No “Lost” BooksRelated Media
Has archaeology unearthed ancient biblical texts that cast doubt on the current canon of Scripture? Is it possible that Christians don’t have the true Bible?
Browsing through the religious section in your local bookstore, you’re likely to stumble on a handful of titles that suggest the discovery of “lost books” of the Bible. Generally, these represent works that were “politically incorrect” according to the theological notions of the time. Branded as spurious by early church leaders, they were discredited and destroyed. Luckily, a handful of copies survived. Archaeologists have rescued these previously “lost books” of the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas [image attached to email], unearthed in the Nag Hammadi library in Upper Egypt in 1945, would be an example.
Invariably, this sends a jolt through the system of the conscientious Christian. Could it be that archaeology has unearthed ancient biblical texts that cast doubt on the current canon of Scripture? Is it possible the Bible that Christians have is incomplete?
It may be hard to believe, but this question can be answered without ever reading any of the books in question. No research needs to be done, no ancient tomes addressed, no works of antiquity perused. Curiously, the entire issue can be answered by a close look at one word: Bible.
The Bible Divine
The whole question of alleged lost books of the Bible hinges on what one means by the word “Bible.” It can only mean one of two things, it seems to me. There is a religious understanding of the word, and there is a more secular definition.
When one asks an Evangelical Christian what the Bible is, he’s likely to say simply, “It’s God’s Word.” When pressed for a more theologically precise definition, he might add that God superintended the writing of Scripture so that the human authors, using their own style, personalities and resources, wrote down, word for word, exactly what God intended them to write in the originals. This verbal plenary inspiration is a vital part of the Christian definition of the word “Bible.”
The key concept for our discussion is the phrase “exactly what God intended them to write.” This is a critical element of this understanding of “Bible” is the idea that God was not limited by the fact that human authors were involved in the process.
A common objection to the notion of inspiration is that the Bible was only written by men, and men make mistakes. This complaint misses the mark for two reasons.
First, it does not logically follow that because humans were involved in the writing process, the Bible must necessarily be in error. Mistakes may be possible, but they’re not necessary. To assume error in all human writing is also self-defeating. The humanly derived statement, “The Bible was written by men, and men make mistakes,” would be suspect by the same standards. The fact is, human beings can and do produce writing with no errors. It happens all the time.
Further, the challenge that men make mistakes ignores the main issue—whether or not the Bible was written only by men. The Christian accepts that humans are limited, but denies that man’s limitations are significant in this case because inspiration implies that God’s power supersedes man’s liabilities.
A simple question—Columbo style—serves to illustrate this: “Are you saying that if God exists, He’s not capable of writing what He wants through imperfect men?” This seems hard to affirm. The notion of an omnipotent God not being able to accomplish such a simple task is ludicrous. If, on the other hand, the answer is “No, I think He is able,” then the objection vanishes. If God is capable, then man’s limitations are not a limit on God.
The divine inspiration of the Bible—if we can offer good reasons the Bible was from God to begin with—automatically solves the problem of human involvement. If God insures the results, it doesn’t matter if men or monkeys do the writing, they will still write exactly what God intends. That is part of what it means for the Bible to be divinely inspired.
The important thing for our purpose here is not to defend the notion of divine inspiration, but to understand that God’s authorship and supernatural preservation are necessarily entailed in the first definition of the word “Bible.” The Bible is the 66 individual books contained under one cover that are supernaturally inspired by God, and are preserved and protected by His power. On this understanding, man’s limitations are irrelevant.
The Bible Secular
The second definition of the word “Bible” is not religious, and therefore assumes no supernatural origin for the Scripture. This view says that while Christians treated the Scriptures as divinely inspired, they were mistaken. The Bible merely represents a human consensus, a collection of books chosen by the early church to reflect its own beliefs.
A book that didn’t make the cut was rejected for two basic reasons: Early Christians couldn’t trace authorship to an Apostle or eyewitness accounts, and the theology differed from what had been handed down from the Apostles. Christianity is no different from other religions that have collections of authoritative writings. Even individual professions identify certain books—"bibles," if you will—as official representations of their respective fields. The Bible, then, is in that category—merely a collection of books chosen by the early church leaders to represent their own beliefs.
So we have two possible meanings for the word “Bible,” a supernatural one and a natural one. Either the Bible is divinely given and divinely preserved—the conservative Christian view—or it’s merely a human document representing the beliefs of a religious group known by the label “Christianity”—the view of just about everyone else. Given either of these two definitions, could any books of the Bible be lost?
No Lost Books
Start with the first meaning, the supernatural definition of the Bible. Is it possible that books could be lost from a Bible of this sort? The answer is certainly no. Remember, on this view God Himself is supernaturally preserving and protecting the integrity of His work.
Regardless of whether the Christian claim about inspiration is accurate or not, it is obvious that on this definition it is not possible God would misplace His own book. The “lost books” thesis would thus be reduced to, “Certain books that almighty God was responsible to preserve and protect got lost.”
This is silly. The view makes God both almighty and inept at the same time. If the Bible is in fact the inspired Word of God, then the power of God Himself guarantees that no portion of it will ever be lost. There will always be a fully adequate testimony of His Word in every generation.
Could there be lost books given the second definition? What if Christians are wrong in attributing God’s stewardship to the Scriptures? What if the Bible ultimately turns out to be merely a product of human design? If that’s the case, then the term “Bible” refers not to the Word of God (the first definition), but to the canon of beliefs of the leaders of the early church (the second definition). Is it possible that books could be lost from a Bible of this sort?
The answer again is certainly not. The “lost books” thesis would be reduced to this: “Early church leaders rejected certain books as unrepresentative of their beliefs that they actually believed reflected their beliefs.’
If the Bible is a collection of books the early church leaders decided would represent their point of view, then they have the final word on what is included. Any books they rejected were never part of their Bible to begin with, so even by the second definition, “lost books” of the Bible would be a misnomer.
Consider this scenario. You decide to write a book about your personal beliefs drawing from stacks of notes containing reflections you’ve collected over the years. After recording the ones you agree with, you discard the rest. Later, someone rummaging through your trash comes upon your discarded notes. Could he claim he’d stumbled upon your lost beliefs?
“No,” you respond, “these were not lost. They were rejected. If they were really my beliefs, they’d be in the book, not in the garbage.”
It’s ironic that “lost books” advocates often point out that rediscovered texts were missing because the early Church Fathers suppressed them. It’s true; they did. Critics think this strengthens their case, but it doesn’t. Instead it destroys their position by proving that the “lost books” were not lost but discarded, rejected as not representative of Christian beliefs. Therefore, they did not belong in the Christian Bible. If they never were in the Bible in the first place they couldn’t be lost from the Bible.
Another approach to Scripture is worth mentioning. Some academics, like those of the Jesus Seminar, reject the idea that the Bible has supernatural origins. Since the Bible is just man’s opinion anyway, why not have a recall vote? Amend the text to fix what is now considered defective or out of step with the times.
Such a reshuffling of the biblical deck—tossing out some books and including others to reflect what the church currently believes about spiritual truth—is certainly an alternative on a naturalistic view of the Scripture. If the members of the Jesus Seminar want to include the Gospel of Thomas in their bible, they’re welcome to. Keep in mind though, they would not be restoring a “lost book” of the Bible, but merely redefining the canon to fit modern tastes.
Regardless of how you view the Scripture—as supernatural or as natural—there is no sense in which there could be lost books of the Bible. If the Bible is supernatural—if God is responsible for its writing, it’s transmission, and its survival—then God, being God, doesn’t fail. He doesn’t make mistakes, He doesn’t forget things, and He’s not constrained by man’s limitations. God can’t lose his lessons.
However, if the Bible is not supernatural—as many will contend, especially those who claim to have found lost books—one faces a different problem. By what standard do we claim these are bona fide lost books of the canon of the early church? If, from a human perspective, the Bible is that collection of writings reflecting the beliefs of early Christianity, then any writings discarded by the church fathers are not books of their Bible by very definition.
Has archaeology unearthed previously unknown ancient texts? Certainly. Are they interesting, noteworthy, and valuable? Some. Are they missing books of the Bible? The answer is no. Two thousand years later, the rediscovery of something like the Gospel of Thomas may be archaeologically significant. It might be a lost book of antiquity, a great find, even a wonderful piece of literature.
But it is not a lost book of the Bible.
Jesus, The Recycled RedeemerRelated Media
There is a reason the ancient historical accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth do not start with the phrase, “Once upon a time….” On the face of it, the authors did not appear to be writing fairytales for future generations, but rather detailed accounts of the extraordinary events in the life of a particular Jewish carpenter who actually changed the course of history.
The opening words of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life are especially clear on this point:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea….
In John’s account we find two striking claims that bookend his record, the first found in Chapter 1 and the last in Chapter 20:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Many other [miraculous] signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
Each of these ancient “biographies” of Jesus—along with the only other accounts that give any breadth of detail about the Nazarene (Matthew and Mark)—proceed in the same fashion.
First, the authors are clearly aware they are relating a remarkable story about a remarkable man who did remarkable things. Second, it is just as clear they were convinced the events in their accounts really happened. These were not sacred stories of netherworld gods and ethereal, supernatural heroes, but reports of actual historical events involving flesh and blood people with their feet firmly planted on terra firma.
The Gospel writers intended to report history, not mythology. Their accounts include the vivid detail of an observer who had witnessed the events personally, or a chronicler who had obtained the information from people who were actually there. Yet they are not merely reports, but arguments meant to persuade, citing evidence to prove their claims.
These facts on their own don’t make the accounts true, of course. But they do seem to place these writings in a class of ancient literature that doesn’t allow them to be dismissed for frivolous reasons. Yet this is exactly what has been happening.
“Once Upon A Time…”
The internet is littered with allegations that the historical records of the life of Jesus of Nazareth are examples of a kind of religious plagiarism, a mere rehashing of dying-and-rising-god fictions of ancient mythology, a recycling of common details found in dozens of mystery religions in the ancient world around the time of Christ.
Simply Google Mithras, Dionysus, Osiris, Adonis, or Isis and you will be buried in an avalanche of “evidence” linking the divine teacher from Galilee with a host of characters allegedly manufactured from the same mythic material. The most well-known attempt is a flashy “documentary” called Zeitgeist—The Greatest Story Ever Sold that has gone viral on the web.
According to “Zeitgeist,” ancient hieroglyphics tell us this about the anthropomorphized Egyptian sun God, Horus:
Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis, Mary. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east which, in turn, three kings followed to locate and adore the new-born savior. At the age of 12 he was a prodigal child teacher. At the age of 30 was baptized by a figure known as Adep, and thus began his ministry. Horus had 12 disciples who he traveled about with performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water. Horus was known by many gestural names such as “The Truth,” “The Light,” “God’s Anointed Son,” “The Good Shepherd,” “The Lamb of God,” and many others. After being betrayed by Typhon, Horus was crucified, buried for three days, and thus resurrected.
“Many other gods,” “Zeitgeist” claims, “are found to have the same mythological structure”:
Attis (1200 B.C.)—Born of a virgin on December 25th, was crucified, was dead for three days and resurrected
Krishna (900 B.C.)—Born of a virgin with a star in the east to signal his birth, performed miracles, died, and was resurrected
Dionysus (500 B.C.)—Born of a virgin on December 25, performed miracles like turning water into wine, was referred to as “the King of Kings” and “god’s only begotten son,” died, and was resurrected
Mithras (1200 B.C.)—Born of a virgin on December 25, had 12 disciples, performed miracles, was dead for three days and resurrected, was known as “the Truth” and “The Life,” and was worshipped on Sunday
Osiris, the husband of Isis in the Egyptian pantheon, is another popular contender for a dying and resurrected god. The broad claim, simply put in the words of Sir Leigh Teabing in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is, “Nothing in Christianity is original.”
This is a taxing topic because of the sheer volume of alleged comparisons advanced by skeptics. The process is complicated by the many variations of these ancients myths generated in their retelling.
Books like Ronald Nash’s scholarly The Gospel and the Greeks or Lee Strobel’s popular work The Case for the Real Jesus spend time answering the particulars. In the interest of space, I want to advance a general response to this broad challenge to the reliability of the canonical accounts of Jesus’ life.
In general, the dispute entails a factual claim—certain mythical accounts that predate the Gospels contain elements matching the details of Jesus’ life—and a logical/literary claim—the existence of the older accounts proves that the account of Jesus is myth as well, being cobbled together with bits and pieces of these old stories.
There are at least three significant problems with this argument that should be enough to silence it forever. The first two speak to the factual claims. The last—and most decisive—addresses the logical assertion.
First, the fact is that the “facts” listed above are almost all false, nearly to the point of embarrassment. Here are a few examples:
There is no record Osiris rose bodily from the dead. Instead, he became a god of the netherworld. As one put it, Osiris is not a dying god, but a dead god, always depicted as a deceased, mummified king. He may be “alive” in the spirit realm, but this would be true of anyone passing into the next life who’s physical body lies decaying in a tomb. Indeed, Egyptian religion had no concept of resurrection, only of immortality beyond the grave. These are two entirely different concepts.1
Horus was not born of a virgin, but was the son of Osiris and Isis (not Mary). Horus never dies, so he could have no resurrection, though in his union with Rah, the sun God, one could say he “dies” every night and is “resurrected” every morning. Clearly, though, this is no help to the copycat messiah crowd.
Neither the Bible nor Christianity claim Jesus was born on December 25th, so any parallels with ancient myths are completely inconsequential. The date was chosen by emperor Aurelian in the third century.
Mithras was not born of a virgin, but emerged from a rock, and there is no textual evidence of his death, so there could be no resurrection.2 Mithras was a god, not a teacher, so he had no disciples.3
There is no evidence of an account of a bodily resurrection of Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation.4
There is no evidence for a virgin birth of Dionysus.5
Krishna was his mother’s eighth son, so his virgin birth is unlikely. 6
The dating of many of the dying-and-resurrecting-god myths is the second obstacle. Here’s the problem. It is axiomatic that the recycled version must appear in history after the one it allegedly came from, not before. However, many mythical accounts of dying and rising gods actually postdate the time of Christ:
There is no evidence of the influence of Mithraism in the Roman Empire until the end of the first century A.D.7
The sacrifice of a bull by some Mithraists allegedly mimicking the substitutionary atonement of Christ first shows up in the second century A.D. 8
The four texts that cite the resurrection of Adonis date from the second to fourth centuries A.D.9
The account of the miraculous birth of Zoroaster dates to the ninth century A.D.10
The most academically exhaustive work, a ponderous study entitled The Riddle of Resurrection by Tryggve Mettinger, concludes that even though some myths of dying and rising gods may predate the Christian era, the claims made regarding Jesus of Nazareth are distinct from them in three critical ways.
First, Jesus was a flesh and blood human whose resurrection happened in history at a precise topographical location on earth. Second, the mythical “resurrected” deities were invariably tied to the seasons of the agricultural cycle, “dying” and “rising” repeatedly every calendar year, while Jesus’ resurrection was a one-time event unrelated to seasonal changes. Third, Jesus died as a vicarious sacrifice for sins. There is no evidence of such an atonement in any other accounts.11
Mettinger sums up the evidence this way:
There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions.12
A Skunk In The Woodpile
In his work, The Gospel and the Greeks, Ronald Nash offers a handful of suggestions to protect the novice from being misled by dubious factual claims.13
Check the evidence in the primary sources. Don’t settle for a website citing a website that cites a website. Web postings often run in a circle, with each site quoting others without ever citing a primary source document (an original rendering of the ancient myth itself). Try to get as close to the original source as you can to reduce the chance that “facts” got distorted in the retelling. Make sure your evidence comes from an established authority in the field who has access to the original material.
Check the dates. Be sure the original records (not the original myth) predate the accounts that allegedly borrowed from them. Even ancient tales get amended over time.
Determine if the parallels are really parallel and significant. Similarities are frequently overstated or oversimplified. Many are inconsequential, like the claim ancient gods were born on December 25th. Some accounts trade on the kinship of phrases like “birth of the sun” vs. “birth of the son.” This word play only works, though, when rendered in English, a language that developed millennia after these events.
Beware of Christian language and terms being read back into the ancient account. Some refer to the death of Osiris as his “passion,” employing Christian terminology to imply a similarity that doesn’t exist. Any death can be called a passion, even when the passions themselves are wildly dissimilar. Also, no one should be impressed when Egyptian sun gods are called “The Light.”
As it turns out regarding the factual claims, once the primary sources of the ancient myths are consulted, a host of alleged similarities turn out to be fictions. The parallels remaining are usually far too general to be significant. Further, the dating of many of the ancient records completely undermines the argument because the stories appear too late in history to have any influence on the Gospels.
But that’s not the worst of it. Even if the characterizations of the myths were accurate—that Mithras was born of a virgin, and Osiris was resurrected from the dead, and Horus had a dozen disciples, and Dionysus turned water into wine, and Attis was crucified—there is something else fundamentally wrong with the Zeitgeist challenge. Even if the facts were accurate, it proves nothing. Here’s why.
