Can a Person Be Too Religious?

Romans 2:17-29

March 8, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

We begin this study with the question posed in the title: “Can a Person Be Too Religious?” On one hand, the question seems to imply a Yes answer. Certainly some people, the question seems to say, are too religious. Therefore, let’s make the question more personal. Is it possible that you are too religious? That’s a horse of a different color. It takes the question out of the theoretical and forces you to think of your own experience.

The answer may be Yes. You may be too religious for your own good. As evidence, I cite the words of Michel de Montaigne, “I find no quality so easy to counterfeit as religious devotion.” That makes a certain amount of sense, doesn’t it? We’ve all known people who seemed to be so religious that they were intolerable to be around. They were devoted, pious, obedient, sincere—and absolutely unbearable.

Of course that could never apply to any of us. Or could it? About 15 or 16 years ago Fritz Ridenour published a very popular paperback with the intriguing title How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious. Well over 100,000 copies were sold, attesting to the fact that many people realize that being a Christian and being religious are two different things.

—It is possible to be a Christian without being religious.

—It is possible to be religious without being a Christian.

From One Jew to Another

By the way, can you guess what the book was really about? It was about the book of Romans! No kidding. The burden of the book was to show conclusively that being a Christian doesn’t mean becoming a fuddy-duddy, holier-than-thou religious person. Nowhere in the Bible is that point made more powerfully than in the book of Romans. And nowhere in Romans is that truth demonstrated more clearly than in our text—Romans 2:17-29.

In the early chapters of Romans Paul is laboring to show the universal guilt of mankind. In succession, he takes up the case of various groups and shows how each one is truly guilty before God. At the end of chapter two he comes to the third and final group:

The Gentiles 1:18-32

The Moralists 2:1-16

The Jews 2:17-29

The Jews were the toughest group to deal with precisely because they were so deeply devoted to their own religious heritage. Paul’s task is made even tougher because he himself was Jewish—a descendant of Benjamin, a student of the great Gamaliel and a Pharisee. By writing as he does, Paul opens himself up to the charge that he has become a traitor to his own people.

But Paul is no anti-Semite. Far from it. As later passages make clear, Paul’s greatest desire was to see his own people come to Jesus Christ. But Paul knew that the one great roadblock was the mass of religious ritual that made it impossible for his brothers to see Christ clearly. The irony of it all was that the ritual was designed by God himself to lead the Jewish people into a deeper knowledge of the Almighty. Somehow that original noble purpose was lost amid a blizzard of rules and regulations that turned Judaism into a religion instead of a relationship. In Paul’s day too many of his contemporaries truly believed they were acceptable to God simply by keeping those rules and regulations.

Shocking Truth

Seen in that light Paul’s words must have seem shocking indeed. The real message of this passage may be summed up in one simple sentence: Being a Jew is not a matter of racial heritage or religious ritual, but is instead a matter of the heart. True Jews are not the ones who keep the Law the best. True Jews are those who reflect the teachings of the Law in their hearts.

If all of this seems rather remote, simply substitute the word “Christian” for “Jew”. Being a Christian is not a matter of religious ritual, but is instead a matter of the heart. That’s what I mean when I say that it is perfectly possible to be a religious church member without being a Christian at all. Unless the truth touches and changes your heart, what you have is religion—not Christianity.

With that as background, let’s jump into the passage. Paul begins by stressing the positive factors about Judaism.

I. The Jewish Advantage

Like all good speakers, Paul begins with the positive. In four verses he summarizes three great advantages the Jews held over the Gentiles.

1. Their Name 17

“If you call yourself a Jew.” That was always first. The Jews always knew they were God’s Chosen People. The name “Jew” reminded them that they were privileged among all the people of the world. They were the “People of the Covenant.” To them was committed the ancient Law of God. The Torah was their’s; the prophets belonged to them, as did the poets and the kings. Moses was their’s, and so was Abraham—the father of the nation.

Little wonder that when Jews introduced themselves, they often added the word “Jew” after their name: “Simon Bar-Simeon, Jew.”

2. Their Book 17-18

“If you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed in the law.” Here was the point that forever set the Jews apart from the surrounding nations. The Greeks might have Plato and Aristotle, but the Jews had the law of God. No one could top that. God had written it with his finger on Mount Sinai. How much better could it get? Compared to that, the writings of the Greeks seemed like illiterate scribbling.

No wonder the Jews bragged about the law. Not only did they have the law, they were instructed in the law. But that’s not all. Because the Jews had the law of God, they knew God’s will in a way the Romans and Greeks never knew it. They knew what was right and what was wrong. And they didn’t mind telling everyone else about it.

