Is there a single book in the Bible not written to the people of God? Of course not. And yet the targeted recipients of the Word of God often seem oblivious that almost all of the disciplinary words from God are aimed directly at them! It seems like half of the Church thinks God’s wrath is reserved only for pagans and atheists while about half of who’s left think it is aimed solely at whoever is not part of their clique. What this translates to as we live our daily lives is an alarming lack of humility among Christians (and please don’t equate humility with defeatism or submission to worldliness) as well as an extreme naiveté when it comes to comprehending Scripture.
Take, for instance, Romans 10:1-4. Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Jews] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of 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.
Clearly, the reason Paul included that in his letter to the Romans was to give them a heads up that they were almost certainly in danger of doing the same thing which would earn them the same results: becoming inwardly callous and deceived. Zeal for God is no substitute for the wisdom that is spiritually imparted from studying His word (2 Tim. 2:15). And the ignorance Paul warns of is a specific kind of ignorance. Specifically, a lack of knowledge and understanding about God’s righteousness.
Fundamentally, the righteousness of God is exactly what it sounds like. God is right. Always. No matter how strongly we feel about an issue, if His will has been revealed in Scripture, as much as it may grate against our own perceived sense of righteousness, it is He who is right. Sin and the worldliness it tends toward obscure this reality but cannot hide it completely. The still small voice of the Holy Spirit who convicts us of our sin may be ignored but cannot be silenced. The gospel, however, gently but irresistibly reveals the holiness and righteousness of God (Rom. 1:16-20).
The problem Paul is addressing in Romans 10 (extraordinary religiosity minus the corresponding theological content) occurs when the community of faith begins yielding to cultural trends and pressures which assert God’s righteousness to be both subjective and even answerable to human understanding and demands (“the God I know wouldn’t ___”). Another way to state it would be something like this: “As long as I profess that I love God, His righteousness is just going to have to accept what I believe and how I live.” Or, “I love God and so I know He is okay with whatever I decide to believe and however I decide to live.” What you have in those sentences is a zeal for God without concern for its being rooted in His being completely and perfectly right, all the time. In other words… “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”
Christianity is becoming increasingly crowded with people who equate love with acceptance and their “zeal” for God is nothing more than a mirror for their own desires. “For being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
Chapters 9-11 in Romans are written as a dire warning to Christians who think familiarity with God denotes acceptance by Him. They forget that Satan is familiar with God. Caiphus was familiar with God. Judas Isacriot was familiar with God. Familiarity does not translate either into knowledge or intimacy.
What spurred the entire discussion? The final few sentences of Romans 8: For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, no powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vvs. 38-39). Three chapters are then written by Paul to explain precisely why his brethren, the Jews, have been cut off (at least for a time). How can nothing be able to separate us from the love of God and then there be a rather extended explanation for why an entire group of people have been “cut off from Christ”?
Zeal for God without corresponding knowledge of His righteousness, coupled with a desire to affirm our own self-perceived rightness reflects a lack of salvation (see 10:1). The Roman church was in more trouble than it had any inkling of. In reality, the church in Rome was worse off than the Corinthian church and just as bad off as the Galatian church.
All this is leading to 12:1-2. Upon concluding his explanation for why there was such great sorrow and anguish in his heart for his brethren (the Jews) and why God allowed their brokenness, Paul then writes with great trepidation to the Roman Christians,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
“Therefore.” Because his brethren the Jews were a living example of how being zealous for God was not enough to ensure eternal security, he appealed to the Romans in the strongest terms he knew: by the mercies of God. His appeal was that they would present themselves to God…absolutely and completely. To present oneself is to subject oneself; to submit oneself to the authority and will of another.
The people of God have traditionally been very open to such self-presentation when it appears that His blessings will be involved. However, when Divine rebuke has been issued the typical response is to attempt to manipulate both the words and will of God (see all the theological traps the religious leaders attempted to ensnare Jesus in). Paul’s appeal to the believers in Rome was to break free from the temptation to justify their sin while promoting a religiosity that subjected the Divine will to their own. His words in 11:21-22 are like a thunderclap:
For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
You would think this kind of language would keep believers in a state of both humility and profound appreciation. Yet we tend to make the same mistake over and over again. We assume the language of love overrules the language of holiness. We then pronounce our rightness about issues despite the fact that it almost always flies in the face of the revealed will of God in His word. And then we go to bed and sleep nicely.
There comes a time where the patience of God runs its course and reality takes over. The perfect example from biblical history is the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. The prophetic books of the Old Testament almost deal exclusively with this event. When it was all said and done, perhaps the best words about it were written by the Chronicler. He writes,
The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy (2 Chronicles 36:15-16).
For everything in the Bible that we love, appreciate, and embrace, there is just as much that grates against our inner sensitivities. We cannot accept what feels good and reject what doesn’t. As Paul warns the Romans: Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good (Rom. 12:9). If we continually turn a blind eye to what God has identified as evil, there will come a time (sooner than we may think) when there is “no remedy.”