We tend to see people in categories: the successful and the unsuccessful, the intelligent and the dull, the beautiful and the ugly, the fit and the fat, the rich and the poor. Our natural impulse is to assess everyone around us, ranking ourselves against them. We scoff at those “beneath” us and resent those “above” us. But before God, we are all sinners. And there is only one kind of sinner.
Sin destroys God’s glory in the universe and overturns his justice, a justice God tells us is the foundation of his creation (Psalm 89:14). Our sin leaves us legally guilty before God. And our good works, relative to this massive damage, are even less impressive and relevant than our hypothetical robber’s recycling habits. For creation to remain good and sustainable, justice has to be upheld.
In the conclusion of his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul expresses a desire to make Jesus and his kingdom first in everything. He is asking the Colossians to pray for three things that anyone who wants to be obedient to the gospel should be praying as well.
Religiosity is like this strange disease—when you have it, it makes everyone around you want to vomit. Even the Apostle Paul, in some ways, thought religious people were capable of some pretty terrible things. The Gentiles and unchurched people could see that under a thin veneer of religion, Jews had the same corrupt heart as everyone else. And, if anything, their religion had just made them worse. There are five qualities religion produces in people then and still today.
We aren’t quite so wise when it comes to our hearts. The law, you see, sweetens up our behavior without changing our hearts. But God wants us to be so naturally righteous in our hearts that we wouldn’t need a law to do what is right. We’d instinctively do it.
Near the end of WWII, the first town with a concentration camp that the Allied forces liberated was Ohrdruf, Germany. Upon seeing the horror, General Patton brought the mayor of Ohrdruf and his wife to see the camp and held a funeral for the deceased. After the funeral, Patton found out that the mayor and his wife had hung themselves. Before their death, they left a note that read, “We didn’t know … but we knew.”