The Great Temptation for Religious People Romans 2:17-29


Romans 2:17-29

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We pointed out as we began our examination of chapter 2 that there was a debate among the commentators as to whether Paul was addressing himself to a pagan moralist – a man such as Paul’s contemporary, the Roman essayist Seneca, who would have thoroughly approved of Paul’s condemnation of human immorality at the end of chapter 1 – or whether Paul had in view a Jew who would likewise have agreed with everything he said about the sinfulness and moral degeneracy of the mass of human beings. But, whatever may be the answer to that question in regard to the opening verses of the chapter, there is no doubt that he is addressing the Jew in this final paragraph. “You bear the honored name of Jew;” he says, “you pride yourself on your knowledge of the will of God revealed to man through Moses. You consider yourself an expert in the application of God’s law to human behavior. You glory in the fact that you know and worship the one living and true God. You consider yourself the moral instructor of the rest of the world. But, take an honest look at yourself. You know God’s law, but do you keep it? A Jew who breaks God’s law is no better than a pagan.” [Bruce, 91-92]

Remember, now, for this is something too often forgot in biblical study nowadays, when Paul describes the Jewish mind, when he tells us what Jews thought about themselves, he is speaking from his own personal experience. He once was that Jew. He thought that way about himself. No one knew the spirit of the Judaism of his day better than Paul the Jew!

Text Comment

v.17     To boast or glory in God is a good thing if it is a boasting that truly gives God the glory, a humble and grateful boasting in God’s goodness and love. Paul himself elsewhere uses the same word to speak of his boasting in God and in Christ. But it is an altogether different thing if the boasting is self-centered and self-important; if God is used to boost one’s own view of oneself. “How good I must be because I am so close to God!” [Cranfield, i, 164]

v.22     Obviously every Jew was not a thief or an adulterer or a robber of temples in the ordinary sense. But there were plenty of such among the Jews of the first century. In one notorious incident that occurred in A.D. 19 and was mentioned by Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews [xviii], four Jews in Rome, led by a man whose calling was to teach the Jewish faith to Gentiles, persuaded a Roman lady convert to Judaism to make a very large contribution to the temple in Jerusalem but were caught having kept the money for themselves. That is temple-robbing of the first order. When the matter came to light, the emperor Tiberius expelled all resident Jews from Rome. The reputation of Judaism as a whole suffered terribly as a result of the behavior of some and God’s name was blasphemed. And, then, of course, there was the principle of self-righteousness that was a blight on the Jewish reputation in the first century. This carrying oneself as if he or she were better than others. I am very sure that the Christian Paul was only too well aware of how the Jewish Paul must have come across to Gentiles before he was humbled on the Damascus Road! What is more, Paul is now thinking of obedience and disobedience to the law in the way that Jesus taught so plainly in his Sermon on the Mount, in the way that came as a thunderbolt to him as he will explain later in this letter.  One can be an adulterer without ever actually sleeping with another person’s spouse. One can be a thief in the desires and attitudes of one’s heart without actually ever misappropriating someone else’s property. All these are sins of the heart whether or not they ever become sins of the hand and God, of course, looks upon the heart. [cf. Cranfield, i, 168-169]

v.24     The citation is from Isaiah 52:5. In that former case the sad plight of the Jews in exile sent away from the Promised Land caused their enemies to blaspheme, imagining that Israel’s God was powerless to help his people; thinking little of Yahweh because of the sad misfortunes of his people. But here it is not Israel’s misfortune but the bad behavior of her people that is causing the Gentiles to think little of the God of the Jews.

v.27     In other words, outward conformity to Jewish ritual requirements and participation in Jewish worship is not the key thing: it is living for God and according to his commandments, the very point the OT prophets made repeatedly in their sermons. The Jews had a tendency to view circumcision as “a certain passport to salvation” [Barrett], but circumcision without faith and obedience is worse than useless. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.

v.28     As I said, the Old Testament long taught the same truth. Jeremiah, remember, at the end of his chapter 9, bemoans the fact that he was called to preach to a congregation that was outwardly but not inwardly circumcised. The problem is, of course, that a circumcised man without faith is less likely than an uncircumcised man without faith to realize his true situation. His religious conformity is a drug; it causes him to fall into a deep  spiritual sleep.

v.29     There is a play on words here. The term “Jew” comes from the name of the patriarch Judah, which itself is derived from the Hebrew verb “to praise.”

