Who Needs the Gospel? Case Study #3
Scripture: Romans 2:17–2:29
When I was a pastor in Alaska, our church participated in an evangelism training seminar. Part of the training involved going from house to house in our little town and using a survey to try and gain an opportunity to share the Gospel with people. I can still remember it was in the Fall, a cold day but without any snow on the ground yet. We walked up the sidewalk to the first door and knocked. When the lady answered the door, we had hardly begun our introduction before she said, “I am a Lutheran.” And she shut the door.
We moved on to the next door. A man answered our knock. As we started our preamble, he said, “I am a Baptist.” And he shut the door. We went to the next house. “I am a Methodist,” was her response before she also closed the door. And so it went up and down the street: “I am a Presbyterian, I belong to the Church of God, I am a Catholic…” and then the firm closing of the door.
This is the third message I have preached which addresses the same question: Who Needs the Gospel? In Romans 1:17, Paul announced that “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith...” The question is: Who needs this righteousness from God that is by faith? Who needs the Gospel?
I will repeat what I said in my introduction to the first two messages. If you have your own righteousness, and it is adequate to meet God’s standards and criteria of judgment, then you don’t need the Gospel. You don’t need the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. So Paul has been bringing different people, or categories of people before God’s court, seeking to demonstrate their legal standing before God – to show whether or not they need the Gospel.
First he brought the pagan man before God’s court; the man who has no written revelation from God and who lives an openly wicked life. His only defense is that of ignorance. In chapter 1 Paul demonstrated that ignorance is not a defense or an excuse, because even the pagan man has knowledge about God and a knowledge of right and wrong available to him in the Creation and in his own conscience, and he has chosen to suppress that knowledge.
The second man Paul brought before the court in the first section of chapter 2 was the Moral Man. The moral man has high standards, good intentions and a good public image. He is “better than” the pagan man and most other people as well. But Paul argues that when we stand before God, he will not judge us according to our standards, our good intentions or our public image. He is going to judge according to truth, according to our actions and according to our secrets. And God is not going to “grade on the curve.” Being “better than others” is not “good enough” to pass the standards of God’s courtroom.
Today we come to the third defendant in God’s courtroom. We shall call him the Religious Man.
Let me pause at this point to make a brief comment. There is some discussion among Bible scholars on whether, in fact, the first and second sections of chapter 2 deal with two different kinds of people, or just one kind of person. From an interpretive point of view, I believe that Paul’s words in chapter 2 are actually addressed primarily to just one group of people in his audience; the Jews. However, the Jews had two lines of defense that they were relying on as they entered God’s courtroom. So Paul argues against both lines of defense. I have chosen to deal with them separately so we can see the distinction, but also because there are people today who might rely on one defense without the other.
What is the religious man’s defense? Simply put, the religious man is depending on his religion to earn him acceptance with God and ensure his entrance into heaven. Let’s read Paul’s words in verses 17-20:
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
Let’s look at that opening sentence. “If you call yourself a Jew.” The religious man believes that he is OK because he has membership in the right religious group. “I am OK because I am a Jew. I belong to the right religion or the right religious group.” That was the same note we heard as went door to door that afternoon in Palmer, Alaska. The only thing that differed was the label they used.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not passing judgment on any of those denominations or church affiliations we heard cited that afternoon. Nor am I forming an opinion on whether or not the people behind those doors will or will not be in heaven. What I am saying is that if their only claim, when they stand before God’s courtroom, is “I am a Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or Catholic…” then there is a problem. A big problem.
The second defense of the religious man is that he has the real truth from God. For the Jews, it was the law, the Torah, the Old Testament Scriptures. Notice what he says: if you rely on the law… if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law…because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
Right doctrine, right teaching, truth…these things are deeply important to the religious man. They are so convinced of the truth they hold that they become teachers.
You are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants,
The religious man also boasts in his special relationship to God. Did you see that in verse 17? You brag about your relationship to God. “I am one of God’s chosen people,” the Jew would declare. And every religious man or woman does the same. Their religious group might differ, and they may claim different sources of “truth”, but they believe that God will acknowledge them and give them special treatment because of their religious connections.
All of these claims to special status with God are often condensed into powerful religious symbols or rituals. For the Jew it was what? Circumcision; the sign of membership in the covenant community. “I have been circumcised!” the Jewish man would declare. The rite or ritual cutting of the flesh which identified the Jewish boys as members of God’s chosen people. And almost every religious community has its equivalent: baptism, ritual washings or sacrifices, prescribed prayers, certain ways of dressing, marks on the body; there is an almost infinite variety of symbols that the religious man uses to mark himself or set himself apart as one of the chosen.
