SERMON FOR MAY 24, 1998 FROM ROMANS 2:17-27
This morning, we turn our attention to chapter 2 beginning with verse 17. In many ways, verses 17-24 are a repetition of verses 1-16. The basic issue is still the same. The basic issue is still the necessity of obedience to the law over against merely external, superficial, religious expressions and proper doctrine. The context is still the wrath of God as it will be until the end of chapter three. Paul is stressing that God is not satisfied with just orthodox religious beliefs and regular practice of external, religious activities. Those will do NOTHING to enable you to escape the wrath of God. God requires obedience from His people. He says in verse 13 of chapter two, ďFor it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in Godís sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.Ē That will enable you to escape Godís wrath. In the context of the letter here, Paul is trying to build (as the Holy Spirit works through him) a sense of inadequacy, a sense of utter failure within all people who are religious and who think by their religious externals they will escape Godís wrath. He points out to those people that obedience is required to escape the wrath of God, not simply giving intellectual assent to the right set of doctrines and practicing certain religious activities. In this, he simply reiterates the basic message of Jesusí ministry.
He lays this truth out so as to make those who are trusting in their own, superficial, non supernatural, non transforming religious experience feel very insecure about their spiritual situation. He wants them (by the Holy Spirit) to strongly question the sufficiency of what they have if they are not obeying Godís law. Anyone in the church today who can read Romans two without a strong urgency to, at some level do some intense spiritual evaluation of themselves is either living at an unusually high level of Christian commitment or is self deceived. This text compels us to re-examine ourselves in the Lord to see if we really do have the transforming grace found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because there is a high amount of repetition in verses 17-24 with what precedes it, its very easy to skip over these verses and I admit I was strongly tempted to do that. It is especially tempting because these verses donít merely reiterate a truth already given, but because they reiterate a hard teaching already given. That makes it even more tempting to skip over this section. If, however we were to do that, we would be impugning the word of God. We would, in effect be saying, ďPaul you are being unnecessarily redundant here so I will just edit out the repetition--Iíll just clean it up a little here, Paul.Ē That doesnít feel right and the reason is clear. If the Bible is the product of the Holy Spirit, and not merely human authorship (as we believe it is) then we know this: If there is repetition in a text, its because the truth He is communicating is important and NEEDS to be reiterated. So we are not going to skip over this text. If there is repetition, I urge you to resist the temptation to say to yourself, ďWe already KNOW that--youíve been saying that for two weeks already.Ē
Instead, understand that this text speaks to the scourge of evangelicalism which is a stench in Godís nostrils. That is, the fact that we place a disproportionate value on religious externals. We go to church, we are proud of our conservative theological stance and heritage, we give financially at a rate which, (though dismal by biblical standards) far outdistances the liberal churches and we feel good about all that. But at the same time, our lives do not carry the aroma of the supernatural, transforming power of God. The lives of most evangelicals are altogether explainable. The unspoken assumption of many in the church today is this: The concept of Holy Spirit empowered, radical obedience is to be stressed by special speakers and at so called ďDeeper Life Conferences,Ē but the regular, dominant theme to be stressed in church should be Godís unconditional love and grace. To make matters worse, we have an understanding of that word ďunconditionalĒ which is utterly unbiblical and which on a practical level makes obedience optional. In reality, at the end of the day, many of us lean on our external, status quo, comfortable religious expressions as the standard God expects.
Romans two speaks so loudly to the church today because this is precisely what happened to the Jews Paul is addressing here and to the Jews in the Old Testament. They became enamored with the blessings of the covenant but had virtually lost sight of the Godís covenant command to Abraham, ďWalk before me and be blameless.Ē When the law was given to assist them with this, they allowed it to become for them nothing more than external, lifeless rules. They became experts in interpreting the law to accommodate their own self-righteous flesh. Their understanding of themselves as the people of God called to radiate the awesome character of God was largely forgotten in spite of dozens of prophetic warnings. They had deteriorated into a religion of ritual over reality.
