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Lesson 9: The Damnable Sin of Self-Righteousness (Romans 2:1-5)

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Waiting for his first orthodontist appointment, a 12-year-old boy was a bit nervous. He was completing a patient questionnaire and apparently had high hopes of winning the dentist’s favor. In the space marked “Hobbies” he wrote, “Swimming and flossing” (Reader’s Digest [Aug., 1994], p. 112). That humorous story reflects how we all want to portray ourselves to others as better than we really are. We all want to make a good impression!

But when we do that, we’re forgetting something important, namely, that “all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). God knows the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb. 4:12). Someday we will stand before Him to give an account of our lives. So we must judge our sins on the thought level. And especially we must be on guard against the damnable sin of self-righteousness.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul indicts the Gentiles (mainly) for their many sins: idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexuality, and a long list of destructive relational sins. Being a Jew and a former Pharisee, Paul knew that his fellow Jews would be sitting on the sidelines, cheering him on: “Give it to those pagan sinners, Paul!” They smugly would be thinking, “Thank God that I’m not like those awful Gentile sinners” (Luke 18:11).

So in chapter 2, Paul begins to zero in on the Jews. He does not begin directly (he doesn’t address them directly until 2:17), which has led to a lot of debate about whether he is addressing the moral Gentile or the Jew in these opening verses. It really doesn’t matter practically, but I think he is using the same indirect approach that the prophet Amos uses (Amos 1 & 2), where he begins by condemning the foreign nations around Israel. Just when the Jews are cheering him on, he moves in to hit them with their sins. (See, also, Nathan with David, 2 Sam. 12:1-7.)

From his own pharisaical background Paul knew that self-righteous people tend to justify themselves by blaming others. Self-righteousness is a very difficult sin to get people to see and condemn in themselves. But it’s a serious, damnable sin because it keeps people from seeing their need for the gospel. It believes the lie that we can be good enough in ourselves to qualify for heaven. Thus we don’t need a Savior who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. “Maybe really gross sinners need a Savior. But me? Hey, I’m a basically good person! God wouldn’t judge a good guy like me, would He?” Or, would He?

If you’re tired of hearing about God’s judgment, I’m sorry, but clearly it’s a major theme of our text. Paul refers to “the judgment of God” in 2:2, 3, and 5, plus he refers to condemning yourself (2:1) and “storing up wrath for the day of wrath” (2:5). So it’s hard to dodge Paul’s message:

If you do not repent of your self-righteous hypocrisy, you are storing up wrath for the day of judgment.

I was going to say “we” instead of “you,” but I changed it because Paul does. In chapter 1, he speaks of “they.” But in chapter 2, he directly addresses his reader as “you.” He’s going from preaching to meddling! He knows that it is easy to be blind to this deadly sin of self-righteousness, so he reaches out, grabs us by the lapels, shakes us a bit, and says, “I’m talking to you! Listen up!” He makes four points in his indictment. I’m going to follow Paul by using the more direct “you” instead of “we.”

1. You are prone self-righteously to judge others for the very same sins that you commit (2:1).

“Therefore, you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.”

It is difficult to understand the connection of “therefore.” Probably it refers back to the overall theme of 1:18-32, that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Therefore, when seemingly moral people condemn other sinners, but then it comes out that they are practicing the very same sins, it renders them without excuse before God. By practicing the same sins, Paul probably is not referring to the more outwardly flagrant sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and homosexuality (1:24-27), which are not so common among religious people, but rather to the relational sins (1:29-31), of which we all are guilty.

Paul is pointing out how prone we all are to condemn others and justify ourselves, even though we’re guilty of the same sins that we’re condemning in others. I read about a man who was a Republican Party chairman of a county in Florida who sued a former GOP county executive committee member for defamation because he sent out a letter to state party officials accusing the chairman of having been married six times. The chairman called the charge “unconscionable,” and stated that the correct number of marriages is five. He declared, “I believe in family values” (in FlagLive [12/29/05-1/4/06]).

We need to understand that Paul isn’t condemning the act of judging others per se, in that he expects his Jewish readers to agree with him that the sins of the Gentiles (1:24-32) are wrong. The problem with judging others is when you secretly engage in the same behavior that you openly condemn. When a pastor berates sexual immorality from the pulpit, but then it comes out that he secretly looks at porn, he has condemned himself. When a politician postures himself as standing for family values, but it comes out that he snuck off to visit his mistress in South America, he has condemned himself.

Probably one of the most frequently used, but misapplied, verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” If people would keep reading, they would see that in verse 6 Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs or to cast our pearls before swine. He was not talking about literal dogs and swine, but rather about people who are dogs and swine. To obey that verse, you have to judge whether a person is a dog or a swine. Then, in verse 15, Jesus warns about false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. You have to judge carefully to conclude, “This isn’t a sheep—this is a wolf masquerading as a sheep!” The point is clear: if you don’t make correct judgments about others, you’ll be eaten by wolves! Also, Paul tells us that we are responsible to judge those in the church who profess to be believers, but who are living in sin (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

So in Romans 2:1, Paul is not saying that it is wrong to judge others. Rather, he is saying that it is wrong self-righteously to judge others, while at the same time you’re practicing the sins that you’re judging. We could come up with more, but let me give you five marks of a self-righteous hypocrite by which to evaluate yourself. (If you apply these to your spouse, then you are one!)

(1) A self-righteous hypocrite judges the sins of others while overlooking his own sins. As Jesus says (Matt. 7:5), “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Someone has defined a hypocrite as the guy who complains that there is too much sex and violence on his DVD player! (Reader’s Digest, Oct., 1991, p. 183; I changed VCR to DVD.)

(2) A self-righteous hypocrite judges others based on selective standards, not on all of God’s Word. One of the most helpful chapters for understanding the sin of self-righteousness is Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. The Pharisees picked out certain parts of the Law and prided themselves on their obedience, but they neglected the weightier parts of the Law (Matt. 23:23). They tithed their table spices, but they neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They invented loopholes around keeping the Law. They said that if you swore by the temple, you were not obligated to keep your word, but if you swore by the gold of the temple, you were obligated (Matt. 23:16-21).

We laugh at how stupid that sounds, but many Christians do the same thing. God’s Word tells us that God hates violence (Ps. 11:5) and that we should not even talk about immorality, impurity, or greed (Eph. 5:3). We should be innocent in what is evil (Rom. 16:19). But somehow it’s okay to fill our minds with TV shows and movies that are filled with profanity, violence, and sexual immorality. The self-righteous person picks parts of the Bible that he likes and prides himself on keeping those parts. And he condemns as “legalists” those who seek to obey all of God’s Word.

(3) A self-righteous hypocrite is more concerned about external conformity than with true, inner godliness. Jesus said (Matt. 23:28), “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” The Pharisees were concerned that they not defile themselves for the Passover by going into Pilate’s Gentile court (John 18:28) at the same time that they were seeking to crucify the innocent Lord Jesus! Self-righteous hypocrites want to keep up outward “Christian” appearances, but they don’t judge their own sins on the heart level. They put on the happy Christian face at church, but use abusive speech with their families at home.

(4) A self-righteous hypocrite is not interested in helping others grow in godliness, but only in gaining a following. Jesus said (Matt. 23:13, 15), “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” They didn’t care about the people or their hearts before God. They just wanted to gain followers so that they looked good.

(5) A self-righteous hypocrite justifies himself by comparing himself with others or by blaming others for his own sins. Jesus told the parable of the proud Pharisee who went to the temple and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). He wasn’t comparing himself with God’s Word, which condemns pride. Rather, he was comparing himself with others who, in his mind, were worse than he was. In his mind, he kept some of the Law; the tax collector didn’t keep any of it. So, on the curve, he is accepted by God, while the tax collector is rejected. But, God doesn’t grade on the curve!

This is the most common problem that I encounter when couples come to me for marriage counseling. It is also the biggest hurdle for them to get over. The husband says, “I know I’m not perfect, but I work hard to provide a good living for this woman, but all I hear is griping. When I come home after a hard day’s work, I deserve some time to watch a ball game, but she harps at me about disciplining the kids or fixing something around the house.” He justifies himself and blames her.

