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Romans 3:9-18

Last week we began our consideration of the good news, the gospel by asking what the gospel is; good news of what kind, about what? And we concluded that the good news is fundamentally the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world to deliver us from our sins. The good news is a complex message with many parts, but that is the gist or main point of it. God has come to deliver us from what holds us in bondage. And just what is it that holds us in bondage? What is our bondage? Why do we need deliverance? That is our question this morning and next Sunday morning.

Text Comment

v.9 Almost every first century Jew thought he was morally superior to a Gentile. Self-righteousness was a characteristic feature of the first century Jewish mind. But Paul’s point is that there was nothing unusual about that! His point is that self-righteousness is a characteristic feature of the human mind, the American mind, the mind of the citizens of the Pacific Northwest! The Jew was not, in fact, superior to a Gentile in any way that matters because what we are talking about is man’s position before God and if the Gentiles are great sinners before God, so are the Jews.

v.10 What follows is what is called a “catena,” [the Latin word for chain] a chain of citations of Scripture strung together to prove a point. And what the Bible says, again and again, is that human beings are morally corrupt, rebels against God, and violators of all the commandments of God. Taken together the texts demonstrate that “sin has hold not only of every man without exception but also of every part of the human personality…” [Cranfield, I, 194]

v.11 I suppose the statement in v. 11, a reworking of statements in the Psalms, is the most difficult for most readers. We talk about seekers; we create so-called “seeker-friendly” church services. Surely there are some who are seeking for God. And, of course, by God’s grace and by the working of the Spirit many are brought to seek for God. But Paul is talking about man in sin, as he is in himself and as he will continue to be if left to himself. To be sure, many pretend to seek God; but what in fact they are seeking is actually any god other than the living and true God. Even many unbelievers have been willing to admit the obvious: man often masks his true interests behind a religious pose. It was Talleyrand who observed that “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts!” When the Bible says that it is only the fool who says that there is no God, it is effectively asserting what Paul has asserted in chapter 1, viz. that the evidence for the existence of God is so overwhelming that the denial of his existence is therefore a positive act of rebellion, as is the substitution of imitation gods for the real God who made the world and each one of us. Man is a worshipper, but he does not want to worship God. He worships everything else instead! It is extraordinary what human beings will worship; even some emaciated rock star! The God most people pretend to search for is a god of their own making, a god who does very little and demands almost nothing. He remains passive, like a book on a shelf. He is there if you want him but he will not pursue you if you wish to be left alone. Man desires a god who will honor his independence, give him what he wants, and permit him to continue to practice his pleasures and indulge his delusions. That is not the true and living God who made us and gave us our conscience. As C.S. Lewis put it, to imagine sinful man seeking the living and true God, the Almighty, is akin to imagining the mouse searching for the cat! [Miracles, 97-98]

v.14 So much of human sin comes out of the mouth: whether cruelty or disrespect, deceit or hypocrisy, anger or indifference.

Now it will not surprise a Christian that the Bible diagnoses the human problem in theological and moral terms. The problem with the human being is that he is bad! He is bad in the way God says he is bad! He or she may be bad in any number of different ways, but his or her badness is always moral badness, what the Bible calls sin. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” as Paul will sum up the point in this same chapter. That is man’s problem. He is a sinner. And it is to this sin that man is bound. He is a prisoner of his sinful self, captive to his own selfishness, his own pride, his own craving to assert himself over against others, his own preference for pleasures that are offensive to God. His sins, Isaiah said long before Paul, have separated him from God. He is unworthy of God and he offends God.

But here also is another problem, another of man’s fundamental problems, the first and foremost reason why the good news isn’t good news to vast numbers of people in the world today; why they don’t thrill to hear that God has intervened so that he might forgive their sins.

They don’t really think they need forgiveness from God. They don’t worry about the guilt of their sins or their bondage to sin. Forgiveness is far down the list of things they crave, that are of great concern to them. They don’t lie awake at night wondering how they might find peace with God, or afraid that God might punish them for their misbehavior, or longing to know how they might become better people than they are. They may, from time to time, want very much for someone else to forgive them, but rarely God. They are worried about money, about their health, they may crave information, they long for greater pleasure, for reputation, for success in life, for love; they may even long for a sense of peace. But they don’t see their sins as an obstacle to any of this or as the great danger that threatens their lives and their well-being.

