Dr. Robert R. Seyda



When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he shared with them how, as a Pharisee, he thought that keeping the feasts and sacrifices gave him an advantage over others. But now, he tells them: “It was because of Him that I gave up everything and regard it all as garbage, in order to gain the Messiah and be found in union with him, not having any righteousness of my own based on legalism, but having that righteousness which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness, the righteousness from God based on trust.1 So we can see why Christ told John to write this in a letter to the church in Laodicea He said to them: “You say, ‘I am rich, with everything I want; I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that spiritually you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.2

In looking at this statement by Paul, one of the earliest church scholars, Origen, saw Paul addressing the need that those who say they know about God must do more than that to really understand Him. For instance, if someone says that they love God, do they know that loving Him means loving others as yourself and that requires patience, kindness, not being envious, not acting in wrong ways, not puffed up with pride, not seeking one’s own instead of God’s will? Anyone lacking these virtues only loves God with their emotions, not their heart, soul, mind, and strength and others must get by on their own. It’s another way of saying: they feel that they love God, but the truth is they don’t really love Him because they don’t know Him personally.3 We see this today when people express their love for God but direct it to pictures of saints and images, thinking that God will be pleased with their devotion.

Ambrose, early church bishop of Milan, Italy, and mentor of St. Augustine, wrote a letter to Constantius, a newly appointed bishop. In the letter, Ambrose reminds him that accepting this office like being named captain of a ship. He now stands at the helm on the bridge from which he guides and directs the ship to its destination. There will be times when he does so into the teeth of the oncoming waves. So he is to hold fast to the wheel so that the rudder remains steady and on course. He must resist being shaken by the heavy storms of persecution by this world. Yes, the sea may be vast and deep. But he is not to fear because the one who controls the seas is the same one who constructed the ship and prepared it to weather the storms and hold up against the waves4.5

Then Ambrose also wrote a letter to Roman Emperor Theodosius I. In that letter he complimented him on his devotion to treat everyone with mercy, gentleness, with a heart full of faith and reverence of the Lord. But in spite of his dedication, there will be times when mistakes will be made, some of which will escape everyone else’s notice. That’s because there are some who have great zeal for God, but without understanding what God really wants. So it was incumbent upon those in charge to be keenly aware of the fact that many of those over whom they have been given responsibility have that same ignorance in their devotion to God.6 It would be constructive if Bishops today were to write all those who minister under them to be aware of this same issue.

For Augustine, what Ambrose described was just another way people sought to be right with God but not in the way God wanted them to be right. Paul had his own description of such people. When he looked at many of the Jews, he saw individuals who, because of their own self-confidence and position with God, thought they had achieved all this through good works. So they rejected any offer of free grace as being unnecessary because they had earned it. Why should they trade all they had accomplished in pleasing God on their own just by accepting Christ as their Savior?

Even though they had nothing to do with establishing the law, still they trusted it to do the job for them as long as they were able to fulfill its demands. Sad thing was, none of them had ever accomplished such a feat. So they needed to throw themselves on the altar of God’s mercy. It all came about because they were ignorant of God’s righteousness and depended instead on their righteousness. It gave them more pride to say that they did it through their strength instead of depending on Christ’s strength.7

Constantius, another early church scholar, was also troubled because what he saw in the Jews was something he was seeing in some Christians. When Paul talked about “their own righteousness,” it was clear that he was calling out the Pharisees. Little did they know, that all the sacrifices required by the law and the other things they did were only shadows of the truth that would be fulfilled in Christ’s work on the cross which ceased to function once He rose from the grave. But when they were told, they refused to believe it. Why would God change something that had been in effect for thousands of years? They didn’t realize that all of what came before was only an introduction to what was coming. So Paul had every right to point out that self-righteousness was not what God wanted but what they wanted.8

Later on, Pelagius was troubled by the same thing. Because the Jews did not really know that God justifies by faith alone they continued relying on their self-righteousness to get them to heaven. So they saw no reason to submit themselves to God for forgiveness of sins based on the sacrifice of Christ. The main reason was that it would force them to admit that they were still sinners. We are told that this is something that happened when they heard John the Baptizer preach repentance: “But the Pharisees, rejecting God’s purpose for themselves, refused to be baptized with John’s baptism.910 Both Constantius and Pelagius no doubt saw the same attitude among those who called themselves church members who believed that by doing whatever the church told them to do, they did not need to seek a personal relationship with God through Christ.