She does the same thing: “I’m not a perfect wife, but I work hard to make a good home for him. I do all the shopping, cook the meals, do the laundry, clean the house, and take care of the kids. All I want is a little love from him. But he just comes home and ignores me and the kids. He yells at us to be quiet. He gets mad if supper isn’t ready on time. He expects me to respond to him in the bedroom and gets upset when I’m too tired.” In her mind, she’s doing the best that she can do. The marriage problems are his fault.

They are both passing judgment on one another, while each of them is doing the same things that they are blaming their spouse of doing. If each of them would stop blaming the other and justifying himself or herself, they would see dramatic improvement in their marriage. So Paul’s point is quite practical: You are prone self-righteously to judge others for the very same sins that you commit.

2. Self-righteous hypocrisy brings you under God’s judgment (2:2-3).

“And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?”

Verse 2 literally reads, “the judgment of God is according to truth upon those who practice such things.” He means “that God’s judgment against sin is fully in accord with the facts, that it is just” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 131). Paul’s hypothetical Jewish reader that he is addressing would have agreed that God’s judgment is according to the truth.

Where he would have disagreed is with Paul’s assertion that God’s righteous judgment falls on the Jews just as it falls on the Gentiles. In other words, the Jews claimed special status before God because they were His covenant people. They believed that if you were a Jew living in Palestine, you were treated as if you kept all of the commandments and were guaranteed of the life to come (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ [Eerdmans], p. 5). But Paul applies God’s just judgment to Jew and Gentile alike and says, “If you judge others for the very sins that you commit, you’re guilty in God’s court of justice.”

At this point, Paul isn’t pointing to God’s revealed Law as the standard for judgment, although he could have done so. Rather, he is saying that if a self-righteous person judges someone else for a sin that he himself is practicing, he will not escape God’s judgment. If you condemn someone else for lying to you, but then you lie to someone else, you’ve just condemned yourself. If you berate someone who stole from you, but then you cheat the government on your taxes or steal something from your employer, you will not escape from God’s judgment. Of course, Paul is not saying that you’d escape God’s judgment if you lie or steal without judging others for those sins! Rather, he is showing that all of us have violated our own standards by doing the very things that we condemn in others. And so we are guilty before God.

3. The riches of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience should lead you to repentance, not to presume on His grace (2:4).

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

In verse 4, Paul “introduces a rhetorical question that brings to light the false assumptions of the person who is addressed in v. 3” (Moo, p. 132). Paul is saying, “If you think that you can get away with sin because God is kind, tolerant, and patient, you’re greatly mistaken! His kindness should lead you to repentance, not to self-righteous complacency. If you go on sinning, presuming on His grace, you’re only storing up wrath for the day of judgment (2:5).”

God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience overlap somewhat, but have different nuances of meaning. His kindness points to the many good gifts that He bestows on this rebellious human race. He gives us air to breathe, food to eat, homes to live in, families that love us, beautiful scenery to enjoy, and bodies and minds that (for the most part) function as they are supposed to. He treats us far better than we deserve.

God’s tolerance points to the fact that He does not strike us dead instantly when we defiantly sin against Him. How many times we have known what is right and deliberately disobeyed! God could have struck us dead on hundreds of occasions and He would have been perfectly just, but He did not. He is tolerant.

God’s patience is similar to His tolerance. The word literally means “long on wrath,” or slow to anger. He gives us opportunity after opportunity to repent, without inflicting judgment.

God doesn’t just trickle these benefits on sinners. Rather, He gives them richly. But the problem is, sinners mistakenly think that because they experience all of these blessings and God’s judgment has not hit them yet, He must think that they’re okay. They won’t face His judgment, because they aren’t really bad sinners, like the pagans that Paul has just described in chapter 1. But Paul says, “If you think that God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience mean that you will escape His final judgment, you’re in big trouble! God is kind, tolerant, and patient so that you will repent!”

Thus, you are prone to self-righteously judge others for the very sins that you commit (2:1). Such self-righteous hypocrisy brings you under God’s judgment (2:2-3). Don’t mistake God’s kindness to mean that you will escape His judgment. He is only giving you time to repent (2:4). Finally,

4. If you do not deal with your hard, unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for the coming day of God’s judgment (2:5).

“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.”

Frederic Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 116) captures the grim irony of Paul’s words, “Every favor trampled under foot adds to the treasure of wrath which is already suspended over the heads of the impenitent people.” James Boice (Romans Baker], 1:220) pictures it as a miser who for years stores his horde of gold coins in the attic above his bed. It’s his treasure. But then one night, the weight of all that gold breaks through the ceiling and comes crashing on his head, killing him. He thought he was storing up treasure, but he was only adding to his own judgment.

It’s the same for the self-righteous person who presumes on God’s kindness and patience. He judges others, but does not judge his own sin. He goes on in his pride, thinking that his outward righteousness is amassing a great treasure in heaven. But, actually, he is amassing a “treasure” of wrath for the judgment day!

Note that Paul isn’t talking here to idolaters or to the sexually immoral. He’s talking to the moral, religious person. Also, the day of wrath points to its certainty. There will be a day of wrath for those who have not repented of their sins, especially the sin of self-righteousness. It’s on God’s calendar. “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness …” (Acts 17:31). Since it is absolutely certain, we need to be ready for it. How?

The problem that we’ve got to deal with is our hard, unrepentant hearts. The word “stubbornness” (NASB) comes from a Greek word from which we get our word sclerosis. It means spiritual hardening of the heart. Repentance (2:4) is a change of heart and mind that causes us to turn from sin to God, not just outwardly, but on the heart level. It includes sorrow for our sins and the resolve to turn from them. We don’t just do it once, when we come to Christ. Rather, it is the ongoing mark of true conversion. True Christians habitually judge their own sins on the heart (or thought) level, based on the standards of God’s Word. That includes the damnable sin of self-righteousness, which stems from pride. True Christians are marked by broken and contrite hearts before God (Ps. 51:17).

Conclusion

A man complained about the amount of time his family spent in front of the TV. His girls watched cartoons and neglected schoolwork. His wife preferred soap operas to housework. His solution? “As soon as the baseball season’s over, I’m going to pull the plug” (Reader’s Digest, June, 1981, p. 99). How easy it is to fall into this deadly sin of self-righteousness!

God’s solution is to deal with our sins on the heart level before Him. Come to Christ and confess your sins, turning from them, and He will forgive and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Spend time daily in His Word. It’s like looking in the mirror and applying soap and water to the dirt in your soul. Don’t play games with God. His kindness should lead you to genuine, ongoing repentance.

Application Questions

  1. How open and honest should we be in sharing our own sins? Where do we draw lines of privacy?
  2. Why is judging others sometimes both necessary and right? When is it wrong? How can we know the difference?
  3. Some hesitate to confront another Christian who is in sin because they don’t want to be judgmental. Is this right? What biblical principles apply? See 1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26.
  4. Should Christians watch movies that contain profanity, violence, and sex scenes? Where do we draw the line? What criteria should we apply?

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

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Ancient Words, Ever True?

Whenever I hear the opening lines of Michael W. Smith’s song, “Ancient Words,” I am always moved: “Holy words long preserved /for our walk in this world. / They resound with God's own heart. / Oh, let the ancient words impart.”

Being aware of God while gazing on the ocean is all well and good, C.S. Lewis noted,1 but if you want to go anywhere on that sparkling sea, you must have a map. Going somewhere with God is no different. In His case, though, the map is not made of symbols, but of words—ancient words.

Why Words?

Why any words at all, though? Isn’t experience with God enough? As the songwriter says, “You ask me how I know he lives: He lives within my heart.”

Experience has its place (Paul used his own dramatic Damascus Road encounter as evidence for skeptical Jews), but it also has its liabilities. Lots of people have spiritual experiences. Any Mormon can tell you of his experience with Jesus, the created spirit brother of Lucifer. Jehovah’s Witnesses experience the incarnation of Michael the Archangel. New Ager’s experience Jesus the Ascended Hindu Master.

