How many times have you heard that God judges the heart, not the actions, of a person? Is that statement true? “God judges the heart” is one of those statements that has truth in it, but which is easily misused, misunderstood, and misapplied. That statement is a true statement to a point, but can easily become a platitude that people apply where it does not belong.
Where is it true? Throughout the Scriptures, God has said strong things to those who have performed right religious deeds with cold and cruel hearts. Consider that, in Amos 5:21-24, God told the people that he hated their religious ceremonies, because they performed those duties with hearts that were full of evil. So, in that case, God looks at the heart more than the actions.
But, does it go the other way? When somebody has a zeal for God, but is wrong about the facts, does God look at the heart more? Are those who say they want to serve God, but who are wrong about how to know God, OK before God?
Look at what Paul wrote about his Jewish kinsmen in Romans 10 to see something about heart and knowledge.
Romans 10:1-3 – 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.
Paul writes of the Jews of his day that they had, indeed, a zeal for God. There were people among the Jews who really wanted to do right things with God. Was that zeal enough?
No, the zeal for God in the hearts of Paul’s people was not enough to bring them salvation. In verse 1, Paul said that his heart’s desire for them is that they would be “saved.” To desire their salvation implies that they are currently unsaved, lost, in grave danger. Thus, we can only logically conclude that, though God looks at the heart, God does not give a pass to a person whose heart is passionate but who does not know him. The people were trying to establish a righteousness of their own. Establishing righteousness is good. But, to attempt to establish righteousness not in the way of God is not enough to make a person right with God.
May this text remind us, then, that God is our ultimate judge and master. Yes, he sees into our hearts. He is never fooled by our outward religious practices as if those can mask a darkened, godless heart. At the same time, God is also holy, and his standard is firm. He is not going to allow zeal to make him violate his way of righteousness. People are not OK with God just because they are passionate about God, or what they think to be divine. No, God has made a way of salvation, one way, the way of Christ. When Jesus declared that no person comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6), he meant it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it is always better to do right than to do wrong. It is better to obey God, even when your heart is cold, than to have a cold heart and add to that coldness more disobedience. And, we love all who live in this world who desire to please God, and we love those who do not desire to please God. We want to see people come to life in Christ, to be forgiven by God, and to be saved. But we must grasp that being a sweet hearted person is not the way of salvation. To be right with God is to come to him in his way, with a genuine heart that trusts in Christ and finds mercy by grace alone through faith alone.