We have been looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul wrote to the Romans with the intention of explaining “What a Christian Believes”. There were already believers in Rome but he wanted to make sure that they had a faith that was well-grounded and not subject to the whims of public opinion. We are studying this book because we want to be well grounded also.
Paul spends the first couple of chapters talking about the sinfulness of men. It’s not a real popular way to start a letter to people you don’t know but it is a necessary way to begin. When we hear about sin we nod our head and assume that such talk is about the “other guy”. Paul anticipates three common responses to the notion that we are sinful people who deserve God’s wrath.
The first response is, “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong.” Paul answers this excuse at the end of chapter one. He points out that we all have a knowledge of God that is obvious from creation. We all know instinctively that there must be a God and we should honor, worship, and serve Him. However, we resist this knowledge and instead ignore God and create gods that we can control. We are not innocent at all!
The second excuse says, “I may have made some mistakes, but actually, I am a very nice and good person.” We hide behind the fact that compared to other people, we are doing quite well, thank you very much.
Paul answers this defense in the first part of the second chapter. Paul argues that the fact that we recognize the wrong that others do shows that we know right from wrong. We agree with God that sin should be punished. Consequently, when we commit the same sins (even if they are less blatant) we are also condemned before God. A truly good act is one that is done in obedience to the Lord for the purpose of honoring and bringing glory to God. So, even our best deeds are not good in God’s sight.
This morning we look at the third excuse, the “But, I go to Church!” argument. Paul addresses this from end of chapter 2 into the beginning of Chapter three.
Paul is using a technique common among the prophets. Amos gathered all the southern Israelites together for a message from the Lord. He pronounced God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors. As Amos spoke the people cheered and nodded their heads in agreement. Next, he addressed his words to the people of Northern Israel. The people were not as enthusiastic but agreed that their neighbors to the north had deserted the Lord. Finally, Amos turned God’s word toward the people in Southern Israel. They were not happy!
In the letter to Romans Paul first talks about the sin of the Pagans, then he moved to the “good” people. Surely his audience in Roman responded with “Amen!” Now, he turns his attention to the sin of the religious people.
Don’t miss something important here. If these words seem harsh remember who is writing . . . it’s Paul. Before Paul took a job with Jesus . . . He was a Jewish Pharisee! Paul was the person he now speaks against! Paul understood this mindset and also understands how dangerous it is.
Paul pointed out that the Jews took pride in many things,
- They knew the law and were the caretakers of that Law
- They were God’s “chosen” people
- They knew right from wrong because of God’s revelation
- They believed they were a guide to the blind (the Gentiles)
- They could instruct the foolish and infants (new converts)
In our day we would say: we study the Bible; we have had an experience with Christ; we are “leaders” in the church; we have been baptized and we take communion regularly. We might even boast that we had read the Bible through many times. There is a spiritual arrogance in these things that must be confronted. To these people Paul speaks clearly. He holds up a mirror so they can look at themselves.
THEY DON’T PRACTICE WHAT THEY PREACH
Romans 2:17-24 (NIV) 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Paul knew the heart of a religious person because he was such a person. He knew that religious people talk a good game but they also struggle to live up to the life they are pretending to lead.
- They talk about love but hatred lurks in their heart.
- They talk about purity but lustful thoughts overwhelm their mind.
- They know how to speak strongly against error yet still tend to define truth and error by their own experience and preference.
- They know idolatry is wrong but they act like they can set their own rules.
- They know they should give God His due but they find ways to divert parts of their tithe to other things and they use things given to the Lord for their own personal enjoyment and enrichment. They find ways to cheat God. Malachi actually says we “rob God”.
Religious people try to sell themselves as something they are not. They pretend to have it all together but inside they struggle just like everyone else. They hide their sin behind religious words and deeds. They talk a good game but they are not following the Lord.
Think about a husband who is constantly talking about how much he loves his wife. His arm is always around her in church, he talks about what a great woman she is. He everyone thinks he is the model of what a husband should be. Now suppose as you watched this display you knew that this man was in a long term adulterous relationship. What would you think now?
Or suppose your friend was a government official who is always talking about their love for their country. They attend all the patriotic events, they write books on the importance of supporting our country; and have a tear in their eye as the national anthem is played. Suppose you found out that this same man was selling government secrets to those who wish to harm us! How would your opinion of the man change?
Paul says this is the way religious people are. They look good, they sound good, but God knows the truth. In their hearts they ignore God to pursue their own interests. They talk about how much they love Him but when it comes to a real choice between their will and His, they refuse to submit to the Lord.
These people are deadly to the church just as the government official is deadly to a country and that husband destroys a family. Paul says they dishonor God by their behavior. When a person takes the name Christian but does not do what is right, they mock God’s standards.
Second, they push others away from Christ. People are smarter than we give them credit for. They don’t watch what a person does in church . . . they want to see how their faith affect the rest of their life. When Church people dishonor God, people respond, “If that’s the way Christians are, who needs it?”
THEIR RITUALS ARE SUPERFICIAL
Romans 2:25-29 (NIV) 25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
The Jews were very proud of their religious rituals. They had the sacrifices, they tithed, and the men were all circumcised as a sign that they belonged to the Lord. Some rabbi’s taught, “no circumcised man would ever see Hell.” Many people believed they could be saved by their heritage and their rituals.
In a similar way today, there are many who believe they are followers of Christ because they have been baptized, they take communion, they read the Bible, attend Sunday School, and serve on a church board. There are some who believe they are followers of Jesus because their parents followed Christ or because they live in America.