As any reader of the Bible soon learns, the principal problem of the church and people of God in the world is that so many among them are actually unbelievers and unsaved. They may very well be unaware of the fact, indeed they are almost always unaware of the fact, but from the beginning of the history of the church in the world she has been bedeviled – and I use that term advisedly – by unbelief. We might well think – I suppose many non-Christians suppose that we think – that the unbelievers are outside of the church and the believers are inside it. But it is not so. There are many, there have always been many unbelievers inside the church of God.

Israel, as the church of God in its early representative form, existed first in a single family, the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and within that family there were unbelievers, men and women who supposed themselves right with God but whose lives were in fact estranged from him. Israel had no sooner been delivered from bondage in Egypt than the problem of her unbelief began to rear its head, an unbelief that would finally consign that generation to die in the wilderness, itself an image of spiritual death. And what of the times of the Judges, times in which it surely seems most Israelites were unbelievers. And so it would be true again in the times of the kings of Israel. In the northern part of the kingdom, by the time of King Ahab, there were but 7000 Israelites among the entire population of the nation who had not bowed the knee to Baal. By the end of the succession of the kings of Judah it was as bad or worse. The believing element of the church was a small minority. And what of the first century? The Messiah, long-awaited, long-prayed for, finally appeared with the glory of God upon him, and he was not only rejected but murdered by the religious leadership, so insidious and so deep-seated and so resolute was the unbelief of the church at that time. And, make no mistake; Israel was the church, the people of God. She was nothing more nor less than the Christian church of her day. The Lord Jesus makes that point by choosing twelve disciples as, again, a representative church. This the church he was proposing to send out into the next epoch and to the four corners of the world; twelve, standing for the twelve tribes of Israel, and one of those an unbeliever.

So much of the Bible is taken up with this reality of unbelief within the church; within the people of God. The prophets, whose books make up a sizeable part of Holy Scripture, all primarily are addressing this reality in one way or another; addressing their sermons to those who ought to believe in God and ought to obey the Lord in gratitude and love, and who imagine that they do, but who do not. And the Lord Jesus in his preaching made a great point of this terrible problem. When he taught his parable of the lost sheep – the shepherd who has a hundred sheep and leaves the 99 to find the one that had gone missing – he didn’t mean that the 99 represented the people who were already saved. The 99 in his parable were the people of the church of his day who thought they were saved but who were not and whose self-righteousness had rendered them indifferent to Jesus and deaf to the gospel message. When Jesus said that he had not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance he was not suggesting that there were many who were righteous and didn’t need to repent; he meant that there were many who thought themselves righteous and so saw no need to repent. That was the situation he faced in the church of his day. It was run by unbelievers; it was populated by unbelievers; and was so thoroughly unbelieving that it couldn’t see the glorious Savior of the world standing right in front of it.

And the authors of the rest of the New Testament and Paul in particular stand in the same tradition, preaching as the prophets did and as Jesus did about the reality of unbelief in the church. We read recently in Revelation those seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3: some of them, you remember, address this danger very solemnly and directly. Paul rings the changes on this in his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians. And the great preachers of early Christianity picked up where the apostles left off and so it has continued ever since. Jerome in the 4th century wrote scornful denunciations of the bogus Christianity he encountered in Rome.

“…clergy whose chief motive in getting ordained was to see women more frequently and to enjoy the pickings of the rich, fashionable houses; the pseudo-virgins who had always a crowd of young fops in their train and, using the excuse ‘To the pure all things are pure”, sought to evade the consequences of their lapses by abortions; the ecclesiastics who made a fuss when the food and wine at their tables fell below standard, [and so on]… [Kelly, 109-109]

But, of course, no matter their behavior, they all thought themselves Christians. A doubt that they might not be never flit through their minds. Christian preachers in every era have been aware that when they face their congregation on a Lord’s Day morning or evening they are often facing a mixture of believers and unbelievers and the unbelievers usually think themselves believers.