A Titanic Coincidence
In 1898, Morgan Robertson published a novel entitled Futility. The story was a fictional account of a transatlantic voyage of the cruise ship Titan traveling between England and New York. The largest vessel afloat displacing 45,000 tons, the Titan was considered virtually unsinkable. Yet in the middle of the night in April, with three massive propellers driving the ship forward at the excessive speed of 25 knots, it collided with an iceberg and sunk. Since the number of lifeboats was the minimum the law required (though twice that was needed for its 3,000 capacity), more than half of its passengers perished.
Fourteen years later in April, the world’s largest luxury liner with a displacement of 45,000 tons—the indestructible Titanic—departed from England on a transatlantic voyage to New York. In the middle of the night, the Titanic’s triple screws drove the ship at the excessive speed of nearly 25 knots into an iceberg and sunk. Since the Titanic was fitted with less than half the number of lifeboats needed for its 3,000 capacity (the minimum the law required), more than half of its passengers were lost.
This real-life coincidence makes a crucial point. Regardless of the similarity between two accounts of different events, the second cannot be summarily dismissed as an invention simply because the first turns out to be fiction. Whether or not the details of the Titanic’s disaster are accurate is determined by its own body of evidence, unrelated to the fictional story of the ill-fated Titan that came before.
This is a critical procedural point, one best described by C.S. Lewis:
Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.”…Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself....If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain…how I came to be so bad at arithmetic...but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely mathematical grounds....In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.14 [emphasis in the original]
Lewis’s insight applies to our challenge. Remember the claim in question: Ancient myths explain the origin of the Jesus myth. The second false account was inspired by the first ones. Do you see the misstep? The New Testament account is presumed false; then the ancient accounts are invoked to explain the fiction. The argument of Zeitgeist turns out to be circular, assuming what it intends to prove.
Imagine introducing yourself to a stranger and sharing bits of autobiography only to be labeled a liar and an imposter. His evidence? In the past three months, 12 other phonies tried to pawn off the same story on him. When you offer identification, he ignores it. He’s already assumed you’re a fraud like the rest, no matter what bona fides you produce.
In addition to being offended, you’d probably be mystified. Clearly, he can’t prove you are lying about your identity by citing others who lied about theirs. No imposter of the past could logically foreclose on the possibility that you might be the genuine article. That must be decided on separate grounds. To paraphrase Lewis, one has to show that a person is lying before it makes any sense to speculate on where the lie came from.
In the same way, one first has to show that Jesus is a fiction before he starts explaining how the fiction came to be. Even if someone produced a thousand parallels with Jesus from the writings of antiquity, that alone would not prove He was just another phony. If the similarities were remarkable, it might raise eyebrows (“Not another one”) and invite a closer look. But it would do nothing on its own to disqualify Christ. Only shortcomings with the specific historical evidence for Jesus can do that.
The Zeitgeist approach is an evasion, not an argument. It is not good enough to assume Jesus is a myth and then speculate on the genesis of the error. The primary source historical documents about Him—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—must be dealt with first, not dismissed with misleading talk about alleged literary relationships with ancient dying and resurrecting gods.
Jesus, Man Of History
Professional historians do not believe the New Testament account is merely a retelling of an ancient myth. Though not endorsing every detail of the Gospel records (most academics reject the supernatural elements for philosophic reasons), scholars both liberal and conservative overwhelming agree that Jesus of Nazareth was a man of history.
Will Durant, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, co-authored with his wife the most successful work of history in history, the 11 volume The Story of Civilization. In “Caesar and Christ,” in spite of the “many suspicious resemblances to the legends of pagan gods,” Durant concludes:
Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that many inventors would have concealed. No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism, the outlines of the life, character and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.15
The challenge in Zeitgeist is why we should consider the stories of Mithras, Horus, Attis, and the other pagan mystery saviors as fables, yet treat as factual a similar story told of a Jewish carpenter.
The answer is simple: There is no good evidence for the authenticity of any ancient mythological characters and their deeds, but there is an abundance of such evidence for Jesus. And if the historical documentation for the man from Nazareth is compelling, then it doesn’t matter how many ancient myths share similarities.
The Apostle Paul readily acknowledged that if Jesus’ resurrection was a myth and the witnesses were trading in lies, then Christians were a pitiful lot (1 Corinthians 15:19). And fools too, I might add, because it cost many of them their lives.
Nothing in the Zeitgeist recycled redeemer theory, however, suggests Christians have misplaced their confidence. The skeptics’ facts are unreliable and their thinking is unsound, so their challenge is doubly dead.
According to their own testimony, the New Testament writers were not following “cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). They were testifying not to myths, but to “sober truth” about events that had “not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:25-26):
What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also (1 John 1:1-3).
1 Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 2007), 163, 177-8.
2 Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks—Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134, 137.
3 Strobel, 172.
4 Nash, 129.
5 Strobel, 180.
6 Ibid., 182.
7 Nash, 138.
8 Strobel, 172.
9 Ibid., 177.
10 Ibid., 182.
11 Tryggve Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection—“Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International: 2001), 221.
13 Nash, 249-51.
14 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 272-3.
15 Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 557.
Lesson 10: Judged by Your Deeds (Romans 2:6-11)Related Media
During my college years, several of my friends and I knew an attractive coed who was Roman Catholic. She called us her “minister friends,” because we were always talking to her about the gospel. After hours of spiritual conversations, I persuaded her to read the Gospel of John. I told her that as she read, she should ask God to show her how she could have eternal life.
Shortly after that she came up to me beaming and said, “I did as you said. I asked God to show me how to have eternal life, and He did!” I thought, “Yes! She came to John 3:16 and discovered that those who believe in Jesus have eternal life!” But instead, she took me to John 5:28-29, where Jesus says, “… for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” She said, “I will get eternal life if I do good deeds!”
How would you have answered her? That sounds like what Jesus is teaching there. And, it seems to be what Paul is teaching in our text. He says that those who persevere in doing good receive eternal life. Those who do evil will incur God’s wrath. Is salvation by grace through faith alone, as the Reformers insisted? Or is it by grace through faith plus works, as the Roman Catholic Church has taught?
It’s not just an academic question, because your eternal destiny depends on getting it right! Paul damned the Judaizers for perverting the gospel because they added just one biblical “work” (circumcision) to the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). So we need to get the gospel right. We need to know for sure that when we stand before God for judgment, it will go well. You don’t get a makeup exam!
Our text continues a sentence that begins in verse 5: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds.” So verses 6-11 elaborate on “the righteous judgment of God.”
Thomas Schreiner (The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 190) explains, “The primary purpose of Romans 2 is to prove that the Jews are guilty before God, for they transgressed the revelation they received, just as the Gentiles rejected the revelation they received (1:18-32).” Charles Simeon says that Paul is countering the pervasive Jewish view “that no Jew could perish, except through apostasy or idolatry; and that no Gentile could be saved, but by subjecting himself to the institutions and observances of the Mosaic ritual” (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 15:36).
So Paul is arguing that being Jewish doesn’t get you any special favors come judgment day. In fact, it gets you to the front of the line because you’ve been given more spiritual privileges! We can apply that to being raised in a Christian home in a country where you can readily hear the gospel. If you do not respond to those privileges, they render you more guilty on judgment day than if you had never known the truth. Paul’s point here is:
Since God will impartially judge each person according to his deeds, we must persevere in doing good.
The text follows a chiastic structure (adapted from Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 135):
A. God will judge everyone according to his deeds (2:6).
B. Those who do good will attain eternal life (2:7).
C. Those who do evil will incur wrath (2:8).
C’. Those who do evil will suffer tribulation (2:9).
B’. Those who do good will receive glory (2:10).
A’. God will judge everyone impartially (2:11).
The main point is at the beginning and the end, that God will judge each person impartially according to his deeds (Moo, p. 136). First let’s look at what the text teaches. Then we’ll try to understand how this fits with Paul’s teaching that we are saved by grace through faith alone, apart from our works.
1. Every person will stand before God in judgment.
Hebrew 9:27 makes this point: “… it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” That verse refutes reincarnation. Our text (and every other Scripture that touches on this topic) shows clearly that there are two and only two destinations after death: eternal life or eternal wrath. Some argue that the wicked will be annihilated after a time of punishment. Frankly, that would be an easier view to accept than the eternality of hell. But in Matthew 25:46, Jesus contrasts the punishment of the wicked with the reward of the righteous: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Eternal is the same word both times. According to Jesus, life is eternal and punishment is eternal. In Romans 2, Paul contrasts these two eternal destinies:
A. Eternal life includes glory, honor, immortality, and peace.
Eternal life means, life pertaining to the age to come, and since that age will not end, it means life that goes on forever (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 117). But also, it refers to the quality of life in the very presence of God. As Jesus prayed (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” As such, eternal life begins the moment that we come to know God through faith in Jesus Christ. It grows sweeter as we grow to know Him better in this life. But it will be indescribably deepened and forever expanded the moment we step into God’s presence in eternity, free from all sin.
Paul describes this eternal life by four words: glory, honor, and immortality (2:7); and, peace (2:10). Glory refers to the hope of all believers, that we will be transformed into the image of God’s Son, so that God’s glory will be reflected in us (Rom. 5:2; 8:18, 21, 29-30; 9:23; 1 Cor. 2:7; 15:43; 2 Cor. 3:12-18; 4:17; Col. 3:4).
Honor is similar to glory, and focuses on the approval that God will give us in contrast with the scorn that the world gives us now and the eternal disgrace that God will pour out on the wicked (1 Pet. 1:7). To receive honor will be to hear from the Lord Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful slave…. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). All glory and honor that we receive in heaven we will immediately turn back in praise to the risen Lamb as we sing (Rev. 4:11), “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed and were created.”
Immortality refers to the hope of the resurrection, when we will receive new bodies that are not subject to disease, aging, and death (1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 52-54). Paul says that those who seek for glory, honor, and immortality receive eternal life (2:7). But in the parallel verse (2:10), he mentions glory and honor, but substitutes peace for immortality.
Peace refers to “peace with God and peace of heart and mind in the full enjoyment of God to all eternity” (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 67). It is the eternal peace of “deliverance from sin and its conflicts” (James Boice, Romans [Baker], 1:227). These four terms show that as believers, our hope is not in this short life, but in eternal life with God. Thus, as Paul says (Col. 3:1-4), we should be seeking the things above, where Christ is, because when He appears, “then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
But, Paul also mentions the other eternal destiny:
B. Eternal wrath and indignation include tribulation and distress.
Paul says that the wicked (we will look at their characteristics later) receive “wrath and indignation” from God (2:8), resulting in “tribulation and distress” for them (2:9). Wrath is the usual word for God’s settled and abiding opposition to sin, with the purpose of revenge (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 131). God warns (Rom. 12:19), “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Indignation indicates the more turbulent, boiling agitation of the feelings (ibid.). Wrath, as in Romans 1:18 (same word), is God’s abiding anger towards the ungodly, whereas indignation points to the outbreak of His anger on the day of judgment (Alford, cited by William Newell, Romans Verse by Verse [Moody Press], p. 60, footnote).
Tribulation and distress describe the trauma experienced by those who are the objects of God’s wrath and indignation. Tribulation means “pressure,” and is illustrated by a form of capital punishment in ancient England where the victim had heavy weights placed on his chest to crush him to death (Trench, p. 203). Distress refers to restriction or confinement. It is illustrated by the torture that Queen Elizabeth used on some of her victims, who were placed in a room so small that they could not stand, sit, or lie at full length (Trench, pp. 203-204). Together, Paul uses both words here to describe the eternal punishment for “every soul of man who does evil.” Soul here refers to the entire person. Those in hell will suffer conscious torment “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9). The Bible consistently uses frightening descriptions of the agonies of hell to warn, “You don’t want to go there!”
Thus Paul clearly says that every person will stand before God in judgment, resulting in either eternal life or eternal wrath.
2. God will impartially judge each person according to his deeds.
Romans 2:6 is a quote from the LXX (Greek OT) of Psalm 62:12 and/or Proverbs 24:12 (English Bible references). There are three things to note about God’s judgment of our deeds:
A. Judgment according to one’s deeds is the uniform teaching of the Bible.
Leon Morris explains (p. 116),
It is the invariable teaching of the Bible and not the peculiar viewpoint of any one writer or group of writers that judgment will be on the basis of works, though salvation is all of grace. Works are important. They are the outward expression of what the person is deep down. In the believer they are the expression of faith, in the unbeliever the expression of unbelief and that whether by way of legalism or antinomianism.
I can’t be exhaustive here, but let me give a few references from both the Old and New Testaments that show this point.
Jeremiah 17:10: “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.”
Jeremiah 32:19, the prophet in prayer describes God as “giving to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.”
Ezekiel 33:20, the Lord says, “O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”
Matthew 16:27, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.”
2 Cor. 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Galatians 6:7-8, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
Ephesians 5:6, after describing the evil deeds of the wicked, Paul warns, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
Revelation 2:23, after telling how He will judge those who join in the immorality and idolatry of “the woman Jezebel,” the Lord warns the church in Thyatira, “I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”
Revelation 20:12, at the great white throne judgment, “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.”
Revelation 22:12, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”
(See, also, Job 34:10-12; Ps. 28:4; Jer. 25:14; 51:24; Hos. 12:2; Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 3:8; 2 Cor. 11:15; Eph. 6:8; Col. 1:21-23; 3:5-6, 24; 2 Tim. 4:14.)
So the uniform teaching of Scripture is that God will judge each of us according to our deeds.
B. Judgment will be individual.
“Each person” shows that this is individual judgment, not corporate or national. Paul uses the same phrase in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “each one may be recompensed for his deeds ….” Or, in Matthew 16:27 and in Revelation 22:12, Jesus says He will render to every man according to his deeds.
C. Judgment will be impartial.
This is inherent in the fact that God is a righteous judge. As Abraham pleads with God prior to the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 18:25), “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Again, there are many verses in both the Old and New Testaments that show that God judges impartially (Deut. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Job 34:19; Acts 10:34; Gal. 2:6; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; 1 Pet. 1:17). Here, Paul especially is saying to the Jews that they will not get special treatment because of their being children of Abraham (Matt. 3:9). When he says (2:9, 10), “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (= Gentile), he means that the Jews were first in privileges, in that God chose to reveal Himself to them and bring the Savior through them; so they will be first in either judgment or salvation.
In the same way today, growing up in a Christian home gives you greater access to salvation, if you repent of your sins and believe in Christ. But it also exposes you to greater judgment if you neglect this privilege. But the point is, God will impartially judge each person according to his or her deeds.
3. God is the judge who determines whether a person’s deeds are good or evil.
Note how Paul describes the two groups:
A. Those who persevere in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality.
We’ve already looked at the meaning of glory, honor, and immortality. Here I just note that those who persevere in doing good seek these eternal blessings. Perseverance indicates lifelong persistence in the face of opposition, hardship, and discouragement. It isn’t referring to perfection, but rather to direction (seek) over the long haul. It’s a path or journey that one commits to, much as John Bunyan describes Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. If the pilgrim gets off the path into By-Path Meadow or Doubting Castle, he persists until he gets back on the path to the Celestial City.
B. Those who do evil are selfishly ambitious, disobedient to the truth, and obedient to unrighteousness.
Scholars debate about the meaning of the word translated selfishly ambitious. Most now take it that way, although some think it has the nuance of factious or contentious. Paul lists it as a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:20), where the NASB renders it, disputes. He also uses it (Phil. 1:17) to describe those who opposed him by proclaiming Christ “out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives.” Whatever the translation, the word points to those who are selfish in their motivation. They do what they do to promote themselves or to feed their pride. They do not live for God’s glory. God will judge not only outward behavior, but also our motives—why we do what we do.
Paul also says (2:8) that they “do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” They “do evil” (2:9). They do not submit to God’s Word and seek to please Him by obeying His commands. Rather, they live to please themselves in disregard of God’s Word.
So, at this point the crucial question is, Which path are you on? Are you doing good as you seek for glory, honor, and immortality? Or, are you doing evil as you live for yourself, disobey God’s truth, and obey unrighteousness? Maybe you’re thinking, “I kind of do both, depending on the situation!” But you can’t straddle the line! You can’t go down two roads heading in opposite directions at once. You’ve got to choose the path of righteousness that leads to eternal life and then persevere on that path. So, how do you get on the right path?
4. The way to persevere in doing good is to experience the power of God for salvation through believing the gospel.
Here is where we come to grips with the question, Is Paul contradicting himself? Is he saying here that we’re saved by works? But later, he clearly says that we’re saved by faith (Rom. 3:20-28; 4:4-5; Gal. 3:11; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9; etc.). Which is it?
I assume that Paul was smart enough not to contradict himself in the space of a couple of chapters. He has already said (Rom. 1:16) that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (the same phrase that he uses twice in our text). The power of God that saves us is not anything that sinful people can effect by their works. It is God’s resurrection power by which He imparts new life to those who were dead in their sins (Eph. 1:19; 2:1-6). God speaks and creates light out of darkness. He makes us new creatures (2 Cor. 4:4-6; 5:17). He changes our hearts, giving us new desires. Formerly, we loved the darkness and hated the light, but after God saves us, we hate the darkness and love the light (John 3:20-21; Eph. 5:8-14). By nature, “there is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10). But here we see people who persevere in seeking for glory, honor, and immortality, which can only come from God. What explains the change? They have experienced the power of God in salvation by believing in Jesus Christ.