Each has an experience, but each can’t be right. Which is the true Jesus? What objective authority separates wheat from chaff? Classically, Christians have turned to details recorded in Scripture as authoritative, objective grounds for truth. God has spoken in the ancient words of the Bible.

The Fingerprints Of God

Hundreds of places in the Old Testament we find the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord,” or its equivalent. The writer of Hebrews affirms, “God…spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1).

Jesus and the Apostles constantly affirm the authority of the Old Testament with the simple statement, “It is written....” The words of a text are attributed equally to the writers (“Moses said…”) and to God (God said…”). Paul reminds us that all Scripture is profitable precisely because it is “inspired” (theopneustos, “God-breathed”), the very counsel of God.

Of course, just claiming it’s so doesn’t make it so. How do we know? Do we have any evidence God has spoken in the Bible?

The challenge can be reduced to a simple question: “What kind of book is the Bible?” I submit there are only two plausible answers. The Bible is merely a book by man about God, or it is a book given by God through man, to man.

If the first, then the Bible is a record of human wisdom marked by human limitations. That’s all.2 If the second, then God is the ultimate author and His word is the last word. Further, being essentially a supernatural book, it would likely bear supernatural marks, God’s fingerprints in a sense.

Do we have any good reasons to think God has spoken supernaturally in the Bible? Or have men merely opined? The way to answer this question is to look at the book itself. I want to offer six reasons I think the Bible is God’s book, six evidences of supernatural authorship conveniently paired with parts of the hand so you won’t forget. 3

The “Pinky”

For the first evidence, think “pinky—prophecy.” The Bible has fulfilled prophecy—detailed, precise, predictions relating to individuals and entire empires given with hairsplitting accuracy.

Daniel gives prophecy so exact it reads like history written after the fact. For one, at the threshold of the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years of Babylonian captivity for Judah (Jer. 29:10), Daniel is given the amazing “70 weeks” prophecy. Identifying the specific time of Messiah’s advent and subsequent execution, it was fulfilled in the exact 173,880-day time period he predicted (Daniel 9:24-25, cf., Luke 19:41-44).4

There were dozens of specific prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life alone.5 His own prediction that the temple would be destroyed stone by stone (Luke 21:5-6) was dramatically fulfilled 40 years later when Roman legions under Titus razed Jerusalem.

Is fulfilled prophecy sufficient in itself to make our case for divine authorship? Maybe not for some. Even so, it’s an important piece of a cumulative case for the Scripture’s Divine authorship. Chalk up one for the supernatural side.

The Ring Finger

A wedding ring, symbolic of marital unity, reminds us of the second evidence for the Bible’s supernatural origin—a remarkable unity of purpose and plan despite its diverse origins.

The Bible consists of sixty-six books written by forty or more authors from diverse backgrounds (rabbis, warriors, shepherds, kings, historians), in a diversity of conditions (dungeons, deserts, battlefields, palaces, pastures), on a diversity of controversial subjects, over a fifteen-hundred-year period of time.

The Bible doesn’t read like sixty-six different stories, though. Instead, a profound harmony of perspective is woven through the account from Genesis to Revelation as God progressively unveils His rescue plan for fallen creation.

No individual writer understood the plan completely. Each in his time, as if guided by an unseen hand, added his piece to the puzzle. Later, at the advent of Christ, all the pieces come together, revealing the full picture of God’s strategy for salvation that had been unfolding for ages.6

This remarkable continuity defies naturalistic explanation. Chalk up two for the supernatural side.

The Large Finger

The largest finger brings to mind the Bible’s ability to address the big issues of life in a coherent way that’s also entirely consistent with our deepest intuitions about reality. Simply put, the worldview of the Bible makes sense.

First, the fundamental questions vexing mankind for millennia are all confronted in Scripture: What is life’s meaning? Who is God? What does He want? What makes man special? Why is there evil? What went wrong? How can we fix it?

Second, we are all intuitively aware of certain unavoidable facts. The universe is filled with order, meaning, and moral significance. Man is a unique creature, distinct from all other living things in his transcendent nobility, but is deeply damaged and morally broken, plagued by guilt he desperately tries to suppress.

The biblical worldview takes each of these things seriously. The universe is filled with order, meaning, and morality by a holy Creator who made us for friendship with Him. Yet we rebelled against our Sovereign, severing that relationship, damaging our own souls, and crippling the created order.

Evil is the wreckage left behind by our rebellion. Man is noble because he bears God’s image. Man is cruel because he is fallen. He feels guilty because he is guilty. Though our hearts long for restoration, reconciliation, and forgiveness, our wills remain defiant. Only God can rescue us.

Deep inside we already know most of these things. The Bible simply connects the dots, then offers the sole solution to the central problem. The problem is personal guilt that comes with rebellion. The solution is forgiveness that comes with surrender, what the Bible calls “repentance.”

The Bible has supernatural insight. Its assessment of the problem and its antidote for the cure both resonate with our deepest longings, and also fit our common-sense intuitions about the world and ourselves. Chalk up three for the supernatural side.

The Index Finger

The index, or “pointing,” finger reminds me that the Bible points to history for verification. It’s a reliable, detailed record from the distant past of events that have profound spiritual significance. This is important for two reasons.

First, a book allegedly given by God must get its history right. And it does.7 Menahem Mansoor, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has affirmed, “Biblical archaeology’s greatest significance is that it has corroborated many historical records in the Bible.”8

David Ussishkin, Jewish professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, acknowledges: “In general, the evidence of material culture fits the biblical account beginning with the period of the settlement of the tribes of Israel in the land of Canaan and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel.”9

Archaeology and the biblical record fit hand in glove. The trade journal Biblical Archaeological Review demonstrates this time and again. No other religious book can summon historical evidence to support its unique theological claims.10

The New Testament documents are the best historical documents of the ancient world when approached using the standard cannons of historical research untainted by naturalistic (anti-supernatural) presuppositions. There are five reasons historians take the New Testament material seriously.11

First, the accounts are early. As ancient records go, the narratives were written very close to the events they report.

Second, multiple, independent, primary source documents verify each other. In addition to the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the writings of Peter and Paul, 17 secular references12 along with prodigious archaeological evidence further corroborate the canonical accounts.

Third, the New Testament documents include details of eyewitness testimony: times of day, weather conditions, local customs, names of provincial rulers, and other minutia characteristic of authentic accounts.

Fourth, the Gospels include embarrassing details. Jesus’ disciples are petty, slow to understand, arrogant, and unfaithful. Peter denies Christ; the rest flee. Women, disrespected in the ancient world, are the first to witness the risen Christ. Why include these unflattering details if the Gospels are works of fiction?

Fifth, there was no motivation for the writers to deceive. Those who lie, do so out of self-interest. A testimony that brings torment, torture, and execution is not likely to be fabricated. The earliest disciples—those who were in a position to know the truth—signed their testimonies in blood. Peter wrote, “We did not follow 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 Pet. 1:16). His claim fits all the facts.13

In the most successful work of history in history, The Story of Civilization, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Will Durant writes:

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….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.14

“But isn’t the Qur’an historically accurate?” I am asked. Possibly, but that alone is not adequate to show supernatural authorship. Something more is needed, which leads to the second point: Unlike the Qur’an, the Bible is a record of supernatural events.15

The historical documents of the Gospels not only record Jesus’ claim to be God. They also faithfully document the miracles and resurrection from the dead that substantiate this claim. Jesus’ acts of power give His words tremendous authority (John 20:30-31).

If these things really happened, then Jesus is no ordinary man, and the book He endorsed as divine is no ordinary book. History itself is our ally, here.

In a dramatic reversal of New Testament scholarship over the last 50 years, the majority of scholars—even secular ones—now affirm four facts of history. One, Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross and was buried in a tomb. Two, the tomb was empty Sunday morning. Three, numerous people (including skeptics like James and Saul) experienced what they thought was the resurrected Jesus. Four, belief in the resurrection launched the early church.16

What historians do not agree on is what best explains these four facts of history. But there aren’t that many options. No explanation fits the evidence better than the one given by those previously gutless disciples who now put their lives on the line for this testimony: He who was dead is alive. He has risen.

