SERMON FOR JUNE 7, 1998 FROM ROMANS 2:29
This morning we conclude our study of the second chapter of Romans. In chapters one through three, Paul is building his the case for the necessity of the gospel. The gospel is necessary because all of those without the benefits of the gospel are destined for Godís wrath. In the second half of chapter one, he notes that the wrath of God is poured out against all those who, in sin suppress the knowledge of God which He has clearly given through creation. In chapter two, he argues that external religious forms and practices, even if they are orthodox and biblical will not protect people from the wrath of God. Paul specifically addresses the Jewsí dependency upon circumcision and the law for protection in this context. He argues that these external religious expressions will never shield anyone from Godís wrath.
Paul repeatedly stresses in chapter two that the essential requirement for everyone who is in covenant with God is NOT being circumcised or having the law, but obedience. Verse 13 says, 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 Last week, when we moved to verse 28 and the first part of verse 29, we saw that Paul gives a glimpse of how God empowers his children to obey the law. Now remember, when we say that God requires obedience, we are NOT talking about being UNDER the law, that is, relying upon obedience to the law for salvation. That is legalism. Rather, a person who has, by Godís grace been brought into covenant with God will PROVE that relationship with God through obedience. Paul contrasts this empowering element of the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit, with the deadness of the merely external forms of circumcision and the law. He writes, ďA man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not the written code.Ē
Paul hints at here what he will more fully develop later on in the letter. That is, that those who are truly in covenant (that is, relationship) with God are those who have been given a new heart which compels them to actively seek and obey Him. Last week, we saw that a changed heart has always been an essential ingredient to serving God. In both the Old and New Testaments God has required his people to have circumcised hearts. Within the Old Covenant, God called his people through the prophets to proactively circumcise their hearts by his grace. Within the New Covenant, a circumcised heart is given as a gift of Godís grace. When a person has been given this new heart, they are regenerated. That is, they are brought from death to life by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
We also took note that Paul in Romans mentions the need for regeneration BEFORE he speaks of being made legally right with God through justification which he takes up in chapter four. We noted that Paul implies by this order that the first, front line, predominant test for spiritual authenticity in the church should be evidence of the presence of a new spiritual life, a circumcised heart, and that evidence is obedience. I understand from church historians that the test for Christianity in the early church, unlike today was NOT ďare you a Christian?Ē or, even ďHave you been made right with God.Ē But rather, ďDo you have the Spirit?Ē and the presence of the Spirit was indicated by the presence of obedience and a heart which seeks after God. Thatís biblical. Paul would bless that.
As Paul continues in verse 29, he continues the contrast between the person who has only external expressions of faith and the one who has been inwardly changed by the power of God. Letís read all of verse 29 to lead up to this last sentence which will be our focus. ďNo, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a manís praise is not from men, but from God.Ē Paul is speaking of this person with a circumcised heart and he indicates there is another difference between this person and the one with only an external faith. Notice the way Paul words this sentence because he is making a point.
He says, ďSuch a manís praise is not from men, but from God.Ē He could have said, ďSuch a manís praise is from God.Ē He could have said, ďSuch a manís praise is from God, not man.Ē He chooses in the original language to place the stress on the fact that this person is NOT praised by man, but by God. The reason he puts his emphasis on where his praise is NOT from is because he is merely continuing the contrast which he has begun between the externally religious person and the one whose heart has been changed. There is a line of continuity between what he has been saying about the heart and what he says here about the source of praise for this person.
There is a connection between the source of our faith, internal or external and the source of our praise, horizontal or vertical. An external, superficial faith will invariably show itself in a man pleasing, horizontal orientation. By contrast, whereas a genuine, internal circumcised-heart-faith will show itself predominantly in a God pleasing, vertical orientation. In other words, the person whose faith is not as a result of an internal change of heart, will always ultimately practice their religion for the benefit and praise of people. We see this repeatedly in the New Testament. One of Jesusí biggest complaints against the Pharisees, (who personified orthodox, but external, dead, religion) was their external, man centered, people-pleasing orientation.
In Matthew six, when Jesus is telling people how to practice their faith within the kingdom of God, he tells them when they give and pray and fast they are not to do ď[their] acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them...as the hypocrites (Pharisees) do.Ē Because the Pharisees had a purely external, superficial faith they were forced to orient the practice of their religion for other men. This only makes sense. A purely external faith is a faith where God has no role. He is inactive, not part of the process. The person with this kind of faith may think God is actively involved. They might TALK much of God and sing much of God and perhaps even think of God, but in reality God is not even involved in this external religion, much less is He applauding it. Because God is not part of this, the object of this faith has to be man. Their religion may have God as the subject but He is not the object of their faith, other people are. And their praise comes NOT from God, but from men.
What this boils down to is crucial for us. The question of who are we ultimately living to please is one of the most important questions any sincere believer can ask. Notice where Paul places this issue. He puts it in a context where he speaks of what is the essential component of being truly in covenant with God. What that tells us is this: who we are living to please and whose praise we most desire is a basic, essential indicator of our true spiritual status. There are hundreds of indicators that will show us where we are with the Lord within the Bible, but this one here of whose praise we most covet is one of the most foundational indicators where our hearts are in relationship to God. Deficiencies in this area indicate significant heart problems in a personís walk with God. Those who consistently practice their faith for the praise of men indicate that their religion is external. On the other hand, those who practice their faith predominantly for the praise of God indicate they have been regenerated, made a new creature in Christ and are therefore shielded from Godís wrath. That is the point of Paulís argument.