Genuine saving faith always results in a life of good deeds. Good deeds are not the basis of salvation, but rather the evidence of it. As Paul clearly puts it (Eph. 2:8-10), “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
Good works do not earn salvation, but they are the essential evidence that a person is on the path to glory, honor, and immortality. We have to lean on God’s grace not only for salvation, but also for perseverance in good works. So we will be judged by our works, which reveal whether our faith in Christ is genuine or mere empty profession. Paul and James say the same thing: your faith is demonstrated by your works.
Two concluding thoughts:
First, to think that that you will get into heaven without good works because you prayed a prayer once or because you claim to believe in Jesus is foolish. Jesus said (Matt. 7:21-23), “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’” Genuine conversion means that God has changed your heart. If the direction of your life is not to “do good” out of love for God, you need to repent of your sins and trust in Jesus for salvation.
Second, live with your sights on eternity and the hope of hearing “well done” from the Lord who knows your heart. Would you have lived differently last week if your mind had been on that great day when you stand before Christ? Would you have spent your time differently? Would you have treated others differently? If God exists and He promises to reward those who persevere in doing good and to punish those who live selfishly in sin, it is foolish to live for this short life only. Since God will impartially judge each person according to his deeds, persevere in doing good in light of eternity!
- How do you explain 2 Cor. 5:10, that we will be recompensed for not only the good, but also the bad, in light of Romans 8:1?
- How can a believer gain a more consistent focus on “the things above,” rather than the things on earth (Col. 3:1-4)?
- How would you answer a Christian, doubting his salvation, who asks, “How much good do I need to do to prove that my faith is genuine?”
- Those in Matthew 7:21-23 who called Jesus “Lord” had done a lot to serve Him. Why did He reject them?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 11: God’s Impartial Judgment (Romans 2:12-16)Related Media
If you’ve talked with people about the gospel, you’ve heard the question, “Is God fair to judge those who have never heard about Jesus Christ?” Will they go to hell because they did not believe in Jesus when they never heard of Him? Another variation of the question is, “Won’t those who have done the best that they could do get into heaven?”
In Romans 2:12-16, Paul is establishing the point of verse 11, “For there is no partiality with God.” God will judge everyone with perfect justice. Paul is anticipating a Jewish objection, “But surely God will treat us more favorably than the pagan Gentiles. We know God’s ways as revealed in His Law, but they don’t!” Or, perhaps a Gentile would object, “It’s not fair for God to judge me for disobeying a standard that I knew nothing about! I’ve done the best that I could with what I knew. God won’t judge me, will He?”
So Paul shows that God will impartially judge everyone for sinning against the light that they were given. His line of reasoning goes like this: The Gentile sinned without the Law, so he will perish without the Law. The Jew sinned under the Law and so he will be judged by the Law (2:12). In other words, as verse 6 stated, God “will render to each person according to his deeds.” Hearing the Law isn’t good enough; you must be a doer of the Law (2:13). Although the Gentiles did not have God’s Law, they all have an inner sense of right and wrong (2:14). And, although occasionally they may do what is right, they all have sinned against what they know to be right. Their consciences and thoughts convict them of their guilt (2:15). But whatever they may think of themselves, the day is coming when God will judge not only outward deeds, but also the secrets of men through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the gospel (2:16). To sum up, Paul is saying:
Since God will impartially judge everyone for sinning against what they know to be right, everyone is guilty and thus everyone needs the gospel.
These verses are not easy to interpret and so godly scholars differ on many issues. There are two main views, going back into the verses that we covered in 2:6-11. One camp argues that verses 7, 10, and 13 are hypothetical. That is to say, if anyone actually could persevere in doing good and obeying the Law, he would be saved by his obedience. But no one is able to do it, so no one can be justified by keeping God’s Law (Rom. 3:20). Justification is only through faith in Christ, apart from works (Rom. 4:4-5).
True, says the other camp, but genuine saving faith always results in a life of obedience to God’s Word (Eph. 2:8-10). We are not saved on the basis of our good deeds, but our good deeds necessarily show the validity of our faith (James 2:18-26). Thus while we are saved by faith alone, we will be judged by our works. Because (as we saw last week) this is the consistent teaching of all of Scripture, Paul is not talking here about something hypothetical.
Rather, he is showing that God’s impartial judgment of all people will be on the basis of their works. Those who are doers of God’s Word will be acquitted and go to heaven. Those who disobey God’s Word will be condemned and go to hell. At this point Paul is not looking at how a person enters into a life of obedience, but rather at the results of it. As we saw last time (and will see again today), we can only live in obedience to God if we have experienced the new birth through faith in Christ. Thus verse 13 (as also 2:7 & 10) is not talking about sinless perfection, but rather about direction. Those who live on the path of obedience to God’s Word are those who will be justified at the final judgment.
Let’s trace Paul’s argument verse by verse:
1. God will judge everyone based on the light that they were given (2:12).
“For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law.”
“For” shows that Paul is explaining verse 11, “For there is no partiality with God.” Verse 12 means that God will judge each person according to the light that he was given. The Gentiles, who did not have the Law, will be judged apart from the Law. The Jews, who received God’s Law, will be judged by that Law. But, note carefully: Both groups have sinned and both groups will be judged for their sin. The Gentiles who sinned without the Law will perish, which refers to eternal condemnation. We have to wait until verses 14 & 15 to answer the question, “How could the Gentiles be guilty of sin if they didn’t have the standard of God’s Law to live by?” But the point of verse 12 is that God will judge every person, Gentile or Jew, according to their response to the light that they were given. So God can’t be accused of partiality.
Jesus taught the same thing in a passage that boggles your brain as you try to grasp it. In Matthew 11:20-24 we read:
Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”
Jesus is saying that there will be degrees of punishment in hell, based on the amount of light that a person has rejected. Those who witnessed Jesus’ miracles and yet rejected Him will be judged more harshly than those in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, who never heard about Jesus. What is brain-boggling is that Jesus knew how the pagans in those cities would have responded if they had witnessed His miracles. And, in the case of Sodom, He easily could have had the angels who went there to destroy the city perform enough miracles to bring them to faith. But He did not do that! Sodom did not repent and was judged on the basis of the light they rejected. They will spend eternity in hell for their sins. But their judgment will be lighter than that of the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, who witnessed Jesus’ miracles, but still rejected Him.
But don’t let this be a fascinating brain-teaser without applying it: How much light have you received? Have you responded to the light you have received by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? If not, what kind of judgment will you face when you stand before God?
2. Hearing the Law does not justify before God; only doers of the Law will be justified (2:13).
“… for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.”
Paul again uses “for” (see also, 2:11, 12, and 14) to show that he is explaining or proving what he has just said. The Jews boasted in having God’s Law. They heard it read every week in their synagogues. But Paul says, “Hearing it is not enough. Hearing the Law doesn’t put you in God’s favor ahead of the Gentiles, who have not heard the Law. The issue is, doing it. Only those who do God’s Law will be acquitted or justified on judgment day.”
Again, many commentators understand Paul here to be speaking hypothetically, in that no one is able to keep God’s Law perfectly or to earn salvation by good works. As Romans 3:20 says, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:20 is that all have sinned and thus all need God’s saving grace through the gift of His Son, who died to redeem sinners who trust in Him. No one can earn right standing before God by good works.
But, while that is clear, there are reasons to argue that Paul is not talking here about hypothetical perfect obedience, which no one can do, but rather about a direction of obedience, which those who have been born of God’s Spirit do practice consistently.
For one thing, this agrees with the uniform teaching of the Bible, that God will judge everyone impartially by his works (see last week’s sermon). A person’s works reveal the reality of his faith. Works are the inevitable and essential proof of saving faith (Eph. 2:8-10). Paul is not saying that a person earns justification by obedience. Rather, he is describing those who will be justified by God on judgment day. They are doers of the Law. They obey God’s Word as a way of life.
Also, there are biblical examples of those who are doers of the Law (or, God’s Word). In Romans 2:26-27, Paul mentions the physically uncircumcised man who keeps the requirements of God’s Law. He goes on (2:28-29) to specify that he is not talking about outward observance of the Law only, but rather, obedience from the heart. He is describing Gentiles who have been saved by faith and now demonstrate their faith by obedience to God’s Word. In Romans 8:4, Paul says that through the cross (8:3), “the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” In other words, those who have trusted in Christ’s death now walk by the Holy Spirit and thus fulfill God’s Law.
In Luke 1:6, it says of John the Baptist’s parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, “They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” This does not mean that they were sinlessly perfect, because Zacharias goes on to sin by not believing the word of the angel that they would have a child in their old age. Nor does it mean that they somehow would earn eternal life by their blameless obedience. Rather, because they had trusted in God and received His mercy, they became consistent doers of the Law. Their deeds proved that they would be justified on judgment day. (In defending this interpretation, I have relied on Frederic Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], pp. 118-122; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], loc. cit.; Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], pp. 179-204; and, John Piper, “There is no Partiality with God” [part 2], on desiringgod.org.)
So, Paul’s argument thus far is that God is not partial to the Jews by giving them the Law, because He will judge everyone based on the light that they were given (2:12); and, hearing the Law only does not justify anyone; we must be doers of the Law (2:13).
3. Those who do not have God’s Law still have an inner sense of right and wrong that condemns them when they violate it (2:14-15).
“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, …”
Some argue that Paul is referring here to saved Gentiles who obey the Law and thus are justified. Rather, he brings up the Gentiles to show his Jewish readers that having the Law and occasionally obeying it are not enough. So verse 14 explains (“for) the first half of verse 12, that “all who sin without the Law will also perish without the Law.” Even unsaved Gentiles have an inner sense of right and wrong. Sometimes they do what they know to be right. But they often disobey what they know to be right, so that their conscience condemns them. They will be guilty before God on the day when He judges their secret sins (2:16).
Paul is not saying that the Gentiles instinctively know all of the stipulations of the Mosaic Law. Rather, he is pointing out the obvious fact that even pagans, who have had no exposure to God’s revealed Law, have a built-in sense of right and wrong that coincides with God’s Law. He is not referring to the promise of the New Covenant, when God’s Law will be written on the heart of believers (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). Rather, when he says that “the work of the Law [is] written on their hearts,” he probably means, what the Law does, namely, teaching the difference between right and wrong (H. C. G. Moule, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges [Cambridge University Press, 1903], p. 71).
Paul is referring to the fact that almost all cultures believe that murder, stealing, rape, assault, etc. are wrong. Treating others as you want to be treated, obeying just laws, and loving your mate and your children are right. C. S. Lewis opens his argument in Mere Christianity [Macmillan, pp. 17ff.] by showing how even pagans have this sense of right and wrong. They all hold to a standard of behavior that they expect others to hold to also.
But, there is a problem: Even though we all have this built-in sense of right and wrong, we all have violated our own standards. When we do, we justify it by various arguments. “I know that I treated him wrongly, but he had it coming!” “I know that I shouldn’t cheat on my taxes, but everyone else does it. Besides, the government wastes so much money. And I’m not a millionaire!” So our conscience and our thoughts go back and forth, either condemning us or trying to defend us. That’s what Paul is describing.
The conscience is not an infallible guide, but we should never go against our conscience. It is not infallible in that it needs to be informed by Scripture, not just by what our culture may think is right or wrong, or by what we may instinctively feel is right or wrong. I have heard of new Christians, for example, who were so influenced by our godless culture, that they had no inner sense that it is wrong for a couple who love one another to have sexual relations outside of marriage. Their conscience was not reliable. It needed to be informed by the unchanging standard of God’s Word.
But Paul’s point is that every culture has standards of right and wrong that often coincide with God’s Law. And every person has a conscience that condemns him when he violates what he knows to be wrong.
To recap, in answer to the objection that God’s judgment is unfair because He gave the Jews the Law, Paul says, “No, God will judge everyone by the light they have been given and sinned against. Hearing the Law is not enough; it is the doers of the Law who will be justified. With the Gentiles, not having the Law is no excuse. They instinctively know what is right and wrong and they all have violated what they know to be right, as their consciences affirm. Finally,
4. On judgment day, God will judge the secrets of everyone through Christ Jesus according to the gospel (2:16).
“… on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ.”
The connection between verses 15 & 16 is not obvious, which has led some to put either verses 13-15 (KJV) or 14-15 (NIV) in parenthesis. Thus they tie verse 16 back either to verse 12 or verse 13. But that is not necessary. The connection is that the present work of the conscience in either accusing or defending the sinner will reach its climax on the final day of judgment, when God will judge even the secrets of men by His righteous standards. Whether a person had God’s Law or not, he will stand guilty before God on that day.
There are several things that we should not miss in verse 16 (C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 31:373-384, has an excellent sermon, “Coming Judgment of the Secrets of Men,” from which I modified these points).
First, there will be a certain day of judgment. God has fixed the day (Acts 17:31). If we believe that, we’d better be ready! And if you don’t believe it, that does not mean that it will not happen! Unless Jesus was a liar or mistaken, that day is coming (Matt. 16:27; John 5:22, 24-29).
Second, on that day, God will judge the secrets of everyone. That is a scary thought! God doesn’t just look at our outward deeds. We can put on a pretty good show towards others. We can impress them with our knowledge of the Bible or our prayers or religiosity. But God knows every secret thought we have and private sin that we do. He knows the hidden prideful motives, even when we outwardly serve Him. He knows the lustful glance that no one else sees. He knows every click of the mouse on your computer, even late at night when no one else is around. He sees the seething anger in your heart, even when you camouflage it. Nothing will escape His penetrating gaze on judgment day.
Third, when God judges the secrets of men, it will be through Christ Jesus. Jesus made the astounding claim (John 5:22-23), “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” There couldn’t be a clearer claim to deity than that! For Christ to sit in judgment on the secrets of all men, He must have infinite knowledge, which only God can have (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 58).
Also, this means that if you have a picture in your mind of Jesus as being all-loving and never judgmental, then you do not have the biblical picture of Jesus. He described Himself as the judge of all! In Revelation 19:11-15, He returns on a white horse to judge and wage war. His eyes are a flame of fire. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood. From His mouth comes a sharp sword to strike down the nations. “He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (19:15). So if that isn’t your image of Jesus, you need to change your thinking!
Fourth, this final judgment is according to Paul’s gospel. At first glance, this doesn’t sound like good news! But, if there is no judgment for all sin, then there is no need for a Savior and thus no good news (Morris, p. 129; Spurgeon, p. 383). The gospel does not offer you the option of going on in your sin or shrugging it off as if it will not come under judgment if you do not repent. As Spurgeon put it (ibid.), “With deep love to the souls of men, I bear witness to the truth that he who turns not with repentance and faith to Christ, shall go away into punishment as everlasting as the life of the righteous.” We need to understand the bad news of judgment in order to appreciate the good news of salvation through faith in Christ.
Paul calls it “my gospel” both because he had personally owned it and to defend it against critics who accused him of preaching grace to the neglect of good works (Rom. 3:8). Paul is saying that the gospel he preached was in complete harmony with the solemn truth that God will judge the secrets of men. He “will render to each person according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6).
Spurgeon rightly argues (p. 384) that if we do not preach the coming judgment and wrath of God, we do not preach the gospel at all. We would be like a surgeon who didn’t want to tell his patient that he is ill. He hopes to heal him without his knowing that he was sick. So he flatters him that he is well and the man refuses the cure. Such a doctor would be a murderer. And so are we, if we do not warn people about God’s impartial, certain judgment of our every secret, and then point them to the good news that Christ offers forgiveness to repentant sinners as their only hope.
- How would you answer the objection, “What about the heathen who have never heard about Jesus?”
- What arguments support that 2:13 is not hypothetical, but rather describes the direction of life of those who are saved?
- Why is the conscience not a totally reliable guide? How can we make it more reliable? Should we ever go against our conscience? Why/why not?
- Why is it important to emphasize that God will judge our secrets (2:16)? What practical implications does this have?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 12: What Hypocrisy Does (Romans 2:17-24)Related Media
A pastor had been preaching on the importance of daily Bible reading. He and his wife were invited for a meal at a parishioner’s home. While there, the pastor’s wife saw a note that the hostess had written on her kitchen calendar: “Pastor/Mrs. for dinner—dust all Bibles” (from Reader’s Digest [March, 1990], p. 129).
Hypocrisy—presenting ourselves as something that we know we’re not—is one of the most subtle and dangerous of sins. Seven times Jesus thundered against the religious leaders of His day, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matt. 23:12, , 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29; v. 14 is probably not original). He warned the disciples (Luke 12:1), “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Leaven spreads subtly and pervasively, until the whole lump of dough is affected. So does hypocrisy. It is a perpetual danger for the religious, and especially for religious leaders. It is the root sin that Paul confronts in our text.
From Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul shows why all people need the gospel of God’s righteousness imputed to the believing sinner: because we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). First (1:18-32), he shows how the pagans who suppress the truth in unrighteousness are guilty before God. Then (2:1-16), he shows how outwardly moral people have violated their own standards and thus are guilty before God. In doing so, he quietly sneaks up on the Jews, who prided themselves on their special standing before God. But he doesn’t mention them by name until verse 17. Up to this point, they have nodded in approval as Paul indicts the Gentiles. But now, he springs the trap on them.
The Jew thought himself exempt from God’s judgment on three grounds: (1) He was a son of Abraham (John 8:33), not a Gentile dog! (2) Unlike the pagans, he had God’s Law, revealed to Moses on the holy mountain. (3) He was circumcised, again in contrast to the defiled Gentiles.
