoring up their own righteousness by staying relatively “good” most of the time. And they’re no doubt being totally sincere. They believe their honesty will get them inside the Pearly Gates and it breaks my heart. That’s not God’s idea of righteousness, it’s theirs. They don’t know what God asks of us because they’ve never bothered to find out what He reveals to mankind through His Holy Word. It’s the last place they care to look. They’ll consider anything as long as it’s not the “…message of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18). They’ll gladly and attentively listen to college professors and political figures but they’ll refuse to listen to God Almighty. They don’t realize they’re perishing. They can’t fathom that, as Jesus said, “…what is highly prized among men is utterly detestable in God’s sight.” They don’t even know how lost they really are because they’re living in a world of their own design.
Paul reminded the Jews God had given them His law through Moses and then told them, “The one who does these things will live by them” (Romans 10:5). In other words, God had announced, “This is how you can achieve eternal life.” In no time at all the Israelites proved nobody could perfectly keep every commandment. Their mortal thoughts, desires, inclinations and instincts would eventually do them in. Paul readily admitted that he and every single one of us “…have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God was clear that, in order for a person to enter His holy realm, they must present themselves before Him as holy. Hebrews 12:14 states, “Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord.” That’s what’s required of us if we’re to spend eternity in the kingdom of God. Can anyone do that? The answer is no. Hey, I disqualified myself before I reached puberty! Our sincerity can’t wash us of our sins and it never will. Billy Graham knows his zeal won’t get him into heaven so what chance do we think we have of making it? Our best efforts aren’t sufficient. Only the blood of Christ can cleanse us of our sins so we can present ourselves before the Heavenly Father as holy and righteous. That’s what Paul was trying so hard to make the Jews understand and he used his own life as a prime example of their folly. He’d been sincere. He’d been zealous. But his righteousness had been totally off course up until the day he met the Son of God. Having been born again in the Holy Spirit, it pained him greatly to see his people doing what he’d done for so long, trying to accomplish the impossible. Not one of us is capable of obeying every one of God’s laws perfectly. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
The Israelites did what so many do today. Lloyd-Jones said, “They preferred to trust themselves and their own zeal and their own efforts and fail, rather than trust themselves to Jesus Christ and be saved. They were so anxious to do things themselves they refused God’s offer of eternal salvation as a pure gift.” Paul preached to them, “For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Some accepted that truth. Some didn’t. It’s the same exact situation the world’s in now. Folks think they have an inalienable right to concoct their own moral code and, if they believe in it sincerely, God will welcome them with open arms because He’ll be obligated to do that. They’re sincerely wrong. God demands we be holy and righteous. We can’t climb that mountain and He knew it all along. That’s why in Genesis 3 He promised He’d provide a way for us to achieve holiness and righteousness but that it would cost Him dearly. Divine blood would have to be shed. By simply believing that Jesus is “…the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), all our sins are not only forgiven but permanently erased. We can cease thinking we have to merit redemption. We can stop thinking we have to find God because God didn’t move. We did. One merely needs to take what He’s offering free of charge. “…We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The secular-minded individuals we come into contact with will fight us tooth and nail over that statement. But we must never back off from telling them their soul’s future hangs in the balance. We must beg them not to trust in their own sincerity for it can’t save them. Only belief in Christ can do that.