Who Needs the Gospel? Case Study #2
Scripture: Romans 2:1–2:16
I am happy to say that I have not spent much time in courtrooms during my life. However, I did have one experience in a UAE courtroom many years ago. My car had been rear-ended in an accident. The man who was driving it at the time had departed the country, so as the car owner I was required to appear when the case came up in court. So I went to court. The man who was pastor of the Arabic church at the time went with me to translate. I don’t know if they still do it this way, but everyone who had a case that day entered the courtroom at the same time and had to sit there and wait for their case to be called. So there we sat as the judge and his helpers began their work. I leaned over and whispered to Pastor Adel to ask a question. There was an immediate pause in the proceedings. The judge said something in Arabic. The translator then announced in English: “Talking in the courtroom is not permitted.”
Properly rebuked, I sat back. I could see this was going to be a long morning. Fortunately I had brought along a copy of the day’s newspaper. Holding it carefully and quietly in my lap, I began to read. There was another break in the proceedings. The judge said something else in Arabic. The translator announced: “Reading in the courtroom is not permitted.”
I quietly put my newspaper away. This was really going to be a long morning! I sat back against the hard bench and tried to find a comfortable position. Before long there was another pause. Again the judge spoke. Again the translator announced: “Crossing legs is not permitted in the courtroom.” By this time, I was sure I was going to be thrown in jail for bad courtroom behavior long before my case was even called! The rest of the morning I sat frozen in place, hardly daring to breathe. Now, some of you don’t like it when I don’t finish a story. So I will cut to the end. When my case was finally called, the driver of the other car admitted full responsibility and the case was quickly dismissed. And I escaped without being charged with any courtroom misbehavior.
I tell you that story for no real reason this morning. Except that we are once again going to enter God’s courtroom. And I did want you to know that the courtroom “behavior monitors” will be watching! Seriously, we are going to enter God’s courtroom to listen to the second of three court cases. The title of these three messages is Who Needs the Gospel? This is Case Study #2. In Romans 1:17, Paul states that the gospel message reveals a “righteousness from God that is by faith.” And I would reiterate what I said last week. If we have our own righteousness and our own righteousness is adequate, then we do not need a righteousness from God that is by faith. We do not need the Gospel. So Paul, as prosecuting attorney, is bringing three groups before God’s court to argue the case against them and to demonstrate their liability before God.
In the first message last week, we listened to Paul argue the case against the pagan; the man without the law of God who lives an openly wicked life. His one line of defense is that of ignorance. “I didn’t know any better,” he might plead. In the second half of chapter 1, Paul shows that the defense will not stand up in court. The pagan’s sinful life style is not, in fact, a result of ignorance, but a result of deliberately suppressing the knowledge of God which is available to him in the creation and in his own conscience.
Today, as we take our places in the courtroom, we take a close look at the second defendant. To our surprise, this guy looks pretty good. He is well dressed, well groomed, with a pleasant expression on his face. In fact he looks very good. We might wonder what he is doing in court at all. He looks just like your next door neighbor, or even like the person sitting next to you in church this morning. In fact, he looks a lot like you!
Who is this man? We shall call him the moral man. This is the man who believes that he is right with God because he is pretty good. He has never murdered anyone. He pays his taxes. He tries to live by the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. And he succeeds more often than most people.
Let’s listen in as the Moral Man presents his case before God’s court.
I have high standards. The moral man believes in high standards. The people Paul is addressing in this section were both Jews and Gentiles. Some had the law of God, referring to the Old Covenant laws and code of behavior and ethics. Others had a law of right and wrong written in their hearts, their consciences. In either case, the moral man or woman is a person with high standards.
The second line of defense of the moral man is I have good intentions. Not only does the moral man have high standards, but he fully intends to live by them. But here is the problem. Sometimes, in my mind, I may find myself substituting good intentions for actions. I fool myself into thinking that I am good because I intend to be good. Let me illustrate. It is New Year’s Day. I stand in front of a mirror and realize that it isn’t an entirely pretty picture. I need to lose about 20 pounds. So, I determine in my mind that I am going to go on a diet and start an exercise program. In my mind, I can see the pounds falling away. I can picture what I will look like. In fact, for a brief period I can even hold in my stomach and see what I would look like. That’s the real me. All I have to do is eliminate all sugar and desserts and start jogging and riding a bike, and soon my mind is flooded with happy pictures of the “new me”, the real me that will emerge from my new life-style. In fact, the vision is so real and makes me so happy, that I decide to reward myself with a snack; just one last “Snickers” bar before I start my new life – tomorrow!
