SERMON FOR MAY 10, 1998
As we have seen, Paul structures Romans in such a way as to magnify the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He tells us in 1:17 that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation...for the gospel of righteousness from God is revealed.” In the next section which we are in the middle of, Paul lays out the necessity of the gospel. In chapter one, he points out the gospel is necessary to the pagan who doesn’t care a whit about God and who in fact is doing all he can to suppress the truth about God. The reason that person needs the gospel is, apart from the grace of God revealed in the gospel, they will suffer God’s wrath. In fact, Paul points out, God’s wrath is being revealed even in this life as they taste the bitter fruit of their rebellion against God.
In the first half of chapter two, which we will finish today (Lord willing), Paul reveals the necessity of the gospel to another group of people. As we’ve seen, these are religious people. People who would call themselves Christians. The problem with these people is not that they push God away, but that they re-create God in their own self righteous image. They are religious, church-going, but deceived. They think they are upright and righteous because they don’t overtly flaunt their godlessness, but Paul points out they sin (at least in their hearts) as rampantly as the pagan does. When it comes right down to it, they know little if anything of “the righteousness of God” provided in the gospel. They look down their noses as the “sinners” in the world. They think of this attitude as “righteous indignation” , but God knows they are judging other people, pure and simple. These people may believe basically correct doctrine, go to orthodox churches and perhaps even practice spiritual disciplines and other rebelious activities, but they are self deceived.
Paul says in verses 1-3 of chapter two they believe the lie that in their judging other people they are somehow insulating themselves from God’s judgment. (1st lie) They believe in their hearts that God couldn’t possibly condemn someone who hates the same sins He hates. They are also deceived in how they perceive their lives. (2nd lie) They believe the lie that God must think they are doing all right spiritually because they are not being blasted with fireballs from heaven. In fact, their children and families are prospering and so they conclude that God must not be all that worked up about the sins they have refused to repent of. In verse four, Paul exposes their self deception and tells them the reason they are in some ways prospering is NOT because God is indifferent to their sin, but because He is in fact, patiently waiting for them to repent. He is allowing them to be blessed with the intention that they, seeing His blessing in the midst of either their apathy or outright rebellion, will be driven to repentance in the knowledge that they are sinning against a God who has done so much to bless their lives. Paul says, in effect, “It’s not God’s indifference, it’s His patience you are seeing. God hates sin as much when you are prospering as when you experience His rod.”
In these first four verses of chapter two, Paul exposes these first two lies of these religious people who are judgmental and in their own unrepentant sin. In verses 5-11, He exposes one final lie these people believe. The third lie these people believe, which some of us in this room either have believed or currently do believe, is prevalent, perhaps rampant in the church today. The lie can be stated this way: God does not judge “church people” (and by church people I mean people who consider themselves adherents to the Christian faith) on the basis of what they DO because they are, by God’s grace, forgiven in Christ.”
This lie is held by people who go to church and who think that because they have adhered to Christian doctrine or gone forward at a meeting or had a spiritual experience, therefore God has forgiven all of their sins. That means to them that, their obedience to God’s commands is basically unrelated to whether they are a Christian or not. They have, in their minds, been “forgiven” and to be “forgiven” to them means that God will not hold them accountable to be obedient. That requirement for obedience has been somehow taken care of by the grace of God and what they DO is largely irrelevant to their salvation.
That is a lie which in no way represents New Testament teaching and Paul unmasks it here in verses 5-11. Let’s read it. “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11For God does not show favoritism.”
These words may sound strange to us who identify Paul as the champion of grace. If we have an imbalanced understanding of the gospel they will seem not to fit in a book devoted largely to the wonderful truth that we are saved by grace, not works. In these seven verses Paul connects what we DO to God’s judgment six times. In fact, these words may sound strange to us because the lie they expose and attack is so prevalent in the church today. This lie is actually a combination of several component lies. This morning we will look at two of them. The first of two lies which act as building blocks for this major third lie is: All that is needed to escape God’s wrath is to be forgiven by God. The problem with that statement which so many church going people believe today is bound up in the word, “All.”