Paul shows how being a Jew by birth cannot save anyone (2:17, 28-29); how having the Law cannot save those who do not keep it (2:17-24); and, how being circumcised in the flesh is of no avail if the circumcised man does not keep the entire Law (2:25-27; this analysis from Alva McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace BMH Books], pp. 81-82.)
In our text, Paul mainly focuses on the Law (2:17, 18, 20, 23 [twice]). He is applying the point of 2:13, “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” The Jews will not escape God’s righteous judgment because they were Jews and possessed the Law, unless they obeyed the Law, which they did not do. So he exposes their hypocrisy and shows the spiritual devastation of hypocrisy:
Hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite, damages unbelievers, and dishonors God.
If you’ve ever been deceived by a con artist, you know that the reason he got your money is that you didn’t know at the time that you were being deceived. If you had known, you wouldn’t have let him get your money. And, once you find out, you’re embarrassed that it happened, and so you tend to cover it up in order to save face.
Hypocrites don’t get into hypocrisy deliberately by thinking, “I’d like to bring God’s judgment down on myself by being a hypocrite. That sounds like the way to go!” Rather, due to pride, they think, “I want people to respect me. If they knew what I was really like, they wouldn’t respect me. So I need to keep up a good front. Besides, everyone does that to some extent.” So he tries to impress others, forgetting that God examines the heart. He ends up deceiving himself in the worst way. At the heart of this process is this basic principle:
1. Hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite because he knows the truth but doesn’t obey it.
James 1:22 states the principle: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers, who delude themselves” (emphasis added). These Jews that Paul confronts felt secure before God because of their religious heritage as Jews. They had God’s Law; they could confidently teach it to others. But they were deluded because they were hearers of the Law, but not doers of it.
At the outset, we need to understand that this is not a racial attack on the Jews. Paul was not being anti-Semitic. He himself was a Jew. He loved the Jewish people so much that he said that he would be willing to spend eternity in hell if it meant the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:1-3)! Any form of racism against any race is sinful. If we’re honest, as we read Paul’s indictment of the Jews here, we will see ourselves, because we’re all prone to hypocrisy. We all easily fall into the trap of trying to impress others with how spiritual we are, while our hearts are far from God. So we need to apply these verses carefully to our own hearts! Paul shows five ways that the hypocrite is deceived:
A. The hypocrite is deceived because he may know the doctrine of election, but he misapplies it.
Paul first hits the Jew for taking pride in his birth as a Jew (he will hit this further in 2:28-29). When Jesus confronted the Jews with being enslaved to sin, they arrogantly pointed to the fact that they were Abraham’s children and even made the ridiculous statement, we “have never been enslaved to anyone” (John 8:33; see, also, vv. 39, 53). They knew that they were God’s elect, but they grossly misapplied it!
Moses had told the Jews (Deut. 7:6), “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” But he knew that they were prone to get puffed up with pride, thinking that God chose them because they deserved it. So he goes on to tell them that God didn’t choose them because of anything in them, but rather because of His love and His faithfulness to His covenant promises to their forefathers.
Just as God chose the Jews to be His people, so He chooses us to believe in Christ and be His people (1 Pet. 2:9; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:4; Rom. 8:29; 9:11-23; 1 Cor. 1:26-30; etc.). He did not do this because He foresaw anything of merit in us, including our faith. Rather, He did it to display His unmerited favor (grace), so that we would glorify Him (Eph. 1:6).
So if you boast in being one of God’s elect, you’ve missed the whole point of the doctrine of election. Knowing that God chose us in spite of our sin should humble us and cause us to glorify Him for His mercy and love.
B. The hypocrite is deceived because he knows God’s commandments, but does not obey them on the heart level.
Paul says of the Jew, you “rely on the Law.” All of the things that Paul mentions in verses 17-20 are good, in and of themselves. There were many advantages to being a Jew (Rom. 3:1-2; 9:4-5). It’s good to rely on God’s Law, if you truly obey it. It’s good to know His will and be morally discerning. The problem was that the Jews relied on the fact that they had received God’s Law as if it would magically protect them, even though they didn’t obey it.
Paul probably had in mind Micah 3:11, where the prophet rebuked the Jewish religious leaders for their sin and then said, “Yet they lean on the Lord saying, ‘Is not the Lord in our midst? Calamity will not come upon us.’” In the LXX, the word “lean upon” is the same rather uncommon Greek verb that Paul uses to say that they “rely on” the Law. So, the Jews in Paul’s day thought that relying on the Law would protect them from judgment, even though they disobeyed it (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 159-160).
Of course, the Jews did obey some of the external requirements of the Law. They were fastidious about ceremonial cleanliness. They meticulously tithed even their table spices. They fasted and prayed at the stipulated times. But Jesus rebuked them because while they honored God with their lips, their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6). They knew God’s commandments, but they just kept those that could be seen by men, so that they looked spiritual. They didn’t seek to please God from the heart. Hypocrisy is all about maintaining outward appearances, with no regard to obedience from the heart.
C. The hypocrite is deceived because he boasts in God, not to honor God, but to honor himself.
Paul says (2:17), you “boast in God.” Again, this is a good thing to do in and of itself. Jeremiah says (Jer. 9:23-24), “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord.” Paul says (1 Cor. 1:30-31), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
So boasting in the Lord is good, if our aim is to give Him all glory for our salvation. But Paul’s Jewish readers were boasting in God in the sense of elevating themselves above the pagan Gentiles, who did not know God. It was a form of spiritual pride, where they said, “We know the only true God, but you don’t! We’re better than you are!” They were like the super-spiritual faction in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12). Some were saying, “I am of Paul,” and others, “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas.” But some boasted, “I am of Christ!” They were boasting in God, but not to honor God, but to honor themselves. But they were deceived by their hypocrisy.
D. The hypocrite is deceived because he knows theological fine points, not for the purpose of obedience, but to impress others.
Paul says (2:18), you “know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law.” Again, these are good things in and of themselves. We should be diligent to study God’s Word so that we know His will. His Word teaches us discernment, so that we can approve the things that are essential (or, “excellent,” ESV). This refers to moral discernment. But, as Charles Hodge (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 61) comments on that phrase, “It was not their moral judgments, but their moral conduct that was in fault.” It is good to be “instructed out of the Law,” that is, God’s Word. Biblical and theological knowledge is a good thing, in that it helps us to know God and His ways as He has revealed Himself.
But the goal of understanding theology is never to be able to win arguments or impress others with our great knowledge. Rather, it should humble our hearts before God and lead us to worship Him more fervently and obey Him more thoroughly.
Then Paul turns to how his Jewish readers applied their spiritual privileges. We learn a final way that hypocrisy deceives us:
E. The hypocrite is deceived because he confidently teaches others, but does not apply the Word to himself.
Paul continues (2:19-20), you “are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth.” God appointed Israel to be “a light to the nations, to open blind eyes” (Isa. 42:6-7). If they had done it with humility, it was a proper thing to do.
But everyone who teaches God’s Word must first apply it to himself. Knowledge without obedience puffs us up with pride (1 Cor. 8:1), which is the root of hypocrisy. Spiritually proud hypocrites who have a lot of knowledge without obedience look down on the blind, foolish, and immature that they teach. But when you apply the truth to yourself first, it humbles you as you realize where you’ve come from and how much you still need to grow. You realize that if God had not graciously shed His light on you, you’d still be in the dark, too!
I once wrote a short article on preaching titled, “The Gospel Boomerang.” I pointed out how preaching is a hazardous occupation. You aim your biblical arrows at your congregation, intending to hit them where they need to change. But you quickly discover that God’s Word is not just an arrow—it’s also a boomerang! It comes back and clobbers the preacher with how he needs to change! As John Calvin said, “It would be better for [the preacher] to break his neck going up into the pulpit if he does not take pains to be the first to follow God” (cited by T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press], p. 40). Before we teach others, we need to apply the Word to our own hearts.
That’s what Paul goes on to confront these Jewish teachers with (2:21-22): “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”
Paul’s first two examples are easy enough to understand. Sadly, we’ve all known of preachers who have done what he accuses the Jews of doing. They have preached against stealing, but then it comes out that they were embezzling money from the church. Or, they preached against adultery, but they are exposed for committing that very sin. It happened with the Jewish religious leaders in Paul’s day. It still happens today. Whenever it happens, it’s a spiritual tragedy.
But what does Paul mean when he accuses the Jews of robbing temples? Almost all scholars agree that this does not refer to sacrilege (KJV), but to robbing pagan temples to get the idols or their gold for sale. But we don’t have much evidence from history that the Jews were known for robbing pagan temples. Moses warned the Israelites that when they conquered pagan nations, they must burn the pagan idols with fire and not covet the gold or silver on them (Deut. 7:25). In Acts 19:37, the town clerk who quieted the Ephesian riot, said of Paul and his men, these men “are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess.” So, perhaps the practice was more widespread than we know about.
But it is still a bit puzzling as to why Paul picked these three sins to bring against the Jews. While some Jewish leaders may have been guilty of such flagrant sins, most Jews would probably have said, “Yes, Paul, we agree that those sins are terrible. Shame on anyone who does these things, but we don’t do them.” So why did Paul bring up these sins?
He may have been picking especially shocking sins as examples to argue that the Jews did not keep the Law they possessed and taught (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 133-134). He could be saying that although not all Jews did these things, the fact that some do them illustrates that having the Law and teaching it does not spare you from God’s judgment if you don’t practice it. The implication, then, would be, “Maybe you don’t do these sins, but do you keep the whole law? Are you without sin?” (The previous two thoughts are from John Piper, “The Effect of Hypocrisy,” Part 2, Dishonoring God, on desiringgod.org.) Douglas Moo explains (ibid., p. 165), “It is not, then, that all Jews commit these sins, but that these sins are representative of the contradiction between claim and conduct that does pervade Judaism.”
To summarize, Paul is saying that hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite because he knows the truth, but he doesn’t obey it on the heart level. His knowledge feeds his pride, rather than humbles him, because he doesn’t examine his own heart and teach himself first. But, hypocrisy not only deceives the hypocrite. Also,
2. Hypocrisy damages unbelievers.
“For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written” (2:24). Paul is citing Isaiah 52:5, where because of Israel’s sin, the nation has been destroyed and the people taken into captivity. Because of their sin, the Gentiles mock their God, who was not, in their minds, able to deliver them. But the real cause of their captivity was not God’s inability to rescue, but rather Israel’s disobedience. It made their God look bad.
The point is, if we tell others that we’re Christians, but we’re living in disobedience to God, unbelievers will mock the Christian faith. If a professing Christian is dishonest in business or immoral in his personal life or abusive towards his family, the world concludes, “Why follow their God? Who needs that kind of life?” And while God is sovereign in saving His elect, humanly speaking, a sinning Christian keeps a needy sinner from the only good news that can save him. We were supposed to be a light to those in darkness (2:19), but we ourselves were in the dark. We may well be the only “Bible” that those in the world around us ever read. Our lives should make them want to know our God.
Hypocrisy deceives the hypocrite and damages unbelievers. Finally, and most seriously, …
3. Hypocrisy dishonors God.
Verse 23 may be a rhetorical question or it may be read as a statement: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, you dishonor God.” This is the root sin of all sin, to dishonor or not to glorify God: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In Romans 1:21, the Jews would have cheered as Paul indicted the Gentiles because they did not honor God or give thanks. But now Paul brings the same charge against the Jews. God chose Israel to be a glory to Him (Isa. 43:7). But by their disobedience, they have failed to honor God. In the same way, God chose us to be “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:4, 6). But if we disobey His Word, we dishonor Him.
Sometimes, living in obedience to God’s Word is presented as the path to blessing, and it is. If we obeyed God’s Word by loving our wives as Christ loved the church and if we consistently showed God’s kindness and grace toward our children, we would be blessed with happy families. God knows what is best for us and obedience to His Word brings blessing. Disobedience always results in pain and trouble.
But the main reason we should want to obey God is not to be blessed, but rather, to honor Him. The main reason we should fear disobedience is that God’s holy name would be dishonored. He is infinitely worthy of all honor and glory and praise. So we should fear the sin of hypocrisy, of putting a veneer of godliness over disobedient hearts, because we do not want to dishonor the all-glorious God who saved us for His glory.
Since deception is always a tricky thing to overcome, how can we overcome the deception of hypocrisy? There are no slick formulas, but let me offer a few action points:
First, fight daily to maintain reality with God on the heart level. Meet with Him in the Word and in prayer, not to check off that you did your “quiet time,” but to come before Him and expose everything in your heart to Him. Confess your sins and your struggles. Seek His strength. Be aware that He examines your heart (1 Thess. 2:4).
Second, cultivate honesty and humility towards others. Don’t try to impress others with your godliness. Let them know that you are weak, but the Lord is strong. Pick up Stuart Scott’s booklet, “From Pride to Humility” on the book table and go over it often.
Finally, when you read and meditate on the Bible, aim at applying it personally. Ask, “So what? How am I supposed to live in light of this text?” And, if you struggle with a particular sin (anger, lust, greed, etc.), memorize relevant verses to help you apply it. Don’t let the sin of hypocrisy deceive you, damage unbelievers, or dishonor our glorious God!
- How can we cultivate the constant sense that Paul had, that God “examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4)?
- How honest should you be with others? Should you share all of your struggles? If you don’t, are you being a hypocrite?
- How can we cultivate genuine humility and thus avoid hypocrisy?
- Why should honoring God, not seeking happiness, be our number one priority? What is practically involved in this?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 13: Ritual Versus Reality (Romans 2:25-29)Related Media
Who are the most difficult people to reach with the gospel? I realize that only God can save a soul and that nothing is too difficult for Him. But, from a human standpoint, some types of people seem to be more difficult to bring to saving faith than others are (Luke 18:24-27). The Bible shows us that the most difficult people to reach are religious people who trust in their religion. They relish their rituals and religious traditions. They don’t see their need for a Savior from sin because they view themselves as pretty good people. They think they are right with God because of their religious performance (Luke 18:11-12).
They may be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Baha’i, Mormon, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. They can even be Baptists! They think that their performance of their religious rituals will somehow commend them to God. But they lack reality with the living God on the heart level.
Paul knew that the most difficult people to reach with the gospel were not the pagans whom he described in Romans 1:18-32. Like Matthew or Zaccheus (Luke 5:27-32; 19:1-10), the tax collectors, or like the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), many obviously wicked people know that they are sinners. They may not be sure that God could ever forgive them. But they welcome that news when they hear it.
But the religious Jews didn’t see themselves as sinners and so they didn’t see any need for a Savior. They trusted in their Jewishness, in their possession of God’s Law, and in their conformity to the prescribed religious rituals, especially circumcision. Why did they need the gospel? Why did they need to get right with God? Didn’t Paul know what kind of people they were?
Yes, Paul knew. He was one of them. At one time, he had taken great pride in his circumcision, his Jewishness, and his zeal for the Jewish religion (Phil. 3:4-6). But he didn’t know Christ. He didn’t have his sins forgiven. He wasn’t reconciled to God. So now he wants his fellow Jews who trusted in their religious rituals to see their need for the gospel. So he hits them with what would have been a shocking argument: the obedient Gentile will fare better on judgment day than the disobedient Jew. Paul is trying to strip every religious person of his religiosity as the basis for acceptance with God, so that he will be driven to the cross of Christ for mercy. He wants us to see that…
Reality with God is not a matter of outward conformity to religious rituals, but rather of obedience that results from God changing your heart.
Paul here hits the first and third reasons why the Jew would claim to have exemption from judgment. The first was, “I am a Jew, a son of Abraham.” Second, “We have the Law given to our chosen nation.” (Paul dealt with that in 2:17-24.) Third, “I have been circumcised, unlike those unclean Gentiles.” But Paul shows that being true Jew and being truly circumcised are not outward matters, but matters of the heart.
1. Reality with God is not a matter of outward conformity to religious rituals (2:25).
“For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25).
God instituted the practice of circumcision (the removal of the male foreskin) as a sign of His covenant with Abraham, over 500 years before He gave Moses the Law (see Genesis 17). It symbolized moral purity and separation from the world unto God. Under the Law of Moses, it became a sign of membership in the covenant community. So as a God-ordained ritual, circumcision was of value to the Jews as a reminder of their covenant relationship to God and of the need to be morally set apart to God.
When Paul says that circumcision is of value, he is speaking to the Jews as Jews. When he addresses those who are in Christ, he says (Gal. 5:6), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” Circumcision was a Jewish sign of the covenant that ended when Jesus instituted the new covenant. Except for hygienic reasons, it holds no value for believers in Christ.
Also, when Paul says, “circumcision is of value if you practice the Law,” I do not understand him to mean, “if you practice the Law perfectly.” Some think that when Paul mentions keeping the Law in this section (2:25, 26, 27), he is speaking hypothetically of perfect obedience, which no one can do. But I understand him to be referring to a lifestyle of obedience to God’s Law, which is possible for those who have been born again (Luke 1:6; 2:25). For such Jews before the cross, circumcision was of value.