I have friends in the ministry who have confided to me that the largest part of their congregation is unbelieving and ignorant of the fact. They are complacent, at ease in Zion, as Amos would put it, because they are religious to an acceptable degree, pass muster according to the standards of their fellow church members, and take that to be sufficient proof of their right standing before God. My goodness, the history of the church is full of even unbelieving Christian ministers much less congregations. Some of them wonderfully became Christians, real believers, during the years of their ministry. Think of the great Scot theologian and church leader Thomas Chalmers, who was a minister years before he became a Christian, or, even better, the wonderful story of the 19th century Anglican priest, William Haslam, the man who became famous as the preacher converted by his own sermon. For years such men lived comfortably in unbelief, doing all the things that Christians do, even leading Christian congregations in worship Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day, never imagining that they were utter and complete hypocrites, until by the grace of God and the working of the Spirit they realized that they did not know God, had never truly met Jesus Christ, and were not loving and living as Christians.

The confident new atheists often point out in their argument against religious belief how much damage Christianity has done throughout history. And we Christians are rightly ashamed and dismayed to hear them speak of religious wars and ugly prejudices that have stained the reputation of the church through the ages. We think of the appalling violence of the Protestant versus Catholic strife for years in Northern Ireland, for example: so-called Christians blowing up and murdering others Christians in the name of their faith. It may mean nothing to the atheists, but it certainly means something to us to be able to say, and with the full authority of the Bible, that so much of that embarrassing and shameful behavior, so much of what the church has done that is utterly incompatible with the teaching of our Lord and Savior, so much that is an outright betrayal of Christian principles as they are taught in Holy Scripture is the direct result of the fact that so many Christians are not Christians. So many members of the Christian church are, in fact, unbelievers, who are Christians in only the most superficial way, the animating principle of whose lives is not the Christian faith or the love of Christ or the fear of God at all. It isn’t only the Borgia popes who, resorting to rape and pillage and torture, have stained the name of the Christian church and have brought its message and its reputation and even its God into disrepute and caused men to blaspheme as these new atheists are doing in print. It has happened throughout history in every realm and region of the church. Protestants have caused God’s name to be blasphemed just as Roman Catholics and the Orthodox have.

This is the reality that Paul describes and addresses in Romans 2:17-29. Paul has described the corruption of the pagan world in chapter 1 and every Jew would have nodded his head in agreement with that assessment. But now he turns to the church, the people of God, and argues that the religious pride and confidence of the Jews was nothing but another form of the same sinful corruption and rebellion against God that he had already described of the pagan world. Paul goes so far as to say that there were plenty of Gentiles who looked better morally than many Jews did. This, the Jews were not expecting to hear. The Jews were religious people, by and large. Many of them were what we would nowadays call devout. They took their religion seriously.

Last Sunday we went to church in the main street of Cripple Creek, Colorado, Bennett Avenue. It was a beautiful mountain morning: crystal clear, fresh air and sunny. The little Baptist Church in which we worship on our Colorado Sundays had cancelled its service to participate in this service that was part of a weekend event in Cripple Creek saluting America’s armed forces. The congregation sat in bleachers facing, across the street, a covered platform. In the street in either direction, however, were plenty of other people who were not there for divine worship. Ours was clearly a service of Christian worship – songs were sung, prayers were offered, a sermon was preached – but people strolled by in complete indifference, some of them right between the platform and the congregation. (The collapse of good manners in American life is a very worrying development!) But those people had come for the casinos, not for church and they were going from one casino to another with their bucket of quarters. There was also a man on stilts in a funny costume walking nearby, part of the entertainment for the guests who had come to the city that weekend. I think that was the first time in my life, I pray it will be the last time in my life, when I couldwatch a man on stilts while at worship on a Lord’s Day!

The Jews were not like that! They would never have stood for that! Paul doesn’t imagine they would have been as irreverent as that. They took God and their religion seriously. They paid it respect. It was no laughing matter to them.