What is more, they live in a world that now never, or virtually never, demands that they face up to the facts about all the wrong that can be found in their thoughts, speech, and behavior. They measure themselves by themselves or they measure themselves against people more publicly reprehensible than themselves and largely remain pleased with themselves. This is true, as all history bears witness, as much of the do-gooder as of the career criminal. Their avuncular view of God, so far as they have a view of God, does nothing to disturb their self-confidence or their complimentary view of themselves. Surprisingly the fact that they hold a lower opinion of virtually everyone else than they do of themselves never causes them to think that probably everyone else has a lower opinion of them than they have of themselves.

It is one of the most obvious facts of American public life that we have ceased to speak or even to think of the reality of sin as fundamental to the human problem. We worry about everything else except the darkness of the human heart. And now we have a vast industry, staffed by therapists, by academics, by media moguls, by politicians, and even by rabbis, priests, and ministers, who studiously avoid confronting human beings with the fact that their greatest problem is themselves and their willingness to indulge the darkness within. The so-called helping-professions confidently find our problem somewhere else, anywhere else than in the human penchant for pride, selfishness, and moral foolishness, and, in defiance of a tsunami of contrary evidence, teaches us to take heart in our essential goodness. All the while “original sin,” the universal moral corruption of the human soul, is the Bible’s only doctrine with overwhelming empirical demonstration! There has never been a human being in the history of this world, save one, who was not a living, walking proof of the doctrine of original sin.

What is more, even when human beings come face to face with the fact of their sin, their bad behavior – as they all do now and then – if they do not excuse it, they will never take it as seriously as they should, because they do not see it as the true expression either of their authentic selves or as the offense against God that it is. That self-deception is made the easier because they never judge their behavior according to the far more exacting standards of the law of God. “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind.” Who has ever done that? What devout Christian has ever done that? Or, if he or she has done it for a moment, how much was it done over the course of an entire life? “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” Really? What neighbor have you loved as much as you love yourself? How many neighbors? And precisely how have you loved them with the passion and the permanence with which you always love yourself? We have made a mockery of the two great obligations of our lives, made as we have been in the image of the God of love. We have utterly failed to do what we were put in this world to do. But who in America today really thinks that or ever worries about what God must think of us? Truer words were never spoken about modern human beings than what we find in v. 18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

I want to read something to you. It is somewhat longer than anything I would be likely to read in a sermon, but I think you will appreciate how well the point is made. It comes from an essay by Theodore Dalrymple, which is the penname of Anthony Malcolm Daniels, a British doctor and psychiatrist, an atheist by conviction. He practiced medicine for some years in sub-Saharan Africa and then in some of the seediest and most blighted communities in Great Britain, including a prison in Birmingham. I think it worth reading not only for its perception, but because he is British talking about Brits, not an American (so it helps to universalize the human condition, and because he is not a Christian. He is not diagnosing the human condition with a Bible in his hand as a Christian would or for the same reasons. But he can see what even many so-called Christians cannot. I wish I could read the entire piece to you, but time permits only excerpts.

Though Dalrymple had witnessed atrocities – murder, torture, terror even ethnic cleansing on a massive scale in Africa – he had supposed that evil on this scale was only possible because of powerful and sinister political and social forces, carrying human beings along, as it were, virtually against their will. But as he was to find out in modern, sophisticated Great Britain, “Men commit evil within the scope available to them.” Or, to put it simply, “They do what they can get away with.”

He goes on. “…the extent of the evil that I found, though far more modest than the disasters of modern history, is nonetheless impressive. From the vantage point of one six-bedded hospital ward, I have met at least five thousand perpetrators…of violence… and five thousand victims of it… Instead of one dictator, though, there are thousands…”

“I discovered that British cities such as my own even had torture chambers: run not by the government, as in dictatorships, but by those representatives of slum enterprise, the drug dealers. Young men and women in debt to drug dealers are kidnapped, taken to torture chambers, tied to beds, and beaten or whipped. Of compunction there is none – only a residual fear of the consequences of going too far.

“Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil, the one that brings it close to the conception of original sin, is that it is unforced and spontaneous. No one requires people to commit it. In the worst dictatorships, some of the evil that ordinary men and women do, they do out of fear of not committing it. … But in modern Britain, no such conditions exist: the government does not require citizens to behave as I have described and punish them if they do not. The evil is freely chosen.