Into that sick context, God, in His mercy sends His Son to re-establish the people of God as a divine, radiant entity. He instituted a new covenant with better promises, with a better High Priest and he paid for this NEW covenant relationship with His own shed blood. He purchased forgiveness and called people to repent of dead, lifeless religion. He and the Father sent no less than the third Person of the Trinity to empower this new covenant people of God to live in ways which reflect His glory. THIS is the glory of the gospel which Paul unfolds in Romans. We see the church as a people, purchased with the blood of Jesus to manifest His character and to supernaturally accomplish His mission. This is the divine vision for the people of God. This and nothing less is the fruit of the gospel in an individual and a local church. If this dynamic fruit of the gospel is not seen in a person or a church, we have strong reason to question whether they have the gospel or something not of God at all.
As we turn to the text, let me say I believe Paul is addressing Jews who are in some way connected with the church but who are placing their hope for escaping Godís wrath on the fact that they possess the law and their circumcision. Letís read verses 17-29. ďNow you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth-- 21you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." 25Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27The 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.
The point of this text in its broader context is this: If people are to escape the wrath of God, they must live out Christís righteousness through obedience. Within that main point I see one sub point in the text. Paul is addressing Jews who considered themselves the elect or chosen people of God. If you were to ask them for proof or confirmation of the fact that they were the elect people of God they would have perhaps pointed to many things, but at the top of the list would have been the law and circumcision.
God gave only His chosen people the law and he only instituted circumcision among His people. He didnít give these to any other people. They were the unique possession of the Jews. They were part of the covenant God made with His people. The Jews believed that the law and circumcision were confirmations of the covenant and were therefore a sign of protection from Godís wrath. As long as they had the law and circumcision, they were protected from Godís wrath. Because they had this confidence in being the covenant people of God, they had all the attitudes Paul describes in verses 17-20. They felt superior, they saw themselves as a light and a guide and able to teach others who were like ignorant infants.
The problem was, they were placing their confidence in the outward signs of the covenant relationship with God and not the essential proof of whether you belong to the covenant. That proof is obedience. They were looking at the external, the superficial. They were grossly mistaken here. To illustrate their mistake, we could say it this way. Just because you wear a wedding ring, doesnít make you married. The question is: Has God placed you in covenant with someone of the opposite sex? Thatís what proves your covenant relationship, not simply wearing a wedding ring on the third finger of your left hand. The Jews were busy pointing to their spiritual wedding ring--the law and circumcision and thinking that those outward signs of the covenant would protect them from Godís wrath.
In verses 21-23, Paul indicates that these people, though they may have the outward signs of the covenant are betraying the reality of the covenant. They are stealing, committing adultery and in some way committing idolatry. As I did earlier in this chapter, I think as Luther and many other scholars that Paul is talking about sins of the heart such as Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount. These peopleís hearts were as wicked as those around them. They were, when you got right down to it, no different than those who did not have the law and those who were NOT circumcised. They stole or coveted, they were adulterous in their sexual lusts and they were idolators.
The first sobering point Paul makes by implication in verse 24 is this. External signs and expressions of being Godís people, when not accompanied by obedience are uniquely offensive to God. Verse 23-24 says of these people, ďYou who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law. As it is written: ďGodís name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.Ē Here are these people who uniquely possess the law and circumcision. What this high privilege does as it relates to the world is this. It proclaims the world that they belong to God--that they are unique, they are different, they represent the Lord of glory and his plans and purposes in this world. Because they uniquely possess the law and circumcision that marks them off. It separates them, it exposes them as Godís people, as His possession. The plain and simple truth is this--peopleís lives will always reflect who their true God is. The pagans in the Old Testament looked at the Jews and their compromise, their sin, their idolatry and were forced to conclude by their behavior that the God of the Jews was just like their god because the people of Yahweh were no different than the Canaanites, the Hittites or the Girgashites. The thunderous implication of verses 23-24 that God is saying ďyou people who are called to reflect your God and who look like the world are uniquely offensive to me because you misrepresent me to the world and cause them to think I am a wretched mutation of who I actually am.Ē When a pagan lives in unrepentant sin, that is no reflection on God--they arenít claiming to be Godís people. They donít bear any sign to show that they belong to God. They are living in unrepentant sin because they are NOT in covenant with God. Their father is the devil. How else are they supposed to act?
