“What matters is that you are sincere” sounds like good advise, and it is, as we shall see in a moment. But it can also be the worst advise to give anyone. God does, indeed, want us to be sincere about what we do. A common dictionary definition of sincere is “free from pretense or deceit; proceeding from genuine feelings”. It is wrong to be pretentious and deceitful. We must always strive to be genuine, honest, in other words, sincere. Integrity.
But what if being true to who we are involves doing something that is hurtful and unkind and unloving? What if I genuinely don’t care about the homeless and the sick? Should I be sincere even then? Would it be pretentious to “do” caring things to such people because that is “the right thing to do”? Such questions lead us to something that often goes un-examined when we talk about “being sincere”: It matters what we are being sincere about. In other words, our personal feelings are not the ultimate standard of what is right or wrong. We are not automatically doing right just because we are doing what we feel like doing. There seems to be a standard of right or wrong, outside of our feelings.
Does this, then, mean that our feelings don’t matter? No. It only means that our feelings are not supreme. They are not the final authority on what is right and wrong. But if it happens that what we feel we should do conforms to the right thing by external standards, we rejoice in this. It means our hearts are aligned to an absolute moral standard. But if it happens that what we feel we should do hurts other people and makes the world a worse place, then our feelings must be brought to question, they must be opposed and, if possible, they must be changed.
I have outlined all that (above) in order to get to this seemingly obvious conclusion: It is possible to be sincerely wrong. It is possible to have “the best interests at heart” and still be gravely in error. From the Bible, we learn that the mark of true (or righteous) sincerity is a sincerity that is based on (and aligned to) the Truth. Yes, we must speak the truth in love, but our love must be informed and validated by the truth. Truth is fundamental, if not superior. When we speak falsehood (even ignorantly) in the name of love, we are not “truly” loving. Love must conform to the truth to be valid.
If a person sincerely wants and desires to please God and do right and help the poor, that is not enough to prove that the person is doing God’s will. It may even be a preacher who sincerely wants God’s people to be encouraged and blessed and happy — and still be in gross error. This is partly why Paul saw the need to say of his fellow Jews that zeal without knowledge does not lead to the righteousness that God desires:
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for [my fellow Israelites] 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.” (Romans 10:1-3)
Paul is speaking about a people who, to the best of their knowledge and understanding, wanted to serve God. He is speaking about people who honestly and sincerely wanted to do what is right in God’s eyes. These people would have died for what they believed in and they would not be pretending or faking their righteousness. Paul is speaking about people whose motives are pure. Sincere people.
To these people, Paul says that they are “seeking to establish their own [righteousness]” and that these people, these sincere, honest and purely motivated people, did not “submit to God’s righteousness”.
How can this be? What gives Paul the right to say that these honest, selfless and sincere doers of God’s Will are seeking to establish their own righteousness? What gives Paul the right to judge them? The answer is in their “theology”. Most Israelites thought that the rituals and the sacrifices and the hundreds of laws kept were the ways to being declared righteous before God. Of course, God is the one who gave these commands and rules and rituals. Of course, God, in the Old Covenant, wanted them to observe and keep these rules. But God never said that by doing these things, they would be declared righteous.
God may have told them that if they committed a sin, they should offer a sacrifice for the atonement of that sin. But God never said this made the people righteous before God. A thief does not become righteous by giving back what he stole. Someone who gouges out another person’s eye does not become righteous by having his own eye gouged out. Because his problem is not outward but inward. His problem is that of the heart, the will, and that is where true righteousness is rooted. His problem is not the action, but what led to the action — the heart. As the popular saying goes, the heart of the problem is a problem of the heart.
And the Bible says that there is only one solution to this “root” problem — the cross of Jesus Christ.
In the passage above, Paul concludes:
“Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
What does that mean?
It means that anything anyone tells you to do to please God is suspect unless it is under-girded with the truth that God is already pleased with us through Christ. It means that every call to do right, act right and be right is a call to become what we already are, not a call to become something we are currently not (if we are in Christ). It means there is no place for guilt in failure or boasting in success. That is what we mean by Gospel-centered teaching and living.
Jesus is the point; and not just a Jesus who does us favors or a Jesus who gives us stuff or a Jesus who heals our diseases. It is a very specific Jesus (who can and often does the aforementioned things) who died on the Cross to offer the free gift of salvation to those who believe.
“For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” [Romans 11:36]