But the perpetual danger of religious rituals, even of those that God commands, is that they become external only. Thus from the earliest times Moses exhorted Israel (Deut. 10:16), “So circumcise your heart….” Later (Deut. 30:6), he again gave the ritual a spiritual meaning when he promised, “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” Later, the prophet Jeremiah preached with similar imagery (Jer. 4:4), “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.”
Moses and Jeremiah were making the point that the physical ritual of circumcision had to be accompanied by its spiritual meaning, namely, holiness and obedience to God on the heart level. Without such reality with God, the ritual had lost its essential meaning and was virtually worthless.
But by Paul’s day, the Jews had come to put great stock in the ritual itself. Several of the Jewish rabbis taught that no circumcised man will go to hell (Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 63). So Paul is standing in line with Moses and Jeremiah when he tells the Jews that if they do not obey God’s Law, their “circumcision has become uncircumcision.” They might as well be pagan Gentiles if they lived in disobedience to God. Their circumcision meant nothing.
How do we apply Paul’s words to Christian “rituals”? Do the rituals of the ancient Christian church have spiritual value for us today? Many who were raised in evangelical circles have moved to Episcopal, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox churches because they felt that the rituals and liturgy made them feel closer to God. Are we missing something if we abandon these rituals?
First, we need to be clear that there are only two “rituals” (or “sacraments” or, better, “ordinances”) prescribed in the New Testament: baptism and communion. To add other rituals, or to invest those two rituals with meaning that is not taught in the New Testament, is to worship God falsely. In New Testament terms, every believer is a priest (1 Pet. 2:9), and so we do not need a human priest, dressed in special robes and vestments, offering the sacrifice of the mass or performing rituals on our behalf. Jesus is our high priest and He offered Himself as the complete and final sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 9:11-14; 10:1-14).
Also, the New Testament is clear that being baptized or partaking of communion are of no spiritual value, unless you do them out of faith in Christ. Baptism, whether performed on infants (which I believe is wrong) or on those old enough to understand what it means, does not convey salvation or forgiveness of sins. Neither does partaking of the Lord’s Supper. If the baptized person acts in obedience to Christ as a confession of saving faith in Christ, then baptism is of great value. If we partake of the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of His death on our behalf and of all that that means to us, it, too, is of great value. We should not minimize or abandon these rituals. But there is no spiritual benefit conveyed just by going through these religious rituals, apart from reality with God through faith in Christ. So Paul’s first point is that reality with God is not a matter of outward conformity to religious rituals.
2. Reality with God is a matter of obedience that results from God changing your heart (2:26-29).
At this point, Paul would have shocked his Jewish readers. He makes the point that…
A. God regards obedience that results from a changed heart as righteous, apart from religious ritual (2:26-27).
Paul writes (2:26-27), “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?”
He means, “If a Gentile obeys the moral requirements of God’s Law, God will count him as righteous, even though he is uncircumcised!” And, even more shocking, “The obedient, but uncircumcised Gentile some day will condemn you who have the written Law and have been circumcised, but are disobedient to that Law.” He does not mean that obedient Gentiles literally will act as judges against the Jews, but rather that they will “be a witness for the prosecution in the sense that the Gentiles’ obedience will be evidence of what the Jew ought to have been …” (C. E. B. Cranfield, cited by Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 139).
There is debate about who is the uncircumcised man who keeps the requirements of the Law. Is this merely hypothetical? Does Paul mean that no Gentile has ever kept the Law or could do it, but if he could, he would be counted as circumcised and thus condemn the Jew? Or, could Paul be referring to unsaved Gentiles like Cornelius (Acts 10), who were devout, God-fearing men? Or, is he referring to Gentiles who really do obey the Law because God has changed their hearts?
As I’ve already said, it seems to me that Paul is talking about genuinely converted Gentiles, who keep God’s Law because God has circumcised their hearts through faith in Christ. Paul will explain this in verses 28 and 29, where he says that being a true Jew (which means, one who is in right relationship with God) is not a matter of external circumcision, but of internal circumcision of the heart, brought about by the Holy Spirit. Thomas Schreiner (who gives much more support for this point than I can cite here, The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], pp. 197-201), states (p. 198), “Paul’s main point in this section is … that no one can be saved and observe the law without the Holy Spirit. Those who have the Spirit are empowered to observe the law (8:4), but one only receives the Spirit by believing in Jesus, whom God has set forth as a propitiation for sin (3:21-26).”
So Paul’s point in 2:26-27 is that God regards obedience that results from a changed heart as righteous, apart from keeping the external ritual of circumcision.
B. Reality with God depends on His Spirit changing your heart, not on the performance of religious rituals (2:28-29).
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:28-29).
Again, this would have been shocking to the Jew of Paul’s day, who took great pride in being a circumcised son of Abraham. The Jews despised the “unclean” Gentiles and took great pride in their Jewish lineage and religious rituals. But they wrongly were concerned more about outward matters than about their hearts before God. As Jesus said (Matt. 23:25), they cleaned the outside of the cup, but inside they were full of sin. So Paul cuts through all of the external privileges and practices and says that the main thing in God’s sight is not the outward, but the inward. Reality with God is a matter of the Holy Spirit changing your heart, not of your performing religious rituals.
Paul uses four somewhat overlapping contrasts to drive home this point: (1) not outward, but inward; (2) not the flesh, but the heart; (3) not the letter, but the Spirit; and, (4) praise not from men, but from God.
(1). Reality with God is not an outward matter, but inward.
Jesus made this point in the Sermon on the Mount when He pointed out that you have committed murder in God’s sight if you’ve been angry with your brother. You’ve committed adultery in God’s sight if you’ve lusted in your heart after a woman, even if you’ve never touched her. God looks on the heart. You can impress people with polished prayers, powerful sermons, generous gifts to the church, and all sorts of religious activities. But all the while you’re impressing people, God is looking at your heart. What was your motive when you did those things? And, what kinds of thoughts were you entertaining? You can take the communion elements while you’re lusting after the girl sitting nearby or while you’re angry with your mate. To have reality with God, you’ve got to focus on the inward. Of course, if you’re right inwardly with God, it will express itself properly in outward deeds. But the outward must begin with the inward.
(2). Reality with God is not a matter of the flesh, but of the heart.
Paul says (in line with Moses and Jeremiah) that true circumcision is not a matter of the flesh, but of the heart. This means that we must deal with sin on the heart or thought level. We must put to death or cut off the deeds of the flesh when they occur in our minds. Paul says (Rom. 8:12-13), “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
This means that the second you are tempted, turn from it, cry out to God’s Spirit for the strength to run from it, and fill your thoughts with Christ (Rom. 13:14; Col. 3:1-4). If you develop that habit, you will not fulfill the deeds of the flesh by outward sins.
(3). Reality with God is not a matter of trying to keep the letter of the Law in your strength, but of God’s Spirit changing your heart by faith in Christ.
In Ezekiel 36:25-27, God promised a spiritual revival for His sinning people: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” While those promises will still be fulfilled with the Jews in a future revival (Rom. 11:2-32), they also now apply to all who believe in Christ. Ezekiel was talking about the new birth, which Jesus told the religious Nicodemus he needed (John 3:1-16). Nicodemus’ observance of religious rituals was not enough. He needed God’s Spirit to give him a new heart by faith in Jesus’ death on the cross for his sins.
The “letter-Spirit” contrast is a salvation-historical one (Schreiner, Romans, p. 142; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 175). The letter refers to the past age of the Law and its many commandments. The problem was, the Law combined with sinful human flesh, resulted in disobedience and death (Rom. 7:5-6; 2 Cor. 3:3-11). The Law by itself did not give the power to obey it. But now that God’s Spirit has been poured out on His people and He has changed our hearts, we are able to obey God from the heart (Rom. 6:17; 8:1-4; 13). Reality with God means that His Spirit has changed your heart so that now you are able joyfully to obey Jesus Christ.
(4). Reality with God means that you do not receive praise from men, but from God.
This refers ultimately to the rewards that we will receive from God when Christ returns. In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says that when the Lord comes, He “will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”
This means also that those whose hearts the Spirit has circumcised live with a new focus. Rather than seeking to impress others with their religious activities, as the Pharisees did, they seek to please God from the heart. Instead of focusing on what others think of us, we focus on what God thinks of us. As Paul said when he contrasted himself with the Judaizers, who focused on the ritual of physical circumcision (Phil. 3:3), “For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
This final phrase, “his praise is not from men, but from God,” is a word play that the Jews would have picked up on. Although Paul wrote in Greek, his Jewish readers would know that in Hebrew, Jew comes from Judah, meaning, praise (Gen. 29:35; 49:8). So Paul has a double meaning: “his Judaism/praise is not from men, but from God.” In other words, the one who has experienced the circumcision of his heart by the Holy Spirit is the true Jew. He hasn’t just gone through a religious ritual, but he is now pleasing God, who gave him a new heart through faith in Jesus Christ. He isn’t practicing his religion to get the praise of men (Matt. 6:1-6). Rather, he lives before God, so that one day he will hear, “Well done.” His praise will be from God.
If you had asked one of these religious Jews, “Are you going to heaven?” he would have been offended. He would have said, “Of course, I’m going to heaven!” If you had pressed him for the reasons that he was going to heaven, he would have said, “I’m a Jew. I’ve been circumcised.” In other words, he would have had absolute assurance of his salvation, but it was false assurance!
Why should God let you into heaven someday? “I was raised in a Christian home.” That doesn’t matter. “I believe in God and I’ve always gone to church.” Nope! “But, years ago I invited Jesus to be my Savior and was baptized.” But, has God changed your heart so that you now seek to love Him, obey Him, and please Him on the heart level? Do you live to know Christ more deeply? Are you growing in victory over the deeds of the flesh and in habitually displaying the fruit of the Spirit? If your honest answer is, “Well, not really,” you may be into ritual, not reality with God.
In the fall of 1999, I stepped inside of the Orthodox Church at the town square in Timisoara, Romania. The architecture was beautiful. Icons were everywhere. Candles floating in water lit up the dimly lit sanctuary. My eye was drawn to a woman, seductively dressed, who was kneeling before an icon, praying with tears running down her cheeks. A priest with his full beard and long robe walked by and looked approvingly at her. I wanted to grab him by his robe and shout, “Tell her about the blood of Jesus that cleanses from all sin!” The woman was going through the prescribed religious rituals. Only God knows her heart, but my guess was, she didn’t have the reality of knowing Jesus.
Reality with God is not a matter of going through religious rituals or of a general belief in God. Rather, reality with God means having a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. Reality with God means that He has changed your heart and you now see the evidence of that change by a lifestyle of obedience to His Word. Don’t substitute religious ritualism for true spiritual reality with the living God! Following religious rituals has never saved anyone. True religion is a matter of God changing your heart.
- How can we keep the biblically-prescribed “ritual” of communion from becoming a meaningless repetition? Are we free to abandon rituals that have lost their meaning?
- Why does the fallen human heart gravitate towards ritual over reality? What are the spiritual benefits and dangers of rituals?
- Jonathan Edwards’ thesis in Religious Affections was that “true religion, in great part, consists of holy affections.” How can we cultivate such “holy affections,” or heartfelt feelings?
- Since the fallen human heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9), how can we guard our hearts so that we walk in reality with God?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 14: Objections Answered (Romans 3:1-8)Related Media
If you share the gospel with unbelievers, you will encounter a number of common objections: Why does a good and loving God allow so much suffering in the world? Why is Jesus the only way to God? Will God send good, sincere people from other religions to hell? What about all the people who have lived and died without ever hearing about Jesus? Will they be punished eternally in hell even though they never had the chance to believe? Is this fair? What about all the errors and contradictions in the Bible? What about the contradictions between science and the Bible? Etc.
I gave two messages last summer dealing with these and other objections, so I’m not going to speak directly to these questions today. (See “Witnessing: Answering Questions and Objections,” Parts 1 & 2, June 27 & July 4, 2010, on the church web site.) But our text shows the apostle Paul responding to questions and objections that he anticipated in response to his teaching in chapter 2. These were probably questions that he had often encountered when he preached the gospel in Jewish settings. He knew that religious Jews would challenge his statements (2:28-29) that being a true Jew and being truly circumcised were not external matters, but rather, matters of the heart. His aim is to show that even the most religious of Jews, like the Gentiles, are all under sin and thus need the gospel (3:9-20).
So in rapid fire he raises and answers a series of questions that Jewish critics would have fired at him. If you find it difficult to track with the flow of Paul’s argument in these verses, you’re in good company. Many commentators admit that these are the most difficult verses to interpret in Romans. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Righteous Judgment of God [Zondervan], p. 174) says that many say they are not only the most difficult verses in Romans, but also in the whole of Scripture! John Piper devoted an entire sermon on these verses to answer the question, “Why God Inspired Hard Texts” (on desiringgod.org). John Bunyan (cited by William Newell, Romans Verse by Verse [Moody Press], p. 74) composed a little ditty: “Hard texts are nuts—I would not call them cheaters: whose shells do oft times keep them from the eaters.” So to eat the meat of this “nut,” we have to work hard to crack the shell.
First I want to try to explain the text, because we cannot properly apply any Scripture unless we understand what it is saying. Then I will offer some practical applications. First I will give an overview; then we’ll work through the text more carefully.
The first question Paul anticipates in response to his comments that being a Jew or being circumcised physically are not what matter is (3:1), “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” These are the same question stated in two ways to correspond to Paul’s assertions in 2:28-29. To paraphrase, Paul’s Jewish readers would have objected, “Paul, if being a physical descendant of Abraham and receiving the sign of circumcision are of no value, then you’re throwing out the entire Old Testament! What good are God’s promises to Abraham? What good was God’s choice of the nation Israel?” Paul replies (3:2), “Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
That leads to a second objection (3:3): “What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?” Does Jewish unbelief negate God’s promises? Paul responds with horror to the thought that God might be unfaithful (3:4): “May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.” Then he cites David from Psalm 51:4 to show that God is faithful whether He keeps His promises or whether He judges guilty sinners. He is glorified in both instances.
This leads to a third objection (3:5): “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.)” If our sin glorifies God’s righteousness in judgment, then isn’t God unrighteous to punish us for it? Paul apologizes for even stating such an ungodly thought and then adds (3:6), “May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?”
But the objector isn’t silenced yet. He restates the objection of verse 5 (in 3:7): “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?” The absurd idea is, if my sin brings God glory when He judges me, then He should thank me, not judge me! Paul takes it further by alluding to some slanderous charges that had been leveled against his teaching (3:8), “Let us do evil that good may come.” He replies tersely, “Their condemnation is just.”
Now let’s work through this dialogue more carefully. I will paraphrase the critic’s challenge, followed by Paul’s response.
1. “Doesn’t your argument about being a Jew inwardly imply that there is no advantage in being a Jew?” “No, because God entrusted His Word to the Jews.” (3:1-2)
The Jewish critic is saying, “Your view, Paul, takes away all the advantages that the Old Testament promised to the Jews. In effect, you just wiped out the entire Old Testament!” Because of what Paul said in 2:28-29, you would expect him to answer, “You’re right! Being a Jew or being circumcised doesn’t get you anywhere.” But instead, he surprises us by saying, “Great in every respect.” He then says, “First of all,” but he doesn’t list a second or third. Much later (9:4-5), he gives a list: “who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” All of Romans 9-11 is devoted to answering the question of whether the unbelief of the Jews somehow nullified the promises of God.
But in Romans 3:2, Paul only lists one great advantage of being a Jew: “They were entrusted with the oracles of God.” This refers to the Old Testament as a whole, with special reference to God’s promises of salvation (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 182; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 149). God had not revealed Himself in this specific way to any other nation on earth (Deut. 4:8; Ps. 147:19-20). God promised through the Jewish prophets, as recorded in the Old Testament, to send the Savior of the world through them (John 4:22). Through the symbolic significance of the Temple and of the laws and sacrifices, the Jews uniquely had God’s revelation about the coming Messiah and Savior. All the other nations were left in spiritual darkness. God entrusted the Jews with His very Word!
This was a great privilege, but also a great responsibility. To have the light of God’s Word and yet to reject it means that you are more accountable than the person who had no light except the general revelation of creation (Rom. 1:20; Matt. 11:21-24). During two thousand years of human history from Abraham to Christ, the pagan nations worshiped their false gods, offering sacrifices to appease their anger, living in fear and confusion, with no hope of salvation. But the Jews knew how to approach the living and true God, maker of heaven and earth. They had His promises to send the Savior. The godly in Israel were looking for the fulfillment of that promise (Luke 2: 25-32). What an unspeakable privilege!
But the fact that many in Israel did not believe in God’s promises of salvation leads to the second objection:
2. “But doesn’t the unbelief of many Jews nullify God’s promises?” “No, Jewish unbelief does not nullify God’s faithfulness to them or His right to judge their sin.” (3:3-4)
“What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, ‘That You may be justified in Your words, and prevail when You judge’” [most scholars agree that the last verb is active in meaning, in line with Ps. 51:4].
Paul answers this more thoroughly in Romans 9-11, where he shows that the widespread Jewish unbelief did not thwart God’s sovereign election of a remnant. There is still a future widespread conversion of the Jews, when “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). But here, he first gives some grace to his critics by asking (3:3), what if some did not believe? Actually, most of the Jews did not believe. Only a few were faithful. But Paul probably is being gracious so as not needlessly to offend his Jewish critics.