The Bible records supernatural events in history to support its claims. Chalk up four for the supernatural side.

Thumbs Up

“Thumbs up” was the emperor’s sign that a gladiator had won the right to live to fight again. It reminds me that the Bible supernaturally changes people’s lives in deep, profound, and irreversible ways.

This is the acid test of God’s influence on revelation, its ability to dramatically transform. Whether old or young, rich or poor, learned or illiterate, noble or of mean birth, regardless of culture or country or era, the Bible has a revolutionary impact on those who heed its counsel.

And it’s promised in the text: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature. The old things passed away. Behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). When people consistently obey this book, something radical happens, both to individuals and to whole cultures.17

Yes, people can change on their own. However, obedience to Scripture changes us in ways we could never have accomplished by ourselves (we’ve tried). The Bible has a supernatural impact in human lives. Chalk up five for the supernatural side.

The Fist

The clenched fist reminds me that the Bible is a fighter. It has demonstrated remarkable survival through time and persecution.

Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Matt. 13:31). Isaiah wrote, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Is. 40:8). In prison himself for the Bible’s testimony, Paul promised, “The Word of God cannot be imprisoned” (2 Tim. 2:9).

No other book in history has seen such concerted attempts to obliterate it—both externally (through destruction) and internally (through criticism)—to no avail. No other book has been printed as much, translated as much, read as much, or quoted as much as the Bible. No other name has been written about as much, pondered as much, sung about as much, or recognized as much all over the globe as the name of Jesus.

The Bible’s obituary has been written many times, but it refuses to stay in the grave. It remains today the best selling book of all time. If this book had not been the book of God, men would have destroyed it long ago. This defies a naturalistic explanation. Chalk up six for the supernatural side.

A Verdict And A Confession

The Bible has the stamp of the supernatural: supernatural predictions, supernatural unity, supernatural insight, a reliable record of supernatural events, supernatural impact, and supernatural survival.

Does this prove the Bible is God’s book? That depends upon what you consider proof. It’s always possible to be mistaken, but I have built a cumulative case here. Our claim is reasonable. Christians do have compelling evidence for the divine authorship of the Bible.

But now I’m going to confess something surprising: These persuasive evidences have almost nothing to do with why so many people around the world are convinced that the words of the Bible are also God’s own words. It certainly isn’t why I believe.

I came to believe that the Bible was inspired the same way most Christians do. I encountered the truth firsthand and was changed. Without really being able to explain why, I knew I was hearing the words of God and not just the words of man.

Consider this question: When Jesus addressed the multitudes, did He routinely give six compelling reasons to believe His words before actually speaking them? No. He simply began to talk and people marveled, even His detractors.

Soldiers sent to arrest Jesus returned empty-handed. Why had they disobeyed orders? They had listened. “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks,” they said (Jn. 7:46). Jesus didn’t start with reasons why people should believe His words. Instead, He let the words do the work themselves. And His words worked because they were the very words of God.

If you really want to know if the Bible is God’s Word, read it. Let Jesus speak for Himself. There is a powerful role the Spirit plays that is hard to describe, and is therefore difficult to explain to others.

For one, it is personal, subjective. Two, it’s non-rational. In a sense, we are not persuaded, as such. We are wooed and won over, and that’s very different from weighing reasons and coming to conclusions. Note, I didn’t say it was ir-rational, but non-rational. God uses a different means to change our minds about the Bible.

Even so, the reasons given above are still vital. Here’s why: The objective reasons are important to show that our subjective confidence has not been misplaced, that what we’ve believed with our hearts can be confirmed with our minds. The ancients called this, “Faith seeking understanding.”

When you start giving people reasons to change their minds—to believe in the Bible, for instance—their first instinct is to resist, to keep on believing what they’ve always believed. It’s human nature.

Offering good reasons is a fine approach. I do it all the time. In this case, though, skeptics will find the reasons more compelling if something else happens first. It’s best if they first listen.

If you want people to believe in the Bible, encourage them simply to listen to Jesus for a while, then have them draw their own conclusions. Most people respect Jesus. They’ve just never listened closely to what He’s said. They’ve never allowed His words to have their impact.

Don’t get into a tug-o-war with skeptics about inspiration. Instead, invite them to engage the ideas first, then let God do the heavy lifting for you. The truth you’re defending has a life of it’s own because the Spirit is in the words. Once others have listened a bit, any further reasons you give for biblical authority will have the soil they need to take root in.

If all the evidence—subjective and objective—shows that God has spoken in the Bible, then our appropriate response is to bend the knee. Our beliefs bow to revelation, because God Himself is the best the authority to tell us what is right and true and good.

When God speaks, our opinions are silenced. The ancient words are the final word—“ancient words, ever true, changing me, changing you.”


1 http://www.imperishableinheritance.com/2005/cs-lewis-on-the-importance-of-theology/

2 Of course, even if the Bible were entirely man-made, that wouldn’t by itself undermine the Bible’s message. There are millions of books not penned by inerrant hands that overflow with truth—even spiritual truth (Christian bookstores are filled with them).  Though I believe in inerrancy, I don’t need inerrant Scripture to substantiate Christianity. Christianity stands or falls not on inerrancy, but on facts of history pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth.  If the salient events recorded in the Gospels actually happened, then the claims of Christ are fully justified and Christianity is on solid ground.

3 Some might object that proving the Bible with the Bible is circular.  But this is not so in our case.  If our method subtly presumed the thing we were trying to prove—the divine inspiration of the Bible—that would be circular.  But it does not. Instead, we’re merely looking to the text for evidence of Divine authorship.  This is not circular.

4 http://deeperwalk.lefora.com/2010/08/26/israels-70-years-exile-to-70th-and-final-week/#ad_not_found.

5 See, for example, Messianic Christology—A Study of Old Testament Prophecy Concerning the First Coming of the Messiah, by Arnold Fruchetenbaum (www.ariel.org).

6 See “The Bible: Fast Forward” CDs at str.org.

7 For more detail, see “Archeology, the Bible, and the Leap of Faith” at str.org.

8 Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1995, 29.

9 Ibid., 32.

10 This connection can be overstated.  Piecing together hard data from thousands of years ago is difficult, and archaeological evidence is especially vulnerable to bias in its interpretation. Old Testament scholars of the “minimalist” school, for example, characteristically refuse to accept any biblical account without independent corroboration, a virtual impossibility when dealing with texts this ancient and not a demand made on other texts.  Even so, a very strong case can be made for the correlation of biblical historical claims and archaeological evidence. An even-handed approach using the standard criteria of historiography minus naturalistic bias yields high marks for the Bible as an historical source. McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999) covers this ground thoroughly.

11 See STR’s “Jesus: Man or Myth” at str.org for more detail. See also Habermas and Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), chapter 2.

12 Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 108.

13 See also Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

14 Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 557.

15 By the way, these are accounts, not “Bible stories.”  They really happened.

16 See Habermas and Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, chapters 3 and 4, and William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, third edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 349, 361-389.

17 See “Christianity’s Real Record” at str.org.  See also Alvin Schmidt, Under the Influence—How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) and Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).

Related Topics: Apologetics, Bibliology (The Written Word), Cultural Issues, Equip, Inspiration

The Canaanites: Genocide Or Judgment?

The assault on theism by the so-called “New Atheists” has principally focused on three areas. People like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have argued, broadly, that reason is on their side, science is on their side, and morality is on their side.1

One justification for the atheists’ claim to high moral ground is what seems to them to be the patently immoral conduct of the God of the Old Testament. According to Richard Dawkins, for example, God is not only a delusion, but a “pernicious delusion”:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.2

As an aside, it seems ironic that an atheist who denies the existence of objective morality can overflow so readily with moral indignation. But that’s another matter. The deeper concern is that this challenge needs an answer, not so much for hardened atheists like Dawkins (who are unlikely to be satisfied with any explanation), but because atheists are not the only ones troubled.

Say It Ain’t So

Though many parts of Dawkins’s charge have been answered by thoughtful Christians, certain passages in the Old Testament even give believers pause. Like these:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you…you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them…. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus you shall do to them: You shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deut. 7:1-5)3

Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20.16-18)

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Sam 15:2-3)

Strong words. Reading them brings to mind horrible terms like “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” Could this command really come from the God of all grace and mercy, the same God who, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, “became flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14)?

