Why Religious Knowledge Alone Won’t Save You – And What You Can Do About It

I grew up knowing a lot about God. My family attended church regularly. I was in children’s classes every week. My dad and mom were both Christians. Dad, especially seemed to have a personal relationship with his “heavenly Father,” as He called Him. I could tell by the way he talked about God and the way he prayed. He had grown up in the back alleys of Denver in a home where his dad was mean and abusive when he drank. It came as a relief to my dad when he learned about a heavenly Dad who was full of love and kindness.

I went to Christian schools for fifteen years and denominational summer camps nearly every summer. Christian clubs and extracurricular activities added to my knowledge and religious acculturation. I knew a LOT about God and His Book and could answer many questions in a Bible trivia game. But I didn’t know either God or Jesus, personally. In fact, I didn’t feel a need because I somehow equated knowing “about” God and participating in religious services and activities with what I thought was real religion.

However, this did not “work” for me. Throughout my high school and college years, I struggled with personal sins, often violating what I knew was right. There were many cycles of giving in to temptations of various kinds, experiencing religious guilt, yet failing again. I seemed to have no power in areas where I was weak.

Yet, somehow, I thought of myself as quite a good person, better than some, maybe most, because of the right things I knew and did. . .and didn’t do (and that list was pretty long). I was sometimes miserable, and certainly self-deceived. But I didn’t know what to do about it.

In college (a Christian one), I majored in theology (because I liked my high school religion teacher, also my coach, and I wanted to “help people). I joined a summer ministry team and became religious vice president of our student association, all the time struggling privately with pride and sin. My religious pursuits and the good feelings that came from serving kept me from seeing my need, and the solution to my problems.

In my freshman year, some students on my campus began to talk a lot about having a personal relationship with Jesus. They had been trained at Campus Crusade for Christ, which made them a bit suspect in my mind, because Cru was a non-denominational ministry, and I almost equated salvation with being in the “right” church.

At the same time, I was intrigued and a bit troubled by what these young men were saying. The “relationship” they talked about seemed real. On one level, it reminded my of my dad. But, I didn’t have what they were describing. I was weirdly uncomfortable for a religious kid.

I went to their meetings, attended a prayer gathering or two in dorm rooms (where they prayed conversationally with God) and got to know some of the guys personally. What they were saying was shaking what I had been trusting in. They said religious knowledge and doctrinal beliefs were not enough. Knowing “about” Jesus was not the same as knowing Him personally, and good works could never “save” anyone for eternity. The foundation I had been trusting in for acceptance with God was getting rattled, but not enough to topple my house of cards yet.

In the meantime, a friend began asking me questions like, “Who do you think Jesus Christ was?” And, What do you think having eternal life means?” I could give theological answers, but not relational, experiential ones. Rick was finding a relationship with God and wanted to nudge me in that direction too.

Looking back, what was keeping me from trusting Jesus as a personal Savior was my false belief that religious knowledge and good works were enough to earn God’s favor. My pride and sins also got in the way too, though, as it turned out, they were the result of my condition, not the cause of it. The root cause was that I didn’t know how lost I was without Jesus as my personal Savior, and my failure to trust and surrender my life to Him.

In the summer of my Junior year, my sister Susan was killed in a car accident. She was a sunny, cheerful, likable girl of seventeen. This shattered my world. My deep grief led me to read the Bible. I had to see for myself if the things I had believed were true. Was there a heaven? Would there be a Second Coming of Christ and a resurrection from the dead? Would I get to see my sister again? I wrote the date of Susan’s death beside meaningful verses. At this point, I was seeking comfort and assurance about things I had only known in my head, not my heart.

One evening after work, I found my self reading John’s description of Jesus’ passion–His struggle to surrender in Gethsemane, His trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. I have often said it was like God shined a floodlight into my mind and heart, and I saw clearly, as I’d never seen before, how much He loved the world–and how much he loved me personally. Immediately, I knew I had a choice to make; it was clear and obvious: to give my life to Him and follow Him.

It was an easy choice in some ways. I saw a love like I’d never understood this deeply before, and Someone who loved me like I had never been loved. I wanted to follow this Jesus. I knelt down and prayed a ridiculously simple prayer for a third year theology student and life-long “religious” person: “Jesus, I don’t know how to follow you, but if you’ll accept me, I will.”

It was a prayer of repentance (turning to God), surrender, and desire–to know God personally in the way I had never known Him.