So, do you have a clear picture of the religious man as he is about to appear before God’s court? Membership in the right religious group, real truth from God, a special relationship with God, all captured in a symbolic ritual or symbol. How does Paul argue against such a man?
Let’s look first at his claim to having real truth from God.
You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
The first thing Paul declares is that having the truth and even teaching the truth to others is no substitute for obeying the truth. As with the moral man, having high standards and good intentions is no substitute for actual obedience. The Jews felt that with their religion came privilege. Paul’s point is that with greater privilege comes great responsibility. Because the Jews set themselves up as God’s people and people with the truth of God, the Gentile world was watching them with special care. And the picture was not a pretty one. “Before you take pride in your Jewishness,” Paul says, “Look at your own history.” The history of Israel was not a pretty story. Having the truth is no substitute for obeying it. Right doctrine is no substitute for right behavior. Orthodoxy is no replacement for orthopraxy.
The second thing Paul points out is that external religious symbols are no substitute for obedience. As we said before, for the Jews, that symbol was circumcision. Look at what Paul has to say about it in verses 25-27:
Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
As I said, the Jews were relying on their own religious symbol; that of circumcision. Different religions may have different symbols, but the reasoning remains the same. “I’ve been baptized…as an infant or otherwise…and I’ve got the certificate to prove it. I pray a certain number of times a day and in a certain way. I have done a pilgrimage to my religion’s holy places.” No matter what your symbols and rituals might be, God will look right past them and look into your heart. Rites don’t make right. Religious rituals are no substitute for real righteousness.
That brings us to the third point Paul makes to the Jews. External obedience to the letter of religious and moral law is no substitute for the internal obedience of the heart. This is what Paul is driving at in verses 28-29:
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
Paul is taking a powerful hammer to the religious man’s foundation. True religion, “true Jewishness” if you will, is about the heart, not simply external conformity to a written code of laws. I think our modern translations get it wrong when they capitalize the word “Spirit” here. I do not in any way deny the key role the Holy Spirit plays in salvation or sanctification. I just don’t think it is what Paul is writing about here. He is stressing the “inwardness” of true righteousness: a circumcision of the heart, in the spirit of a man, not external conformity to a written code.
Was this not what Jesus said when he addressed the most religious people of his day: the scribes and the Pharisees? He took the standard of God’s commandment against murder and applied it to anger and murderous thoughts. He took the standard of God’s commandment against adultery and applied it to lustful thoughts and committing adultery in the heart. He accused the Pharisees of being like white-washed tomb stones, clean and pretty on the outside, but full of decay and corruption on the inside. He accused them of making a show of tithing the produce of their herb gardens while ignoring larger principles of justice and mercy in their dealings with the poor.
I’ve been reading a novel by Chaim Potok about a young girl growing up in a home with a Jewish mother and a Gentile father in the middle of the 20th century. Her mother is a non-practicing Jew so little Ilana Davita grows up without understanding any of the Jewish ceremonies or religious practices. After visiting a synagogue one day, she is full of questions. She tries to get answers from a boy she knows. In explaining the various rituals he keeps saying “It’s the law…Jewish law.” His friends, however, snicker and mock the little girl for her ignorance and the naïve nature of her questions until she says, “Can I ask one more question...Is it the law that instead of helping you’re supposed to laugh at someone who’s trying to learn?” External allegiance to a religious standard is no substitute for the inner heart qualities of kindness, humility and gentleness that are the mark of the truly righteous.
Paul also touches on another very vulnerable point in the defense of the religious man. It is the question: Who are you doing it for? In raising this point, he is simply echoing the words of Jesus about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:5:
Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
Notice the contrast that Paul draws in the final sentence of this chapter (Romans 2): Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God. True religion, the kind that God will honor and reward, is not done for man’s praise, but for God’s. Everything else is just a sham, a fraud, which will not withstand the scrutiny of God when we stand before him.
And so Paul concludes his argument against the religious man. Two weeks ago, as I was concluding my sermon on Romans 1 and Paul’s argument against the Pagan Man, in my application I made the point that it was unlikely that there were any true “pagans” in church, because pagans don’t come to church. Today, as I apply this sermon and Paul’s case against the Religious Man, guess where he is to be found? That’s right! In churches, as well as in synagogues and mosques and temples.