3. Their Works 19-20

“If you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor for the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” Paul lists here four claims the Jews made for themselves:

Guide to the blind

Light to those in the darkness

Instructor of the foolish

Teacher of infants

Those are pretty heavy claims to make for yourself. Note that Paul never contradicts them. All of them are good if used in the right way. After all, the blind do needs guides and the foolish desperately need instructors. Certainly infants need teachers. That’s what the Jews claimed to be.

The claim was perfectly respectable. The performance was something else entirely. And that’s where Paul aims his biggest salvo. If you widen the lens to take in all three advantages, they are all outward—A name, a book and a series of good works. None of those things touch the heart, and since they don’t touch the heart, they can all be faked. They require no inward change.

Without a change of heart, the Jewish advantage turns out to be no advantage at all!

II. The Jewish Disadvantage

In these verses Paul levels two devastating charges at the Jews.

1. Proclamation Without Performance. 21-24

Note the five questions Paul asks.

1. “You who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” Answer: Yes, the Jews were good at telling other people what to do, but when it came to living up to their own standards, they failed miserably.

2. “You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” Answer: Yes, the very people who preached against stealing robbed widow’s houses.

3. “You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” Answer: Yes, and as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart can testify, it’s easier to preach against immorality than it is to stay out of trouble yourself.

4. “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” Answer: Yes, the very people who claimed to hate idolatry were consorting with temple prostitutes.

5. “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” Answer: Yes, and it’s always worse when religious people act like hypocrites because then the name of God is blasphemed.

What’s the point? Religious people are good at telling other people what to do. Unfortunately, they often do the very things they condemn in others. That was the Jewish disadvantage. Not that they knew God’s law, not that they claimed to teach others, but that they didn’t live up to what they claimed to believe. But what do you call people who say one thing and do another? Hypocrites. No charge would have been as reprehensible to the Jews than the charge of religious hypocrisy, but that’s exactly what Paul is saying in these verses.


Notice how Paul sums up the case in verse 24: “As it is written, ’God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” That’s a quotation from Isaiah 52:5. What a shocking indict-ment. You claim to be a teacher of the Gentiles, but because of your hypocrisy God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles. Blasphemy was the ultimate because it involved deliberately dragging God’s name into the mud. That’s what the Jews were doing by saying one thing and doing another.

We can sum it up in three key statements:

Preaching is good but obedience is better.

Preaching plus obedience is God’s ideal.

Preaching without obedience leads only to blasphemy.

Did you see 20/20 last week? Once again the national media is exposing crooked and dishonest TV preachers. This time the stories involved three well-known preachers from large churches in Dallas. About two of the men, no defense whatsoever could be offered. Concerning Larry Lea, it might be said that he has not been as careful as he should be in some areas of his ministry. Be that as it may, where did the trend of media attacks on Christian ministries come from? It largely started a few years ago with the scandals involving Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Now they’ve become the butt of jokes by people like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. As a result, God’s name is being dragged through the mud once again.

Sermons We See

What is it that the people of the world really want? What would make a difference to them? The familiar words of Edgar Guest provide an answer:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;

I’d rather one would walk with me than merely tell the way.

The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear,

Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;

The best of all the preachers are the men who live their creeds,

For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.

I soon can learn to do it if you’ll let me see it done.

I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.

And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,

But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do.

For I might misunderstand you and the high advice you give,

But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

One good man teaches many, men believe what they behold;

One deed of kindness noticed is worth forty that are told.

Who stands with men of honor learns to hold his honor dear.

For right living speaks a language which to every one is dear.

Though an able speaker charms me with his eloquence, I say,

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.

That last stanza contains a powerful image: “Men believe what they behold.” They don’t believe what you say, they only believe what they see. If the two don’t match up, your words will be disregarded. Those of us who make our living by moving our lips ought to ponder that thought carefully.

The Only Bible Your Friends Ever Read

Someone once said to Charles Spurgeon, the great English preacher of the last century, “The Bible is the light of the world.” Spurgeon objected, saying, “How can that be? The world never reads the Bible.” He went on to say, “The Bible is the light of the church and the church is the light of the world. The world reads the Christian, not the Bible.”

Good point. What do your friends discover when they read your life? Does your life point people to the Savior? Or does your life cause people to blaspheme his holy name?

2. Ritual Without Reality 25-27

Paul now brings his second charge against the Jews. The first concerned the “Performance Gap” between words and deeds; the second concerns the “Reality Gap” between outward ritual and inner reality. “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a law-breaker.”