Martin Luther quotes an old German saying that goes: Die Absicht ist gut, und der Zweck ist wahr, aber die Mittel werden mißbraucht.11 When translated, it reads: The intention is good, and the purpose is true, but the means are misused. This certainly illustrates the goal which the Jews were seeking. They had every intention of being righteous before God but it was the incorrect way to get it accomplished. Luther confessed that he saw that same arrogant zeal of good intentions among church members in his day. I dare say, it has continued until our day. Luther feels that Paul is being overly kind when he says they are doing all this for lack of knowledge. It’s another way of saying that they set about to accomplish their goal with blind zeal, unwise urgency, and foolish purpose. That is the greatest danger and it should serve us as an example that we may deal with the faults of others with mildness.

Luther goes on to say that when such an attitude is developed where people are consumed with zeal but without proper training or understanding, it is a terrible thing. It may seem appropriate, but it resists faith, opposes obedience to God’s Word, and makes people stiff-necked and unreformable. This is the attitude we see in heretics and dividers.12 Luther says that they insist upon their “good intentions” with bullheadedness and obstinate opposition, just as though they could not be mistaken. They believe that their salvation is altogether based upon the fact that it serves a good purpose in their zeal for God. Such people, says Luther, are described in the Bible as contrary in heart and corrupt in mind. Therefore, we must note that to have a zeal for God according to knowledge means to regard nothing else as greater than always to be ready with fear and trembling to be guided, led, and instructed by His Spirit in all that is good, no matter how easy it may seem for us.

John Calvin sees a subliminal thought squeezed between the lines of what Paul is saying here about the good intentions of the Jews to follow God’s path to salvation and what they actually accomplished. That not only involves having good intentions, but knowing where such good intentions will lead. All too often, those who end up being disappointed, or even admonished, use the handy excuse: I didn’t mean to harm anyone. The same mindset exists among Christians, who think that whether they are a success or failure in their efforts; whether someone is helped or ends up getting hurt, they still excuse the fact that they did not seek God’s will because they really were only trying to do what was right. And certainly God, and everyone else will understand, they did it with good intentions. By using that same logic, we can then accept the excuse the Jews may have for crucifying Christ, or for going after and martyring the Apostles, or for attempting to dismiss the true story of Jesus’ virgin birth, His death, and certainly His resurrection, with lies and misinformation. Such excuses are a waste of time. Before we go off on a tangent thinking we are going to get credit for doing something good, we should sincerely seek God’s will and follow what He says, and only what He says.13

But there’s more that caused Calvin grief when he spots something else going on in the church. It involves misinterpreting energy for enlightenment. For instance, when we see how the Jews, especially the Pharisees, plunged ahead with thoughtless eagerness to create their own definition of righteousness. They did so with foolish confidence because of their ignorance of God’s righteousness, so we can see how dangerous that can be. Dangerous in the sense that what they were creating would not stand up to God’s judgment. So the very punishment they tried to avoid would be given to them. We can understand this better when we compare God’s righteousness with man’s righteousness. The first thing we observe is they are actually in conflict with one another.

There are so many things that are contrary to each other and, therefore, cannot work together. Just like oil and water. So it goes without saying that when people try to institute their own understanding of right living, it automatically subverts what God has said. Furthermore, the rules for right living that people compose are made up with faulty and incomplete thinking. This is another way of telling God He doesn’t know what He’s doing. And anyone who seeks to justified themselves as being exempt from eternal punishment because of what they’re trying to do, is a slap in the face of the One who gave His life for them on the cross. The first step in obtaining the righteousness approved by God is to renounce one’s own righteousness. There’s no reason to search for any other way to God when the only One who could make a way, has made that way for us on the cross. When we do that, God is pleased.14

1 Philippians 3:8b-9

2 Revelation 3:17 – Living Bible

3 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

4 Psalm 24:2

5 Ambrose Letters: II:1

6 Ambrose: Letters XL:5

7 Augustine: Grace and Free Will 12.24

8 [Psuedo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

9 Luke 7:30

10 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

11 A similar maxim is found in German, that when translated reads: In so far as the intention was good, and the means perfectly suited the purpose, [yet the means whereby it was accomplished was misused], Guter Rath an die Völker Europens bei der Nothwendigkeit die Regierungs überall zu verändern, London, 1792, p. 18

12 Luther was not referring to the Pope or Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, but other reformers that did not accept his reformation as being a true break with the Catholic Church and its political underpinning. Such was Meno Simons who became the leader of the Mennonites. The main issue was over infant baptism. They were also referred to as Anabaptists because they required adult baptism even though a person was baptized as an infant.

13 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

14 Calvin: ibid.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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