Teaching series from Romans

God's Bad News (Part 2)

Romans 2:1-29

Teaching t07935

Introduction

Romans (especially 1-8) is the most systematic presentation of God's good news in the New Testament. All Christians should know this material thoroughly and be able to share and explain it to others.

But although the gospel is God's good news, it begins with his bad news--that humanity deserves God's judgment.

LAST WEEK, Paul declared that the immoral pagans are justly under God's judgment because they suppress their knowledge of the true God to worship false gods, and because their lives are filled with overt rebellion against God (read 1:29-32 >> CRIMINAL ELEMENT). Those people are in trouble with God!

"But what about the people who believe in the God of the Bible, who go to church to worship him, who are upstanding, law-abiding citizens--and who are deeply offended by the pagans? You're not saying that they are under God's judgment also, are you?"

The chances are pretty good that you describe yourself this way--or that you know many who do. A recent survey shows that 82% of adult Americans believe in an afterlife that includes both heaven and hell, but only 4% of those people believe that they will go to hell.1 Since only 35% of American adults claim to have received the gospel, this means just under half of all American adults believe they do not deserve God's judgment.

If you are one of those folks, you're not going to like Romans 2--because Paul turns his guns on you in this chapter. Notice the switch from "they" in 1:32 to "you" in 2:1 (read). This is God's bad news, part #2. The "good" people are also in trouble with God, they are also headed for God's judgment. They are "without excuse" just as much as the pagans are "without excuse" (1:20). Paul is going to systematically expose and refute every bogus exemption clause we use. And he's an expert at doing this, since he lived the first 30+ years of his life as the quintessential "good" person.

"I am a good person compared to them."

Here is the most common and deep-seated form of denial. Our standard of reference for most things, including morality, is how we compare to other people. And in many human affairs, horizontal comparison is appropriate.

We often grade exams on a curve, taking the range of scores and apportioning the grades among them rather than grading everyone against 100%. On a hard test, 54% may be a "good" score.

When we speak of human moral behavior, we instinctively think in a similar way. There is a legitimate sense in which we speak of "good" people (who may occasionally bark at their spouses or not claim a $100 birthday gift on their income tax) versus "bad" people (who murder their spouses or cheat the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars of income tax). On this basis, most of us can say "I am a good person compared to them."

But it is a fatal error to assume that God's judges according to the same standard. Read 2:1-3. Paul says God's judgment is "based on truth" (NASB is poor translation). This means that God judges us, not according to how we compare to "bad" people--but according to how we really are compared to how he really is. And since God is absolutely righteous, he evaluates us based on whether we live up to his standard. God not only doesn't grade on the curve; his passing grade is 100%!

When someone asked Jesus about how good he had to be to inherit eternal life, notice how he immediately clarified the meaning of "good" in this context (read Mk. 10:17,18). When it comes to earning entrance into God's kingdom, the standard for "good" is God himself.

This is why Paul insists that when you judge the "bad" person as worthy of God's judgment, you seal your own fate. The issue is not whether you break God's law less than other people, but whether you break it at all. If you agree that God should judge sin, and you sin, then you agree that God should judge you. Look at the list of things that deserve God's judgment in 1:29-31. If God judges greed, have you ever been greedy? If God judges envy, have you ever been envious? If God judges . . . (deceit, gossip, slander, arrogance, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, unloving, unmerciful), have you ever been . . . ? If you have been, you deserve God's condemnation.

JUMPING TO CATALINA: On a comparative level, it is appropriate for me to say "I am a better jumper than most people." But on an absolute level (actually jumping 20+ miles to Catalina Island), such comparisons are completely irrelevant because we all fall hopelessly short.

"That's not fair!" Why should God be obligated not to judge sinful people? Where would you draw the line? Somewhere just below where you are? Wherever you draw the line, why is it fair that the person who commits one more sin is rejected while the one who committed on less sin is accepted?

"I have a religious pedigree."

This form of denial was really deep-seated among Paul's Jewish countrymen. They mistakenly believed that because they were born into God's chosen people, they were automatically exempt from God's judgment.2 Paul describes this mentality in 2:17-20 (read).

Although this is more common in cultures that emphasize inherited privilege, you still see this form of denial to some extent in our culture (LINE OF MINISTERS; BORN INTO THE CHURCH).

Paul says that when it comes to earning God's acceptance, he doesn't play pedigree favorites. The issue is not what kind of religious pedigree you have, but whether you have fully obeyed God's law. Read 2:6-13.