Our primary problem in approaching this passage is that circumcision does not mean to us what it meant to the Jews. To us, circumcision is a purely optional physical act performed on young baby boys. Some are circumcised; some are not. Outside of the Jewish faith, few people are circumcised for religious reasons. Most undergo the procedure for hygienic reasons.

But to the Jews circumcision was a holy mark on the body, a physical reminder to the Jewish male that he belonged exclusively to God. God gave circumcision to Abraham and to his descendants as a sign and seal of the sacred relationship that existed between God and the Jewish people.

Note this carefully: Circumcision—although it was a physical mark on the body—was never meant to be an end in itself. The physical mark was meant to be accompanied by a deep spiritual commitment to God. Where commitment was absent, circumcision soon degenerated into ritualism. That’s roughly what had happened over the centuries. By the first century many rabbis spoke of circumcision as if it were an automatic ticket to heaven. One writer said, “Circumcision saves from hell.” Another said, “All the circumcised have part in the world to come.”

Circumcision had become the supreme symbol of Jewish superiority! A man need only to be circumcised to insure his place in heaven.

Paul makes two points in answer to this wrong understanding of circumcision:

Circumcision is useful only if accompanied by a changed life. 25

It is better to be uncircumcised and truly obey God than to be circumcised and break God’s law. 26-27

Again, the Jews would find these ideas shocking. The first point they could accept because it was similar to some of the things the prophets said about circumcising the heart. The notion that outward obedience must be accompanied by a repentant heart is not a peculiarly New Testament idea. But the second point would be totally unacceptable because it basically implies that a man might be accepted by God without ever being circumcised. Orthodox Jews would violently object to such teaching.

A Modern Application

Although some may find this entire discussion academic, it has an incredibly relevant application to modern American church members. Many of us regard our baptism in much the same way the Jews regarded circumcision. Some churches even teach that baptism saves from sin and guarantees entrance into heaven.

To put a sharp point on it, this is one place where the practice of infant baptism may be rightly criticized. Multiplied millions of people are today putting their hope of heaven in the fact that a priest sprinkled some water on their forehead when they were a few days old. Whatever may be said in favor of infant baptism, this is the most damning indictment against it. It tends to become a religious ritual that leads many people away from saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Let us be clear on this point. Paul is saying that all religious ritual is worthless unless something has already happened in the heart!

—Baptism cannot save you or help save you!

—The Lord’s Supper cannot save you or help save you!

—Church membership cannot save you or help save you!

—Tithing cannot save you or help save you!

—Praying twice a day cannot save you or help save you!

—Lighting candles cannot save you or help save you!

—The sacraments cannot save you or help save you!

—Religious ritual cannot save you or help save you!

Those things are not altogether bad. But to whatever extent you base your hope of eternal life upon any of those things, you are making the same mistake the Jews made 2000 years ago.

Let me say it one more way just in case you have missed the point. I can personally baptize you myself but unless you have Christ in your heart, your baptism will do you no good. In fact, I can hold you under water so long that you’ll come up singing “Amazing Grace,” but even that won’t do you any good unless Christ is in your heart.

To return to the larger point, circumcision originally was supposed to mean, “I am dedicated to God.” Where a person was truly dedicated, it had legitimate meaning. Where they weren’t, it became a ritual without reality. In the same way, baptism is supposed to mean, “I have given my heart to Jesus Christ and he is my Savior.” When that is true, baptism is a wonderfully appropriate step of faith. When that is not true, baptism has become meaningless—and even dangerous because it may lead you to think you are a Christian when you really aren’t.

Paul’s discussion is nearly finished. Having clearly shown what was wrong with mainstream Judaism, he concludes by describing the religion God approves.

III. The Religion God Approves

“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from man, but from God.”

In these verses Paul explains the matter both negatively and positively. First the negative.

1. It is not based on any of the following factors:

Church Membership


Ritual of Any Kind

Ethnic or Racial Background

Superior Bible Knowledge

Please note. None of these things are bad. All have their proper place. But these are not the things God looks at. God looks at the heart—not at external factors. That’s what Paul means when he says, “Circumcision is circumcision of the heart.” And if it doesn’t happen in the heart, it doesn’t matter what happens on the body!

Unfortunately, millions of people have a religion based on superstition. They put their trust in some outward factor as their hope for heaven. Such people will someday be sadly disappointed. Others trust in inherited religion: “Daddy was a deacon. Momma was a Sunday School teacher.” They act as if salvation is inherited like you inherit the color of your eyes. It doesn’t work that way when it comes to salvation. No one else can believe for you. You have to believe for yourself if you want to go to heaven.