But when you, (as Paul says) who proclaim by your possession of the law and circumcision that you belong to the Holy One and then live in unrepentant sin, you are denigrating Godís name. You will bear unique responsibility for your sin. You are not only sinning against God, but you, by your outwardly professed relationship with God, are dragging His exalted name down into the mud. It would certainly be better to be a pagan whose sin has no bearing on the name of God than to be associated with Godís covenant and have your sin impugn the name of God.
The truth that the Jews and so many church going, self professed Christians today have missed is this: being the people of God not only includes the awesome privilege of escaping His wrath. It also includes the responsibility of reflecting His holiness. There is responsibility with the privilege. Some may respond, ďYes, but Paul is speaking to the Jews who were marked off by the law and circumcision, that doesnít apply to us in the church.Ē That misses the point. The point is bigger than the law and circumcision. The point is that those people who are identified as the people of God by the world by their outward expressions have a responsibility to show the world what God is like through obedience to Him in holy living.
Theologically conservative Christians donít have the law per se and donít require circumcision, but we have our own expressions, doctrinally and practically which the world instantly associates with what it means to be a follower of Christ. We believe and openly proclaim the Bible is the authoritative, literal word of God and Jesus Christ was born of a virgin and that He was bodily resurrected and will return again. And because we believe that we profess that we are the only people who will escape Godís wrath. All others will taste the wrath of God because these distinctives are marks of the true covenant community of believers. We, like the Jews see ourselves as ďguides to the blind, a light for those who are in dark, instructors of the foolish.Ē
In addition to those outward, doctrinal expressions, the world sees us packing our Bibles here and there. They read our bumper stickers, look at our symbols, watch us gathering in homes for bible studies, notice us leaving for church each Sunday morning. Those are all outward expressions which communicate to them that Christ is our Lord.
And yet, if our lives do not radically differ from them--if we are doing the same things they do--going to the same movies they do, watching the same television they do, using the same kind of language they do, spending our money as foolishly as they do, adopting the same basic values as they do, divorcing at the same rate they do, when we are living in unrepentant sin, then they are forced to conclude either: that our God is just like us and He is OK with our sin, or that He is spineless. He calls His people to a standard, Heís provided a book with 66 chapters in it to help them, He sent His Son to die to make them holy, but He when it comes right down to it, He doesnít hold them to it. When we live in unrepentant sin, we communicate to the world that our God is schizophrenic. On the one hand, he exalts a lofty ethical standard and even sent His Son to die to make that possible, but on the other hand, if His people betray that standard and live like they world, He loves them just the same. Thatís what we compel the world to think about God if we are not living holy lives.
Godís response to this horrible advertisement for Him is clear. He says in effect, ďIf you are not carrying out, by my grace the responsibility of the covenant relationship--obedience to me, do not think for one moment you will enjoy the privilege of my covenant--escape from my wrath? Indeed, my wrath burns hottest not for those who just grossly sin, but for those who identify themselves with me and then live their lives in such a way as to misrepresent my holy character and bring my holy name into disrepute. External signs and expressions of being my people, when not accompanied by obedience are uniquely offensive to Me.Ē
Godís true covenant people live in holy obedience to Him. Its as we refuse to participate with the world, to be conformed to their patterns, but are continually being transformed to the image of Christ, that we adequately reflect who God is. Now, when we do that the world will attack us. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3, ď...everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.Ē
But the bottom line is this: It is better for the world to attack the church for authentically representing Her Lord, then for the church to be on good terms with the world at the expense of having the Lordís holy name attacked by the world. Its far better for the church to suffer for accurately reflecting the name of Christ than for the name of Christ to suffer from our unrepentant sin. That is what all this boils down to.
As we think about it, where are we? Do we value the name of Christ enough to live out lives which reflect His holy character and suffer the inevitable persecution which comes from that? Or is our preference that we live comfortably, refuse to die to self, avoid the attack of this dark world and in so doing dishonor the name of the One we say we love more than anything? If we are to escape the wrath of God, we must live out Christís righteousness in obedience to His word. May God reveal to us where we are in relationship to this and if we are like these Jews to which Paul spoke, may God give us grace to be transformed by the gospel.
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