But then he takes it farther by arguing that even if every person in the world were unfaithful and accused God of being unfaithful to His promises, it would only mean that they all are liars and God is true. God’s faithfulness to His Word is a necessary attribute of His being. If He were not faithful, He would not be God, but a liar. But it is a given that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). If there seems to be a discrepancy between His promises and what we perceive, the fault always lies with us, not with God. In any contention, He is right, even if the whole world lines up against Him.
Paul backs up his assertion by citing Psalm 51:4, “That You may be justified in Your words, and prevail when You judge.” Psalm 51 is David’s confession and plea for mercy after his sin with Bathsheba. He agrees that God is justified in every word that the prophet Nathan spoke to David about the consequences of his sin. David has no excuses and no grounds to complain. He deserved death, but God mercifully spared his life. But God also pronounced a series of judgments against David. David is saying, “God, You are completely right in Your judgments and I am completely wrong and guilty before You.”
Paul uses this quote to show that God is just as faithful when He judges His people for their sins as He is when He saves them according to His promise. If sinners repent, God mercifully forgives the guilty, but He never treats them unjustly, even if He judges them. We all have sinned many times, so we all deserve His judgment. If He judges the guilty, He does not cease to be faithful to His promises to save those who repent and trust in Him.
At this point, those who object to Paul’s reasoning move into the realm of the ridiculous. They are showing what William Barclay (The Letter to the Romans [Westminster Press], rev. ed., p. 54) calls their “amazing ingenuity” in justifying their sin. But Paul had no doubt heard this objection when he preached in the synagogues:
3. “But if our sin demonstrates God’s righteousness, how can He judge us for it?” Paul replies, “But that argument would mean that God can’t judge even the Gentiles.” (3:5-6)
“But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?”
To paraphrase: “Paul, if you’re saying that God’s righteousness shines through when He judges us, then He would be wrong to judge us because we would actually be instruments for His glory! How can God judge us for something that He turns to His own advantage?” It’s an outrageous argument, but when people start to rationalize their sin, reason goes out the window, replaced by “amazing ingenuity”!
Paul answers this objection first by apologizing for even stating it (“I am speaking in human terms”). Then he gives the strong negative, “May it never be!” Then he asks a question that he knows his Jewish opponents would not want to concede: “For otherwise, how will God judge the world?” The Jews wanted God to judge the Gentiles for their many gross sins, but they thought that the Jews would get a free pass. But Paul is saying that their line of reasoning would prohibit God’s judgment on anyone. If the sins of the Jews bring God glory and thus should be exempt from His judgment, then the sins of the Gentiles would also merit exemption. Their argument proves too much.
But Paul’s critics are not ready to concede defeat, so they rephrase the objection of verse 5 again in verse 7:
4. “But your teaching, Paul, implies that if my sinning abounds to God’s glory, not only should I not be judged; also, I ought to sin all the more.” “That’s ridiculous! You just hung yourself!” (3:7-8)
Paul shifts here to the first person. Some (John Piper, “Let God Be True Though Every Man a Liar,” on desiringgod.org; the following is my summary) think that Paul is using himself to refute the critic by saying, “Take me, for example. If you think that what I’m teaching here is false, but my lie results in greater glory for God, then how could God judge me?” In other words, “The argument that you’re using to prove that God should not judge you (3:5) applies to me, also. If God shouldn’t judge you for your sin, then neither should He judge me if I’m lying.” Or, Paul may be using the first person to individualize his critics’ argument by bringing it home to the individual’s conscience. In this case, verse 7 should be in quotes, as the critic asks, “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?”
Paul adds a logical extension of this retort (3:8), “And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come’? Their condemnation is just.” In other words, Paul’s critics accused him of teaching that if our sin magnifies God’s grace, then let’s sin a lot so that God will be more glorified! The end justifies the means. But Paul has shown that his critics have just hung themselves. If they accuse Paul of arguing that we should sin more to bring more glory to God, they accuse themselves, because that’s where their excuses for their own sin lead (3:5, 7). So Paul refutes them with a terse, “Their condemnation is just.” Their absurd conclusions reveal that they are under God’s righteous judgment.
Although Paul’s argument in these verses is not easy to follow, his bottom line is pretty clear:
If you contend with God, He will win and you will be condemned.
Paul’s bottom line is, you can raise all the objections you want against God, but in the end, He wins and you lose. You will end up under His just condemnation.
Now (hopefully) that we understand the text, let’s apply it:
1. Spiritual privileges do not give you any advantage with God if you do not respond in faith and obedience; rather, they increase your accountability to God.
Israel as a nation was given amazing spiritual privileges. They were the only nation on earth entrusted with the very words of God. But rather than responding in faith and a life of thankful obedience to God, most of the Jews rebelled against Him and worshiped the idols of the pagan nations around them.
If you grew up in a Christian home, you have an amazing spiritual privilege. Your parents taught you about God and the way of salvation that He provides in Jesus Christ. They took you to a church where you could hear God’s Word explained and applied. But, have you responded with faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior? Have you repented of your sins? Do you seek to walk in obedience to God’s Word? If not, on judgment day growing up in a Christian home will prove not to have been a blessing, but a curse, because it increased your accountability to God.
2. The Bible is a great treasure that God has entrusted to us. Therefore, we should study it and seek to obey it as the only wise way to live.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones applies this point this way (ibid., p. 171): “So the point, therefore, at which you and I start is this: we say, ‘This is no ordinary book, this is the Word of God.’ Do we show that we realize that and what a privilege it is, by reading it, studying it, delving into it, spending our time praying over it?” He continues by saying that we should not just quickly read over a few verses as a matter of custom in the morning before rushing off to more important things. Rather, we should say, “Here God is speaking to me, …” He says that if we really believed that the Bible is God’s direct word to us, we would not spend more time each day reading the newspaper and other things than we do seeking to understand and apply “the oracles of God.”
John Wesley, the great 18th century evangelist, wrote about the Bible (cited by James Boice, Romans: Justification by Faith [Baker], pp. 279-280):
I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God, just hovering over the great gulf ’till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing—the way to heaven, how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!
If God has entrusted us with His very word, then surely it must be the foundation of our life and the light for our path in this dark world! Do not neglect your Bible!
3. If you are fighting against God, you are fighting a losing battle. The only way to win is to give up and submit to Him.
There are many things in God’s Word that are difficult to understand, such as the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. There are things that are difficult to rejoice in, such as the doctrine of eternal punishment. There are matters that are hard to understand: Why does God allow little children to suffer terrible things? Why does He allow many to live and die with no gospel witness? Why doesn’t God tear down the satanic strongholds of false religions that deceive millions? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t wrestle with these hard issues and try to think them through more carefully.
But, there are two ways to approach these hard matters. You can come as a submissive child, asking the Father to give you more light, so that you will know Him and His ways more accurately, so that you can obey Him more fully. Or, you can come as a critic, demanding that God give you answers, as if He owes it to you.
If you try to prove that you’re right and God is wrong, you’re on thin ice! Even though you may not understand God or His ways, you have no right to contend against Him or accuse Him of wrong. The Book of Job shows that even the most righteous man on the face of the earth has no grounds to contend with God and demand answers, even if he feels that he is suffering unjustly. Learn from Job to slap your hand over your mouth, admit your own insignificance in God’s presence, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 40:4; 42:6). If you fight against God, you lose. If you submit to Him, you win. So wrestle with your questions in a spirit of submission, not defiance.
4. Be careful not to use your questions and objections as an excuse for not repenting of your sin and trusting in Christ.
It’s easier to rationalize sin rather than to repent of it. It’s easy to latch on to some objection about God or the Bible, use that objection to dodge the clear truth of the Bible about Jesus Christ, and then justify your own sin. The Lord Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of God’s Word. If He is true, then every objection against Him is a lie. God will prevail when He judges all sin. Make sure that you have repented of your sin and taken refuge in the Lamb who was slain for sinners! Jesus Christ and Him crucified is God’s final answer to every objection!
- Why is it important to approach difficult spiritual questions with a submissive attitude? Does this mean setting aside your reason or logic? Why/why not?
- What spiritual privileges has God given to you? How have you responded? Do you need a course correction? How?
- When you’re sharing Christ with a person raising objections, how can you know whether he is trying to dodge his sin or whether he is sincere? How should you respond in either case?
- Was there any basis for the criticism that Paul taught, “Let us do evil that good may come”? See Rom. 6:1. Does a proper view of God’s grace perhaps open one up to that criticism?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin)
Lesson 15: All Under Sin (Romans 3:9-18)Related Media
The late well-known preacher Harry Ironside once asked a man after a gospel meeting, “Are you saved, sir?”
“No, I really can’t say I am, but I would like to be.”
“Why would you? Do you realize you are a lost sinner?”
“Oh, of course, we’re all sinners.”
“Ah! But that often means little or nothing. Are you a sinner yourself?”
“Well, I suppose I am, but I’m not what you could call a bad sinner. I am, I think, rather a good one. I always try to do the best I know.”
Ironside went on to tell the man that there was little use in showing him the way of salvation. Good sinners are like honest liars and upright thieves: they are far from ready to admit that they are vile, hell-deserving sinners who need God’s grace to be saved (Illustrations of Bible Truth, H. A. Ironside [Moody Press], p. 71).
Most people view themselves as “good” sinners. They would say, “I know I’m not perfect. I’ve got my share of faults. But I’m not a murderer or terrorist or child molester. I’m a decent person. So, yes, I’m a sinner, but I’m a good sinner.”
“Good” sinners, especially religious ones, are the most difficult to reach with the gospel. They faithfully attend church. They give money to the church. (The stained glass window has a plaque commemorating their generous gift!) They serve on the church board. Their family has been a mainstay in the church for many generations. “Who do you think you are, preacher, to call me a sinner? I’ll get you fired if you keep talking like that!”
But Paul, like Jesus before him (see Matthew 23), talked like that to the most religious people he knew, the Jews. Paul knew that if the Jews trusted in their religiosity and good works, they would not see their need to trust in Jesus as their Savior. If they did not feel the condemnation of their true moral guilt before the holy God, they would not sense their need to be rescued from the coming judgment. Even if they professed to trust in Christ, but thought that He had forgiven them just a little, they would only love Him a little (Luke 7:47).
So as Paul comes to the conclusion of this section showing why everyone needs the gospel, namely, because everyone is under God’s just condemnation, he strings together a number of Old Testament texts to show the Jews (who professed to believe those Scriptures) that he wasn’t making this up. Through machine-gun fire repetition, Paul shows that…
Since all people are under sin, they all need the good news that God has provided a Savior from sin.
First (3:9), he summarizes the charge which he has leveled (1:18-3:8), “that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” Then (rallel, Ps. 53:1-3). Scripture also shows that all of us are guilty of sins of speech (3:13-14). Verse 13 quotes from Psalms 5:9 and 140:3. Verse 14 comes from Psalm 10:7. Also, we all have committed sins that destroy harmonious relationships (3:15-17). These verses cite Isaiah 59:7-8. The root cause of our sinful behavior comes back to our relationship with God (3:18): “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (citing Psalm 36:1). The quotations are not in every case verbatim from the LXX, which may mean that Paul was either citing from memory or translating from the Hebrew into Greek. But this rapid-fire string of quotations shows that the Bible clearly establishes that everyone is under sin.
But some may think, “Now wait a minute! I’ve got my faults, but I’m not nearly as bad as this description! I’ve bent the truth at times, but verses 13 & 14 do not describe my speech. And I’ve never murdered anyone as verse 15 alleges. Unlike verse 17, I’m a peaceable man.”
But like the list of sins in 1:29-32, Paul isn’t saying that every sinner does all of these sins all the time. Rather, he is saying that the seeds for all of these sins are planted deeply in every fallen human heart. Through His common grace, God prevents sinners from being as terrible as they would be if He didn’t restrain them. But if you can read this description of human nature and think, “Thank God I’m not like that,” then God has not opened your eyes to the true condition of your heart. As Jesus pointed out, if you have ever been angry with another person, in God’s sight you are a murderer. If you’ve ever lusted, you’re an adulterer. By nature, your heart is “under sin.” If you had been reared in less favorable circumstances and had not met Christ, there is no limit to the sins to which you would be enslaved (see Eph. 4:17-19).
If we don’t understand how bad the disease is, we won’t seek the cure, whether for ourselves or to share with those who outwardly seem to be “good” folks. So let’s examine Paul’s penetrating analysis of sin.
1. All human beings, with no exceptions, are under sin.
Paul begins by summarizing his charge (a legal term; 3:9), “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”
Scholars debate how to translate the first three phrases. Without getting into all of the technical arguments, I think that the way the NASB translates it is probably the best: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all….” But, you still have to determine, who is “we” and who are “they”? Again, without delving into the various arguments, I think it’s best to understand “we” as “we Jews” and “they” as the Gentiles. But, that seems to make Paul contradict in verse 9 what he said in verse 1, that the Jews have many advantages over the Gentiles. But he is considering two different issues. In verse 1 he is saying that there are many spiritual advantages to being born a Jew, if the Jew will take them. But in verse 9 he is coming back to what he argued in 2:17-29, that the Jews are just as much under sin and in need of God’s salvation as the Gentiles are.
And so in verse 9 he restates his charge that the entire human race (“Jews and Greeks”) is under sin. This is the first occurrence of sin in Romans. Paul goes on to use that word nearly 50 times from here through chapter 8. He is charging that both religious people and raw pagans are under sin. Relatively “good” people and rotten scoundrels are under sin. As an ancient Chinese proverb observed, “There are two good men—one is dead and the other is not yet born” (cited by S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. “Studies in Romans: Part IX: The Universality of Sin,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 131:522:164).
Then, to show that he didn’t make up this charge, Paul cites Scripture. Verse 10b, “There is none righteous, not even one.” is not verbatim from Psalm 14:1, which reads, “There is no one who does good” (or, LXX, lit., “kindness”). Paul may be blending Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” with Psalm 14:1.
But whatever the source, verses 10-12 drive home the fact that every human being, without exception, is under sin: “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’”
Paul hammers the lid with so many nails that you cannot pry it open: none righteous; not even one; none who understands, none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one! Paul does not let anyone slip under the radar! We all have sinned.
To be righteous means to be blameless with regard to God and to our fellow man, to live in perfect conformity to God’s law (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Righteous Judgment of God [Zondervan], pp. 197-198). So Paul means “that there is not a single person who, apart from God’s justifying grace, can stand as ‘right’ before God” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 203).
When Paul says (3:9) that all are “under sin,” he means that everyone is under the guilt of sin. This is not to say that everyone feels guilty. A mafia hit man may not feel the slightest twinge of guilt after shooting a man in the face. Afterwards, he goes to dinner with his friends and jokes about the look of horror on the victim’s face just before he blew him away. But although he doesn’t feel guilty, he is truly guilty of murder in God’s sight. To be “under sin” means that we are truly guilty of violating God’s holy law. We will be condemned when we stand before Him for judgment, unless our sins are atoned for through Christ’s blood.
Also, to be “under sin” means that outside of Christ, we are under the power of sin. It dominates our lives so that we obey its lusts. Paul refers to this as being slaves of sin (Rom. 6:6, 16-22). Again, this does not mean that unbelievers are as wicked as they possibly could be. Nor does it mean that they are incapable of being kind or doing good deeds. Rather, in God’s sight and by His perfect standard of righteousness, even their good deeds are as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). They do them ultimately to exalt self, not to glorify God.
Also, note that being “under sin” means that sin, like a disease, affects their entire being. Acts of sin are the symptoms of the underlying disease. Their understanding or mind is darkened (3:11; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 4:18). Their motivation is warped, so that they do not seek God or fear Him (3:11, 18). Their speech, which comes out of their heart (Matt. 12:34), is corrupt (3:13-14). Their behavior is selfish and destructive (3:15-17). Their entire way of life (“path”) is misdirected (3:16, 17). So all human beings and all parts of all human beings are under sin.
2. Sin negatively affects our relationships with God and with other people.
The two greatest commandments are to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). Sin sabotages both relationships.
A. Sin negatively affects our relationship with God.
God warned Adam and Eve that in the day they sinned, they would die (Gen. 2:17). This referred to the curse of physical death, but also to spiritual death, being cut off from the life of God in their souls. Since their original sin, the entire human race is born in sin, alienated from the life of God. Hence, no one is born righteous, not even one. No one, apart from God’s saving grace, is able to seek or attain righteousness in God’s sight, because we all sin often in many ways. The assessment of Genesis 6:5 is not limited to the human race just prior to the flood, but is true of all who are outside of Christ: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
When Paul says (3:11a), “there is none who understands,” he is referring to moral and spiritual understanding (see 1:31; Matt. 13:14, 15, 19, 23, 51). Outside of Christ, our minds are darkened with regard to spiritual truth, as we’ve seen. As Paul explains (1 Cor. 2:14), “But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
“There is none who seeks for God” (3:11b) means that, apart from God’s drawing the sinner to Himself (John 6:44, 65), none could or would seek for Him. As Jesus said (John 3:19, 20), “Men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”
Furthermore (3:12a), “All have turned aside.” As Isaiah 53:6 puts it, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way….” We deliberately tossed aside God’s roadmap to heaven and took what we thought would be a shortcut. But it got us hopelessly lost.