Dalrymple acknowledges that some might think that his personal experience is peculiar and unrepresentative, working in the places and among the particular people that he has. But he replies: “…when my mother asks me whether I am not in danger of letting my personal experience embitter me or cause me to look at the world through bile-colored spectacles, I ask her why she thinks that she, in common with all old people in Britain today, feels the need to be indoors by sundown or face the consequences… Did she not herself tell me that, as a young woman during the blackouts in the Blitz, she felt perfectly safe…walking home in the pitch dark, and that it never occurred to her that she might be the victim of a crime… Is it not true that her purse has been stolen twice in the last two years, in broad daylight, and is it not true that statistics – however manipulated by governments to put the best possible gloss upon them – bear out the accuracy of the conclusions that I have drawn from my personal experience? In 1921, the year of my mother’s birth, there was 1 crime recorded for every 370 inhabitants of England and Wales; 80 years later it was 1 for every 10 inhabitants… and an even greater increase in crimes of violence.

“A single case can be illuminating, especially when it is statistically banal – in other words, not at all exceptional. Yesterday, for example, a twenty-one-year-old woman consulted me… My patient already had had three children by three different men, by no means unusual among my patients, or indeed in the country as a whole. The father of her first child had been violent and she had left him; the second died in an accident while driving a stolen car; the third, with whom she had been living, had demanded that she leave his apartment because, a week after their child was born, he decided he no longer wished to live with her. (The discovery of incompatibility a week after the birth of a child is now so common as to be statistically normal.)

“She could not return to her mother because of conflict with her ‘stepfather,’ or her mother’s latest boyfriend, who, in fact, was only nine years older than she and seven years younger than her mother. … (It goes without saying that her own father had disappeared at her birth, and she had never seen him since.) The latest boyfriend in this kind of ménage either wants the daughter around to abuse her sexually or else wants her out of the house as being a nuisance and an unnecessary expense.

“The father of her first child had, of course, recognized her vulnerability. A girl of sixteen living on her own is easy prey. He beat her from the first, being drunken, possessive, and jealous, as well as flagrantly unfaithful. She thought a child would make him more responsible – sober him up and calm him down. It had the reverse effect. She left him.

“The father of her second child was a career criminal, already imprisoned several times. A drug addict who took whatever drugs he could get, he died under the influence. She had known all about his past before she had his child.

“The father of her third child was much older than she. It was he who suggested that they have a child – in fact he demanded it as a condition of staying with her. He had five children already by three different women, none of whom he supported in any way whatever.

“The conditions for the perpetuation of evil were now complete. She was a young woman who would not want to remain alone, without a man, for very long; but with three children already, she would attract precisely the kind of man, like the father of her first child – of whom there are now many – looking for vulnerable, exploitable women. More than likely, at least one of them (for there would undoubtedly be a succession of them) would abuse her children sexually, physically, or both.

“She was, of course, a victim of her mother’s behavior at a time when she had little control over her destiny. Her mother had thought that her own sexual liaison was more important than the welfare of her child, a common way of thinking in today’s welfare Britain. The same day, for example, I was consulted by a young woman whose mother’s consort had raped her many times between the ages of eight and fifteen with her mother’s full knowledge. Her mother had allowed this solely so that her own relationship with her consort might continue. It could happen that my patient will one day do the same thing.

“My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however; she had knowingly borne children of men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that I said to her – and say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situation – proved: next time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and I’ll tell you if you can go out with him.

“This never fails to make the most wretched, the most ‘depressed’ of women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them… And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can they – and therefore they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands of evil men.

“Moreover, they are aware that I believe that it is both foolish and wicked to have children by men without having considered even for a second or a fraction of a second whether the men have any qualities that might make them good fathers. My patient did not start out with the intention of abetting, much less of committing evil. And yet her refusal to take seriously and act upon the signs that she saw and the knowledge that she had was not the consequence of blindness or ignorance. It was utterly willful. She knew from her own experience, and that of many people around her, that her choices, based on the pleasure or the desire of the moment, would lead to the misery and suffering not only of herself, but – especially – of her own children.

“This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom she owes a duty.

“The men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and consequences of what they are doing. The same day I saw the patient I have just described, a man aged twenty-five came into our ward, in need of an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of cocaine that he had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in possession of them. As it happened, he had just left his latest girlfriend – one week after she had given birth to their child. They weren’t getting along, he said; he needed his space. Of the child, he thought not for an instant. I asked him whether he had any other children. ‘Four,’ he replied. ‘How many mothers?’ ‘Three.’ ‘Do you see any of your children?’ He shook his head. It is supposedly the duty of the doctor not to pass judgment on how his patients have elected to live, but I think I may have raised my eyebrows slightly. At any rate, the patient caught a whiff of my disapproval. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know. Don’t tell me.’

