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When Christians claim that some religious practice or group violates Scripture, often someone will respond that the people involved are zealous religious people and/or good moral people. Clearly they believe that, simply because these folks have good morals and religious zeal, that somehow proves that they are acceptable to God, despite their continued disobedience to God's word. So, we should not speak against the beliefs or practices of such folks.
The Bible absolutely does teach that people should be religiously devout and should have good morals, but are those things enough to assure that they will receive eternal life? To illustrate, every living human adult must breathe, but just because something breathes does that mean it is a human adult? Likewise, a person must have religious zeal and good morals to please God, but is this enough for him to be saved or is something more required in addition to this?
Consider several areas of Bible teaching that relate to this subject.
According to the Bible, was God always pleased with people who were dedicated to their religion and lived good moral lives? Or were some people unsaved despite having good morals and religious devotion? Consider several Bible examples.
He had traveled by chariot from Ethiopia to Jerusalem in order to worship (v27). As he traveled, he read the Scriptures (v28) and wanted a better understanding of them (vv 30-34).
He did not even know about Jesus.
Philip had to teach this to him (v35). Can one who does not believe in Jesus be saved?
Acts 4:12 - There is salvation in no other name but that of Jesus.
John 8:24 - Those who do not believe in Jesus will die in sin. How then could the treasurer have been saved before he believed? (Cf. John 14:6; Mark 16:16).
Further, he had not yet been baptized.
Philip had to baptize him (vv 36-39). Can a person be in a saved state before he has been baptized?
Mark 16:16 - We must believe and be baptized in order to be saved.
Acts 2:38 - We must repent and be baptized in order to have the remission of sins.
The eunuch was dedicated to his religion, yet he was unsaved until he heard the gospel of Jesus, believed it, and was baptized.
(See also Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3,4; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21.)
He was a strict Jew, zealous toward God (22:3). He lived in all good conscience (23:1). He had been a "Hebrew of Hebrews," blameless according to the law (Philippians 3:5,6). He advanced in the Jews' religion beyond his peers, because he was more zealous for the traditions of the fathers (Galatians 1:13,14). Surely he was religiously devout.
He did not believe Jesus was the Christ, the Savior.
In fact, he persecuted Jesus' disciples (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1,2; 22:4,5), and did many things contrary to Jesus' name (Acts 26:9). He was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and injurious (1 Timothy 1:13). At this point, he was the "chief of sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15).
Even after he believed, he was in sin till he was baptized.
Acts 22:16 - He was commanded to "arise and be baptized and wash away your sins."
Saul was also a zealous religious person, yet he was unsaved until he believed in Jesus and obeyed Him by being baptized.
He was devout, feared God, gave alms, and prayed to God (10:2). He was a righteous man, feared God, and was respected by the Jews (10:22). If just being religious and having high morals would save a man, Cornelius would have been saved long before Peter preached the gospel to him.
God told him to send for Peter who would tell him words whereby he might be saved (11:14). Peter came, taught him about Jesus, and commanded him to be baptized in water (10:47,48).
So Cornelius was yet another good moral man, active and dedicated in religion, who was unsaved till he heard gospel, believed in Jesus, and was baptized.
Their city was filled with idols that the people worshiped religiously (17:16). They were so zealous they even put up an altar to "the unknown god" in case they missed one (17:23).
17:29-31 - Paul taught idolatry was wrong, and people must repent of it to be acceptable in the judgment.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21 - Idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Revelation 21:8; 22:15 - Instead, idolaters will be in the lake of fire, the second death.
Idol worshipers are religious, often very devout, and some have good morals. If that is all people need, why are idolaters not saved?
They had a zeal for God (10:2). They had a system of religion, although it was human in origin (10:3). Even today, many Jews are very devoted to their religion, and many are good moral people.
They did not know God's way for making men righteous (the gospel of Jesus), so they did not submit to God's righteousness (10:3). Therefore, they needed to be saved (10:1). Jews, of course, do not believe in Jesus, so they do not obey Him. We have already studied verses showing that obedient faith is necessary to salvation.
Surely it should be clear that people are not necessarily saved just because they are devoted to some religious system or just because they have good morals. Other things are necessary, including knowledge, faith, and obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16).
If a person is saved simply because he actively practices some religious faith and lives a good moral life, regardless of the content of his faith, then religious truth or error would be irrelevant. We could be saved just by being religious, regardless of whether or not that religion harmonized with the Bible. But consider the Bible teaching.
Proverbs 23:23 - Buy the truth and sell it not. Truth is worth any sacrifice you must make to obtain it. Once you have truth, do not give it up no matter what you could gain by giving it up. But if being religiously zealous is all that matters, why be so concerned about truth?
John 8:31,32 - To be free from sin, we must know and abide in truth. Note that Jesus said this even to people who believed in Him. But what if we think that truth is not important as long as we have some kind of religious faith? Will we still be made free from sin?
1 Peter 1:22,23 - To be made free from sin and be born again, we must obey the truth, which is God's word. What if we are religiously zealous, but have not obeyed the truth? Would our religious zeal alone save us? No, we must obey the truth to be saved.