Maybe not, according to some.

But Did He Mean It?

Authors like philosopher Paul Copan (Is God a Moral Monster?) have argued, somewhat persuasively, that taking these commands entirely at face value would be to misread the genre. God gave the directives, to be sure (the Jews hadn’t thought this up on their own), but one must accurately understand God’s intention before he can accurately assess God’s commands.

First, the wording should be understood in the context of ancient Near Eastern military narrative, the argument goes. Ancient writings commonly traded in hyperbole—exaggeration for the sake of emphasis—especially when it came to military conquest. The practice is evident throughout battle reports of the time. “Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric,” Copan writes, “was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia B.C.” 4

Therefore, phrases like “utterly destroy” (haram), or “put to death men and women, children, and infants”—as well as other “obliteration language”—were stock “stereotypical” idioms used even when women or children were not present. 5 It decreed total victory (much like your favorite sports team “wiping out” the opposition), not complete annihilation.6

Second, Copan argues, women and children probably weren’t targets since the attacks were directed at smaller military outposts characteristically holding soldiers, not noncombatants (who generally lived in outlying rural areas). “All the archaeological evidence indicates that no civilian populations existed at Jericho, Ai, and other cities mentioned in Joshua.”7

Third, on Copan’s view the main purpose of the conquest was not annihilation, but expulsion—driving the inhabitants out—and cleansing the land of idolatry by destroying every vestige of the evil Canaanite religion8 (e.g., “You shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.” Deut. 7:1-5). Further, this process would be gradual, taking place over time: “The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You will not be able to put an end to them quickly, for the wild beasts would grow too numerous for you” (Deut. 7:22).

Finally, the record shows that Joshua fully obeyed the Lord’s command:

Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded…. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses. (Josh. 10:40, 11:15)

Still, at the end of Joshua’s life it was clear that many Canaanites continued to live in the land, left to be driven out gradually by the next generation (Josh. 23:12-13, Judges 1:21, 27-28). According to Copan, if Joshua did all that was expected of him, yet multitudes of Canaanites remained alive, then clearly the command to destroy all who breathed was not to be taken literally, but hyperbolically.

If these arguments go through—if God did not command the utter and indiscriminate destruction of men, women, and children by Joshua’s armies, but simply authorized an appropriate cleansing military action to drive out Israel’s (and God’s) enemies—then the critic’s challenge is largely resolved, it seems.

It’s quite possible, then—at least according to some thoughtful observers—that the “genocide” charge is based on an inaccurate understanding of what the text actually means. But not everyone agrees.

Yes, God Meant It

Researchers like Clay Jones see it differently.9 He understands these passages principally in terms of judgment, not displacement. Even if some hyperbolic and stereotypical language is in evidence, still there’s no escaping the implications that a major incentive for the conquest was judgment. Note:

“It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you…” (Deut. 9:5)

“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled.” (Lev. 18:24-25)

“When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations…because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you.” (Deut. 18:9, 12)

God was angry. Indeed, He was furious. And with good reason. Even by ancient standards, the Canaanites were a hideously nasty bunch. Their culture was grossly immoral, decadent to its roots. Its debauchery was dictated primarily by its fertility religion that tied eroticism of all varieties to the successful agrarian cycles of planting and harvest.

In addition to divination, witchcraft, and female and male temple sex, Canaanite idolatry encompassed a host of morally disgusting practices that mimicked the sexually perverse conduct of their Canaanite fertility gods: adultery, homosexuality, transvestitism, pederasty (men sexually abusing boys), sex with all sorts of beasts,10 and incest. Note that after the Canaanite city Sodom was destroyed, Lot’s daughters immediately seduced their drunken father, imitating one of the sexual practices of the city just annihilated (Gen. 19:30-36).

Worst of all, Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. There was a reason God had commanded, “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech” (Lev. 18:21 NIV):

Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death….And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.”11

And:

A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.12

Archaeological evidence indicates that the children thus burned to death sometimes numbered in the thousands.13

The Canaanites had been reveling in debasements like these for centuries as God patiently postponed judgment (Gen 15.16). Here was no “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser” (to use Dawkins’s words). Instead, here was a God willing to spare the Canaanite city of Sodom for the sake of just ten righteous people (Gen. 18:32), a God who was slow to anger and always fast to forgive (note Nineveh, for example).

But is there not a limit? Indeed, what would we say of a God who perpetually sat silent in the face of such wickedness? Would we not ask, Where was God? Would we not question His goodness, His power, or even His existence if He did not eventually vanquish this evil? Yet when God finally does act, we are quick to find fault with the “vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser.”

The conquest was neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide. God cared nothing about skin color or national origin. Aliens shared the same legal rights in the commonwealth as Jews (Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:22, Deut. 10:18-19). Foreigners like Naomi and Rahab were welcome within their ranks.

God cared only about sin. The conquest was an exercise of capital punishment on a national scale, payback for hundreds of years of idolatry and unthinkable debauchery.14 Indeed, God brought the same sentence of destruction on His own people when they sinned in like manner.

Cleaning House

In the process of executing His sentence against the Canaanites, God would be cleansing the land of every vestige of their debased religion (e.g., tearing down the high places) to establish a land of spiritual purity and religious truth so God’s strategy to save all the nations of the world could go forward (Gen. 12:3).

God’s rescue plan to save mankind depended on the theological purity of Abraham’s seed, Israel. The cancer of idolatry needed to be cut out for the patient—God’s plan of redemption—to survive. Syncretism with pagan religions would have corrupted Israel’s theological core. By purging the land of this evil, God ensured that redemption—forgiveness for the evils of any nation—would be available in the future for people of every nation.

Unfortunately, instead of completing the conquest of Canaan and driving its people out as commanded, the Jews capitulated (Judg. 1:28-33). Blending in with their enemy’s godless culture, they quickly were corrupted by it:

The sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites…took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. The sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. (Judg. 3:5-7)

Before long the Jews had adopted all the degrading and detestable habits God had condemned Canaan for in the first place.15 The book of Judges—a record of the “Canaanization” of Israel—ends on this sinister note: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Eventually, the same judgment that fell on the debauched Canaanites, fell upon the corrupted Jews for the very same reasons.

Many balk, though, at the suggestion that non-combatants—women and children—were among the victims. This is partly because they assume the conquest was primarily a military action—combat. It was not. It was principally a sentence of judgment, with the punishment carried out by Israel’s army against the entire Canaanite people.

Characteristically, God deals not with individuals, but with nations as a whole when grand designs are in play. Since Canaanite sin was regular and systematic—the entire adult population participated in the idolatrous system—God judged the entire nation. Women were no less guilty than men, and in many cases they were the principal instigators.

When a community sins, there are consequences for every member of the population, even children. When Israel did evil and God brought famine and drought, adults and children suffered alike. Every act of corporate judgment sustains collateral damage.

Without question, the Canaanite adults got their just deserts. Regarding the children, I personally take comfort in the fact that, on my view, those who die before the age of accountability are ushered immediately into Heaven.16

But there is another reason God seems justified in taking any life—even “innocent” life—anytime He wants.

Two Questions

It’s always a good idea when fielding any challenge to try to get specific about the specifics. What exactly is the skeptic’s complaint here? If the conquest took place as the narrative describes, what precisely is evil about the destruction of the Canaanites? Was it evil for God to command it, or was it evil for Israel to obey it?17

It certainly seems that if God does exist, and if He were to have morally sufficient reasons for decreeing the destruction of a group of people, then the means by which he carries it out would be somewhat inconsequential. Whether God chose famine, wild beasts, pestilence, or sword (Ezek. 14:12-23), if the authority to destroy is there, then the means of judgment is incidental. Thus, if it was right for God to command the conquest, it seems right for Israel to obey the command.

But was God right? I’ve already shown that if God needed morally sufficient reasons for killing the Canaanites, he had them in abundance. However, if God is God, does He even need to justify what He does with His creation? Does God need to give a reason to build up or to tear down, to plant or to uproot? (Jer. 45:4) Does God need to answer for taking the life of any person, even an innocent one?

