Having a Zeal for God But Not According to Knowledge

by Mike Ratliff

[10:1] Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

[2] For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. [3] For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. [4] For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:1-4 ESV)

When I went off to Oklahoma State University in the Fall of 1969 after graduating from High School just three months earlier things were philosophically very different in the world than what we have now. That is, on the surface they are different. My professors in college and many of my former teachers in High School were assured that Christianity and all organized religion was a bunch of nonsense, that it would soon be proven through Science that Natural Selection produced everything living, and that the Universe was created through natural processes. I even had a Roman Catholic Nun as Biological Sciences Lab instructor at OSU that enthusiastically supported Darwinism. However, things have not turned out as these people planned at all. If anything, the world has grown even more religious than it was back then. On the other hand, I would put the Bible knowledge of many of my Grandparents’ generation up against that of most professing Christians in our time and it would be absolutely embarrassing how shallow theological knowledge and understanding within the visible church has become. 

Carefully read the passage I placed at the top of this post. Paul is talking specifically about the Jews here who persecuted Christians and tried to stamp out Christianity. He makes sure that we understand that, since they reject the Gospel, that they are not saved. However, notice that they have a zeal for God, but that zeal is not according to knowledge. In our time we have an infection in the visible church that sees the demand for precision in doctrine as something divisive and, therefore, wrong. Instead, those with this infection approach their ministries with deliberate ambiguity and relativism. This approach is designed to make “christianity” something that is vague and relative to each person’s experience. This forces adherence to man-focused philosophies of “open-mindedness” and “tolerance.” Paul would not have stood for any of this. In fact, he would have made the very same statement he used above describing the devout Jews who rejected the Gospel that they “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” applying to the religious leaders of our day infecting the visible church with this infection of man-focused relativity instead of God-focused submission to His sovereignty and the Lordship of Christ.

Here is Romans 10:2 from NA27 Greek text: μαρτυρῶ γὰρ αὐτοῖς ὅτι ζῆλον θεοῦ ἔχουσιν ἀλλ᾽ οὐ κατ᾽ ἐπίγνωσιν·

Here is my translation: I testify for to them that jealousy of God they have but not by perception;

In the ESV the word zeal translates the noun ζῆλον, which is the Accusative, Singular of ζῆλος or zēlos, “in a positive sense this word means zeal or earnestness and is highly recommended, but in a negative sense it means jealousy or envy. The Jews Paul was talking about demonstrated this jealousy through legalistic conformity to the law and fierce opposition to Judaism’s opponents, but they were ignorant of God’s inherent righteousness revealed in the very law they thought they were defending and keeping. They simply could not grasp that true righteousness is available only from Christ on the basis of faith.

In the ESV the word knowledge translates the noun ἐπίγνωσιν, which is the Accusative, Singular of ἐπίγνωσις or epignōsis, which means “an experiential, personal knowledge that is full, thorough, precise, and correct.” This is the exact opposite of what those who decry this sort of precision as divisive. You see, we are called in God’s Word to know God this way so those who want to change our faith and the church into a relativistic, open-ended, personal experience-only system that hates the precise doctrines that we hold to are not of God, but are of the enemy. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their product is professing Christians who know nothing of God. They are ignorant of God and His righteousness because they are working on building up their own righteousness through “works” just like the Jews of Paul’s day.

Those of us who are not infected by this disease must understand that we shall never know everything, but our knowledge is full in the sense that we know what is right and necessary for Christian living. As God matures us, our knowledge continues to grow with more involvement with God’s Word. Our knowledge can be full from moment to moment; we can right now know what God wants us to know, but tomorrow we will know more; so, each moment we are living in the full potential of our present knowledge.

[9] And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, [10] so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9-10 ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria!