Sunday, June 23, 2019

Why we need the gospel - Rom. 3:9-20

Despite the fact that we live in a world filled with evil and unimaginable wickedness, and despite the fact that you don’t have to be a person of faith to know this, the fact of the matter is that very few people believe that they are sinners.  The well-respected Christian counselor David Powlinson recalls that before he was converted to Christ as an adult, he didn’t think of himself as a sinner.  I have a feeling that he is a typical case.  The fact of the matter is that our culture is committed to the idea that people are basically good and this is the way we generally think of ourselves.  That being the case, however, means that people don’t feel that they have any real need of redemption from sin.  And that is a problem for the gospel because the gospel is all about redemption from sin.  If there is no need of that, what need is there of the gospel?

In the epilogue to his book, Making Sense of God, Tim Keller recounts the testimony of Langdon Gilkey who was imprisoned in China with Eric Liddell during the second world war.  Gilkey was not a Christian, and in fact was thoroughly imbued with the progressive and secular vision of man and the world, educated at Harvard and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in philosophy.  He too believed in the basic goodness of human nature and in the power of reason to conquer moral failure and evil in the world.  

He was teaching English in China when the Japanese overran the province in which he taught.   He was then imprisoned with two thousand other people in a space no more than two and a half acres, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded day and night by armed guards.  As a result, there was very little privacy, and very few resources to accommodate everyone.  At first, Gilkey thought that human goodness and reason would shine through and everyone would work together for the common good.  However, he soon began to see that selfishness was more fundamental than goodness and reason to the human condition.  This was true of both religious and irreligious people.  It seemed that no one was willing to sacrifice for others.  Even when it was obvious to reason that it was for the common good that something be done, if it bumped up against a person’s private concern, they were just not willing to sacrifice their good for the common good.  In this very difficult place, the “thin polish of easy morality” wore off.[1]

Gilkey was forced to see that morality is not the product of reason, but rather the reverse.  He writes,

It was a rare person indeed in our camp whose mind could rise beyond that involvement of the self in crucial issues to view them dispassionately.  Rational behavior in communal action is primarily a moral and not an intellectual achievement, possible only to a person morally capable of self-sacrifice.  In a real sense, I came to believe, moral selflessness is a prerequisite for the life of reason – not its consequence, as so many philosophers contend.[2]

There was an exception, however: Eric Liddell.  Unlike others, Liddell was selfless and generous.  Of him Gilkey wrote, “It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”[3]  What was the difference?  Other religious people were just as selfish as the rest.  Gilkey gives a very insightful explanation:

Religion is not the place where the problem of man’s egotism is automatically solved.  Rather, it is there that the ultimate battle between human pride and God’s grace takes place.  Insofar as human pride may win the battle, religion can and does become one of the instruments of human sin.  But insofar as there the self does meet God and so surrender to something beyond its own self-interest, religion may provide the one possibility for a much needed and very rare release from our common self-concern.[4]

The crucial insight here is that religion makes us better people when it is flavored by grace.  It was the grace of God that had changed and empowered Liddell’s life.  But grace makes absolutely no sense unless we see ourselves as unworthy of God’s favor.  But how is that?  We are unworthy because we are sinful, because we do not deserve the grace of God.  And that is precisely what the apostle is at pains to point out in the text before us.  Paul makes the crucial observation that people are not basically rational and moral, but selfish and evil.  And until we see this, all the religion in the world will only make us “one of the instruments of human sin.”  It isn’t pleasant to dwell on this, but it is absolutely necessary.  We need to see our need of grace if we are going to reach out for it.  But to see our need of grace we first need to see that we are sinful, that we have fallen short of the mark, that we deserve the judgment and wrath of Almighty God.  But more than this, we need to see that we cannot make things right.  It is not enough to see that we are sinners, but we need to see that the only one who can truly make us right is God.  And that is where his grace and the gospel comes in.  Otherwise, we will just end up becoming a bunch of self-deceived and self-righteous sinners who make the world worse rather than better.  But Paul does both these things, arguing that we are not only sinful but that we need God to make things right.

How does apostle do this?  That brings us to the text.

Everyone needs to be made right

There are two main points that the apostle wants to make in these verses.  First, he sums up the argument that all men are sinners: “What then?  Are the Jews better off?  No, not at all.  For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under sin” (3:9).  This is the summary of the first two chapters, for in chapter 1 the apostle had argued that Gentile society was thoroughly corrupt and in chapter 2 he had argued that the Jewish people did not keep the law they were given.  His point in this verse is that even though the Jews do have these tremendous external advantages, like the law, they are no better off than the Gentiles when it comes to sin.  

Paul supports this assertion now from Scripture in verses 10-18.  This is a new thing.  You might have noticed that up till now the apostle has not made direct reference to specific OT Scripture passages.  However, now he is at pains to show that what he is teaching is no different from the teaching of the OT, which was acknowledged by both Paul and his fellow Jews as being the undisputed word of God.  There is no disharmony between OT and NT here: both teach the universal sinfulness of mankind.  So to establish his point, the apostle quotes several passages from the Psalms (14,5, 10, and 36, in that order) and one from Isaiah 59.

Now I want to pause here and consider what appears to be a problem with Paul’s use of the OT.  It is obvious that his main purpose in adducing these OT texts was to support his statement, made in verse 9, that all men are sinners.  Then we jump into verses 10-12, “as it is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one . . .’.”  That makes sense: all are sinners, just as the Scriptures say.  

But there is a problem.  If you read the text in Psalm 14, it becomes obvious that David did not consider everyone to be unrighteous, because just a few verses down in the psalm, David describes the people of God as the righteous.  In the psalm, David looks out at the enemies of God and says of them, “There is none righteous.”  Then he contrasts their condition with the condition of the people of God, and says, “God is in the generation of the righteous” (Ps. 14:5).  So the unrighteousness in Psalm 14 is not universal, whereas in Romans 3, that is the verdict which the apostle Paul brings upon the human race.  How do we deal with this problem?

To begin with, we can say that the apostle Paul did not intend for his entire argument to hinge upon this text.  As we have already pointed out, Paul refers to several OT Scriptures.  And when we look at the various texts, it is not always possible to determine whether the writer had the people of God in mind or their enemies.  But one text is crystal clear: in Isaiah 59, God is addressing the people of Israel through the prophet, and this is what he says: “Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood: their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths.  The way of peace they know not” (7,8).  So, when these various texts are taken together, it is clear that the apostle’s case is soundly built, and that both the enemies of God’s people and the OT people of God themselves – the Jews – are sinners before God.

Then from the Psalms we also know that even though there are righteous people as well as unrighteous people, the righteous only get that way through the mercy of God.  In other words, we are all sinners by nature and it is only the grace of God that puts us in the category of the righteous.  So, for example, in Psalm 5 (which Paul also quotes in the words “their throat is an open sepulcher”), David contrasts himself with the wicked by calling attention to God’s mercy: “But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple” (Ps. 5:7).  If it is true that is it only the mercy of God which makes a difference in our lives, then it is a fact that we all start out as sinners.  David recognizes this fact elsewhere when he says, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).  And so Paul’s point is still made.[5]

As we look over verses 10-18, we see that there are at least four debilitating realities about sin that we need to consider.

First, these verses teach us that sin pervades human nature and that we are its slaves.  The apostle says in verse 9 that all men are “under sin.”  We are under sin as a slave is under his master.  Sin exercises dominion over us.  Jesus said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn. 8:34).  This domination of sin pervades every aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our affections, and our actions.  And this domination continues until, by God’s grace, the power of sin is broken in our lives.

It is important to understand how deep sin has penetrated into the very depths of our being.  Sin is not like a disease which we catch, like a cold.  It is not an occasional mishap or thing that we do.  Rather, sin is a part of the warp and woof of human nature, so that nothing less than the power of God can free man from its bondage.

Second, these verses teach us that sin is universal.  “All . . . are under sin. . . . None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”  It is obvious that the apostle wants us to understand that none are exempt from the guilt of sin.  Do you know what this means practically?  It means that I am a sinner.  Yes, the person next to you is a sinner too, but don’t forget that the universal statements that the apostle is making mean that you are a sinner also.  As Paul says just a few verses later, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:23, KJV).  And that means you and I have sinned and in doing so have robbed God of the glory he deserves.  We are all traitors against heaven.

It is so easy to breeze past verses like this without realizing how they apply to us.  It is so easy to look at Romans 3:10-12 and see how they teach the doctrine of total depravity, memorize them, and yet never see how they speak to us personally.  Let these verses hit you between the eyes, as they were meant to do!  If I am a sinner, then the gospel is a weighty and wonderful thing.  It is a terrible thing to reject it and a wonderful thing to receive it with all our heart.  

The third thing these verses teach us about sin is what it does.  It turns men against God.  Note how Paul begins and ends this string of quotations: “no one seeks for God . . . . There is no fear of God before their eyes” (11, 18).  This is really the defining mark of sin.  Sin is not mainly what we do to other people.  Sin is mainly what we do to God.  This is why it is so tragic that so many people are able to convince themselves that they are pretty good people while all the time they neglect God and leave him out of their lives, preferring instead their vacations and their houses and their cars and their work.  Whatever you may think of a failure to seek God, to God it is incredibly offensive to say to him, in effect, “God, I like my things and my hobbies and my accomplishments more than your fellowship, so stay out of my life.”  It should sober those of us who treat God so to reflect on the fact that God is the one who will be the final arbiter of what sin is and what it is not.

Fourth, sin turns men against each other.  In verses 13-17, Paul draws attention to our mouth and to our actions, and the sins that are associated with both.  In verses 13 and 14, we have the sins of the mouth.  Note the progression from the throat to the tongue to the lips to the mouth.  It seems that the apostle is wanting to show how that the sins of the mouth emanate from our heart, for the progression is from that part of the faculty of speech that is nearest our heart (the throat) proceeding upward to the lips.  For “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” so that “by thy words thou shalt be justified and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Mt. 12:34, 37, KJV).  See also Prov. 10:11; Eph. 4:29-32.

The next three verses deal primarily with our actions (15-17), concentrating on the violence that men do to each other.  Thus the apostle is claiming that men by nature are murderers, at least in the heart.  Jesus said that if you are angry with your brother without a (just) cause, you have broken the commandment, “You shall not kill.”

A friend of mine once read Dostoevsky’s book, Crime and Punishment.  It is about a student who murders someone but then can’t live with the guilt.  The actual murder comes close to the beginning of the story, and the rest is spent describing the way the young man tried to rationalize his crime.  My friend said that what was so terribly enlightening to him was that as he read these various self-justifications, he came to realize that he had made many of them himself in different contexts.  

We may not realize it, but except by the grace of God we have the same pent up venom in our own hearts.  Our hearts are so deceitful that we fail to realize that the only reason we don’t kill our neighbor is because of the police or societal expectations or what would happen to us if we got caught.  But God knows our hearts, even if we do not: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer. 17:9-10).  

Why we cannot make things right

The second point the apostle wants to make is that universal sinfulness leads to universal guilt and the fact that we are ourselves unable to deal with it: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (19).  This again is a summary of what he has been stating all along.  All men are sinners and therefore we all stand before the judgment seat of the Almighty God with nothing to say in our defense.  We are not only sinners, but we are sinners without hope if left to ourselves.

Verses 19 and 20 are the crux of Paul’s argument here, so let’s pause to consider them in a little more detail.  Here is, I think, the overall argument: the passages that Paul has quoted in the previous verses (10-18) do not only apply to the heathen enemies of God’s people but to the Jews as well.  That is the reason he begins by saying, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law.”  Again, recall what a difficult thing it was to convince the kind of Jew that Paul himself had been that he was not safe simply for being a Jew.  Paul is saying that what applies to Gentiles also applies to Jews as well.  They cannot escape the verdict of sinfulness and the guilt consequent upon it. 

The result of this (“so that” – ver. 19) is that every mouth, Jew and Gentile, yours and mine, will be stopped on the day of judgment and all the world become guilty before God (19).  The next verse tells us why this is so: “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (20).  The Jews believed that having the law would save them.  But no one keeps the law and so everyone stands liable to the wrath of God.

The last part of verse 20 tells us why the law cannot save: “since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”  The “knowledge of sin” is not an understanding of what is right and wrong based on the law.  Otherwise, that would mean that it is our knowing what is right and wrong that deprives the law of its ability to save.  But that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Rather, what Paul means by this is that the law shows us that we are corrupt and sinful before God.  This is what the law does: it shows us what holiness is and by this shows us that we are not holy.   This being the case, the law cannot save, since it can only show us how we fail.  It certainly cannot justify us before God.

To see how this works, let’s look at some parallel verses later in this epistle.  In chapter 7, Paul writes, “What then shall we say?  That the law is sin?  By no means!  Yet if it had not been or the law, I would not have known sin.  For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.  For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (7:7-8).

Here the apostle says that the law gave him the knowledge of sin.  How did it do this?  In this way: Paul thought that at one point in his life he was a good person.  But then one day he realized that the law not only governs our outward actions but also our inward motivations.  Evidently, Paul hadn’t thought of the law in this way, but he began at once to make a concerted effort to avoid coveting at any cost.  The only problem was that Paul began to realize that he couldn’t do it.  The more he strived against sin the more ingrained it became.  The more he thought about the law, the more it stirred up the corruption within.

That’s what the law does.  When holy law meets a dead and depraved heart, you get sin.  That is the way human nature is: if you tell children not to touch something, they immediately want to touch it, even though they may not have cared about it before.  And we are not much different from children.  Before the law comes to us, sin is dead, dormant, so to speak.  That doesn’t mean that apart from the law we are sinless, obviously.  But it does mean that when we notice the authority of the law in a particular instance, immediately all the sin within rises up to meet the authority with rebellion.  Thus Paul goes on to say, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (7:9).  That is, he was alive before God in his own estimation, but then the commandment came in force, stirred up the sin within his heart, and he died to any hope of achieving the favor of God through law-keeping.

Now let’s recapitulate the apostle’s argument in these verses by working through their logic.  First, the law brings the knowledge of sin – the realization that I am a sinner.  Then we realize that we cannot justify ourselves by our own attempts at law-keeping.  And because we are not able to justify ourselves, Jews who have the law in Scripture and Gentiles who have the law in their hearts by nature, we are all guilty before God.  For all are sinners, at the Scriptures attest.

That’s the overall argument.  Paul wants us to see the implications of universal sin.  But it is not only that we need redemption, as important as that is.  It is that our need is so great that we cannot undo the damage on our own.  That is what he is trying to get across here.  There is this cancer called sin.  You cannot plant a Band-Aid over it; you need someone else to come in an operate on you and take the cancer out.  You cannot do it yourself; if you try you will only make things worse.  And that’s what religion apart from Christ really is: it is man’s attempt to operate on himself.  But instead of taking out the cancer, we tend only to make it spread.  We need God’s grace and God’s hand to save us.  We cannot save ourselves: God must do it.

The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God has done it, and that is what the apostle will go on to say in the coming verses.  Through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the sin that we cannot conquer and atone for has been conquered and atoned for.  And by God’s eternal purpose, it is simply by trusting in Christ that we become connected to his saving work and are embraced in the grace of God forever.  Once you understand the desperate nature of our condition, that is good news indeed and suddenly the gospel makes perfect sense.

[1] Quoted in Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016), p. 251.  The material on Gilkey is found in the epilogue, pages 247-254.  Keller, in turn, is recounting Gilkey’s own story found in the book, Shangtung Compound.
[2] Ibid, p. 252.
[3] Ibid, p. 253.
[4] Ibid, p. 254.
[5] I am indebted to John Piper’s exposition of this passage for these insights.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Intermission: Answers to Objections – Rom. 3:1-8

At this point in his gospel presentation, the apostle pauses to deal with some objections to what he has already said.  No doubt this is the result of many years of interacting with Jewish interlocutors in synagogues across the Roman Empire.  This, by the way, is one of the benefits of doing something like this over and over again.  As a teacher, I can attest to the benefit of teaching a class multiple times, one of the benefits being able to anticipate problems students will have.  It’s hard to do this without teaching experience.  Paul was an experienced teacher, and so he presents his reply to possible objections people (in particular his Jewish brethren) might raise.

One of the immediate lessons we can glean from this is that there will always be objections to the Christian message, no matter how well we present it, no matter how engaging or compelling our presentation is.  The fact of the matter this is more than a debate on the intellectual level.  We need to remember that.  There are issues at stake here that will call out all the opposition an unbeliever can muster.  By nature, we want to justify our self-sovereignty.  We want to be king over our lives, we want to call the shots, and any attempt to curtail our autonomy we will meet with determined resistance, unless we have been born again.

So Lesson One is that we shouldn’t be surprised when people object to the gospel, even when they react violently against it.  Nor should we interpret opposition to the gospel as a weakness of the gospel.  The problem is not with the gospel itself but with hearts that hate the God of the gospel (cf. 2 Cor. 4:1-6).

But Lesson Two is that we should be prepared to deal with objections, and to meet them as we are able.  The apostle Paul wrote to Titus that the elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9).  And this means that we must be students of the word.  I know of some non-Christians who are better students of Scripture than some Christians.  That is shameful.  This is so necessary, not only for our own benefit, but also because often the problems people have with the truth is that they misunderstand what Scripture actually teaches.  We will never be able to correct misapprehensions unless we know what it says.

However, this doesn’t mean that we always have to have an answer to every objection that people raise to the gospel.  There are going to be times that, no matter how much you study, that you are not going to be prepared for a particular objection.  The thing to do at that moment is simply to admit that you don’t have an answer, not to pretend that you have when you don’t.  (And then go seek out the answer!)  We need show humility in our interactions with those who don’t believe what we believe.  That in itself can go a long way to establishing a relationship with the unbeliever so that our gospel becomes more meaningful when we do share it. 

Another lesson (Lesson Three) we can learn from this is the importance of understanding the objections that are posed to the Christian message.  It bothers me when I hear pat answers to complicated issues.  It is sometimes clear that Christians haven’t really thought through a problem and then they give an answer which just tends to confirm to the minds of unbelievers that Christians are simplistic people who can’t give an intelligent answer to objections.  But more than that, it gives the impression that Christians really don’t care much about the problems that unbelievers are wrestling with, and that in turn gives the impression that believers don’t care much about their unbelieving friends.  Paul was not like that.  He clearly understood the objections and knew how to answer them.  Part of this was due to the fact that he was educated inside the very system to which he was responding.  Another part of this was due to long experience.  But surely part of it came from the fact that the apostle really cared about those to whom he was speaking and therefore gave thoughtful answers to their questions.

At the same time I do realize that are times when the objector to the Christian message isn’t objecting because he or she wants an answer to their questions but just because they hate the message and it doesn’t matter what you say, they are not going to believe it.  This is what our Lord was referring to in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Mt. 7:6).  There is a time when you do not answer a fool in his folly, lest you end up being like him (Prov. 26:4).  At that point, you are under no obligation to keep trying to respond to them; the wise thing is to simply leave them in their self-deception.  However, we need to be very discerning and not to cut someone off too soon; it is better to be patient than to be provocative.

Now, what were these objections which the apostle answers?  There are three that Paul responds to here in this text, one in verse 1, one in verse 3, and one in verse 5.  They are objections raised by his Jewish friends in the context of what he has said in chapter 2.[1]  

Objection 1: Aren’t you undermining the wisdom of God?

“Then what advantage has the Jew?  Or what is the value of circumcision?” (verse 1).  The underlying assumption behind these questions is that Paul’s teaching nullifies the Old Testament promises to the Jews and God’s election of Israel.  This is a response to Paul’s teaching in the previous chapter.  Let’s recall what he has said there.  Fundamentally, he has argued that having the law is not enough to guarantee salvation.  Having the law as the Jews did, a gift from God through Moses at Mount Sinai to the nation of Israel, is not a sign that every individual Jew will be saved.  Nor is the law powerful enough to guarantee conformity to its precepts.  It can command but it cannot create a heart that is enabled to obey its precepts.

The coup de grace to the misplaced confidence of many of Paul’s brethren came in verses 25-29.  He says three things.  First, in verse 25 he says that Jews who do not obey the law are in the same category as the uncircumcised.  To the Jew, that meant one thing: those who don’t obey the law are under condemnation.  Then, in verses 26-27, Paul has argued that the Gentiles (the uncircumcised) who obey the law are in the same category of the circumcised and will judge Jews who fail to obey the law.  In other words, those who keep the law, even though they are not circumcised, are blessed by God.  Finally, in verses 28-29 the apostles argues that a true Jew – one who has the blessing of God, one who is saved – is not just connected to Abraham by physical descent, but is one whose heart reflects the spiritual reality to which circumcision points.  The point is that the law itself is not enough to guarantee that to every physical descendant of Abraham.

Therefore, when some Jews heard this, their immediate response was, “This means that God’s covenant with Abraham didn’t do anything!  For this means that there is no advantage to the Jew in virtue of being a Jew.  And surely that is wrong.”  We must remember that circumcision was given by God.  The force behind this argument is that God doesn’t give things to no effect.  The covenant that God made with Abraham surely carried with it enormous benefits and set the Jews apart from everyone else.  Surely this was indisputable.  But Paul’s argument made it sound like God’s covenant carried with it no advantage and that the Jew was no better off than the Gentile.  Another way to put this is that it seemed as if Paul’s position made God unwise in his dispositions toward Israel, in giving them a law which was in the end a useless thing.

The apostle’s answer comes in verse 2: “Much in every way.  To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”  Paul notes that there are many of advantages that the Jews have, in contrast with other nations.  He does not list them all here – that awaits 9:1-3 – but he does mention one specifically.  The great advantage that the Jews had over the other nations was that they had the word of God written for them in the pages of the OT.

I want to emphasize what the apostle says here about the OT.  He calls it the “oracles of God.”  In the ancient world, oracles were divine utterance.  In other words, the OT was not just a human attempt to understand the divine.  The OT was God’s word.  It did not just contain God’s word, but it was God’s word to Israel.

Paul’s argument in chapter 2 in no way minimized this incredible privilege.  It is true that he claims that the Gentiles had God’s law written on the heart, but this is not the same kind of blessing as having God’s word written down in Scripture.  General revelation and common notions about God and his law that are ours by virtue of being created in the image of God do not match the superiority of having God’s word for us in the pages of the OT and NT.  The main reason behind this is that general revelation is impotent in revealing God’s saving character to us and it is impotent in correcting the idolatry to which we are naturally so prone.  More importantly, what separates special from general revelation is that God’s saving work has always been attached to his written revelation.  This is surely what is implied in our Lord’s words to the woman at the well in Samaria: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22).  Note that our Lord connects correct worship (a product of having God’s word) with salvation.

Paul’s argument therefore in no way minimizes the wisdom of God in bringing Israel into covenant with him, for in doing so they had access to his word which was of inestimable value.

Objection 2: Aren’t you undermining the faithfulness of God?

The next objection comes in verse 3: “What if some were unfaithful?  Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?”  The KJV translates verse 3 as, “For what if some did not believe?  Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?”  The reason for the difference between the two translations lies in the fact that ancient Greek used the same word for “faithlessness” and “unbelief.”  The reality is that often you cannot separate the two.  If we are unfaithful to God’s word ultimately it is because we don’t really believe what God said.  

Nevertheless, the basic problem is this.  In chapter 2, Paul had claimed that the Jews did not keep the law, that their lives were fundamentally out of sync with God’s will for their lives.  Because of this they were exposed to God’s wrath.  Now to many of Paul’s Jewish brethren this meant that God was stepping back from his promise to Abraham.  This meant that God was unfaithful to his promises to save Israel.  Paul’s position on the faithlessness of Israel implicated God as being faithless, and this just could not be.  This is a serious objection, one that the apostle will answer in more detail in chapters 9-11, but here he gives a hint of the fuller answer in those chapters.

His answer comes categorically in verse 4: “By no means!”  Then, “Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.’”  Paul does not give a full response, but just simply at this point agrees that God could never be faithless to his promises.  God’s word is always true, even if no one believes it and even if no one obeys it.  

To underline his point, the apostle quotes Psalm 51:4, which is quite pertinent to his overall argument.  It paralleled this debate precisely: David had sinned against God and as a result was judged quite severely by God – to which David came to see that since sin is against God, God is just in his judgments.  So here is  a Jew – a very preeminent Jew – King David, who acknowledges that God’s judgment against a Jew is just, and so his sin and God’s judgment upon it did not invalidate the faithfulness of God but also served to make it more conspicuous.  This verse proves that God can judge his chosen people without nullifying his promises to them.

Objection 3: Aren’t you undermining the glory of God?

Here is the last objection, which comes to us in verse 5: “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say?  That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?  (I speak in a human way.)”  In the book of Isaiah, Israel’s faithlessness becomes an opportunity for God to show his faithfulness in saving Israel: “The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.  He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak” (Isa. 59:15-17).  It seems that Paul’s Jewish interlocutor is arguing that God will not judge Israel because of her faithlessness because Israel’s faithlessness serves as a foil for the glory of God’s righteousness in saving Israel.  It is not right for God to inflict wrath on those who will give him glory.

Paul’s response is given in the following verses 6-8.  In verse 6: “By no means!  For then how could God judge the world?”  The “world” here is a reference to the Gentiles.  In other words, this argument is not valid because if this were so, then God could not judge anybody – not even the Gentiles – for then all would be glorifiers of God.  Of course, Paul’s Jewish brethren agreed with him that God’s judgment was falling on the Gentiles nations that did not know God.  So he takes this point of agreement and uses it against them.

Furthermore, in verse 7, Paul continues by saying that they couldn’t judge Paul himself, whom the Jews regarded as a speaker of lies by preaching the gospel, for if their argument is valid, then his lie also contributes to the glory of God.  Finally, in verse 8, Paul contends that this argument, taken to its logical extreme, would serve as an excuse for the most hateful antinomianism. 

Paul’s objector had posed problems to the gospel related to God’s wisdom, his faithfulness, and his glory.  The apostle took these objections seriously and took the time to respond to them.  He will elucidate further answers in chapters 9-11.  Let us be like the apostle in this respect.  Don’t shy away from objections to the gospel, but learn to respond to them with patience, with humility, with love, and with truth.

Final Considerations

As we close our remarks on this passage, I want to come back to Paul’s opening reflection on the advantage of having God’s written word.  What was true of Israel is true today of the church which holds the completed canon of Scripture in the OT and NT.  One of the greatest privileges that can be given to man is to be entrusted with the word of God.  

We should therefore treasure it, like the Psalmist: “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Ps. 119:72).  And, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil” (Ps. 119:162).  I think it is important to see that the entire Psalter begins with a reflection upon the blessedness of the man who loves and lives God’s word.  

Have we rightly appreciated the fact that God speaks to us in the pages of Scripture?  John Paton, a  missionary to cannibals on the island of Aniwa in the South Pacific, one time wrote some instructions on a piece of wood and asked an aged chief to take it to his wife on another part of the island.  “But what do you want?” asked the chief.  “The wood will tell her,” Paton responded.  “Whoever heard of wood speaking?” the chief asked, nonplussed.  The account continues:

John read out to him what he had written on the piece of wood and then explained that God spoke to his people in the same way through a book, the Bible.  If the chief learned to read, John told him, he would be able to hear God speaking to him from the page of the book in the same way that Mrs. Paton had heard John when she looked at the piece of wood.  From that day onward, Namakei was eager to help John learn new words.  He could hardly wait for the day when he would be able to hear God speaking to him from the pages of a book.[2]

One of the wonderful things about God’s word is that it is absolutely reliable.  We can have complete confidence that it is true.  This is surely an implication from verse 4.  Let God be true and every man a liar.  It doesn’t matter what men say, God’s word is true.  As the hymn puts it, “How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in his excellent word!”

But we can abuse the great privilege in at least two ways.  We can abuse it when we refuse to accept all of Scripture, and pick and choose what we want to believe.  But “all Scripture is given by inspiration” (2 Tim. 3:16, KJV), not just some of it.

We can also abuse it when we turn it to purposes which are counter to its aim.  For example, when we use Scripture as a cover for our sin, as Paul indicates in verse 8.

But these wrong responses are the result of refusing to submit our hearts and lives to the authority of God’s word.  It is only as we bow the knees to the supremacy of God over our lives in his word that we will respond to it as we ought.  My friend, what an amazing privilege you and I have to hold God’s word in our hands!  May we also hold in our hearts as we ought, loving it, cherishing it, and obeying it.

[1] Though I don’t follow it in every respect, I am indebted to John Piper for his exposition of this passage.  See
[2] Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I got this quote.  It is from a biography of John Paton (though not the autobiography, which is duly famous).

Sunday, May 12, 2019

You must be born again – Romans 2:17-29.

If you have read a mystery novel, or watched a mystery drama on television (for example, one of Agatha Christie’s works), you know that they are all filled with misdirection and red herrings.  The author tries his/her best to convince you that someone other than the perpetrator of the crime is the guilty one.  Until then end, when new information is suddenly given and the identity of the real thief/killer/criminal is revealed, you are generally being led on a wild goose chase.  You have a lot of circumstantial evidence that several of the characters are guilty, but in the end, most of this evidence fails to convict.

In the spiritual realm, there is also a lot of confusion, and often it is about who is saved and who is not.  And a lot of time this is because there has been misdirection from those who are perceived to be the spiritual leaders in the culture, whether they are preachers behind a pulpit or talk-radio hosts behind a microphone or TV show hosts behind a camera or academics behind a lectern.  

In our text, the apostle Paul addresses the misinformation disseminated among his Jewish brethren as to the matter of salvation.  As we have seen, there was this idea that as long as you retained your Jewish identity, salvation was a lock.  As long as you had the law (13) you were fine.  Though verses 1-16 do not directly address the Jews, it is almost certain Paul had them primarily in mind.  Now, in verses 17-29, he addresses them directly.  His basic accusation is that they maintained misplaced confidence in the wrong things.  Though you could say that he is accusing them of hypocrisy (and he is), yet the more basic problem was this problem of misplaced confidence.  Their hypocrisy didn’t bother them precisely because of this more fundamental problem.

We need to remember the apostle’s overall strategy here.  He is aiming at the conclusion of 3:23 – “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul knows that the gospel is not going to be interesting or arresting unless one is convinced that he or she needs to be saved.  Now if you think that by virtue of your physical and national identity that you are saved, then the gospel is not going to appear relevant at all.  But that was the problem with most Jews in Paul’s day – and he understood this because this is exactly where he once stood.  His aim then in these verses is to show them that they are exposed to the judgment of God and therefore in as much need of salvation as anyone else.

His point in verses 1-16 has been general: having the law and knowing what is right is not enough to save you from the coming judgment.  Now he applies this general truth specifically to his Jewish brethren in very pointed ways.  He exposes the things in which they had placed their confidence as being unable to support such confidence.  Having the law and circumcision were not enough.  Just being a loyal Jew was not enough.  Something more had to take place – there had to be a change of heart.

You could say that what Paul is doing here in chapter 2 is what our Lord did to Nicodemus in John 3.  When Nicodemus came to Jesus to put his questions to him, our Lord responded very directly: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3).  Nicodemus didn’t understand, precisely because he too had placed confidence in all the wrong things.  The necessity of the new birth was totally foreign to him and he didn’t even have the theological background to make it plausible or intelligible.   Nevertheless, our Lord kept coming back to it: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5).  Nicodemus needed to see that he had to be radically changed from within by the Holy Spirit, and that until this happened all the very real privileges he had as a Jew – the law, God’s covenant with Abraham, circumcision – were not enough to guarantee entrance into the kingdom of God.  And notice that our Lord preaches the necessity of the new birth before he preaches his work of redemption in dying for the lost and the necessity of faith in the Son of God (see verses 14-21).

This is what Paul is doing here.  He is showing us how he preached to his Jewish audience.  He preached that unless they were born again, all the spiritual privileges they enjoyed were not enough to save them.  Paul will sum it up in verses 28-29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.  His praise is not from man but from God.”  Until you see that you need to be radically changed from within, that there is something terribly wrong with you, and that nothing merely external is going to save you, you will not see your need for salvation and the gospel.  So this point had to be made.

Now I think this point is just as relevant for today’s audience, whether you are a Jew or not.  You don’t have to be a Jew to fall into this trap, into thinking that you are okay when you are not.  There are plenty of people who truly think they are okay spiritually, that they will go to heaven when they die, when in reality their confidence is misplaced and their hope is false.  What’s more, the very things the Jews had confidence in mirror the types of things people today have confidence in, especially those who are nominally connected with the church.

There are three things Paul focuses on as being foundations for false hope, things that may appear as evidences of salvation when they are not.  They had to do with (1) who they were, (2) what they knew, and (3) what they did.  We will look at these three things in turn as we go through verses 17-24, and then see the reason why they are false hopes as we turn our attention to verses 25-29.

Who they were – a matter of misplaced identity

Paul begins by saying, “But if you call yourself a Jew” (17).  This beings a complicated “if-then” statement, the “if” part in verses 17-20 and the “then” part in verses 21-24.  But the point I want to make here is that the Jews gloried in their status as such.  They thought that if they remained loyal to their heritage, then they were okay.  In other words, the fact that they were connected to Abraham was evidence that they were saved, as long as they did not overtly reject that attachment.

Of course, we must not go overboard here.  There were many privileges that belonged to the Jews as such.  The very fact that Paul says that the gospel is the gospel to the Jew first (1:17) is evidence of that.  The Jews are God’s covenant people, and Paul will go on to say in 3:1-2 that the Jews have many spiritual advantages: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way.  To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”  Then in chapter 11 he will go on to say that even though many Jews had rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, yet God had not and would not give up on them: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (11:2).  And when I look at Jewish history down to the present time, it seems to me that Paul’s words are true: God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

However, I am interested in how this is mirrored in the church.  Today there are a lot of people who think that just because they are connected in some fashion with the church that they have no need to worry about their salvation.  In other words, their confidence is in their identity as a Christian.  They think that because they have been baptized, or said a prayer, or signed a card, or walked an aisle, they are saved.  These are all external things, just like being a Jew was a physical thing rather than a strictly spiritual reality.

Now I have no doubt that if you are a genuine Christian, you are saved.  But the reality is that you can be outwardly connected to the church and be known as a Christian and yet not be saved.  There is such a thing as a false professor – one who professes allegiance to Christ but who really is living only for themselves.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t real advantages to being connected with the Christian church.  But those advantages in and of themselves aren’t enough to guarantee salvation.  

This is Paul’s point to the Corinthians: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.  Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (10:1-5).  The apostle is clearly drawing an analogy between the experiences of Israel in the Exodus and the experiences of people in the church.  Just because you enjoy many spiritual privileges does not guarantee you will saved: just as with Israel, even though they came through the Red Sea, yet “with most of them God was not pleased.”

Please understand that I am not saying a person can lose their salvation.  The problem is not being saved and losing it, but thinking that you are saved when you are not.  And that is more likely to happen if you are placing your confidence in merely external things, like baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper, or being a member of a local Christian church or being known as a Christian in the community.  These are all good things, but as we shall see, in and of themselves they are not enough.

What they knew – a matter of inadequate knowledge

The Jew had a treasure that no other nation up to that point possessed: the word of God.  The psalmist put it this way: “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel.  He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules” (Ps. 147:19-20).  Again, as Paul puts it in 3:2, the Jews had this incredible privilege in being entrusted with the oracles of God. 

Because the Jew had the word of God, he was blessed to know who God was (correct theology) and he was blessed to know what God expected of him (correct ethics) and how to approach him (correct worship).  Though the world around them was shrouded in spiritual darkness, the Jew was blessed with the light of God’s word.  Every time they opened the word of God in the OT, they heard God speaking to them. They knew “his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law” (18). Their situation is described as in contrast to those who were blind, in darkness, foolish, and spiritually immature (19-20). 

There is nothing bad about this.  In fact, this is wonderful.  However, as the apostle has already put it, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (13).  Having the law is not enough.  It is not even enough to be a student of the law.  It is not enough to be a correct and proper interpreter of the law.  It is not just explaining it that is important, it is not just valuing it that is important, rather it is putting it into practice in your life that is important.  And they didn’t do this, which is the whole point of verses 21-24.

Now some have faulted Paul for painting an exaggerated picture of Jewish hypocrisy in this text.  The claim is that the sins of theft and adultery and robbing temples were not known to be prevalent among the Jews.  However, I choose to believe first-century Paul who was Jewish himself and who regularly engaged other Jews with this very argument, rather than twenty-first academics who piece together their understanding of first-century Jewish religious life from precious few fragments of evidence.  Just thinking about modern church life, I don’t think this has to be an exaggeration.  The fact of the matter is that it is a universal problem that knowing what you should do and must do does not always translate into doing it.  And therein lies the problem, both ancient and modern.

If your confidence is in how much you know about the Bible, then your confidence is misplaced.  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, the devil is a better theologian that you are – than any seminary professor is.  He knows the Bible and can quote it from front to end.  But that does not make him saved.  Hell was made for him, and for all who follow in his footsteps.  Beware of placing your confidence in mere intellectual understanding of Scripture.  Though this is important and even necessary, it is not a sufficient evidence of saving faith.

What they did – a matter of incomplete works

All of Jewish life was centered around their religion.  This used to be the way it was for the Western world as well, and to be frank, I wish it still was.  There is something to be said for cultural structures that make religious belief plausible.  Today, we life in a culture which is structured to make belief in God implausible.

But that was not the way it was in the first-century world, and especially in the Jewish world in which Paul lived and breathed.    And that was true of the Jews to whom Paul addresses himself in these verses.  And as such they continually engaged in religious works.  Paul mentions some of them here: they were guides to the blind, lights to those in darkness, instructors of the foolish, and teachers of the spiritually immature (19-20).  They taught others, preached against breaking God’s law, abhorred idols, and boasted in the law and in God (17, 21-23).

However, their religious life was incomplete.  Though they did a lot of good things, they did not practice universal obedience.  In other words, though they could be genuinely described as religious people, there were many places in their lives where genuine obedience was completely lacking.  And this was shown in the fact that they failed to practice what they preached.  Though they boasted in the law, they dishonored God by breaking that law (23-24).

Our Lord addressed this attitude in Matthew 15, when he was accused of breaking with tradition.  He responded by saying that by keeping their tradition they were breaking the law.  Now it is important to grasp the fact that this tradition was religious tradition and was connected with giving money and possessions to support God’s temple and his worship.  Nevertheless, this religious tradition was used to hide a serious failure to obey God’s word.  And so our Lord responds by saying, “You hypocrites!  Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mt. 15:7-9).

The point is that it is not enough to be religious.  It is not enough to do religious things.  It is not enough to busy oneself with church-related events.  Those are all good things.  Those are sometimes necessary things.  But they are not sufficient as evidence for saving faith.

Why these things are insufficient 

The apostle now goes on to explain why the religious life of the Jews was not sufficient evidence of salvation, and why they desperately needed to be saved.  This is what he does in verses 25-29.  The first sentence in these verses summarizes his overall point: “For circumcision indeed is of value, if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.”  The word “circumcision” points to the overall character of their religious life as centering on external acts.  Circumcision was a good thing; it was ordained by God to be a sign of his covenant with Abraham and his children.  But circumcision was an external, physical thing and if it wasn’t accompanied by a real change of heart and spiritual conversion, it was meaningless as a mark of true spirituality.

Sometimes this text is interpreted as Paul’s attempt to dispel Jewish legalistic attempts to gain salvation through works.  Though I agree that you cannot be justified and saved through law-keeping, I don’t think that is Paul’s point here.  I think his point is that despite all their religion they needed to be born again.  Furthermore, the law by itself could never create that reality in them.  So merely having the law, being circumcised, being a loyal Jew was no evidence that they were saved.  Those things were all good, but more than all that, they needed to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit.  As Murray put it, the obedience to the law here in verse 25 “cannot have in view the perfect fulfilment of the law on the basis of legalism. . . .  That practicing of the law . . . which makes circumcision profitable is the fulfilment of the conditions of faith and obedience apart from which the claim to the promises and grace and privileges of the covenant was presumption and mockery.”[1]

Here is the basic truth the apostle is trying to get across: external religious acts are incomplete without the corresponding spiritual reality to which they point.  Circumcision is no different from uncircumcision if your life has not been transformed into a life of believing obedience to God’s word.  You need more than the law to make that happen.  You need to be saved.  You need to be born again.  You need the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, those who are uncircumcised (Gentiles) if their lives have been transformed so that they keep the law, and have the spiritual reality to which circumcision points, will condemn Jews who have this external connection to God’s law (26-27).  Again, the apostle is not saying that Gentiles can win salvation by law-keeping.  He is saying that Gentiles who keep the law through faith-inspired obedience show that they are really saved.  Nor is he speaking hypothetically here: he is not saying that if a Gentile could keep the law perfectly, he would be saved and condemn the Jew who didn’t.  Rather he is contrasting Spirit-inspired obedience to holding God’s word in a merely external and intellectual manner.

The proof for this point of view is verses 28-29.  What is a true Jew?  Paul began this part of the epistle in verse 17, by pointing out their boasting in the fact that they were Jews.  Now he comes back and says that what marks a true Jew is not circumcision in the flesh.  In other words, not external religious acts.  Rather, “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (29).  In other words, the true evidence of saving faith is not an external connection to the people of God or the law of God, but real, inward, heart change – change which comes from the work of God’s Spirit within.

Does this have application to us today?  Absolutely.  Today there are plenty of people who rest in the fact that they are religious or spiritual people.  They think they are saved and will go to heaven when they die.  They point to religious activity in their life – to a baptism, to charitable works, to social programs they are involved in.  Or they may point to their religious knowledge.  They may know the Bible inside and out.  They may be about to quote it and apply to various aspects of life.  However, at the end of the day, it is all external.  Their hearts have been left unchanged.  They have no real love for Christ and no real desire to submit their lives to the obedience of God’s word.  Repentance is an unknown experience for them.  Like the Jew to whom Paul addressed himself in Romans 2, their religion is a religion which has left the heart unchanged.  But we must be born again, and unless we are born again, we cannot see or experience the kingdom of heaven.  

What is the evidence of that change?  It is not what people think of you.  At the end of the day, your confidence cannot come from the lips of men.  It has to come from God.  The orientation of the saved man or woman is towards God: “His praise is not from man but from God.”[2]  Though this doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when our hearts wander away from, yet our longing is toward God, to glorify him and to enjoy him forever.  Even when we wander away, yet we plead with the psalmist, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” (Ps. 119:176).

So the evidence of salvation is not how religious you are.  The evidence is how changed you are, and whether or not your life is characterized by Spirit-birthed obedience to God’s word, which is what Paul is referring to when he talks about keeping and obeying the law.  It is not so much about what we do, but about what God has done in us and does through us.  The practical result of this teaching is not to look inward and to try to pull ourselves up by the boot-straps.  The result, if we have not experienced this change, ought to be to convince us of our need of the grace of God, and to look to God, to Christ, who by virtue of his redemptive work gives us the Spirit who changes us. 

[1] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT), Vol. 1, p. 85 (Eerdmans, 1968).
[2] Charles Hodge has a comment on this text that for many years I had hanging on my closet door.  It goes like this: “If the heart be right in the sight of God, it matters little what judgment men may form of us; and, on the other hand, the approbation of men is a poor substitute for the favor of God.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Should we untether the law from the gospel? Rom. 2:11-16

We are living in a time when age old standards of right and wrong are being radically up-ended at a breathtaking pace.  Even professing Christians are being swayed into thinking that the Biblical norms for sexuality that only a generation ago were taken for granted are old-fashioned and outdated and downright bad.  Just as the apostle Paul was described in his day as an “evil-doer” or “criminal” (2 Tim. 2:9), even so today those who hold to Biblical standards of right and wrong are increasingly seen to be not just wrong but evil and wicked.  We are told all the time that the Bible is wrong on a host of issues and therefore we need to abandon it for the enlightened positions of modern man.

We also hear all the time the fact loudly proclaimed that Christians are on the wrong side of history.  This is of course a bad argument, for it is ill-defined (who decides what it means to be on the right side of history in the first place , and where is that line drawn?) and proves too much (for a few generations ago being on the “right side of history” would have meant to be on the side of the slave trade).  Nevertheless, it is used as an argument that Christianity is no longer relevant to modern man and his concerns.  History has moved on and has left Christianity by the way-side.  We are told that we too need to move on.  If you don’t, then you are excess baggage, so to speak.

The end result of this enormous cultural pressure has been wholesale capitulation to the new morality, even by certain segments of the church.  The question is, then, how can the church as a whole retain its integrity and faithfulness to Scripture and to the God of Scripture?  I think the answer partly lies in the text of Romans 2:11-16.

Here is the problem: we will give in to the pressures that the culture puts upon the church when we focus on the threats of the moment and the present dangers to which we are exposed as a result.  What about loss of relevance?  What about cultural influence?  What about persecution?  If this is what we are focused on, then we will almost certainly give in.

The answer to this problem is where our text comes in.  For Paul and the Biblical writers, the greatest danger facing every man and woman in this world is actually nothing in this world at all: it is the coming judgment of God.  And that judgment is not based on the consensus of academics at a given point in history, nor is it based on some kind of democratic vote.  Rather, it is based on God’s unwavering character which is expressed in his unchanging moral law.  That is Paul’s point in these verses.  And if we really were to focus on this reality, we would be less likely to be so easily blown over by the winds of cultural change.

Let’s look at the text.  Paul begins in verse 11 by saying, “For God shows no partiality.”  In the previous verses, he had stated that God’s judgment and blessing come to Jew and Gentile alike, and the reason is that God is impartial.  No one gets a pass because of their privileges.  Again, we must remember that the apostle is primarily addressing his fellow Jews here (though I think that today this is more relevant to people in the Christian church), who thought that they were exempt from God’s judgment due to their status as God’s covenant people.  Paul says that this is not true, that both Jew and Gentile are exposed to God’s righteous judgment.

What the apostle then goes on to do in the following verses (12-15) is to explain how God’s judgment will proceed and how it can be universal in its scope.  We noted last time that God will judge all men according to their works.  The question is, how?  What rule will he use to determine what is good and what is bad?  The answer is that God’s law is the rule and the standard.  It is universal in its scope, not only because God is the creator and rightful King over all men, but also because all men have access to this law (to some extent) and therefore are responsible to keep it and exposed to judgment when they break it.  

The Jew has access to it in the written law of God handed down in the books of the Old Testament, and the Gentile have access to it by virtue of the fact that they are created in God’s image and have God’s law written in their hearts.  It is to this law-in-the-heart that conscience witnesses, and it is by this law that Gentiles will be judged.

The time of this judgment is then located by the apostle in verse 16: “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”  This is the final judgment, upon which there will be no turning back, no second chances, and no extra credit.  There will be no more hiding and no more deceiving.  God will judge righteously and perfectly.  And on that day, it will not matter what people thought of you; the only thing that will matter is what God thinks of you and whether or not he relates to you as a Father and friend or as an enemy and traitor.

A False Implication

This text then serves as a warning against jettisoning God’s law in favor of man’s.  But unfortunately it has also been used as a justification for jettisoning the gospel in favor of the law.  We must not do either.  The whole point that Paul is trying to make in these verses is to hold us to the standard of God’s law so that we will embrace God’s gospel.  We must not turn this into an argument that undermines Paul’s central thesis: it is the gospel, not the law, that is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16-17).

But what do I mean when I say that this text has been used as a reason to jettison the gospel in favor of the law?  What I am referring to is the argument that people can be saved apart from the gospel.  This text is sometimes used as a way to justify that perspective.  Some argue that the law written in the heart is a reference to a saving work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, and that when Paul talks about the Gentiles “by nature do what the law requires,” he is referring to obedience which springs from a regenerate heart.  So the argument goes that people don’t actually need the gospel to be saved; they just need to live up to the light that God has given them.  If they do that, they will be saved.  In other words, we can untether the law from the gospel and people can still be saved.