When Job lost everything dear to him, he did not rail against God, but worshipped Him saying, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Reflecting on the sovereignty of God, the Apostle Paul asked, “Does not the potter have a right over the clay?” (Rom. 9:21)

If this approach seems a bit severe, let me make an observation.

When people argue against capital punishment, they often form their appeal this way: “Capital punishment is wrong because man should not play God.” The same sensibility is reflected when people argue that cloning is suspect because the right to create life is God’s alone, not man’s.

I don’t think these arguments themselves ultimately succeed (that is, the morality of either capital punishment or cloning must be decided on other grounds). Still, I think the intuitions they trade on are sound.

Making life and taking life are the appropriate prerogatives of God. He has privileges that we do not. Though we shouldn’t play God, certainly God can play God, so to speak. Just as the owner has latitude the hired hand does not, the Creator has freedoms creatures do not share.

That’s part of what we mean when we say God is “sovereign.” The Maker has complete authority over what He has made—not simply in virtue of His power (omnipotence), but in virtue of His rightful ownership. Everything God created is His. He can do as He likes with anything that belongs to Him—which is everything.

Appealing to the sovereignty of God is not meant to silence opposition with a power move (How dare you question God!). Rather, it’s meant to put the issue in proper perspective. God has full and appropriate authority when it comes to issues of life and death. Being the Author of life, He has the absolute right to give life or to take life away whenever He wishes.

The Heart Of The Problem

Put another way, God is God and we are not. He is not to be measured by our standards. Rather, we are to be measured by His. And that brings us to the root of our difficulty with God’s judgment of the Canaanites. The heart of the problem is the heart, ours.

In a certain sense, the lesson of the conquest is a simple one: God punishes evil. For many in our culture, though, the Canaanite offenses simply are not offensive. “Divination, sexual adventure, adultery, homosexuality, transvestitism, all evil? Please.”

Virtually every crime on the Canaanite rap sheet is common fare in our communities or can be found one click away on the internet. Children are not being torched on church altars, to be sure, but thousands die daily in abortion clinics sacrificed (literally) to the gods of choice and convenience.

There’s little doubt the wording in God’s commands regarding the conquest includes hyperbole. This is true of every narrative, ancient and modern. But literary devices are always meant to clarify meaning, not obscure it. God’s clear message was that punishment was coming, and it would be poured out with a fury upon all the inhabitants of a corrupt nation that had reveled in its debauchery for centuries.

This was not carte blanche for genocide or ethnic cleansing, but rather a directive limited in time to the conquest, limited in scope to the Canaanites, and limited in location to the Promised Land.

Yes, Joshua claimed he “finished” the job, though Canaanites remained. In light of all the details in the account, though, clearly the conquest wasn’t complete, only Joshua’s portion. He’d been completely faithful to do everything he could do on his watch (and here I think Joshua was using hyperbole, too). He then passed the baton to the next generation who was to follow his faithful example and finish the task.

In the process of judging, God would be cleansing, clearing out a safe place for truth to flourish so that Israel might rise up as a “kingdom of priests” to the nations, bringing the blessing of Abraham to all peoples—Jew and gentile alike.

It may turn out, though, that this explanation—or any explanation true to the text—is not going to satisfy the belligerent skeptic. People like Richard Dawkins and other critics “playing at omniscience”18 are simply ignorant of the deeper designs in play.

Further, since we’ve all been “morally velocitized” by our own depravity, any response by God that takes sin seriously will seem inordinate to us. In fact, the temptation is strong even for Christians to sanitize the account so that God looks less extreme. “Most of our problems regarding God’s ordering the destruction of the Canaanites,” Clay Jones writes, “come from the fact that God hates sin, but we do not.”19

Atheists read the account of Canaan’s conquest and sniff with moral indignation at the suggestion a holy God could be within His rights to destroy the Canaanite people along with their culture. I suspect, though, that Jones has a more accurate assessment:

We do not appreciate the depths of our own depravity, the horror of sin, and the righteousness of God. Consequently, it is no surprise that when we see God’s judgment upon those who committed the sins we commit, that complaint and protest arises within our hearts.20


1 I responded to each of these points in issues of Solid Ground for May, July, and September 2008, and in STR’s The Ambassadors Guide to the New Atheists (str.org). [https://secure2.convio.net/str/site/Ecommerce/1001549571?VIEW_PRODUCT=true&product_id=7621&store_id=1161]

2 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 31.

3 All scripture citations taken from the NASB unless otherwise noted.

4 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2011), 171. [http://www.amazon.com/Is-God-Moral-Monster-Testament/dp/0801072751/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353265120&sr=8-1&keywords=paul+copan]

5 Copan, 175-6.

6 See also Deut. 2:34 and 3:6.

7 Copan, 176.

8 Ibid., 181, 178.

9 Clay Jones, “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites:  An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009): 53-72. [http://www.clayjones.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/We-Dont-Hate-Sin-PC-article.pdf]

10 This may explain God’s command to destroy even domestic animals.  “No one would want to have animals around that were used to having sex with humans.” Jones, 66.

11 Jones, 61.

12 Ibid., see footnote.

13 Ibid., 62 see footnote.

14 In the case of the Amalekites, God’s judgment was for their unprovoked ambush of His people when en route to the land (1 Sam. 15, Deut. 25:17-19).

15 See also 2 Kings 17:16-17.

16 For more on this issue, see Ronald Nash, When a Baby Dies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999). [http://www.amazon.com/When-Baby-Dies-Ronald-Nash/dp/0310225566/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353029388&sr=8-1&keywords=when+a+baby+dies]

17 I owe this insight to Peter J. Williams when I heard him speak on, “Does the Old Testament Support Genocide?” A video of that talk can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZz8WM2ZggY.

18 Peter J. Williams.

19 Jones, 53.

20 Ibid., 71.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Character of God, Cultural Issues, Ethics, Old Testament, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

“Misquoting” Jesus?, Answering Bart Ehrman

In Misquoting Jesus, the New York Times bestseller subtitled The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, author Bret Ehrman fires a shot meant to sink the ship of any Christian who thinks the New Testament documents can be trusted. Here it is:

What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways….There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.1 [emphasis in the original]

Ehrman is right on the facts, as far as they go. There are 130,000 words in the New Testament, yet the surviving manuscripts (the handwritten copies) reveal something like 400,000 individual times the wording disagrees between them.2 Indeed, Ehrman points out, the manuscripts “differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.”3

Further, Bart Ehrman is an accomplished scholar with impeccable bona fides. He co-authored The Text of the New Testament (4th Edition)—an academic standard in the field—with Bruce Metzger, arguably the greatest New Testament manuscript scholar alive at the time.4

The Washington Post says Misquoting Jesus “casts doubt on any number of New Testament episodes that most Christians take as, well gospel.” Publishers Weekly promises that Ehrman’s arguments “ensure that readers might never read the gospels or Paul’s letters the same way again.”5

Which, of course, is exactly what Ehrman wants. Misquoting is the kind of what-they-don’t-want-you-to-know exposé that has become popular in recent years. Ehrman “exposes” discoveries that sabotaged his own “born-again” faith while a graduate student at Princeton, leaving him with the agnosticism about God he now embraces.6

Has the Bible been changed over 2,000 years of copying and recopying? Ehrman answers, “Yes, significantly.” Worse, the massive number of alterations make it virtually impossible to have any confidence of reconstructing the autographs.

Without the original renderings, there is no inspired text. Without inspired Scripture, there is no orthodox Christianity, only a jumble of spiritual ideas about Jesus expressed in a diverse body of conflicting texts that have tumbled down to us through the corridors of time.

Is this skepticism justified? Simply put, no. In spite of Ehrman’s credentials, his who-knows-what-the-original-text-said view is not the majority opinion of textual scholars. This includes Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s mentor, to whom he dedicated the book. The reasons for this confidence are based in the nature of the reconstructive task itself.