The fallacy within that statement is that although it is NECESSARY to be forgiven to escape God’s wrath, to be a true believer is to be MORE than just to be forgiven. It is necessary for a drivable car to have gas in the tank, but a drivable car is much more than simply a fuel tank full of gasoline. It is necessary to be a virtuoso pianist to have two hands, but not everyone with two hands is a concert pianist. The idea that to be a Christian means that you are just forgiven is to horribly mutate what the Bible says about what it is to be a true follower of Christ. The reason this idea of what it is to be a Christian is so inadequate is that it leaves out the crucial element of repentance. According to Paul, to be a Christian is not simply to be forgiven but to be “a new creature,...the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” There is a dynamic, life change involved in the new birth or conversion and essential to that dynamic is repentance. We see this in so many places.
The gospel and the grace of the gospel begins and ends with Jesus and His ministry when on earth had as its central hub, repentance. Matthew in 4:17 says about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Now remember, He was preaching to the religious crowd, the Jews, God’s chosen people and He made it clear that in order to follow Him, you must repent. In the first
part of Luke’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus describes the ministry of the church this way, “...repentance and forgiveness of sins (both are essential!) will be preached in His name to all nations...” Peter says about Jesus in Acts 5:31, “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins...” BOTH are gifts of God and BOTH are involved in being a Christian. One is not more important than the other, they are grouped together. They are a matched pair.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation...” WHAT leads to salvation? Repentance. Peter says in 2 Peter 3:9 that God is “patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Peter says REPENTANCE is necessary to not perish. The Gospels, Acts, Paul, Peter all point to the necessity of repentance, not simply forgiveness. John Owen, great reform theologian says of repentance, It is as necessary unto the continuance of spiritual life as faith itself.” He’s right. Let me ask you, when you hear evangelism done today, what is stressed more, forgiveness of sins or repentance? The biblical pattern is that BOTH are to be stressed as a pair. To be ready for a saving work of God, you must see yourself as a sinner in desperate need of forgiveness. But you must also see yourself as a person who is in desperate need of, and willing to make radical changes in your life, by the grace of God--to repent.
The lie says, “God does not judge ‘church people’ on the basis of what they do because they are, by God’s grace forgiven in Christ--that performance is irrelevant to God’s wrath.” If that’s true, how do we explain verse six, “God will give to each person according to what He has DONE.” If people haven’t repented of their sin, they are targets for the wrath of God. Paul is addressing people in the church in verse five and says, “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourselves for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed.” This does not mean sinless perfectionism, but it does mean that a Christian is a person who is in the process of repenting, changing, becoming more and more like Jesus Christ over time. Paul’s over arching truth of this text is this: God is impartial in His judgment on sin, bringing wrath against both the godless heathen and the religious self righteous. Paul says God’s judgment is “righteous judgment” in verse five. That means His judgment will come on ALL unrighteous people irrespective of their external religious practices--whether they sit on the board at church or read their Bible or pray or whatever else they do that is purely external.
Another building block to this third lie is this: The way God gives grace is by lowering His standard of righteousness for people and that enables them to escape God’s wrath. This is often stated this way, “I don’t have to live righteously to escape God’s judgment because Christ was righteous for me and I have been given HIS righteousness.” The fallacy there is when God gives the so called Christian the righteousness of Christ, it doesn’t necessarily effect the way you live your life. That, my friends, is a wretched discounting of the power of the presence of the righteousness of Christ within a person. That’s like a person who has been a slave all their life who has just been elected president to say, “I have been elected the president of the United States, but that in no way impacts the amount of influence I have over other people’s lives. I have this office as a position only--it is strictly a positional post- it doesn’t have any observable consequences. I function in relationship to other people precisely the same way I did as a slave.” We all know that’s ludicrous because that position means something!
This argument falls like a house of cards before this text. Paul says in verse 6, “God will give to each person according to what He has done.” Verse 9. “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil...but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good.” That is so different from the viewpoint that God gives grace to people to mitigate or lessen His standard of righteousness. “I’m not in any sense holy, but God is gracious to me because of Jesus’ work on the cross.” That reduces Christ and His saving work from a Savior whose work on the cross who makes a miraculous change in a person’s life, to a Savior whose work on the cross does nothing more than twist the Father’s arm into letting unrighteous people into heaven. Part of where this wrong thinking comes from is a misunderstanding of texts like John 1:17. John says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This text is misunderstood to mean something like this: “We know that Moses was a hard nose and that law, phew--it is utterly impossible for anyone to obey. God, in His wisdom saw that impossibility and sent Jesus and Jesus gave grace so the law is utterly irrelevant to me.”
This is so wrong for many reasons. First, it reduces the law to nothing more than an arbitrary set of rules rather than what it is, an extension of God’s holy character. Secondly, it implies that somewhere between the Old and New Testament, God’s expectations of His people changed and that can mean nothing less than that God changed. And God does not change. This understanding is a gross distortion of the teaching of the Bible. If God’s grace is given to lower the bar--decrease the standard of holiness God expects of His people, how do we explain NEW Testament texts like these?
Hebrews 12:14, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” The holiness is NOT positional, but is that holiness we are to “make every effort” to live in. John says in First John 1:6, “If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the true.” The truth of true fellowship with God is seen NOT in what we say, but in how we live! First John 2:3, “We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands.” First John 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” First John 3:6-7, “No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin (read that, “does not repent”) has either seen Him or known Him. 7Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous.” Finally, First Peter 1:15-16, “But just as He Who called you is holy, so be holy in all you DO; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” Peter is not distancing himself from the Old Testament standard of holiness nor are any other of the other New Testament authors we just heard. There is a strong sense of continuity between the Old and New Testaments as it relates to what God expects from His people.
If the grace of God is given solely to lower the bar to escape God’s wrath, what do we do with those New Testament texts? The truth is, the grace of God is not given to lower the bar of God’s standards, but to enable the people of God to live out the law of God. How else do we explain Romans 8:3-4? “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Are the requirements of the law met in us in only a positional sense? NO!! They are met in us “who LIVE (behave, act, DO) according to the Spirit.” This fulfilling of the law is
seen in how we live--we live differently than the world. We act like new creatures in Christ.
The grace of God does not lower the bar of God’s righteousness. We are called to obey God. The issue is NOT that we are not still called to obey. The issue is what is the source of our obedience and Paul has already told us in Romans 1:5, that those who are in Christ practice an “obedience that comes from FAITH.” Our obedience is to come as a result of our faith in Christ. It comes as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in a follower of Christ. It does not come from a desire to earn acceptance with God. It does not come from any misguided attempts to earn God’s favor or escape His wrath by being good in our own fallen efforts. This righteousness we are called to live out comes from Christ in us as we do what He has called us to do and trust HIM to give us the power to do what He says.
The expectations, the bar is not lower at all. Listen to Paul in Second Corinthians 3 contrasting the ministry Moses introduces with the ministry of Christ says in verse nine, “If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory in comparison with the surpassing glory.” In verse 18 he says what the fruit of this ministry of Christ is, “And we...are being transformed into His likeness with the ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is Spirit.” The life of the true follower of Christ is being transformed from glory to glory to be ever more like Jesus Christ. That is light years from thinking which says, “forgiveness is all that is necessary to be a Christian” and “Grace is only given to clean up our messes and lower the bar of God’s standard so I, an unrighteous person, can escape God’s wrath.”
To believe that is to mutate the glorious gospel Paul writes of when he says, “For I am not ashamed of this gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation.” The gospel gives not only the power to pay the penalty of our sins in the next life but the power to give us victory over sin in this life. “For in the gospel of righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith.” This righteousness comes as we fall on our face before God and cry out that we are NOT righteous and never will be righteous except as God imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness which will be seen in our lives as we trust and obey Him.
Page last modified on 12/31/2001
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