Also (3:12b), “Together they have become useless.” The word useless is used of sour milk or of rotten fruit. Our lives are useless to God because of our sin. Then (3:12c, d) Paul repeats verse 10 with a slight variation, “There is none who does good, there is not even one.” Since “good” in God’s sight means to do what we do for His glory, no one outside of Christ does good. Everything we do before we come to Christ is tainted by the disease of sin.
At the end of this section (3:18), Paul comes back to another sin issue that negatively affects our relationship with God, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is the root problem. Since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), the one who does not fear God is a fool. He hasn’t even entered the kindergarten of wise living, because he does not revere God. He does not bow in awe before God’s sovereignty, majesty, and glory. He does not fear God’s judgment on his sins.
Since the fear of God is not “before his eyes,” it means that God is not at the center of his thoughts. The sinner does not live with the awareness that he is accountable to God and dependent on God for all things. He does not think about the fact that God could easily say (Luke 12:20), “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” Sin negatively affects our relationship with God.
B. Sin negatively affects our relationships with others.
Sin prevents us from obeying the second great commandment, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We’ll look at these destructive behaviors more in just a moment, but here I just want to point out the obvious, that people who use deception and abusive speech (3:13-14) do not have harmonious relationships. People who use anger and threats of violence are on the path of destruction and misery, not on “the path of peace” (3:15-17) They shred harmonious relationships.
3. Sin always has destructive results.
Again, I am stating the obvious, but it needs to be stated. Why do we fall into sin? Because we wrongly think that it will bring us the happiness and satisfaction that we long for. True joy and lasting pleasure is found only in God. As David wrote (Ps. 16:11), “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”
But maybe you aren’t experiencing God’s joy and the pleasures of His presence. Maybe you’re in a difficult marriage. You know that you ought to obey God by being faithful to your mate and by loving her as God has commanded. But it’s not easy. Along comes a seductive woman at work who shows an interest in you. She seems as if she will give you the happiness that your wife is not providing. So you give in to temptation, fall into adultery, get a divorce, and marry the new “Ms. Right.” Will you be happy?
Not for long, because sin is like buying stuff on credit. For a short while, you can live like a king. Travel wherever you want, stay in five star hotels, and eat in the finest restaurants. What a great life! But then the bills start coming due, and life isn’t so great anymore! Sin provides short term pleasure, but long term pain. Obedience is often difficult in the short term, but it yields pleasures forever at God’s right hand.
Also, note how sin destroys relationships. Paul (3:13a) describes the throat of sinners as an open grave. The idea is that the stench of a corpse belches out. The person who gets near such a place will be defiled. Also (3:13b), the tongues of the wicked “keep deceiving.” They use smooth speech to beguile you, but all the while they are trying to use you for their own evil advantage. “The poison of asps is under their lips” (3:13c) just waiting to strike and kill their victim. Their “mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (3:14). They not only take the Lord’s name in vain, but they use curses to get power over their enemies. They are bitter, unforgiving people. They seek to destroy others, and the result is misery and no peace (3:16-17).
In some cases, sin destroys the sinner himself by driving him to suicide. His sin has alienated him from God and from all human relationships to the point that he loses all hope. He has no peace with God, no peace with others, and no peace in his own soul. In despair, he destroys himself. Sin always has destructive results.
So Paul’s picture of the human race, fallen in sin, is pretty grim. First, he allows no exceptions: all people, even so-called “good” people, are under sin. Second, their sin negatively affects their relationships with God and others. Third, sin always has destructive results. It never gets us where we hope it will take us. It leaves a trail of destruction and misery.
If I stayed strictly with our text, I’d end the message here and say, “Have a great week!” There isn’t much hope in these verses. And, he’s not quite done. Next time, we’ll look at verses 19 & 20, which close his case. But Paul knows that unless you feel the despair of the awful disease of sin, you won’t take the cure. But rather than end on a downer, let’s briefly look at verses 21 and following, where Paul gives us the cure:
4. All people need to hear the good news that God has provided a Savior from sin.
Paul breaks in with one of the great “buts” of Scripture (3:21, 22): “But now apart from the Law [which we could never keep perfectly] the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” He is going back to 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Or, as we saw, the last phrase may be translated, “But the righteous man by faith shall live.”
The greatest news in the world is that although we all are under sin’s condemnation, by faith in Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty we deserved, we can receive God’s gift of eternal life. As Paul says (Rom. 3:24), “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Have you received that gift?
There are modern preachers, some with huge, “successful” churches, who would never preach the message of Romans 3:9-18. It’s too negative. It puts people down. It tears down their self esteem. It makes them feel terrible about themselves. It sounds harsh, not loving.
But Paul knew that the most loving doctor will tell you the truth about your disease. If he knows that you’re terminally ill and he has the cure, but he just hugs you and tells you that you’re wonderful and sends you out the door, he doesn’t love you. Or, if he doesn’t tell you the bad news that you’re terminal, he knows that you would not take the chemotherapy that could cure you. If you don’t think you’re sick, you won’t take the medicine.
In love, God (through Paul) tells you the grim truth: you’re terminal under sin. You’re headed for eternal condemnation. But then He gives you the good news: God will justify the guilty sinner who puts his trust in Jesus Christ and the redemption He secured on the cross. It’s not a dreadful cure, like chemo. It’s a wonderful cure! Believe in Him today and you will be freed from the curse of sin and death!
- Why are “good” sinners the most difficult to reach with the gospel? What is their root sin?
- If no one can seek for God unless God first seeks him, is it futile to exhort sinners to seek the Lord? Why/why not?
- Some professing Christians argue that fearing God is an Old Testament concept, but that the New Testament emphasizes His love. What Scriptures would you use to refute this?
- How would you answer someone who claims that his sin (immorality, drugs, lying, etc.) has brought him happiness that he lacked when he tried to obey God?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 16: Why God Gave the Law (Romans 3:19-20)Related Media
Have you ever noticed how prone you are to excuse yourself and blame others? This especially comes out when I’m driving. The driver who whizzed past me is a maniac. The granny in front of me holding up traffic by her slow driving is a road hazard. But me? Hey, I drive just right!
The guy who spends less than I do is a tightwad. The guy who spends more is irresponsible. But me? I’m a careful manager of what the Lord gives me.
We chuckle at these examples, but if we go through life justifying ourselves and blaming others, the day will come when we won’t be laughing. We’ll be standing before God, all of our excuses will evaporate, our mouths will be closed, and we will hear the Sovereign Judge pronounce, “Guilty as charged!” At that point, it will be too late to plead for mercy.
As we’ve seen in recent messages, the most difficult people to reach with the gospel are relatively “good” people, especially religious “good” people. They go to church. They are outwardly moral. They take pride in their good deeds. They think, “Sure, I’ve got my faults. Who doesn’t? But, God knows that I’m a basically good person. Criminals and terrorists may deserve hell, but I’m not like they are.” Filled with self-righteousness, they trust in their good works to justify them on judgment day. They don’t see their need for a Savior from sin. And so they never repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ.
Paul is like a prosecuting attorney, summing up his case. He’s still aiming at the self-righteous Jews. In Romans 3:9, he sums up his case, “for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” Then, to cinch his case with the Jews, he cites from their own Scriptures to prove that there is none righteous, not even one (3:10-18).
But he’s not quite done. Paul realizes that religious, “good” sinners are very difficult to convince of their sin. He knows that they still may be thinking, “The passages you just quoted, Paul, refer only to wicked Jews or to the Gentiles. But I’m a good, law-keeping Jew. Those verses don’t describe me!”
So Paul shows (“we know” appeals to something that is common knowledge, which even the religious Jews would agree with) that the Law speaks to all who are under it. Yes, God’s Law condemns the Gentiles, too, so that “the whole world may become accountable to God.” But the Law speaks to those who are “in the Law” (literal translation), namely, to the Jews. He is showing that their own Law, in which they boasted, condemns them. They will not be justified by the Law unless they have kept it perfectly, which no one has. We can’t expect to be justified by a law that we have only kept occasionally and have broken often. That is his closing argument before resting his case.
But this raises a question: Then why did God give the Law? Paul shows,
God gave the Law to reveal His standard of absolute righteousness to convict us all of our true guilt before Him, so that we would see our need for the gospel.
We all need to understand and apply this text personally, so that we abandon any attempt to justify ourselves. We need to trust in Christ alone. Also, we need to understand these verses so that we can use them to dislodge the propensity of others toward self-righteousness, so that they will see why they need to believe in the gospel. This is by far the most common problem that you will encounter when you talk to others about their need for the Savior. They’re blind towards their own sin. They wrongly think, “God will let me into heaven because I’m a good person.” They can’t imagine how a loving God could damn them eternally for their “few” faults. These verses show God’s standard of absolute righteousness and how that standard will convict everyone who trusts in his own righteousness. To be acquitted, we need the perfect righteousness of the Savior credited to our account (3:21-28).
1. God gave the Law to reveal His standard of absolute righteousness.
When you tell people that they have sinned against the holy God, you will often hear, “God knows that I’ve done the best that I could. I believe in the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. I try to live by the Sermon on the Mount.” They seem to think that if you try to do your best, even if you fail thousands of times, God will let you off on judgment day. He will reward your effort, not penalize your failures. Besides, if He demanded perfection, no one could be saved! Precisely!
But James 2:10 points out, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” We don’t like to admit this, but if you think about it, you have to admit it. If a man stole your credit card and used it to buy thousands of dollars of purchases, he is guilty of stealing. What would you think if, when he came to trial, he argued, “But judge, I didn’t commit adultery with his wife”? “I didn’t steal his car or burn down his house. I didn’t lie to him. I didn’t molest his children. And, besides, I try to live by the Golden Rule. I do the best that I can.” All of that is irrelevant to the main issue: “Did you steal his credit card and use it to buy thousands of dollars of goods?” If so, he is guilty in spite of all the other bad things he didn’t do and in spite of all the good things that he may be doing. He’s a law-breaker.
Let’s look for a moment at the absolute righteousness of God’s Law (Paul means the whole Old Testament), which gives us “the knowledge of sin” (3:20).
A. The two great commandments sum up God’s absolute standard.
Jesus said (Matt. 22:37-40) that the entire Law rests on the two great commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Who can possibly claim even to have come close to keeping the first great commandment? Have you, from your earliest memory, always loved God completely, with all your heart, soul, and mind, every day all day long? This would mean that you have always obeyed Him, because if you don’t obey Him, you don’t love Him. It would mean that He always has been the center of your waking thoughts. His will has been at the center of every decision that you have made. His glory has been your supreme desire and aim in whatever you think, say or do. You begin every day by worshiping Him. You love His Word more than food and meditate on it day and night. Who in his right mind can say, “You’ve just described me”?
We don’t fare any better on the second great commandment, to love our neighbor just as much as we in fact love ourselves. Did you always gladly share your toys as a toddler? In school, did you always put others ahead of yourself? Have you given generously and sacrificially to help the needy? Have you always put your mate’s needs ahead of your own? Have you always treated your children with love and kindness, even when they were disobedient? At work, did you rejoice when your co-worker got the promotion that you thought you deserved? Again, who in his right mind can say, “You’ve just described me”? What about the Ten Commandments?
B. The Ten Commandments elaborate on the two great commandments.
Surveys have shown that even though many people say that they try to live by the Ten Commandments, few can name them all. So it’s hard to imagine how anyone can keep commandments that he doesn’t even know! The Ten Commandments are found in Exodus 20:1-17 (also, Deut. 5:6-21). The first four commandments elaborate on our love for God. (1) “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (2) “You shall not make for yourself an idol….” (3) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain….” (4) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy….”
There is a debate about whether Christians under the New Covenant are under the Ten Commandments and especially about how the sabbath command applies to believers in Christ. But all of the Ten Commandments, except for the sabbath command, can be found in the New Testament. So even if we say that you are free to watch a football game on Sunday afternoon, have you perfectly kept the first three commandments? “Yes, I’ve never had any other gods before the Lord, or made or worshiped any idols.” Really? You’ve never usurped God’s rightful lordship over your life? You’ve never put your money or possessions or some pastime ahead of the place that belongs to God alone? And, you didn’t mention the third command. Have you never carelessly said, “Oh, my God”? Or, “Oh, Jeez”? Most of us have said far worse in a moment of anger!
Skipping how you have violated the Lord’s Day, let’s move on to the other six, which focus on your love for others: (5) “Honor your father and mother.” (6) “You shall not murder.” (7) “You shall not commit adultery.” (8) “You shall not steal.” (9) You shall not bear false witness….” (10) “You shall not covet….”
None of us have made it through childhood by always honoring our parents. As for murder and adultery, let’s wait until we come to the Sermon on the Mount. But, what about stealing? Have you never taken what does not belong to you? Have you always claimed all of your income on your tax forms and never fudged on a deduction? What about lying? Have you always told the truth, even if it made you look bad? And have you never coveted something that belongs to someone else?
“But I’m a Christian. I try to follow Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.” Really? You just jumped from the frying pan into the fire!
C. The Sermon on the Mount reveals that God judges us on the heart level, not just on external obedience.
As I just alluded to, Jesus brought up the command about murder. While the self-righteous Pharisees were congratulating themselves that they had never killed anyone, Jesus nailed them (and us!) by saying that if you’ve ever been angry with your brother, you’re guilty of murder in God’s sight and deserving of “the fiery hell” (Matt. 5:21-22). He did the same thing regarding the seventh commandment against adultery. He said that if you’ve ever lusted in your heart after a woman, you’re guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:27-30). He sums up the requirement (Matt. 5:48): “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How can anyone claim, “I keep the Sermon on the Mount”?
The so-called Golden Rule is a part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12), “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Again, it’s a noble goal, but who can claim that they’ve done it perfectly? If you say that you have, you just broke the commandment about lying!
So Paul’s point is that God’s Law reveals His standard of absolute righteousness. As a result,
2. God’s Law convicts us all of our true moral guilt before Him.
This is Paul’s point when he says (3:19b-20), “so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”
These verses re-emphasize the universality of sin, which verses 10-12 established so forcefully. Paul makes three points:
A. The Law closes every mouth.
The picture is of an accused person standing before the judge to present his case. But in this case, the judge is the Sovereign, holy God, creator of heaven and earth! Here comes the proud atheist, who wrote books arguing that God is not great or that He is a delusion. What will he say when he stands before the blinding glory of the holy God? Nothing! His mouth will be stopped. He has no more arguments.
Or, here is the person who often complained about how unfair God is. If He were a God of love and power, He would not allow all of the suffering that we see in this world. If He would just run the universe differently (as I would!), it would be a much happier place. Now he stands before the Almighty. What does he say? Nothing! He has no defense.
Even godly men have had their down times, when they questioned God. God allowed Satan to attack the righteous Job by taking his possessions, killing his ten children, and then covering his body with painful boils. Job wanted to argue his case before God that he was being dealt with unfairly. But when God appeared and gave Job a glimpse of His power and wisdom, Job’s response was to slap his hand over his mouth, to be silent, and to repent in dust and ashes (Job 40:4-5; 42:6). Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-5), Habakkuk (Hab. 3:16), and the apostle John (Rev. 1:17) were also silenced when they got a glimpse of the glory of the Lord. The point is, when you stand for judgment before God on His throne, you won’t have anything to say. Every mouth will be closed.
I read about a woman who got a traffic ticket. She was guilty, but she thought that she had some excuses that might get the charges dropped, so she arranged to argue her case before the judge. In her mind, she imagined how the judge would ask if she was guilty. She would say, “Yes, but I want to explain why.” She would proceed to convince the judge that what she did could hardly be avoided and so the ticket should be excused. She had her argument ready.
“But,” she said, “when I came into that court and stood up there all alone, and the judge was on the bench, dressed in his black robe, and he looked over his glasses at me and said, ‘Guilty or not guilty,’ all my arguments faded.” Her mouth was stopped.
If that happened in a traffic court with a human judge, how much more will we be silenced when we stand before the Sovereign of the universe! Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], p. 19), “You are not a Christian unless you have been made speechless! How do you know whether you are a Christian or not? It is that you ‘stop talking.’”
B. The Law makes us all accountable to God.
“Accountable” is a legal term that occurs only here in the New Testament. It means that we are guilty and liable for punishment. It’s not that we are accountable in a human court, but to God Himself! He knows every evil thought that we’ve entertained. He knows every secret sin that we’ve committed. All things are open and laid bare before Him (Heb. 4:13). We’ve all broken His holy Law, not just a few times, but thousands and thousands of times. How could we possibly hope that all charges will be dropped?
But, you may wonder, how can the whole world be accountable to God through the Law, since it was only given to the Jews? Paul has already pointed out that even the Gentiles, who did not have the Law, had the work of the Law written in their hearts and consciences (2:15). But here, Paul does not seem to be referring to that, but to the Law that God gave in written form to the Jews. He is arguing from the greater to the lesser: If the Jews, who were God’s covenantal people, could not even keep His Law, then it follows that no one else could keep it either. The failure of the Gentiles is obvious (1:18-32), but here Paul is indicting the self-righteous Jews. If they are guilty, then the whole world is also accountable to God. None will escape His judgment.