The service itself was an evangelical service and it was okay. It was a bit juvenile in some respects as is now too often the case. The typical sorts of songs were sung and the few expressions in them repeated again and again. The Jews wouldn’t have stood for that either. They taught their religion carefully and in depth. They sang the Psalms of the biblical Psalter, rich as they are in theology and spiritual truth. There was nothing superficial or juvenile about the way they went about the practice of their religion. It required a great deal and they accepted that fact, or, at least, many of them did and perhaps especially those Paul is talking about in these verses. These were seriously religious people, more serious about their religion and their religious practices than, I fear, even many real Christians are today.

But serious nor not, they weren’t believers; not really. And the church has always been full of such people as it was in Paul’s day, people who are Christian unbelievers. It seems an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, but it is, in fact, the condition of multitudes of Christians throughout history. The world is an unbelieving world, of course – in terms of the Christian faith, the faith taught in Holy Scripture, the faith of the triune God and of Jesus Christ his Son – and the Bible acknowledges that. It addresses the unbelieving world – however religious in other ways – on many occasions. Paul has addressed that unbelieving world in chapter 1 of Romans. The world’s false religions are condemned in no uncertain terms in the Bible. Holy Scripture repudiates in no uncertain terms the idolatry of the pagan world. But the Bible spends much more of its time on the unbelieving element in the church.

This fact of pervasive unbelief in the church raises the question: why? Why would we find so much unbelief in the church? Why through the centuries would so many churches have been full of people who read the Bible, sang Christian hymns, even, in some cases, listened to faithful preaching, and thought themselves a part of the Christian community when, in fact, they had no grasp of the real message of Holy Scripture? They took it for granted that they were Christians, but were not real Christians at all. How does this happen and why does it happen?

Different answers are given to the question in the Bible. There are, for example, texts that teach us of the difficulty of salvation. It is a more difficult thing than one expects it to be really to believe in and to follow Jesus. There is more in the human heart that is ill-disposed to the gospel than we think is there. The Lord himself spoke plainly and emphatically of the cost of true discipleship and there are many who are unwilling to bear that cost. He speaks of how humbling the gospel is and many will not stoop so low. And so, subtly, even unwittingly, they redefine faith and make it something easy instead of expensive and difficult. “It is hard for the righteous to be saved,” the Scripture says in several different places; and so wise Christians have admitted through the ages.

“I find true religion to be a hard task,” wrote Samuel Rutherford, “and find heaven to be hard won.” [Letter CLXXX]

G.K. Chesterton made the point in a different way:

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

I think this fact goes a long way toward explaining why so many so-called Christians content themselves with what is not true Christianity at all. They have chosen the easy way, the comfortable way, the way that does not require very much of them. But Jesus said that one must hate his father and mother, be divided from his loved ones; that one must take up his cross, deny himself to follow Jesus. He spoke bluntly of the great difficulty of salvation. Alexander Whyte was simply faithfully summing up a great deal of Bible teaching and of Jesus’ teaching in particular when he said,

“Lay this down for a law, all my brethren – a New Testament and a never-to-be-abrogated law – that the best and safest religion for you is that way of religion that is hardest on your pride, on your self-importance, on your self-esteem, as well as on your purse and on your belly. You are not likely to err by practicing too much of the cross.” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 166]

The Jews in Paul’s day had managed to transform the bracing, formidable, demanding and utterly unique religion of the Bible into something much easier and had learned how to practice it comfortably in pride and self-importance. And they have had many descendants in the Christian church. The easy way is always the popular way.

Then there is the work of the Devil as well. Nothing suits him so much as to bring disrepute upon the Christian faith and so nothing suits his purposes so well as to fill the church with unbelief, with people who will bring its reputation into disrepute and will not adorn the good news of God’s gracious salvation in Jesus Christ by the lives that they live. He convinces people who would otherwise have no interest to join the church. He promises them heaven for something as simply and painless as that. He persuades people in the church to concentrate on anything and everything else but the great matters of God, of Christ, and of the salvation of sinners. He is a past-master of distracting church people from all that is truly important for their own salvation and the salvation of the world so they may concentrate their attention on everything else.