The third defense of the moral man is I have a good public image. Because I am a person with high standards and good intentions, I make a great effort to present that image to the rest of the world. When I was growing up, we used to tease my mother about her “rug dance.” We had a large area rug just inside our door. It was there to catch the dirt and mud we were always tracking into the house. Because there were five of us boys in and out the door throughout the day, the rug was always getting rumpled and pushed into odd angles of disorder. Whenever someone would knock and Mom would go to answer the door, she would stop just before she opened the door and do this little shuffle with her feet to straighten out the rug. You see, Mom wanted to present an image as a woman with straight rugs and a tidy house. Hence that little last minute “dance.” And so you and I often do a little shuffle to straighten out our image as we enter the public. Maybe you had a quarrel on the way to church, snarling at each other over some disagreement. But then you arrive and emerge from the car smiling and acting sweet as you enter the church. We all do it. The problem comes when I begin to think that my public image is the real me.
The fourth source of confidence of the moral man is I have good connections. I come from a good family. I associate with good people. My economic and social class is very respectable. We are “nice” people.
The final source of confidence and defense of the moral man is the thought: God has been good to me. Here is the logic. Life is good. I have a good job, a good family, good health. Things are going well. Surely this shows that God is pleased with me. If God is treating me well here, then surely I have nothing to fear when I face him in eternity.
The moral man takes all these things and stirs them together, and he comes away with a positive image of himself. He is a “good person”. At least, in his own assessment, he is “better than” most other people. That brings us to a fundamental question. I would phrase it this way: Does God grade on the curve? When I was in school, I always used to relax when the teacher told us that he/she was going to grade on the curve. If you are not familiar with the concept, it is based on a standard “bell curve” of marks. Students are not graded against an absolute scale of 100% but against how they compare with their fellow students. The top 10 % of the class will get A’s, the next 20 % will get B’s, the next 40% will get C’s, etc. I liked it, because grading on the curve meant I did not have to do my best. I only had to do better than my fellow students to get a good grade. Hence my question: Does God grade on the curve? Is being “better than” other people “good enough” in God’s eyes and in God’s courtroom?
With that background, let’s go back into God’s courtroom. Let’s pick up where we left off last week, with that long list of sins and sinful behavior which Paul has laid at the feet of the pagan. Throughout that section, the moral man was sitting in the gallery and he was applauding: “That’s right! You tell him, Paul! Go get him! Amen!” with each listing of the pagan’s sins. But in verse 1 of chapter 2, Paul, the prosecuting attorney does a classic courtroom pivot. He turns and points straight at the moral man:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
What does Paul mean when he says they “do the same things”? I don’t think we need to conclude that he is committing every one of the sins on that list, or that he does so with the same frequency or to the same extent. But I believe he is committing the same fundamental error of suppressing God’s truth and going in his own way; of failing to live up to the light which he had.
As Paul goes on to build the legal case against the moral man, I want to reiterate what I said earlier. If your righteousness is sufficient to pass the test of God’s courtroom, then you do not need the Gospel, or the righteousness by faith which God offers in the Gospel. You can stand on your righteousness with nothing to fear. But before you decide to do that, you would be wise to know as much as you can about the righteousness which God requires. Does your righteousness measure up to God’s standard? So, as Paul argues his case against the moral man let’s listen carefully and glean what we can about God’s standards and his criteria for judgment. There are several important principles sprinkled throughout this section.
First, God’s judgment is based on truth. In verse 2 we read: Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. In this verse, he is referring back to God’s judgment on the pagans in chapter 1. But a general principle is being laid out. God’s judgment is based on truth. Human courts also attempt to base their rulings on the truth. In fact most of the time in a courtroom is spent trying to arrive at “the truth.” Witnesses are called. They swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Evidence is presented. In the traffic court where I appeared, each case was accompanied by a file which contained a police report on the accident; the facts, the truth. As the Judge of all the earth, God knows all things. He will not need to take time to assemble the evidence or listen to witnesses. He knows the truth. He will make his judgments based on the absolute truth. There will be no mirages, no images, no erased tapes or missing evidence. Truth. When you stand before God, you will be judged by the truth.
The second principle is that God’s judgment is based on deeds. This is what we are told in verses 6-7:
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
I want to especially point out that phrase, “by persistence in doing good.” Real deeds, done every day all day, not occasional righteous acts done to impress ourselves and others. Such occasional acts of righteousness are the moral equivalent of holding in my stomach when I stand in front of a mirror!
He says the same thing in verse 13:
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Please understand this and understand it well! High standards and good intentions are not what God is looking for. He will judge your deeds. He will judge what you have actually done, not what you intended to do. He will judge your achievements, not your aspirations. Persistence in doing good. Will your righteousness pass that test?
