Are Religious People No Better Than Rank Atheists?

St. Paul therefore, reserves the brunt of his criticism (Romans 2:1-3:20) not for the atheists but for 'religious people--be they of Jewish, Roman Catholic, charismatic or even Lutheran vintage.  For it is the religious people who are most likely to imagine that God is just as pleased with them as they are with themselves.  They take their religious life so seriously that they are not longer 'helpless' before God.  As Luther rather coarsely put it, they 'contemplate their navels.'  Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10-14) should teach us that even the praise of God can be an exercise in self-righteousness.

Therefore religious people are no better than rank atheists.  Both withhold from God the honor due him: 'All have sinned' (Romans 3:23)

One thing is clear: When God accepts us and is pleased with us--and that is the basic message of the whole Bible--it is obviously without any conditions at all.  He obviously accepts me as I am--not if I at least try to do my best, not if I am sincere about him, not if I am in despair through his law, not if I am ready for him, not even if I accept the fact that I need God's help.  People who have heard or felt the full force of God's law are crushed; they are in no position to fulfill any conditions.  A person lying in a hospital with both legs in plaster is helpless.

But now we are in the area of the gospel and here no conditions apply.  The only thing that applies here is God's statement: 'Because I love you and have accepted you in Christ, therefore you are accepted.  All is well.'

The Formula of Concord echoes this statement clearly:
"The content of the Gospel is this, that the Son of God, Christ our Lord, himself assumed and bore the curse of the law and expiated and paid for all our sins, that through him alone we re-enter the good graces of God, obtain forgiveness of sins through faith, are freed from death and all the punishments of sin, and are saved eternally."

Excerpt Taken From: Friedemann Hebart, One in the Gospel (Openbook, 2000), 59-61.