C. Keeping the Law cannot be the way to justification.
Back in 2:13, Paul said, “It is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” As I explained when we studied that verse, some understand it in a hypothetical sense, that if anyone can keep the Law, he will be justified, but none can. Others (and I lean this way) say that in the context there, Paul was not speaking of hypothetical perfect obedience, but rather to the general obedience that some, by God’s saving grace, are able to perform. He was not looking at the front end of how one attains justification, but at the pattern of life of those who have been justified by faith.
But here Paul is looking at how one attains justification in the first place. It is not earned by keeping the Law, because no one can keep it perfectly. If we could earn right standing with God by our perfect obedience to God’s Law, salvation would not be by grace alone and we then could boast. Nothing that we do by way of obedience (here called, “the works of the Law”) will ever be good enough, because we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (3:23). As we’ve seen, God gave the Law to reveal His standard of absolute righteousness, not to be the way of salvation. J. B. Phillips (The New Testament in Modern English [Geoffrey Bles], p. 314) paraphrases the last clause of verse 20, “it is the straight-edge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.” Thus,
3. Our utter failure to keep God’s Law should drive us to the gospel for salvation.
Paul has been laying the foundation for this point from 1:18 through 3:20. We will study it in 3:21-28, but briefly notice (3:21-22): “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” As he goes on to say (3:24), we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” That’s the greatest news in the world: Even though we are all guilty of breaking God’s Law, He offers a pardon to all that trust in Jesus and His substitutionary death on the cross!
Years ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse, the pastor for many years of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, used to ask those with whom he shared the gospel, “When you die and God asks, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what will your answer be?” He was trying to get people to understand that their only right to heaven had to be that they were trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ and His death on the cross to pay for their sins.
On one occasion, an Arthur Murray dance instructor had been out late on a Saturday night. In the early hours of the morning, he stumbled back to his hotel room and fell into bed. The next morning, he was jolted awake by his clock radio, where the speaker asked, “If in the next few moments some great disaster should happen and you should be killed and if you should find yourself before God and he should ask you, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what would you say?”
The question amazed and confounded the dance instructor. He had never heard such a question before. He realized that he didn’t have an answer. His mouth was stopped. He sat silently on the edge of his bed while the speaker, Dr. Barnhouse, explained the answer. The dance instructor put his trust in Jesus Christ that day in his hotel room.
His name was D. James Kennedy. He went on to become the pastor for many years of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He also developed the Evangelism Explosion program that has led thousands to Christ by asking that question: “If you were to die today and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” (This story related by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 1:326-327.)
“Lord, I’ve tried to be a good person; I’ve done my best to keep the Golden Rule,” won’t cut it. “Lord, I’m a guilty sinner, but I put my trust in Your Son Jesus who died to pay my penalty,” is the only answer that will be accepted. Make sure that your trust is in Christ alone!
- Someone asks you, “Is God fair to punish sincere, relatively “good” people forever in hell?” How would you answer?
- Is it enough to explain in general terms that we all have sinned? How can we properly use God’s Law to show lost people their true guilt before God?
- Can a person be saved by believing in Christ as one who will give them a better life, without realizing his guilt? Or, must he be convicted of sin before he can trust in Christ as Savior?
- An atheist tells you, “I don’t believe in God and so I don’t believe that I will face Him in judgment.” How would you answer him?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 17: How Can I Be Right With God? (Romans 3:21-24)Related Media
Marla and I spent the infamous Y2K, when the calendar turned to January 1, 2000, in a remote village in the Czech Republic, ministering to a group of college students. One day during a break, we were walking around the village when we met a friendly local man, who took us on a nice hike and showed us around town. We told him what we were doing there.
The next day, I was in the middle of a question and answer time with the students when someone ushered in this man. He raised his hand and asked, “What is the difference between Christianity and the other religions of the world?” I thought, “What an opportunity! I get to share the gospel with this man, plus all of these students can listen as I do it!”
I then explained that all religions, including some Christian ones, such as Roman Catholicism (the Czech Republic used to be mainly Catholic, but now is largely atheist), believe that the way a person gets right with God is through good works. Every religion is man’s effort to be reconciled to God by earning His favor. But biblical Christianity is God’s reconciling sinful man to Himself apart from our good works. God sent His eternal Son to pay the penalty that we deserve so that we can be right with Him through grace alone by trusting in Jesus Christ.
I don’t know whether God used my words to open that man’s heart to the truth or not. His English was broken enough that I was not able to follow through with him via email. But his question was a vital one that leads to what is the most important question that any person can ever ask: How can I be right with God? Or, more specifically: How can a sinner such as I be right with God, who is absolutely righteous?
This is the question that Paul finally answers in our text and the following verses. I say finally because from Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul forcefully drives home the point that all people, whether the pagan Gentiles or the religious Jews, are under sin. He spent so long on that subject, especially hitting the religious Jews with their self-righteousness, because he knew that unless we feel the weight of our own sin and condemnation, we will not appreciate our need for the gospel. We need to understand the bad news before we will welcome the good news.
Paul had referred to the gospel in Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Now, he comes back to that theme, mentioning “the righteousness of God” being “manifested,” that there is “no distinction” (between Jew and Greek), and the need for everyone to come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Coming after the inescapable condemnation of 1:18-3:20, “But now” is one of the greatest contrasts in the Bible. He uses the same phrase later when he contrasts our past as slaves of sin, headed for death (ving been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” He is fond of making this same dramatic contrast in other places, also (1 Cor. 15:20; Eph. 2:4, 13; Col. 1:22). Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], pp. 24-25), “No man can be a Christian without realizing his utter hopelessness.” He goes on to say (p. 26) that the answer to whether you are a Christian or not hinges on your answer to this question, “Is there a ‘But now’ in your experience?”
In our text, Paul answers the age-old question asked several times in the Book of Job (4:17; 9:2; 25:4), “How can a person be right with God?” This is such a profound text that Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 173) calls verses 21-26, “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.” Alva McClain (Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace [BMH Books], p. 101) says that if he could only have six verses out of the entire Bible, it would be Romans 3:21-26. Lloyd-Jones (p. 31) says, “It is no exaggeration to say of this section that it is one of the greatest and most important sections in the whole of Scripture.” These and other similar comments make me feel wholly inadequate to preach on it! We desperately need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand and apply these crucial verses!
Paul shows here that if salvation depends on our works, we face two impossible barriers: the righteousness and glory of God. How can we who have sinned be reconciled to the righteous God of all glory? How can we who have dishonored Him enter His holy presence? The great news is:
Sinners can be right with God through faith in Jesus Christ and His gracious sacrifice to redeem us.
It is crucial to understand three main things in our text:
1. We all need to be right with God because we all have sinned and fall short of His glory.
After spending two and a half chapters hammering home this point, why does Paul bring it up again? He writes (3:22b-23), “for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He says it again because he knows how prone we all are, especially those of us from religious backgrounds, to minimize our sin and to justify ourselves by our good deeds. But …
A. The main issue that we all must face is how to be right with a righteous God.
When we present the gospel, we’re apt to talk about God’s love and mercy. But Paul is mainly concerned here to talk about God’s righteousness and our sin, or lack of righteousness. He mentions righteousness in verses 21, 22, 25, and 26, plus “justify” in 24 and 26, and “just” in v. 26. In Greek, all of these words come from the same word root. God’s righteousness refers to His absolute holiness or separateness from all sin and all that is wrong. But in this context, Paul is especially referring to how sinners may be justified or declared righteous in God’s sight (3:20).
“But now” (3:21) certainly must be applied personally as Dr. Lloyd-Jones brought out, but in the context, it refers to the contrast in salvation history between the era of the Law of Moses and the grace that comes through Jesus Christ. As we saw in our last study, God’s Law is not able to justify us. Rather, it condemns us by pointing out the many ways in which we have violated God’s holy standard. Since we’re all guilty of breaking God’s Law, we all must face the crucial question, “How can I get right with the righteous God in view of my many sins?”
B. Both pagans and the religious have sinned and need to be right with God.
When Paul says (3:22b) “for there is no distinction,” he means, “no distinction between Jew and Gentile.” The religious Jews would have agreed wholeheartedly with Paul that the Gentiles are under sin, but he has labored through chapters 2 and 3 to show that even the carefully religious Jew is guilty of not keeping God’s holy Law. When Paul says, “all have sinned,” he uses the Greek aorist tense. This leads some commentators to argue that he is referring to our identification with Adam in his original sin (in 5:12 he uses the same tense), which may be true. But the aorist tense may also be used to look at the fact or reality of the action itself (“constative” aorist). So Paul means, “Look around, look at yourself, and you will see that all without exception have sinned.” “Fall short” is in the present tense, meaning, we are consistently sinning and falling short of (or, lacking) God’s glory.
C. The essence of sin is to fall short of God’s glory.
What does this mean? John Piper (The Pleasures of God [Multnomah Publishers], revised and expanded edition, p. 158, note 1) explains that we were created to reflect God’s glory. He says, “We reflect his glory as we cherish it and keep it ever before us and make it the treasure and the goal of our lives.” Then he refers to Romans 1:23, where Paul says that sinners “exchanged the glory” of God for idols. He continues,
Thus we have traded treasures. We prefer other things in life to the delights of seeing and knowing the God of glory. This is the sense in which we “lack” the glory of God. We lack it as the treasure of our lives. We lack it as our passion and goal. We lack it as our all-satisfying vision. This is the essence of sin: preferring other things to the glory of God.
Of course, this is bad news, as we’ve seen. We “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But, there is a hint of good news even in Paul’s stating this bad news. If God’s Law condemns us all as sinners, how can we possibly get around it and get right with God?
2. Sinners can be right with God apart from the Law.
“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (3:21). As we’ve seen, the Law cannot put anyone in a right relationship with God. Rather, the Law reveals God’s holy standard, which convicts and condemns us for our sin.
But this new way of gaining right standing with God is apart from the Law. He means, it is apart from keeping the Law perfectly as an attempt to be right with Him. It is a completely different approach. But then, is it in opposition to the Law? No, it is “witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (which means, the whole Old Testament). Paul adds this phrase to show his Jewish readers that he is not overthrowing the Scriptures. He reinforces this in 3:31 when he says, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”
He goes on to illustrate this in chapter 4 with the example of Abraham, who was justified by faith, not by his works. He backs this up with Psalm 32, where David exults in “the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (4:6). So we would be mistaken if we thought that the Old Testament taught that sinners get right with God by keeping the Law, whereas the New Testament overthrows that and says that we get right with God by faith. In the Old Testament, God credited His righteousness to sinners who by faith looked ahead to the promised Savior. In the New Testament, that Savior has been revealed and has given Himself as the sacrifice for sinners.
To paraphrase Paul’s flow of thought here (3:20-24), “Trying to keep God’s Law will not get anyone into right standing with Him. Rather, the Law just shows us how sinful we are. So now, apart from the Law, but in line with what both the Law and the Prophets pointed to, God declares sinners righteous when they believe in His final sacrifice for sins, Jesus Christ.” That leads to…
3. All sinners can be right with God through His free grace by trusting in Jesus Christ and the redemption in Him.
Since “all have sinned,” it would be pointless for Paul to write about a way of being right with God that did not apply to all sinners. But, ironically, it is those who do not see themselves as sinners who miss God’s way of righteousness. If you don’t think you’re sick, you won’t go to the doctor or take the medicine. We have to accept the diagnosis that we’re sinners before we will welcome the cure of God’s free grace in Christ.
To understand this good news is both simple and yet profound. It’s easy enough for a child to grasp and yet deep enough to evoke thousands of pages of deep theology. In these and the following verses Paul uses some important theological words. In verses 21-24, we need to understand four terms: justification; free grace; redemption; and, faith.
A. To be justified means that God declares us to be righteous.
To justify does not mean to make someone righteous, but to declare him to be righteous. It is a forensic or legal term that means to obtain the verdict of acquittal. Charles Hodge defined it (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 102), “Justification is pronouncing one to be just, and treating him accordingly, on the ground that the demands of the law have been satisfied concerning him.” For example, Deuteronomy 25:1 talks about judges deciding a case where “they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.” They pronounced the verdict, “not guilty,” on the righteous and “guilty” on the wicked. They did not make the accused righteous or wicked. Rather, they pronounced them to be such.
In Romans 3:24, the verb is passive. It is something that God does to us, not something that we do for ourselves. It is not a process, but a judicial action. The process of becoming righteous in character and behavior follows the judicial act of God declaring us to be righteous.
B. God justifies sinners freely by His grace.
Note (3:24), “being justified as a gift by His grace ….” The single Greek word translated “as a gift” means, “freely.” Jesus used it to say (John 15:25), “They hated Me without a cause.” Read that sense into Romans 3:24, “being justified without a cause.” Paul uses the word to say that he did not eat anyone’s food “without paying for it” (2 Thess. 3:8). Again, we can say that we are justified “without paying for it.” It is used in Revelation 22:17, where the thirsty soul is encouraged to “take the water of life without cost.” We are justified “without cost.” It’s completely free!
As if that word alone were not enough to convey this astounding news, Paul adds one of his favorite words (which should be your favorite word, also!), “by His grace.” Grace is God’s favor shown to those who deserved His wrath. It is completely unmerited. You can see this by looking at Romans 4:4, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.” The word translated “favor” is the Greek word, “grace.” When you work, you don’t get grace; you get wages. Your boss owes it to you and he must pay you or you can file legal charges against him. But grace is the opposite of working and receiving what you’re owed. With grace, you get undeserved favor. You deserved to get fired because you messed up, but your boss gave you a huge bonus instead. That’s grace. God justifies sinners who deserve His wrath freely by His grace. The bonus is eternal life!
That’s terrific news if you are the guilty sinner who is declared innocent freely because of grace. But, frankly, it doesn’t seem right! If an earthly judge declares a guilty murderer “not guilty” and in addition awards him a healthy judgment and then says, “I wanted to give him what he did not deserve,” we would say, “That’s unjust!” So how can God be just when He declares guilty sinners to be justified when they don’t deserve it?
C. God justifies sinners through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
“Redemption” means to buy something back by the payment of a price, or to release someone by the payment of a ransom (see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [Eerdmans], for an in depth study of redemption, justification, and other biblical terms for salvation). In Paul’s day it referred to freeing prisoners of war and slaves by paying the required price (Morris, pp. 12-13). Jesus used the word “ransom” (which is the root for the word “redemption”) in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Through His death, Jesus paid the price or penalty that God righteously imposed for our sins. Thus God’s justice was satisfied. Jesus was our substitute, paying what we should have paid, so that we go free at His great expense. Thus, justification is completely free for us, but it was costly to Jesus who redeemed us with His own blood.
In the Old Testament, the chief picture of redemption was Israel’s being freed from slavery in Egypt. To avoid the deaths of their firstborn sons, the Jews had to kill a lamb and place its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their houses. God saw the blood and passed over those homes. Jesus is our Passover lamb, slain to redeem us from our slavery to sin. He paid the price that God required. In that way, God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). That leads to the last word, “faith” (or “believe”). This word is the key to the question, “How can I be right with God?”
D. God justifies sinners through faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul says (3:22a), “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (The KJV adds the phrase “and on all”; but most commentators agree that it is not original.) Scholars debate whether the Greek phrase, which is literally, “through faith of Jesus Christ,” refers to Jesus’ faithfulness or to our faith in Him (the Greek grammar can be taken either way). I agree with those who argue that it means “faith in Jesus Christ” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 224-225; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], pp. 181-186). He is the object of our faith. It is not enough to have a general faith in God. You must specifically put your trust in Jesus Christ and what He did for you on the cross.
But then is Paul being redundant when he adds, “for all those who believe”? Paul knows that our fallen human tendency to want to be justified by our own supposed righteousness is so strong that he repeats it to make sure we don’t miss it. The righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and it is for all who believe. The first phrase, “through faith,” shows that faith is not something that merits salvation, but rather it is the hand that receives the gift. The last phrase, “for all those who believe,” underscores the universal offer of God’s grace. No sinner needs to despair that he is too far gone. All who believe are justified by God’s free grace.
So how can you and I as sinners be right with a God who is absolutely holy? It’s impossible to be right with God by striving to be a good person or by attempting to keep God’s Law. As we saw last week, the Law only reveals how far we fall short of God’s glory. To be right with God by our good deeds would be like lining up at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and trying to jump across to the North Rim. An Olympic broad jumper might get 25-30 feet from the edge before he went down. I’d get maybe 8-10 feet before I would go down. A person with infirmities would only step off the edge and plummet to his death. But no one could leap the ten miles to the other side. It’s impossible!
On judgment day, the question will not be, how far did you jump before you went down? The only question will be, did you get to the other side? You either will be lost by trying to get to heaven by your good deeds, or justified by trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus on your behalf. The great news is that although we all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, freely by His grace He declares righteous all who put their faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice to redeem us. To be right with God, make sure that your trust is totally in Jesus Christ! If you have put your trust in Christ alone to carry you across the chasm between you and God, you know that there is a huge “but now” in your life!
- Why are we all so prone to try to get right with God by our own good works? What sin is at the root of this?
- The Roman Catholic view is, “Faith + Works = Justification.” The Protestant view is, “Faith = Justification + Works.” Why is this distinction crucial? How would you defend it biblically?
- What practical blessings result from the biblical view that justification is God’s judicial action, not a lifelong process?
- Someone argues, “It’s not just for God to declare the guilty as innocent with no promise or effort to change on their part.” How would you answer him from Scripture?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.