I’m having many thoughts while reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and section 1.4.3 recently stood out to me (p. 49). The section is titled “We are not to fashion God according to our own whim” wherein Calvin briefly but densely rebuts the common thinking that sincerity in one’s beliefs is all that matters:
“They think that any zeal for religion, however preposterous, is sufficient. But they do not realize that true religion ought to be conformed to God’s will as to a universal rule.”
What is happening with this “sincerity argument” is that people are elevating themselves above the Creator; making themselves to be the arbiter of truth; making themselves to be the judge of what is right and acceptable worship of God. But that’s not consistent with what God has revealed in His Word – we are to worship God according to what he commands and according to how he has revealed himself. No matter how sincere one is in holding to a wrong belief about God, it’s still a wrong belief.
Paul, in his letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, explains that erroneous thoughts about God represent ignorance of God: “When you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8). Likewise, before coming to the right knowledge of God in Christ, the Ephesians were “strangers to the covenant of promise,” had “no hope,” and were “without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). I’m sure the pre-conversion Galatians and Ephesians were sincere in their beliefs, but they were still without hope.
Paul goes on to exhort the Galatians to not go back to worthless idol worship once knowledge of God was revealed to them: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (v. 9)
There really is nothing new under the sun. Sincerity in holding beliefs was a common defense in holding to incorrect doctrines in Calvin’s day, and is also common today. Calvin summarizes early Christian apologist Lactantius by saying that “no religion is genuine unless it be joined with truth.” What’s the takeaway here? One is to seek true knowledge of the true God. In fashioning a golden calf for the Israelites, Aaron wasn’t condoning worship of a false god, but was facilitating false worship of the true God.
But how can we diligently seek true knowledge of God and worship him rightly since we are fallen humans and God is perfect, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable? Well, God has chosen to reveal himself in the Word – in the pages of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16ff) and through his Son, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1). After describing the pre-conversion Ephesians, Paul says that they (we) have, in fact, been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13).