“These words were a complete confession of guilt. I have had hundreds of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way. The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism, and joyous malignity that staggers and appalls me. I am more horrified after fourteen years than the day I started.

Dalrymple rejects categorically that such evil is the result of poverty. People were more honorable and families more stable in days past when people had less, much less, than these inner-city Brits do now. But much of this human catastrophe is the direct result, he argues, of a culture that has refused to condemn such behavior as immoral, as wicked, as sinful; a culture that endlessly trumpets the rights of men and women to do whatever they please but refuses to assert his or her corresponding duties, a culture, if you will, though he does not use the term, that denies sin. If everything is simply a matter of choice, and it is no one’s business to condemn the choices of others, then do not these men and women have the right to live in precisely this way, because it is the way they have chosen to live? Supposedly the state will take care of the children, but, of course, the state does not and cannot! In years past, when the evil tendencies of the human heart were more widely acknowledged and taken more seriously, when restraints were imposed upon human beings, this behavior would have been condemned, repudiated, and punished. No longer. The elite culture, which created this moral environment, will not admit to the disaster because if they did they would have to take responsibility for it and, what is more, they might find their own libertine way of life made subject to restraint or to the same condemnation and repudiation. So far Theodore Dalrymple. [Our Culture, What’s Left of It, 7-16]

But, with Bible in hand, we can go on to say that that it is hardly only the genocidal dictator or the moral squalor of one of the inner cities of the modern world that illustrates the sinful condition of human life and the corruption of the human heart. Each little environment – a marriage, a family, a place of employment, a neighborhood, even a church – reveals the same selfish, destructive, egotistical, willfully foolish behavior. Little vignettes of evil can be found everywhere, anywhere one looks among people who know perfectly well what the good is and don’t do it. The wealthy man or woman in his or her own sphere can be as cruel, as mean-spirited, as unforgiving, and as indifferent to others as the drug-dealer. And, as we now know only to well, in our modern media age, the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous are more likely to be paraded in front of us in all their pathetic moral failure than are the drug-dealer, whose immorality, cruelty, and selfish disregard for others, we take for granted. We are more titillated by Harvey Weinstein than by some common dope peddler who is destroying many more human lives!

Dalrymple’s point is that this is what will always happen when societies allow the moral boundaries to be erased, when they remove the restraints that hold human behavior in bounds. When people are allowed to do whatever they want at the moment things invariably get worse, never better. It is simply the nature of the human heart. This is the human condition, always has been, always will be. Christians know this, of course, because our behavior improves when others are watching and degrades when they are not. We are often at our worst when we think we are alone, forgetting that we believe that God sees us all the time and even looks into our hearts. And why do we struggle so to remember that God is present and knows all? Because we don’t want him to see who and what we are!

And all of this is only the tip of the iceberg. Lying beneath is the immense measure of human pride and self-seeking, foolishness and self-deception, and indifference toward God and man that makes of this world the sad, sad place that it is. Let’s be honest, brothers and sisters, any sharp-sighted Christian who knows the reality and, at least theoretically, the scope and extent of human sin, any devout Christian who truly hungers and thirsts for righteousness, any well-taught Christian who has some concept of what real human goodness amounts to, knows only too well that he or she has only the barest notion of how much sin remains in his or her own heart and in his or her behavior. Add the omissions to the commissions and the sum must be appalling!

This is the human problem. This is the human catastrophe. This is what blights and ruins human life. This sin is what has always kept human beings from solving the human problem: it is the sinful soul of the boy or girl, the man or woman. Good grief, even we Christians who have been forgiven our sins and have begun to put them to death – only begun to be sure – seem helpless in the face of the power of the residue of sin left in our hearts. Why is the church not obviously, persuasively, powerfully a witness to the reality of deliverance from sin? Because everyone in her is still so much a sinner!

Now, ask me why the Christian faith is good news, wonderful news, exhilarating news! Because it is the story of God who in defiance of our betrayal of the nature he gave us, in defiance of our petty and monotonous selfishness, in defiance of our hatred of him for having the temerity to require goodness of us, I say God, with a humility and with love we will never measure, and at terrible cost to himself, undertook the conquest of our sin, and accomplished it for us by the Son of God. It is good news, of course, only for those who understand how protracted and invincible is their own bondage and hopelessness; but for them, for the prisoners who know themselves in prison and who understand the true misery of their captivity, it is the only news worthy to be called good news!