At this point in Paul’s argument, we need to pause and address an important question. Do these verses we have just read (v. 6-7, 13) teach a doctrine of salvation by works? Listen carefully, for my answer may surprise you. Yes, they do! But before you decide to take that road and attempt to ride your own righteousness into heaven, be sure you understand God’s standards of judgment. Will your righteousness stand up to God’s standards? It is not your intentions, your standards and your aspirations which God will judge, but your actual deeds; not your occasional deeds, but your consistent, every day actions. I believe Paul’s words in these verses are simply another way of saying that God, as a righteous Judge, will never condemn a righteous man. As such, salvation by works is theoretically possible. Now we must ask: Has any human being ever passed that standard and measured up to God’s righteousness? That is another question entirely which Paul will address in chapter 3. More importantly for our discussion right now is the question; do you measure up?
Before you answer that question, let’s look at another principle of God’s judgment. God’s judgment will include all our secrets. Look at verse 16: This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Do you have any secrets? The phrase means literally, “the hidden things of men.” Do you have any of those? Is there anything you do not want the rest of us to know about you? Is there a gap between the public image you portray and the hidden things of your private life, either past or present? What we must understand is that it is not our public image that will be on trial before God. It is the real me, the real you, with all the secret and hidden things exposed. Are you ready to stand before God to be judged by that standard?
The fourth principle is also important. God’s judgment will not be based on favoritism. Verse 11 states this clearly: For God does not show favoritism. This relates to the moral man’s defense that he comes from good stock and belongs to good people. In Paul’s case, the argument was, “I am a Jew!” as though a birth certificate and a passport or identity card was all that was necessary to secure entrance into heaven. There will be no concessions granted based on family name or who our friends were or who we spent time with. God’s judgment will be absolutely impartial, based on our deeds.
I want to take a moment to deal with a couple quick questions which arise from the text. What about the argument or line of defense Paul raised, that God has been good to me? Verse 4 addresses this matter succinctly. Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?
This is a warning that we should not take God’s kindness necessarily as a sign of his approval. God also shows his kindness to give us room and time to repent and turn to him. Let us not waste that opportunity or treat his kindness with contempt. We dare not erroneously assume that comfortable circumstances in this life equate to evidence that our eternal destiny is secure.
And what about the issue that some people know more about God’s standards than others? How can the Gentile be held accountable for not obeying a law he never read or heard? Paul takes a little more time on this one in verses 12-16:
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
This passage clearly declares a fifth principle of God’s righteous standard of judgment. I stated it in last week’s sermon and I reiterate it here. God’s judgment will be based on obedience or disobedience to the light one has received. The Jews knew more of God’s Law because they had the written revelation. So they will be judged based on what they did with that knowledge. Did they obey it, or disobey it? The Gentiles did not have God’s written Law. But they did have the law of God written in their consciences. They will be accused or defended based on whether they obeyed or disobeyed their own, innate, God-given sense of right and wrong. But what must be clearly understood, based on the gospel which Paul proclaimed, is that a day of judgment is coming when God will judge all men.
So we come back to our question. Who needs the Gospel? Or let me put it more personally. Do you need the Gospel? Do you need the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith? Once again, if your own righteousness is adequate, you don’t need God’s righteousness. If you are innocent, you do not need to fear God’s court. But before you make that assessment, keep these thoughts in mind. God does not grade on the curve. Being “better than” is not “good enough” in God’s courtroom.
The poet Robert Burns penned these lines: “O that God the gift would gie us, to see ourselves as others see us.” That, indeed, is a valuable gift. But there is a much more valuable gift which God has given us: “O that God the gift would give us, to see ourselves as he sees us.” You see, others will not be our judge. God himself will be. When we stand before the court, it will not be the court of public opinion. It will be God’s court. His judgment will be based on truth, based on deeds, without favoritism and taking into account the entire record, including our secrets. Are you ready stand before God’s court in your own righteousness, knowing that this will be the standard? Before you make that determination, let me point out the consequences if you get it wrong:
1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? (verses 1-3)
5But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (v.5)
8But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile;(v. 8-9)
Are you ready to take your chances and stand before God in your own righteousness? Or do you, like me, need the Gospel and the righteousness which comes from God by faith?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- In this second court case before God’s court, Pastor Cam identifies the defendant as “the moral man.” What are some ways this person might complete this sentence “I will be OK because…”
- How would you answer the question: “Will God grade on the curve?” Why is the answer to this question important?
- According to this passage, what will be the basis or standard for God’s judgment?
- Is Paul proposing “salvation by works” in verse 7 and 10? Why or why not?
- How common is “the moral man’s” reasoning in our world today? How common is it among the “majority religion” of this region? What implications does this have for sharing our faith?