2 John 9-11 - To have fellowship with the Father and Son, we must abide in Jesus' teaching. What if we are religious, but our religion is not in harmony with Jesus' teaching? Then we do not have God!
If you are religious, that is good. But do you also have the truth?
Matthew 7:15,21-23 - Beware of false teachers who deceive people. Because of such false teachers, many people believe in Jesus calling Him "Lord," teach in His name, and do many wonderful works in His name. Yet they are lost. How could this be if the only thing needed is religious zeal? Clearly something more is needed. What is it? We must "do the will of the Father."
2 Corinthians 11:13-15 - Satan and his servants pretend to be ministers of light and apostles of Christ. If they deceived us, we would be religious but would be following Satan! Does Satan lead people to eternal life? It is possible to be religious and yet be following Satan, because Satan is a deceiver. He fools people into following counterfeit religious practices, thinking they will still be saved.
Galatians 1:6-9 - People who teach a different gospel are accursed, and those who accept that gospel are departing from Him who called them. These Galatians were religious. In fact, they even believed in Jesus and were children of God (3:26,27). They followed a "gospel," but were accursed because it was a different gospel. Someone was teaching them to still obey Old Testament circumcision; this would cause them to fall from grace (5:1-4).
1 Timothy 4:1-3 - Some fall away, following doctrines of demons, speaking lies, including the specific false doctrines listed. Yet these people are not irreligious. They follow religious commandments, yet they fall away because they follow commands that are not from God.
1 John 4:1 - Many false prophets are in the world, so do not believe all teachers, but put them to the test. Why should we put teachers to the test - in fact, why should we even care whether we are following false teaching or true teaching - if the only thing that matters is that we be religious?
Matthew 15:9 - People may even worship the one true God, yet their worship would be vain if it was based on humanly originated practices. (Note v14.)
Suppose a person is very dedicated in taking medicine to cure a disease. Would his dedication cure him, even if it is the wrong medicine? So religious zeal is necessary, but by itself it is not enough. It is possible even for believers in Jesus Christ to be deceived into following error and false teaching.
There are religiously zealous and good moral people in all kinds of different religious faiths. If religious zeal and good morals were all we need, then people who cause, promote, and justify division would still be saved.
In fact, this is the main reason why people claim that all devout, good moral people will be saved - because they want to believe that people can be saved in any denomination, despite the fact that denominations are divided in practice, worship, organization, plan of salvation, etc. When we rebuke these divisions (and the false doctrines that produce them), that's when people say we should hush, because these are devout, good moral people. In other words, one of the main reasons people promote the idea is to justify people who are religiously divided!
What does the Bible say?
John 17:20-23 - Jesus prayed for all to be one as He and the Father are one. If religious zeal and good morals are all we need to be saved, why did He pray for religious unity? Why didn't He just pray for all people to be zealously devout and have good morals? When people say that doctrinal differences do not matter (as long as we are zealous, etc.), they are contradicting Jesus' prayer and justifying the very division that He sought to eliminate.
Ephesians 4:3-6 - We must strive for unity according to the Spirit, in the bond of peace. This requires oneness in each of the seven areas listed, including one faith and one body (which is the church - 1:22,23). If religious zeal and good morals were all we need to be saved, why strive for unity? But the Bible says that unity matters.
We need religious zeal, but we also need religious unity. That unity requires all believers to follow one faith and be members of one church.
1 Corinthians 1:10-13 - Jesus' followers should not be divided because Jesus is not divided against Himself. There should be no divisions among us such as those that existed at Corinth. But the division that exists today between denominations is far greater than what existed at Corinth, and yet some people claim that God will overlook it.
If religious zeal is all we need, why does this passage rebuke division? If Paul believed like some people today, he would have told the Corinthians their divisions did not matter as long as they were zealous!
Galatians 5:19-21 - We need to be good moral people, because those who do not practice moral purity will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the same passage says that those who cause division will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Yes, good morals are essential. But people today are mistaken when they say religious division does not matter as long as people are morally good and religiously zealous. God's word says that being divisive and justifying division is as bad as being immoral. And yet the doctrine we are studying exists primarily to justify people who are religiously divided!
Perhaps you are a good moral person, zealous for your religious practices. If so, these are good qualities. God approves of zeal and good morals. But please understand that, by themselves, these qualities are inadequate for you to receive eternal life. This is true even if you believe that Jesus Christ is God's Son and man's Savior.
You also need to be sure you have the truth, obey the true gospel, and unite with other faithful Christians in Jesus' one true church. Otherwise, you are like a man in Chicago who wants to travel to New York, so with zeal and dedication he boards a plane headed to Houston. No matter how zealous and dedicated he may be, the truth is that he is going the wrong direction. In order to reach his destination, he must turn around and go the right direction.
Have you obeyed the true teachings of Jesus' gospel in order to receive forgiveness of your sins? Are you following His true plan for faithful service to Him in His true church?
Copyright 1993, 2010,David E. Pratte; www.gospelway.com
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.