Paul makes this same point in First Thessalonians 2:1-5. As I read this, notice what Paul points to as the proof of the fact that he and his ministry are from God. He says, ďYou know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed--God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.Ē Paul asserts that he speaks as one approved by God, not from error or impure motives. He strongly defends his spiritual authenticity here. What proof does he point to? The basis for his claim to authenticity is that he ministered to please God, not man. He roots that claim in the fact that he did not use people centered methods like flattery and deception and by the fact that he was willing to face strong opposition from people for the sake of Christ. His desire to please God had been proven genuine in the fire of adversity. Paul rests the authenticity of his ministry on the fact that he was a God pleaser and not a man pleaser.
In Galatians, he is down right blunt about the fact that being a man pleaser is mutually exclusive to being a Christian. In Galatians 1:10-11 he says in defense of his ministry. ďAm I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.Ē Do you hear that? In that last sentence, he says that a life directed toward ultimately pleasing people is mutually exclusive to being a servant of Christ. Thatís black and white. If my/your life is predominantly oriented toward encouraging the praise of man to the exclusion of Godís praise, I/you are not a Christian.
Jesus makes the same case in John 5. Contrasting himself with the Pharisees, he says beginning in verse 41, ďI do not accept praise from men...Ē Thatís pretty blunt as well. What he is saying is that he never measures his faithfulness to God through the barometer of other peopleís praise. If He would have done that, He would NEVER have gone to the cross. If He accepted praise from men and oriented His life around them, they would have wanted to applaud Him, not kill them. But because in a sick spiritual context He sought to please God alone, He signed His own death warrant in human terms. In verse 44, he says to the Pharisees, ďHow can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?Ē Jesus asks a question which demands a negative answer. QUESTION: How can you believe if you accept praise from God, but make no effort to obtain praise that come from God? ANSWER: You canít believe--you cant have a genuine faith if you are seeking the praise of men, not God. Its as simple as that.
We have established that Paul makes this issue of the source of our praise a vitally important one--that it is a foundational test to see whether our faith is external and superficial or genuine, ďcircumcised-heart-faith.Ē Now that we have done that, let me say just a couple of things by way of application. First, we must understand this: We must never confuse living to please God alone with living to displease people. Its easy to distort this truth by thinking that God has placed us on a mission to be disagreeable. To put it another way, its easy to believe that if people donít like us it must be because we are being persecuted for our faithfulness. The role of the martyr comes very easily to us. The reason some people donít like us may not be because we are seeking the praise of God, but because we donít care about them and they know that. We must remember that just because God desires us to live to please Him, he is not calling us to go out of our way to be displeasing to others. Our Lord was very gracious to people and he certainly loved people and we are called to love others also. We are called to love God more. If people donít like us, we should not immediately rush to judgment and assume the reason is because we are more spiritual than they are and our life brings conviction to them. It could be, we are just obnoxious or otherwise dysfunctional.
A second, self evident in this area is this: The test to determine the degree to which we live for the praise of man is our willingness to suffer persecution for Christ. The person with an external, superficial faith will run out of gas about the time he is called upon to suffer for Christ. An external, superficial faith is not strong enough to motivate you to suffer, but a vibrant, Spirit empowered faith will give you strength to suffer for the gospel. Two starkly contrasting statements of Jesus bring this out. In Luke 6:26 he says, ďWoe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.Ē Jesus pronounces a curse on anyone who has the praise of all men and he lumps that person in with the lowest of the low, the false prophets. On the other hand in Matthew 5:11 he says, ďBlessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Ē Here, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who suffer for being faithful to Him and he groups these people in with the true prophets, the heroes of the Old Testament.
To those who seek the praise of all men, Jesus pronounces a curse. To those who suffer then insults of men on account of Christ, Jesus pronounces a blessing. If youíre like me, you want everyone to like you and praise you. The question is: Why do we so badly want that which Jesus says would make us cursed? Isnít this compulsive desire to be liked by everyone often why we are so timid to share our faith--because we donít want people thinking we are weird or offensive? Isnít this why we fail to give that word of correction or reproof to someone even when we KNOW thatís what God wants us to do? We want everyone to praise us and like us. Thereís nothing wrong with that as long as we donít sacrifice our faithfulness to God in order to win the approval of others. But often, we do just that.
On the other hand, Jesus pronounces a blessing to those who seek to please God over man and prove that by their willingness to suffer for it. We hate the idea of people not liking us. We hate the idea of someone turning away from us because of our genuine expression of faithfulness to God. In light of the words of Jesus, the question is this: Why are we so afraid of that which Jesus says will bring us blessing and a place with the prophets? We want that which, if we had it would bring a curse and we dread that which, if we get it will bring a blessing. Do you see how distorted our desires can be in light of what God says? Paul tells us that our desire to receive the praise of more than God indicated a superficial, perhaps even non existent faith. May God give us grace to seek first the praise that comes from Him.
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