If you are going to take your stand before God, clothed in your religious robes, relying on your membership in the right religious group, carrying your code of religious ethics with you and clinging to your religious symbols or rituals, understand this. Membership alone is not enough. Holding the truth (even if it is the real truth) is no substitute for obeying the truth. Outward religious symbols or rituals (even if they are the right symbols and the right rituals) cannot atone for sinful actions. External conformity to a written code of ethics and religious behavior is no substitute for heart obedience. And man’s applause and assessment of your conduct will matter not at all. Only God’s condemnation or reward will be relevant on Judgment Day. Knowing this, will your righteousness, your religious righteousness, pass the test of God’s judgment? Or do you, like me, need the righteousness from God which is by faith? Do you, like me, need the Gospel?
Who needs the Gospel? Three groups have now appeared before God’s court: the pagan man, the moral man and now the religious man. I want to hit the fast forward button now to move to Paul’s summary and conclusion. Romans 3:1-8 is actually a parenthesis in Paul’s flow of thought. In this section, he takes up the questions he anticipates getting from the Jews in his audience. Is there any advantage to being a Jew? We are going to skip over that section for now, and pick it up when we come to the topic again later in the book.
For now, what is Paul’s conclusion about the three groups he has prosecuted before the court? Listen as I read Paul’s closing argument:
What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.
Paul then goes on to string together a series of Old Testament quotations, taken mostly from the Book of Psalms:
10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Then, lest the Jews in his audience think that he is speaking only of the Gentiles, he adds these words:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law;
That is rather inclusive and conclusive, is it not? “Every mouth silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” Who needs the Gospel? Everyone needs the Gospel!
Look at verse 20 again: Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law. I need to point out that in the original Greek text, there is no definite article in front of the word “law” in this verse like there is in verse 19. That opens up the possibility that Paul is not referring exclusively to “the Law” in the Old Testament, but to any law of right and wrong, including the law of conscience in every man. We might then paraphrase this verse: “Therefore, from all flesh, the entire human race, not one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by law-keeping.”
Who needs the Gospel? Everyone needs the Gospel! The pagan man, the moral man, the religious man. No one will pass the scrutiny of God’s judgment by their own merits.
Then what hope is there? Let me give you just a teaser for where Paul goes next and where we will go in our message two weeks from today: But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
Someone might accuse me of being very negative in my preaching these last three weeks. And I have to agree. I am guilty as charged. The sinfulness of men and the judgment of God are not easy subjects to preach on. In fact, it seems that not many do. I sometimes go to a “Sermon Central” website as part of my preparation to see what other preachers have said on a passage. I found lots of sermons on Romans 1, but very few on chapter 2 and the first half of chapter 3.
A man once came into my office. He was a follower of another religion, but he was attracted to Christianity and had many questions. He was especially attracted to Jesus and his teachings. He asked me, “Can you give me a book that includes only the positive sayings of Jesus? I don’t want the things he said about judgment and condemnation. I only want the positive sayings.”
I told him that I was not aware of any such book or compilation. But then I went on to say: “Even if I knew of the existence of such a book, I would not give it to you. Because it would not be the truth. It would be misleading. It is not given to us to be editors of God’s words, to pick and choose only what we like and what makes us feel good. We need all the truth of God.”
This reality was driven home to me once again in the preparation of these messages. It particularly struck me as I studied one verse, which was actually part of last week’s message. It is Romans 2:16: This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Do you see what I see in that verse? The fact of the coming judgment of God is part of the gospel message! If we turn that verse around, we could logically render it: “My gospel declares that one day God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ.” The fact of coming judgment is part of the gospel message. If we are not proclaiming and warning people that they will one day be judged by God, then we are not preaching a complete Gospel! For if men do not understand the reality of coming judgment, they will have no reason to seek the mercy of God. If they do not know that they need the Gospel, they will have no reason to listen to the Gospel. If they don’t know that they are lost and under the condemnation of God, they will have no sense of need to turn them to the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Who needs the Gospel? I do! You do!
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Read Romans 2:17-20. This is a description of the religious confidence of the Jews in Paul’s audience. There is another version of this in Paul’s personal testimony in Philippians 3:4-6. Try to paraphrase this kind of religious confidence as it applies to the religious group with which you are most familiar or affiliated.
- Do you think God is “anti-religion”? Why or why not?
- Why is the word “religion” and “religious” often associated with hypocrisy and pride?
- Read Matthew 5:20 and Luke 18:9-14. What is the warning here for the man who relies on his religion for his right standing with God? How does this relate to Romans 2:17-29.
- In his conclusion, Pastor Cam noted that “the message of God’s coming judgment is part of the Gospel message.” He based the statement on Romans 2:16. What do you think he meant by that? Do you agree or disagree? What are the implications when churches and preachers ignore this truth? Do you think churches in your home country are doing this?
- Based on our study so far in Romans, who needs the Gospel?
- What points from this message and Scripture might be useful in sharing the Gospel with someone from the majority religion of this region?