In his book, True For You But Not For Me Paul Copan addresses a response often given today by people who disagree with another’s set of beliefs based upon the sincerity or fervor of the people involved. Simply put, some people argue that it really doesn’t matter what your beliefs on a certain subject are, as long as you are sincere in those beliefs. But is this legitimate?
We live in an increasingly pluralistic, postmodern age were some would say truth is becoming less critical. In fact it would seem that the earnestness of a person is often more important than the truth of the matter at hand. Especially when dealing with spiritual things. But once explored, this assertion shows itself to be problematic for a number of reasons.
Someone’s sincerity regarding a belief does not make that belief true. In fact, we need only look at today’s news headlines to see this. Wouldn’t you say that Osama bin Laden was “sincere” in his belief that killing Americans was acceptable, even commendable? All by itself, sincerity proves to be inadequate. Copan points out that the focus should be on whether the basis for one’s beliefs is firm, not how sincere they are. In light of this it makes one question if we even know what is meant by the saying, “as long as he’s sincere in his beliefs”?
Why do we not focus on integrity or goodness? We could say, “as long as the person has good motives…” or “as long as their happy…” Copan argues that it’s “arbitrary to single out sincerity as the central factor.” In fact many sincere people may be closed-minded to the truth; or they may lack goodness or humility. You see the focus should be on whether the belief is morally right, not how passionately the person holds the belief.
Perhaps the most important area in which to understand that one’s sincerity does not make their view true is in regards to faith and ultimately salvation. This is paramount because one’s eternity is in the balance. We are saved by God’s grace, and only God’s grace. To believe that sincerity is a criteria for salvation implies that “salvation is merited or deserved.” It’s important to understand that sincerity in a belief is a result of the grace of God, not the basis of God’s grace.
In response to this the pluralist will object, saying that there are “good people” from all religious groups. In doing so they clearly misunderstand the human condition. We are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. Any goodness we exhibit is a direct result of God’s grace. What’s more, “any acceptance God could offer us based on our sincerity is less than nothing compared to the underserved loving-kindness he offers us in Christ.”
A few weeks ago I engaged in an online discussion with a good friend regarding the federal funding of Planned Parenthood. The discussion briefly turned to things of a spiritual nature and after a few exchanges back-and-forth my friend wrote me saying that she has a faith that drives her thoughts and actions as much as my beliefs drive my thoughts and actions. She wrote, “I know that there are a lot of religious perspectives in which I don’t measure up but I have just as much faith in my own beliefs, in which trying your best to be a good person and doing your best to balance the effects of good and evil that seem to always exist in our world count for something.”
This is a perfect illustration of the issue at hand. She is obviously very sincere in her beliefs regarding Planned Parenthood, abortion and God but does that sincerity make those conviction true? And more importantly, does that sincerity and obvious effort to be a good person necessarily lead to salvation? To both questions we have to answer no.
As we explored above the sincerity of the person holding a view does not make that view right. A visit to any mental hospital in the world will illustrate this point. Countless people sincerely believe they are someone or something they are not. If tomorrow I believe I’m a heart surgeon, would you allow me to operate on you are anyone you know? Even if I believed I could do it with all the fervor of a real surgeon, I would not be able to join a hospital team. Similarly here, her fervor does not make her belief true.
Of more interest are the comments on measuring up to religious standards and that doing good effects a balance of good an evil. Salvation is not gained by doing good works, just as salvation is not gained by sincerely believing in something. In fact, salvation is not something to be gained at all. Salvation is a free gift from God by His grace, thru faith. No amount of good work done can offset evil. In many ways to think this way “conveys that salvation is merited or deserved – a kind of ‘boasting’ before God.” But in Romans Paul writes, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by law of faith.” The sincerity of one’s beliefs are a result of grace and no amount of good works will lead to salvation. In her response my friend ignored the merits of the basis of the thoughts by appealing to the sincerity with which she held to the thoughts as the basis.
In closing it’s also extremely important to note that our sincerity as believers likewise does not make us right. We must note that our fervor is a result of the greatest gift we could ever get, the gift of God’s grace. So, it’s all the more important to know what it is we believe and why, while remembering Peter’s words, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
 Copan, p. 183.
 Copan, p. 184
 Copan, p. 184
 Copan, p. 185
 Romans 3.23
 Copan, p. 185
 Ephesians 2:8
 Copan, p. 185.
 Romans 3:27 (NIV)
 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)