Sincerely Wicked, Zealously Wrong

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4)

Paul’s desire was that the Israelites may be saved. This means that they were not saved. What kind of people were they, that they were not saved?

First, they were zealous for God, but their zeal was not based on knowledge. This zeal for God sounds better to us than what is meant, because the kind of zeal that we know is a zeal for the God of Scripture as he has been revealed in Jesus Christ. But the Jews did not have this kind of zeal. Jesus said that they did not in fact believe God or Moses or the Scripture, or they would have believed in him instead of trying to trick him or murder him all the time. Rather, Jesus said, they were zealous for the religious traditions that their elders invented. Instead of enforcing God’s commandments, these traditions subverted them, working around them while pretending to follow them.

So the religion of the Jews – their zeal for God – was not a precursor to the faith of the Christians. Indeed the religion of Moses was a precursor to Christ, but the Jews did not believe Moses. If they had believed Moses, they would have believed Jesus, because Moses told them about Jesus and commanded them to receive him when he arrived. Nevertheless, although their religion was not the religion of the Old Testament, it was heavily influenced by it, so that their theology and morality were closer to God’s revelation than the pagans. It was the best non-Christian religion.

Yet even the best non-Christian religion could not save anyone. Instead of leading to charity, holiness, and salvation, it produced cruelty, hypocrisy, and damnation. Instead of leading to a true worship of God and faith in his Messiah, it resulted in idolatry of the heart, arrogance and self-righteousness, and the murder of their Messiah. Paul himself was an example of this kind of zeal. He condoned the stoning of Stephen and persecuted the followers of Christ until the Lord stopped him by force. Therefore, a zeal for “God” without the knowledge of Christ is not a good thing that needs to be made better, but it becomes an entirely blasphemous and destructive power.

This is God’s answer to the claim that it does not matter what we believe as long as we believe it with sincerity and passion. A sincere non-Christian is still a non-Christian, and he is still condemned. The difference is that he is not pretending to be wicked, but he is sincerely wicked. And the fact that he is passionately wicked does not make him admirable, but dangerous.

Second, the Jews did not know the righteousness that comes from God, but they sought to establish their own. Although the text refers to the Jews, it is easy to see how this applies to every non-Christian religion or philosophy. Paul has demonstrated that there is a righteousness from God that comes only through Jesus Christ and that is imputed to us by faith. Therefore, anyone who attempts to make himself “right” by pursuing another route in principle commits the same error as the Jews. The verdict is the same that was declared against the Jews: “They did not submit to God’s righteousness.” The attempt to attain righteousness by any other means than faith in Jesus Christ is itself defiance against God’s righteousness.

What kind of people were the Jews that they were not saved? They were people zealous for their idea of God, but who did not believe in Jesus Christ. They were not saved because their zeal was not based on Christian theology. They went to hell because they did not believe the right doctrines. And they were people who did without the righteousness that comes from God through Jesus Christ, but instead tried to establish their own. Through Jesus Christ, there is righteousness for everyone who believes. But they were not saved, because they were not Christians.