It is a violation of 2:1-3 to read this verses in a comparative sense. Paul is speaking in an absolute sense. If you fully obey God's law (which no one does), you will earn eternal life regardless of your religious pedigree. But if you "do evil" or "sin" (which everyone does), you deserve God's wrath regardless of your religious pedigree.

This doesn't mean there were no advantages to being born into the chosen people (read 3:2). God gave the Bible through them, and he gave the Messiah through them. But he didn’t give them any inherited immunity from his judgment. In fact, they get judged "first" because they know his standard more clearly than those who never had the 10 Commandments.

"I have a clean public record."

Some people think they will avoid God's judgment because they have "a good public record." It is possible to live your whole life without committing overt, public sins--like murder, adultery, gross tax fraud, etc.

But it is a fatal mistake to believe that a good public record means you deserve exemption from God's judgment. This is because God will judge not only our overt, public acts. He will also judge our secrets (read 2:16). He knows our secrets because he is omniscient; he must judge our secrets because he is just. So it's not whether people can find dirt on the outside; it's whether God finds dirt on the inside. What does this "secret dirt" include?

Violations of conscience, even if no one else condemned us (2:15; LYING & GOSSIPING TO GAIN SOCIAL ADVANTAGE)

Sins against other people, even if they never found out who did it to them (Lk. 12:2,3; PITCHING OLD FRIEND'S BOOKS IN JUNIOR HIGH TO IMPRESS "IN" FRIENDS)

Sinful fantasies, even if we never act them out (Matt. 5:22,28; HATRED & SEXUAL LUST)

"Good" deeds done from bad motives (Luke 20:47,48; UNITED WAY GIFT TO GET AHEAD; MUCH RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY)

Sins of omission (Jas. 4:17; FAILURE TO POSITIVELY LOVE & SERVE GOD & OTHERS)

Anything that is not done as an expression of loving trust in God (Rom. 14:23)

I don't know about you, but I'd be in a world of hurt if I had to appear before God and my secrets came out! How about you??

"I observe divinely ordained rituals."

Jewish males in Paul's day banked heavily on receiving the rite of circumcision. To even suggest that their circumcision gave them no immunity from God's judgment was likely to result in a fight. In the same way, many church people put incredible confidence in observing divinely ordained rituals like baptism, church attendance, communion, etc.

But Paul denies this (read 2:25-27). He is not against circumcision (or the others above)--he originated them--but he is against false confidence in ritual observance. What matters is not whether you observe divinely ordained rituals, but whether you obey God's law. Ritual observance provides no immunity from God's judgment. This is contrary to the Old Testament, and it turns God into a near-sighted idiot who can be fooled by people who go through the motions.

"Are you saying that all the times I've gone to church (when I could have stayed in bed) and worshipped God through the liturgy and gone to confession and taken communion (when I could have been watching football) don't count for anything?" It doesn't matter what I say. If you're talking about earning God's acceptance, God says they count for nothing whatever.

Then why did God give them in the first place? Paul gives a hint of this in 2:28,29 (read). His point is that they are outward pictures of an inward spiritual reality that God gives you when you come to him with the right heart attitude (WEDDING RING).

Circumcision was a picture of the radical heart surgery God would provide through the Holy Spirit so we will want to obey God. Baptism is a picture of how God washes away our guilt once and for all through Christ's death for our sins. Communion is a picture of how God makes his grace available to us through Christ as often as we need it.

What a tragic perversion to rely on ritual observance to earn God's acceptance! This is like a criminal showing off a clemency document as a graduation diploma.

Conclusion

You can see from these last two verses why Paul wrote this painful chapter. Not to humiliate you or drive you to despair of having God's acceptance. But to humble you and drive you to despair of earning God's acceptance. Paul is like a doctor trying to break through the denial of his patient by exposing the seriousness of his condition--not to enjoy his distress, but so he will submit to the cure he is offering free of charge.

Are you ready to take your place before God with the "bad" people (read 3:9a)? Are you ready to admit that you are just like "them" in the most important way of all--that you have broken God's law countless times in thought, word and deed--and that you deserve not his acceptance but his judgment? If you aren’t willing to admit this, you are saying "I don't need God's charity--I'm good enough." But if you are willing to admit it, you can receive God's complete exemption (read Jn. 5:24). We'll learn next time how God can do this--but you can get in on it right now.

Are you willing to risk offending your "good" family members and friends so they can see their need for grace? This is not religious judgmentalism; it is an act of love.

Footnotes

1 James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New York: Prentiss Hall Press, 1991), p. 204.

2 The rabbis taught that "all Israelites have a portion in the age to come." They taught that Abraham sat at the gates of Gehenna to turn back any Israelite who might by chance have been sent there. See William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), p. 39.