How different the Church of God is to be from the world!
Many years ago, I heard a minister say that there is a bigger difference between a truly converted Church of God member and a member of a traditional, mainstream Catholic or Protestant church than there is between a traditional Catholic or Protestant and an atheist.
After being many years in the Church of God, I believe that.
We have less in common with a Catholic or Protestant than a Catholic or Protestant has with an atheist or an agnostic. A Catholic or Protestant is more like an atheist than like a Church of God member.
It can be tempting to think we have a lot in common with members of traditional, mainstream churches. And we have some things in common, beliefs and values that we do not share with atheists.
But those things are small in comparison to the enormous difference between one who has God's Holy Spirit and one who does not.
One who may be a member of a traditional, mainstream church but who is not really converted is very different in fundamental outlook from one who has been truly converted and has God's Holy Spirit.
This is why the Bible warns us against being unequally yoked with unbelievers.
"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.' Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.' 'I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty' " (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
"If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds" (2 John 10-11).
Yes, traditional religion has some beliefs in common with us. They know that there is a Creator God who made the universe. They believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and suffered and died to pay the penalty for our sins so we can be forgiven and saved. They are against sexual perversion (most of them). They are against abortion (most of them).
And these things can be helpful to our efforts to preach the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning. We are a very small minority in the United States and in other nations. Without the influence of traditional religion, it might be impossible for us to teach many of the principles and instructions in the Bible, such as God's laws concerning marriage and sex and how God views abortion. If this country were nearly 100% atheist, without the influence of traditional religion, the Bible itself might have been outlawed long ago.
But there is a depth of understanding of God's spiritual law and way of life that an unconverted person, not having God's Holy Spirit dwelling in him, cannot have.
"But as it is written: 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.' But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.
"These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For 'who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?' But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:9-16).
God's perfect spiritual law and way of life sets a high standard for His children, a standard the world does not comprehend, and even in the Church we comprehend it as we grow spiritually over time after baptism, not completely all at once.
For example, God commands that we love our neighbor as ourselves. This is one of the two great commandments. "Jesus said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).
We know that sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4).
Thus, not loving our neighbors as ourselves, but rather loving ourselves more than our neighbors, is sin.
And the penalty of sin is death. "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
Thus, loving ourselves more than our neighbor is a sin worthy of death. And if we practice loving ourselves more than our neighbor and are content with that, not being willing to strive to change and love our neighbors as much as ourselves, not being willing to repent of that sin, we can be cast into the lake of fire.
How many in the world, even among church-goers, understand and agree with that? Very few, if any. Rather, they would think, "Well of course I love myself more than my neighbor. I love my neighbor, yes, but not as much as I love myself. And I do not deserve death just because I love myself more than my neighbor. After all, doesn't everybody?"
But God sets a high standard for His children. We are to strive for perfection as God is perfect. "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
Those in traditional churches know some of God's truth, but not all of it. There is a lot missing. Yet, to the degree they know parts of God's law and obey it, they will receive some blessing in this life, and each act of obedience will be one less thing they have to repent of in the tribulation, the millennium, or the white throne judgment.
"For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them" (Romans 2:14-15).
So there is a benefit to one who is not called and does not have the opportunity to know the full truth of God, yet knows parts of it, when he obeys those parts that he understands. A man who is not called, yet avoids a spirit of murder, tries to be forgiving, gives to the poor, honors his parents, avoids adultery and is faithful in marriage, and does not steal or lie or cheat his neighbor, has an advantage over one who sins in all these things, for it will be easier for him in the white throne judgment.
"And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:47-48). This may have more direct application to Church members, those who are "servants" of God. But it illustrates a general principle. God judges people based on what they know and how able they are to understand and obey.
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:21-24).
So people who are religious may have an advantage, if they are diligent to obey the commandments they understand, over an atheist or one who makes no effort to live righteously. At the very least, they can enjoy more blessings in this life by avoiding the mistakes and the violations of laws of God that bring penalties. A Catholic or Protestant who is diligent to be faithful in marriage is likely to enjoy a happier marriage than one who makes no effort to be faithful.
Yet, at a fundamental level, they have not really surrendered to obey God. They are deceived by Satan, and Satan deceives them sometimes by making them unwilling to believe what God says in the Bible. That is why you cannot persuade them of the truth. They will twist the scriptures to fit what they want to believe and not even consciously realize they are doing it. In them is fulfilled the scripture, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).
Carnal human nature wants desperately to have its own way and not submit to God. Different people, sometimes in the same family, handle this different ways. You might have a devout Catholic or Protestant in the same family as an atheist. The devout member of a traditional church satisfies his carnal nature by creating a god of his own imagination, perhaps based in whole or part on the traditions he is familiar with, and he makes his imaginary god agree with what he wants to do anyway. He wants to go along with the world and keep Christmas and Easter, so he imagines that his god approves of that. So he does what he wants without feeling guilty or afraid. And he can satisfy his desire to think of himself as righteous at the same time.
The atheist takes a different strategy. He convinces himself that there is no God. Then he can do what he wants without guilt or fear.
Those are two different strategies, but they lead to the same place - disobedience to the real God of the Bible.
"Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans 8:7).
God has called us and opened our minds to the truth, and He sets the highest standard for us: perfection. We are to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). We are to strive for perfection, and though we will not completely attain it in this life, God will complete the process in the resurrection.
Let us renew our commitment to God to strive for His perfection, with His help, and to put sin, every sin, out of our lives.