I know without any doubt that He accepted me and changed my life. I became voraciously hungry to read the Bible–to know as much about God and Jesus, and what they had to say,as I could. The power of sin was broken in my life, and my heart and behavior changed. I learned later, this was the new birth Jesus told Nicodemus about (John 3). Now I went to class and worship to know God better.

In case you are wondering, did I ever struggle with temptation again? Did previous sinful patterns suddenly evaporate? No. I found that as time went along that there were areas God needed to address in my life, but this happened in a growing relationship with Him, over time–learning how the Christian life worked and what He offers to help. In a word, He offers the power of His Spirit and His work of grace in our hearts. This happens as we read and accept His words and walk in a trust relationship with Him.

Jesus offers us so much when we give up depending on ourselves and our own goodness and knowledge. He can do this because He died to earn the right, and He freely forgives and accepts whoever puts their trust fully in Him.

So, why won’t religious knowledge and good works save you, and what can you do about it?

  1. Knowledge and human goodness can be a trap. The biggest illusion in Jesus’ day was that religious knowledge and belonging to a certain group could save you. It felt so complete being full of information about God and worshiping with large groups of people. It felt so right to believe the “right” things. But theoretical knowledge is not enough. It is like describing the sun without moving into its light and warmth, or explaining a cold drink on a hot day without sipping it. Being a fine, upstanding person; having some morality and good works in your life; and being religious, can actually prevent you from feeling your need of God to rescue and change you. It is not even enough to see God’s love and believe it intellectually. Jesus came, lived, explained God, and died for our sins, then rose for one purpose: to make it possible for us to choose a relationship with Him. We must choose to trust in and follow Him in order to have a religion that really works. No Jesus, no life. Know Jesus, new life.
  2. Without Jesus, we’re dead. We are born with a nature that is dead to God, spiritually blind to our own need, and naturally resistant to God and the life of God. Romans 3:9-18 is a description of human nature. It is not hard to see oneself in the list. Galatians 5:19-21 has a similar list of what our natural sinful nature produces. Not only are we spiritually dead by nature, but sin in all its forms deadens our hearts and prevents us from seeing God clearly. “The god of this age (Satan) has blinded (us). . . , so that (we) cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). This is why we need the new birth, in which God supernaturally, through the Holy Spirit, gives us a new nature. We receive the new birth when we give up trying to be good in our own strength and trust Jesus to be our Savior from sin. When we do, He sends the Spirit to live in our hearts to rebirth us and change us over time. The veil which has been shrouding our minds is removed, and we see Jesus and His new life clearly (2 Corinthians 3:14).
  3. You can’t have a relationship without a relationship. A good mutual friend told me about the woman who is now my wife. The way he described her certainly made me interested in getting to know her. I emailed her, and we began a three month correspondence. We share many things about our life and got to know each other very well. Sending that first email opened the possibility of knowing her, and the more I knew her, the more I loved her. We were created for a relationship with God. There is a God-shaped vacuum in each of us, as one writer said. The First Sin changed human nature and separated us from God. Jesus came to show us what God is really like and to build a bridge (His death on the cross) to give us the right to be forgiven and have a personal relationship with God as our Father. Jesus died to pay the price for all human sin, and when we admit our need and trust Him to forgive and receive us, accepting Him as our personal Savior, our relationship with Him and heaven begins. Why not tell Him now that you would like to know Him? He will certainly take you up on it. Then begin reading things to help you know Him personally. The Gospel of John in the New Testament is a good place to begin. When you are ready, ask Him to be your Savior and God. He died for the privilege of accepting you. Don’t ever doubt He wants you and will be so glad to receive you.

An Appeal

I want to urge you not to take what I’ve written lightly. Accepting Jesus is the only way to the new life He offers. It is like being resurrected in this life. By the power of His Spirit He changes our hearts and raises us spiritually from the dead. The reason many people have no power over sin in their lives is that only Jesus can free us from our old nature and give us a new heart. He says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). To reject or delay turning to Jesus is to live defeated and miss the assurance and amazing love that come with surrendering to Him.

Please think deeply about what I’ve written. Talk it over with God. Tell Him your fears and concerns, and ask Him to help you to make this decision.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

John 1:12 NIV

“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

Psalm 36:9 NIV
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Since coming to know God personally, I have spent my life as a pastor (now retired) helping others who were interested to know Him too. It is my deepest joy in life. I hope these blog posts encourage you, and ultimately help you know Him better too. Read "About Words from Paradise" to find out more about this blog name.