Reconstructing Aunt Sally’s Recipe

A manuscript is a hand-copied text. For the first 1500 years after Christ, all copies of the Bible were reproduced by scribes who did the best they could—in most cases—to faithfully transmit the text. Inevitably, mistakes happened which were then compounded geometrically when the flaw was copied, spawning multiple copies with the same error in subsequent generations of texts.7 Some changes, it seems clear, were intentional and even theologically motivated.

Given that history, it’s hard to imagine how an original can be restored. The uncertainty, though, is based on two misconceptions by the rank and file about the history of the communication of ancient material like that found in the New Testament.

The first assumption is that the transmission is more or less linear—one person passing the message on to a second who gives it to a third, etc., leaving a single message many generations removed from the original. Second, the objection assumes oral transmission which is more easily distorted and misconstrued than something written.

Neither assumption applies to the text of the New Testament. First, the transmission was done in writing, and written manuscripts can be tested in a way oral communications cannot. Second, the transmission was not linear, but geometric—e.g., one letter birthed 10 copies which generated 100 and so on.

Let me illustrate how such a test can be made. It will help you see how scholars confidently reconstruct an original from conflicting manuscripts that are centuries removed from the autograph.

Pretend your Aunt Sally learns in a dream the recipe for an elixir that preserves her youth. When she awakes, she scribbles the complex directions on a sheet of paper, then runs to the kitchen to mix up her first batch of “Sally’s Secret Sauce.” In a few days, she is transformed into a picture of radiant youth.

Aunt Sally is so excited she sends detailed, handwritten instructions to her three bridge partners (Aunt Sally is still in the technological dark ages—no photocopier or email). They, in turn, make copies for ten of their own friends.

All goes well until one day Aunt Sally’s schnauzer eats the original script. In a panic she contacts her friends who have mysteriously suffered similar mishaps. The alarm goes out to the others who received copies from her card-playing trio in an attempt to recover the original wording.

Sally rounds up all the surviving handwritten copies, 26 in all. When she spreads them out on the kitchen table, she immediately notices differences. Twenty-three of the copies are virtually the same save for misspelled words and abbreviations littering the text. Of the remaining three, however, one lists ingredients in a different order, another has two phrases inverted (“mix then chop” instead of “chop then mix”), and one includes an ingredient not mentioned in any other list.

Do you think Aunt Sally can accurately reconstruct her original recipe from this evidence? Of course she can. The misspellings and abbreviations are inconsequential, as is the order of ingredients in the list (those variations all mean the same thing). The single inverted phrase stands out and can easily be repaired because one can’t mix something that hasn’t been chopped. Sally would then strike the extra ingredient reasoning it’s more plausible one person would mistakenly add an item than 25 people would accidentally omit it.

Even if the variations were more numerous and diverse, the original could still be reconstructed with a high level of confidence with enough copies and a little common sense.

This, in simplified form (very simplified, but you get the point), is how scholars do “textual criticism,” an academic enterprise used to reconstitute all documents of antiquity, not just religious texts. It is not a haphazard effort based on guesses and religious faith. It is a careful analytical process allowing an alert critic to determine the extent of possible corruption of any work and, given certain conditions, reconstruct the original with a high degree of certainty.

This last point raises the key question of this entire discussion: Regardless of the raw number of variants, can we recover the original reading with confidence? The answer to that pivotal question depends on three factors. First, how many copies exist? Second, how old are the manuscripts? Third, what is the exact nature of the differences (the variants)?

How Many And How Old?

If the number of manuscripts available for comparison are few and the time gap between the original and the oldest copy is wide, then the autograph is harder to reconstruct. However, if there are many copies and the oldest ones are closer in time to the original, the scholar can be more certain she has pinpointed the exact wording of the initial text, for all practical purposes.8

To get an idea of the significance of the New Testament manuscript evidence, note for a moment the record for non-biblical texts. These are secular writings historians rely on for all their data from antiquity that have been restored with a high level of confidence based on available textual evidence.9

Josephus’ first century document The Jewish War survives in only nine complete manuscripts dating from the 5th century—four centuries after they were written.10 Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome is one of the chief historical sources for the Roman world of New Testament times, yet, surprisingly, it survives in only two manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.11 Thucydides’ History survives in eight copies. There are ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, eight copies of Herodotus’ History, and seven copies of Plato, all dated over a millennium from the original. Homer’s Iliad has the most impressive manuscript evidence for any secular work with 647 existing copies.12

Note that for most ancient documents only a handful of manuscripts exist, some facing a time gap of 800-1500 years or more. Yet scholars are confident they have reconstructed the originals with a high degree of accuracy. In fact, virtually all of our knowledge of ancient history depends on documents like these.

The Biblical Manuscript Evidence

The manuscript evidence for the New Testament is stunning by comparison. A recent count shows 5,500 separate Greek manuscripts.13 These are represented by early fragments, uncial codices (manuscripts in capital Greek letters bound together in book form), and minuscules (small Greek letters in cursive style).

Among the 2,795 minuscule fragments dating from the 9th to the 15th centuries are 34 complete New Testaments.14 Uncial manuscripts providing virtually complete New Testaments date back to the 4th century and earlier. Codex Vaticanus is likely the oldest, dated c. 325-350.15 The magnificent Codex Sinaiticus, dated c. 34016, contains half the Old Testament and virtually all of the New. Codex Alexandrinus contains the whole Old Testament and a nearly complete New Testament and dates from the mid-5th century.17

The most fascinating evidence comes from the fragments. The Chester Beatty Papyri contains most of the New Testament and is dated mid-third century.18 The Bodmer Papyri II collection, whose discovery was announced in 1956, includes most of the first fourteen chapters of the Gospel of John and much of the last seven chapters. It dates from A.D. 200 or earlier.19

The most amazing find of all, however, is a small portion of John 18:31-33, discovered in Egypt. Known as the John Rylands Papyri and barely three inches square, it represents the earliest known copy of any part of the New Testament. The papyri is dated at A.D. 117-138 (though it may even be earlier),20 showing that the Gospel of John was circulated as far away as Egypt within 40 years of its composition.

Keep in mind that most papyri are fragmentary. Only about 50 manuscripts contain the entire New Testament. Even so, the textual evidence is exceedingly rich, especially when compared to other works of antiquity.

Two other cross-checks on the accuracy of the manuscripts remain: ancient versions (translations) and citations by early church Fathers known as “patristic quotations.”

Early in the history of the Church, the Scriptures were translated into Latin (10,000 copies exist21). By the 3rd and 4th centuries the New Testament had been translated and reproduced in Coptic and Syriac, and soon after in Armenian, and Georgian, among others. 22 These texts helped missionaries reach new cultures in their own language as the Gospel spread and the church grew. Translations help modern-day scholars answer questions about the underlying Greek manuscripts.

In addition, there are ancient extra-biblical sources—catechisms, lectionaries, and quotes from the church fathers—that cite Scripture at great length. Indeed, the patristic quotations themselves include virtually every verse in the New Testament.23

I want you to notice something here. The chief concern Bart Ehrman raises regarding the biblical texts—the massive number of variants—can only arise with a massive number of manuscripts. Scholars universally consider this a virtue, not a vice—good news, not bad—because the condition causing the problem is the very condition providing the solution. The more manuscripts available for comparison, the more changes that will likely appear, but also the more raw material to use for comparison to fix the problem the variants pose.

This mountain of manuscripts gives us every reason to believe the originals have been preserved in the aggregate. No missing parts need be replaced. We have 110% of the text, not 90%.24 The real question is this: Do we know how to separate the wheat from the chaff to recover the original reading? That depends entirely on our last question: What is the nature of the variants themselves?

Those Pesky Variants

According to manuscript expert Daniel Wallace, “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.25 Note that any difference, no matter how slight, is added to the total count.

What exactly are those differences? They can be divided into two categories: significant variants and insignificant ones. An insignificant variant has absolutely no bearing on our ability to reconstruct the original text. The meaning remains the same, regardless of which reading is the original.