In the book of Hosea, the Lord says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6). Paul argues that the true child of God is not the one who is a Jew by nationality and practice, it is the person who has a heart that belongs to the Lord. The same message is pronounced to the Churchman today, the true Christian is not the one who goes to church, is baptized, takes communion, tithes, and teaches Sunday School. The true Christian is the person who recognizes their spiritual bankruptcy and has given their heart and life over to Jesus Christ. Christian people do worship God, honor Him with their giving and observe the sacraments, but . . . the sacrament has no power to save, only faith in Christ can save.
AVOIDING THE TRUTH
Romans 3:1-2 (NIV) 1 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.
What do these verses have to do with what has come before? I think Paul is anticipating the response of the religious people. Do you remember the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4? Jesus gently draws this woman in to a discussion of spiritual things. He talked to her about “living water”. The woman was interested in this living water and asked Jesus to give her some. Jesus told her to get her husband. When the woman said she was not married, Jesus revealed that He knew she had been married five times and was now living with someone outside of marriage.
The woman was busted! Her sin was exposed. What did she do? Did she repent? No! She asked a question about theology! She asked Jesus a question about the right place to worship! It was a deliberate attempt to avoid dealing with our sin while at the same time sounding spiritual. Guilty people have used this same tactic since the beginning of time. I think this is what Paul anticipates from the Jews in Rome. When confronted with their sin, they want to debate theology.
Paul anticipates these questions. “If what you say is true, Paul, What is the point of being a Jew? Today we might say, “if there is nothing to be gained by reading the Bible and going to church, why bother?” Paul’s response (which really isn’t finished until Romans 9) is pretty simple: “There is plenty to gain! From these disciplines we are led to the grace of God. Through these things you can find the truth that will set you free. However, it is important to understand that these disciplines and rituals are a means to an end and not the end in themselves.”
Next Paul says,
Romans 3:3-8 (NIV) 3 What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? 4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.”
O.K. Smart pants, if all the Jews aren’t saved, wouldn’t that mean that God’s promise to be Israel’s God has failed? Do you want to call God a liar? Paul argues that God’s promises are for the “true Jews”, those who follow in the faith of Abraham. Abraham trusted God rather than His rituals.
The last argument is the most ridiculous. If God is glorified by our sinfulness, why are we punished? In other words, if our sin reveals the depth of God’s mercy, grace, righteousness and justice, then shouldn’t God thank us rather than punish us?
The argument is ridiculous. It would be similar to a murderer saying to the court after his conviction, “my conviction proves the system works . . .therefore, I should be rewarded, not incarcerated.”
Somewhere along the line, the excuses need to stop. We need to stop trying avoiding the truth and recognize that no one will get to Heaven by being religious . . . only by trusting Christ.
I know it is painful to continue to drive away at the sinfulness of men. We’d rather hear messages on love, mercy, grace, and overcoming the difficulties of life. However, we need to see that this instruction about the nature of our sin is foundational to that other teaching. We cannot know God’s mercy until we recognize and admit our sin; we cannot experience God’s grace until we become aware of our utter helplessness to save ourselves. We cannot know His strength until we stop relying on our own strength. God’s Word about sin is important for opening us up to God’s plan of redemption. Until we stop trusting our goodness, our religious deeds, our church membership and our Christian heritage, we are merely people who are deluded into thinking we are God’s children. We are whistling while we travel the road to Hell.
Second, we are reminded that our goal is not to be more “religious”. We can catch ourselves thinking, “If I would only read the Bible more, pray for a longer period of time, and get more involved in the church, I would be a better Christian.” Of course, these things are good things but they are simply tools. Our goal should be to draw closer to Jesus.
It is easy for all of to get into the rut of the routine. Even believers can drift into a religious mode of existence. We dutifully read our Bibles but the words don’t register in our hearts. We pray, but we merely utter rehearsed phrases that never get to matters of the heart. We sing our hymns like trained animals responding to a cue giving not a thought to the words we sing. We fill notebooks with sermon notes and amass information that never seems to get applied to our living. It is easy to go through the motions.
We can become like oak veneer on particle board. At first glance that veneer looks pretty good. On closer examination it is clear that the veneer is far inferior to true oak.
Those who settle for being religious, and merely play the game are not truly God’s children. The world may applaud us, but God knows the truth.
Paul summons us to look at our hearts. Why are you here today? What are you really seeking? Do you want to simply soothe your conscience or do you want to know Christ better? Are you trying to impress others and throw them off the trail of what is in your heart? Are you trying to score points with God? Or do you come here with your hands open saying, “Lord, without you, I am lost.” Are you feeling puffed up by your religious status or are you quietly grateful and overwhelmed by an undeserved grace?
Paul is talking to us. If you faced the Lord and He asked, “Why should I let you into my Heaven?” what would you say? Would you point to your baptism? To the number of times you took communion? Would you point to your many areas of service in the church? Would you point to the number of Bible verses you memorized or the amount of money you placed in plate? In other words, would you point to what you have done? Are you hoping to make it to Heaven on your merit or would you point to Jesus and what He has done for you?
Of course, it is easy to learn the right thing to say to that question. Like any other religious act you can learn the “magic words”. However, having the right answers will not save you, only trusting Jesus can save you. God is not impressed with what other people think about us. He knows the truth. He is not interested in those who wish to pretend. He is looking for those who will not only say that they trust Him alone . . . He is looking for those who actually do so.