What then is the religion God approves?

2. It is a religion based on inward reality and transfor- mation of the heart accomplished only by the Holy Spirit.

To make the point more personal, here’s how the passage is translated in Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version: “For a Christian is not one who makes a show of it, nor is his church member-ship for status purposes. He is a Christian who is one on the inside, whose membership is of the heart—something spiritual and not mechanical—and who seeks not the approval of society but of God.”

What does it all mean? Mankind without Christ is hopelessly lost. That is true of pagan man, true of the moral man, and now it is clear of the religious man. All men and all women are hopelessly lost until they come to Jesus Christ. It’s not a question of whether you’ve been baptized, sanforized, sanitized or pasteurized. The only question that matters is, Have you trusted in Jesus Christ and him alone as your Lord and Savior?

The Path to Self-Deception

As you consider this passage in its larger implications, it paints a clear picture of how so many people end up so utterly self-deceived. In fact, from these verses we may easily deduce three steps that lead to self-deception.

1. Condemning in Others What You Do Yourself.

This is clearly an enormous point in Paul’s mind. The essence of hypocrisy is to preach hard against the very sins you commit in secret. It’s to excuse in yourself the behavior you condemn in others. That leads to some very important questions: Are you practicing what you are preaching? Are you living what you are saying? Does your life match up to your lips? Do your deeds match your declarations? No question is more pertinent for religious people to consider. If the answer to any of those questions is No, you would be well advised to zip your lips until you get your life straightened out.

2. Claiming Special Privileges Without Accepting Personal Responsibility.

Religious people do this all the time. We like to give advice; we don’t like to take it. We like to talk; we don’t like to obey. We like to be first in line; we don’t like to do the chores after dinner. We enjoy our freedom; we don’t like anyone challenging our lifestyle. But we are deceived if we think the Christian life is all freedom and no responsibility.

3. Going Through the Motions Without Christ in Your Heart.

With this we come to the bottom line. As shocking as it may sound, there will be many church members in hell. Many Baptists will end up in hell, as will many Catholics, many Presbyterians, many Lutherans, and many Methodists. In fact hell will be populated with people from every religious persuasion. Why? Because many people are locked into a false religious confidence. They trusted in religion instead of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the end, they were too religious for their own good.

Any Baptists in Heaven?

In one of his sermons George Whitefield tells of a strange and terrifying dream in which an angel transported him to the gates of hell. When he arrived, he cried out to the gatekeeper, “Have you any Methodists in hell?” “Oh yes, we have plenty of Methodists down here.” “Have you any Lutherans in hell?” “Plenty of Lutherans, too.” “What about Catholics?” “Hell is filled with Catholics.” “Have you any Baptists in hell?” “More than we can count.” “Have you any Presbyterians?” “By the hundreds.” With that, Whitefield sadly took his leave of hell.

Suddenly he found himself transported to the gates of heaven where he met St. Peter. “St. Peter, have you any Methodists in heaven?” “No Methodists up here.” “Have you any Catholics in heaven?” “I’m sorry to say, no Catholics have ever come this way.” “What about Presbyterians?” “No Presbyterians either.” “What about Baptists?” “Not a one in all the years I’ve been here.” “Any Lutherans?” “We have no one that answers to that name.” Finally in desperation Whitefield cried out, “Who have you in heaven then?” And the answer came back, “Christians, only Christians.”

“Are You a Believer?”

Suppose I were to ask you this question: “Are you a believer?” What would your answer be? “I’m a member of Calvary Memorial Church.” But that’s not what I asked.

Suppose I asked, “Are you born again?” What would you say? “I was baptized by Pastor Gray.” But that’s not what I asked you.

Suppose I asked, “Are you saved?” What would you say? “I was born a Catholic and I’m going to die a Catholic.” But that’s not what I asked you.

Suppose I asked, “Are you a Christian?” What would you say? “Of course I’m a Christian. After all, I was born in America.” But that’s not what I asked you.

Five Simple Words

It all boils down to this: In what are you trusting for your eternal salvation? Or to put it more accurately: In whom are you trusting to take you to heaven? After all, salvation is not a what; it’s a who. The issue is your relationship to Jesus Christ.

Let me give you five simple words that can take you all the way from earth to heaven. Here they are: Only Jesus and Jesus only. Only Jesus can save you so put your trust in Jesus only.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?