For example, well over half the variants (yes, more than 200,000) are spelling errors,26 due either to accident (the ie/ei mistake is as common in Scripture as it is in our own writing), or different choices of phonetic spelling (kreinai vs. krinai). A host of others are immaterial differences in abbreviation or style (a definite article appearing before a name—“the James”—omitted in another because it adds nothing to the meaning).27

Clearly, some insignificant variations are theologically important. The rendering in the KJV of 1 John 5 (the Comma Johanneum) appearing to echo the Trinity is about a significant doctrinal issue, but clearly this variant is not in the original so it creates no textual concern. It appears in only a four manuscripts, the earliest dating from the 10th century (four others have it penciled into the margin by a scribe),28 and is almost universally acknowledged to be a corruption. Further, the doctrine of the Trinity does not rely on this text, but is verified by many other passages not in question.

A similar problem occurs with thousands of other variants that appear in only one manuscript (“singular readings”). These obvious mistakes are easily corrected.

Here’s how Wallace29 sums up the variations:

  1. Spelling differences or nonsense readings (e.g., a skipped line)
  2. Inconsequential word order (“Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ”) and synonyms
  3. Meaningful, though non-viable variants (e.g., the Comma Johanneum)
  4. Variants that are both meaningful and viable

Wallace’s last category constitutes “much less than” 1% of all variations.30 In other words, more than 396,000 of the variants have no bearing on our ability to reconstruct the original. Even with the textually viable differences that remain, the vast majority are so theologically insignificant they are “relatively boring.”31 These facts Ehrman himself freely admits:

Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another.32

Wallace’s fourth category—those variants both meaningful and viable (in a textual sense)—is the only one of any consequence. “We are talking here,” write Kostenberger and Kruger, “about a situation where there are two (or more) possible readings, and the evidence for each reading…is relatively equal.”33

Here the analytical skills of the professional textual critic are applied to weed out the most unlikely variants. She has at her disposal a specific set of rules—the accepted canons of textual analysis—that enable her to resolve the vast majority of conflicts to recover the original with a high degree of confidence.

Ironically, this is precisely the point Ehrman unwittingly demonstrates as he closes out his case against the New Testament documents.

Ehrman’s “Top Ten”

On the final page of the paperback edition of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman lists the “Top Ten Verses That Were Not Originally in the New Testament.” It serves as his parting salvo, but in reality proves his entire thesis false.

First, I immediately recognized six of the ten citations, and in every case my own Bible translation (NASB) makes a marginal note that these verses are not in the earliest manuscripts. No surprises here.

Second, one third of Ehrman’s “Top Ten” list actually is in the New Testament, after all. Luke 22:20, 24:12, and 24:51b are, in fact, questionable in Luke. They do appear, however, almost word for word in uncontested passages (respectively, Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24; John 20:3-7; Acts 1:9, 11).

Third, nothing of theological consequence is lost by striking any of the variants Ehrman lists, even the long ending in Mark (16:9-20) or the engaging but likely non-canonical account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11).

Finally (and most damaging), Ehrman’s list proves just the opposite of what he intends. For all his hand wringing that the original text is lost forever, his list itself demonstrates it’s possible to recognize the most important spurious renderings and eliminate them.

Ehrman’s own works (Misquoting and also The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) prove that the text-critical methods mentioned above—the very methods he uses to critique the New Testament—are adequate to restore the original reading. It is proof that the massive number of variants do not interfere with our ability to recapture the original, but instead the rich manuscript evidence we possess allows us to weed out the vast percentage of variants. Otherwise Ehrman would not be able to say with confidence his “Top Ten”—or any other verses—are not in the New Testament.

This is a fact he acknowledges (again, ironically) in another work. Compare the pessimism of Misquoting Jesus with the optimism expressed in Metzger and Ehrman’s The Text of the New Testament:34

Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic compares numerous scriptural quotations used in commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament. [emphasis added]

Bart Ehrman has two books with his name on them that give the exact opposite impression.35 And both were published the same year (2005).

What can we conclude from the evidence? Virtually all of the 400,000 differences in the New Testament documents—spelling errors, inverted words, non-viable variants and the like—are completely inconsequential to the task of reconstructing the original. Of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to a vigorous application of the accepted canons of textual criticism.

This means that our New Testament is over 99% pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words),36 and none affects any significant doctrine.

Scholar D.A. Carson sums it up this way: “What is at stake is a purity of text of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be doctrinally true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”37

Our chief question has been, “Can we reproduce the original New Testament to a high degree of certainty?” Even Bart Ehrman, in spite of himself, demonstrates we can.


1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus—The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, first paperback edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 7, 90.

2 Daniel Wallace, “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation,” bible.org (http://bible.org/article/number-textual-variants-evangelical-miscalculation).

3 Ehrman, 10.

4 Bruce Metzger passed away in 2007.

5 Both quotes can be found on the back cover of Misquoting Jesus.

6 Ehrman, 7, 257.

7 When a large number of manuscripts exhibit the same “signature” pattern of variations, they are referred to as a text family or a “text type,” e.g., the Alexandrian Text, the Western Text, or the Majority Text (aka the Byzantine Text, the underlying manuscript family of the KJV).

8 Kostenberger and Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway, 2010), 205.  Sufficient certainty is the goal, not absolute certainty.

9 Very minor differences in number appear in various catalogs of these documents, but these are accurate enough to make our point.

10 Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (Ann Arbor:  Vine Books, 1986), 45.

11 Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1986), 405.

12 Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1968), 34. 

13 Kostenberger and Kruger, 207.  The number of manuscripts is continually increasing as more are discovered.

14 Geisler & Nix, 402.

15 Ibid., 391.

16 Ibid., 392.

17 Ibid., 394.

18 Ibid., 389-390.

19 Metzger, 39-40.

20 Geisler and Nix, 388.

21 Kostenberger and Kruger, 208.

22 Barnett, 44.

23 Metzger, 86.

24 Daniel Wallace, “The Majority Text and the Original Text:  Are They Identical?,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 1991, 169.

25 Daniel Wallace, “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation.”

26 Daniel Wallace, “Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?,” http://bible.org/article/what-we-have-now-what-they-wrote-then.

27 Kostenberger and Kruger, 215-217.

28 Ibid., 219.

29 Daniel Wallace, “Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?”

30 Ibid.

31 Kostenberger and Kruger, 226.

32 Ehrman, 55.

33 Kostenberger and Kruger, 225.

34 Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament:  Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th Edition (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2005), 126.

35 To be fair, this portion was undoubtedly authored by Metzger.  Nonetheless, the ironic conflict remains.

36Geisler and Nix, 475.

37Carson, D.A., The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1979), 56.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Bibliology (The Written Word), Canon, Cultural Issues

No “Lost” Books

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.

Man’s Mistakes

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.

Recall Vote?

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.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Bibliology (The Written Word), Canon, Cultural Issues

Jesus, The Recycled Redeemer

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.

Failed “Facts”

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 Titanics 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.

12 Ibid.

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.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Christology, Cults/Magic, Cultural Issues, History, World Religions

Lesson 10: Judged by Your Deeds (Romans 2:6-11)

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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.

Conclusion

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!

Application Questions

  1. 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?
  2. How can a believer gain a more consistent focus on “the things above,” rather than the things on earth (Col. 3:1-4)?
  3. 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?”
  4. 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

Related Topics: Character of God, Law, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 11: God’s Impartial Judgment (Romans 2:12-16)

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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).

Conclusion

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.

Application Questions

  1. How would you answer the objection, “What about the heathen who have never heard about Jesus?”
  2. What arguments support that 2:13 is not hypothetical, but rather describes the direction of life of those who are saved?
  3. 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?
  4. 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

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 12: What Hypocrisy Does (Romans 2:17-24)

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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, [14], 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.

Conclusion

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!

Application Questions

  1. How can we cultivate the constant sense that Paul had, that God “examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4)?
  2. How honest should you be with others? Should you share all of your struggles? If you don’t, are you being a hypocrite?
  3. How can we cultivate genuine humility and thus avoid hypocrisy?
  4. 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

Related Topics: False Teachers, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 13: Ritual Versus Reality (Romans 2:25-29)

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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.

Conclusion

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.

Application Questions

  1. 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?
  2. Why does the fallen human heart gravitate towards ritual over reality? What are the spiritual benefits and dangers of rituals?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Law, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

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