I remember being struck with this when I first took training in the Evangelism Explosion program. I visited people of various Christian stripes, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists and so on and found that most of them could not explain the Christian gospel; most of them accounted for their hope of salvation without even mentioning the name of Jesus Christ, but they all thought they were Christians.

They had done what the Jews in Paul’s day had done. They had transformed, biblical Christianity, the great redemptive religion, the only redemptive religion in the world, into simply another form of do-goodism and of religion for religion’s sake. They were utterly unconcerned and unaware that their view of God was nothing like the view taught in Holy Scripture, their commitment to Christ, if there was any at all, was utterly shallow and superficial. They did not love him. It was not their life’s great purpose to love him and serve him. And yet, they thought themselves Christians. I would say they didn’t even measure up to Paul’s Jewish hypocrites in chapter 2. Those Jewish folk at least made a real business of their religious life. The people I talked to hardly made anything of it at all.

Now Paul is obviously in the middle of an argument. He is going on to say that man’s dire situation in sin and guilt is impossible of solution apart from the dramatic intervention of God in Jesus Christ. But along the way he is reminding us in different ways of the nature of the world in which we live and of our own nature. His central point is that the only true morality, the only authentic righteousness is a genuinely obedient life of love for God and man. And man does not live such a life. And because he does not and cannot he is forever substituting false, inauthentic, and hypocritical versions of righteousness for the genuine article. This is the great temptation of religious believers, not to take God and his law with true seriousness. And once that fateful step is taken, it is inevitable that he or she will not take Jesus Christ with full seriousness either as the Savior of sinners or as the Lord and Master of those who trust in him.

It isn’t enough to be religious. The pagans are religious and sometimes more seriously so and many so-called Christians are as well. It isn’t enough to be a moralist, interested in and concerned about an ethical life. Many people of all religious types have an interest in morality. What matters to God is being righteous, being moral, being good, being pure, being loving, being honest, being reverent, being humble, being selfless. And that is precisely what men and women are not!

And a primary proof of that and a demonstration of it is that even those who ought to see goodness the most clearly and want it most desperately are as likely to fail to obtain it and to substitute a cheap imitation for it as anyone else. This goodness is something, Paul will go on to say, so far beyond our reach that God must give it to us and work it in us. That is what makes Jesus so supremely important. He alone can provide what we do not have but must have. The goodness we need comes from heaven not earth. It is of the Spirit and not the flesh. It comes from outside of us not from within us. It comes from God and is his gift. It is this elementary truth that escapes so many people, including multitudes in the church herself.

That is the temptation to which so many succumb. To put religion in God’s place; to minimize our need and what Christ has done to meet that need. To be religious with no active sense of God himself, of his or her need for God, of God’s love, of Christ’s righteousness, and of the Holy Spirit’s work on helpless man’s behalf. So many people, in Paul’s day and in ours, are so close, and yet remain so far away. They read the truth in the Bible, they even sing it in the hymns, they stand right next to it in their churches but they never grab hold of it and never realize that they haven’t.

If you have embraced the gospel, if you have faced the truth of your own sinfulness and terrible need, if you have put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ for what you must have and he alone can give you, then treasure this knowledge and this faith. Taking the entire church of God together in our day, that knowledge and that faith is a comparatively rare thing. Treasure it, protect it, and nurture it. And if you are a parent, make sure, take care that your children are embracing not religion but God himself; not ritual practices but the Lord Jesus himself, dead on the cross and risen from the dead; not outward conformity, but the true, loving, willing, grateful  submission of one’s life to the will of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Religion in and of itself, moral effort in and of itself, won’t suffice even when you are zealous for those things as so many Jews were in Paul’s day. But those same things may very well distract and keep us looking everywhere but up. You are a moral, ethical, and spiritual mess and only God can put you right. And unless you believe that, and know that, and act on the conviction of that, you are not a Christian no matter what you think, no matter how long you have been part of the Christian church.