Also, when Paul refers to the Jews in verse 13, he writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”  Does this mean that one can do the law (apart from any consideration of the gospel) and be justified?  Can one actually be saved without ever embracing Christ in faith?

I don’t think so.  Let’s take verse 13 first.  The apostle is not saying here that you can be justified by the law apart from the gospel.  After all, does he not say later on that “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22)?  Then, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28).  Paul is not contradicting himself here.  He is not saying in chapter 2 that you can be justified by the law and then in chapter 3 say that you are justified by faith apart from the law.

Note carefully what 2:13 actually says.  Paul does not say that a person can be justified by the law, but rather that those who will be justified (in the judgment at the last day) will be precisely those who have kept the law.  Put another way, the apostle does not say that if you keep the law you will be justified on that basis, but that if you are justified you will keep the law.  He is not describing how you get justified here; he is describing how to recognize a justified person – they are precisely those who keep the law.  It’s like pointing out a police officer to your children: “He is the one who is dressed in the uniform and wears a gun.”  Now neither the uniform nor the gun makes the man a police officer.  But he can be described by his uniform and gun.  Even so a saved person is not saved by obedience to God’s law, but they can be described by their obedience to God’s law, and that is what Paul is doing here.

He also does this in chapter 8: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (3-4).  I think what the apostle is saying is that one of the things that results from our Lord’s redemptive work for us and the subsequent work of the Holy Spirit in us is that we are enabled to do what a person in the flesh cannot do (see verses 7-8): keep God’s law.  Not perfectly of course, but so that our lives are genuine light and salt in a wicked world.

Again, we must keep in mind the apostle’s purpose in this text.  His purpose is to undermine the false confidence of his fellow Jews that they need not worry about the judgment to come.  He is not telling them how to be saved here but rather why they need to be saved.  They need to be saved because hearing the law is not the same thing as doing it.  

Next, let’s consider the apostle’s argument in verses 14-15.  Is Paul talking about saved people here?  After all, does not the prophet Jeremiah say that God’s law written in the heart is a part of the new covenant work of the Spirit of God in the hearts of those whose sins are forgiven?  (See Jer. 31:33-34)  Is that what Paul is referring to here?  If so, then this would indicate that people can be saved without ever hearing the gospel.  In other words, the law of God is all you need.

There are a number of reasons not to read the text that way.  First of all, the whole thrust of this entire passage is not salvation but judgment.  It is important to see that verses 13-15 are an elucidation of verse 12: “For all who have sinned without the law [the Gentiles, dealt with in verses 14-15] will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law [the Jews, dealt with in verse 13] will be judged by the law.”  The key words here are perish and judged.  The apostle is explaining why Gentiles and Jews will alike perish and be judged.  The Jews will be judged because they don’t keep the law of God which is written in the Torah.  The Gentile will perish because they don’t keep the law which is written on their hearts.  This then can’t be a reference to any saving work of God in the heart.

There are other indications as well.  If the phrase “by nature” is connected with “do what the law requires” – and I think this is correct – then the law written on the heart is not a reference to a work of grace but to a work of nature, not a reference to new birth but a reference to what we have by physical birth.  “By nature” almost certainly means what we were born with.  This is the use of the phrase, for example, in Eph. 2:3.  

Also, the language of the law written on the heart is not quite the language of Jer. 31.  When this is quoted, for example, in Heb. 8, what is actually said in reference to the new covenant blessing is that God’s law is put into our hearts, rather than simply written on our hearts.  In other words, there is a slight, but important, distinction here.  To have God’s law written on the heart means to have an awareness of right and wrong, and awareness testified to by the conscience.  Every act of conscience is a testimony to this work of the law on the human heart.  But of course conscience is no sign of saving grace but rather a mark of God’s common grace over all his creation.  However, when God also puts his law into our hearts, he gives us a delight in his law, something those in the flesh do not have (Rom. 8:7-8).  This therefore is not a reference to the new covenant blessing, but something common to all men everywhere.  

Thus, there is no reason to take this text and to say that people can be saved who have never heard the gospel, by simply living up to the light that God has given them.  For first, this text is not about people who are being saved but about people who are perishing.  And second, the fact of the matter is that there is no evidence that anyone actually lives up to the light they are given.  Instead, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).  Despite having God’s law written on the heart, we are blind to his glory and insatiably ravenous for our own.  Any light that we do have we suppress over and over again (1:18).  There is no hope for salvation in that.

There is another important reason not to read this text as an excuse to jettison the gospel in favor of the law.  And that is what Paul will later say in chapter 10, where he makes this very clear statement for the necessity of the gospel: “’For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’  How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:13-15)  The clear implication of this passage is that no one will call on the name of the Lord and be saved until they have heard the gospel and believed.

Now I know that it is not just a matter of the gospel being preached but that the Spirit of God must open a person’s heart to receive the gospel message.  I also recognize that the sovereign Spirit who blows where he wills (Jn. 3:8) could reveal the gospel to a person without a human preacher being present.  However, it seems to me that the overall thrust of the New Testament is that it is not God’s usual manner of working to do this apart from the means of the gospel being preached and proclaimed by human agents.  In any case, we must never separate the work of the Spirit from the gospel.  The ministry of the new covenant, which is the preaching of the gospel, is the ministry of the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:3-6).  The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to open our eyes so that we see the beauty and relevance of the gospel message so that we will receive it and believe it.  Belief in the gospel is necessary for salvation; we dare not say otherwise.

Now some will respond at this point and ask, “But what about infants dying in infancy?  If we must hear the gospel and believe to be saved, will they not be lost?”  

The wrong response to this is to say that infants do not need to be saved.  The Scriptures nowhere teach such a doctrine.  All who are descended from Adam are with him in his sin and condemnation.  This is the clear teaching of Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15.  It is summed up in Eph. 2:3, when the apostle says that we were by nature children of wrath – in other words, we were born that way.  

But neither should we say that infants dying in infancy are forever lost.  Though I don’t think any human being deserves salvation, and this includes infants, my understanding of the character of God as he is revealed to us in Scripture makes it impossible for me to believe that God would send a single infant to hell.  Personally, I believe that every infant dying in infancy is among the elect and will be saved.

So what does this do to the necessity of the gospel?  Well, we must remember one thing: the Scriptures that point to the necessity of faith in the gospel message are not addressed to infants but to those who can hear it and receive it.  Obviously the gospel cannot be heard by infants and therefore those passages that refer to the necessity of the preaching of the gospel do not refer to them.  

Ultimately, we must remember that it is not our faith per se that saves; it is Christ who saves.  It is simply God’s purpose to justify and forgive his people when they exercise Spirit-birthed faith in Christ as he is revealed to them in the gospel.  So fundamentally, infants are saved in exactly the same way as anyone else, by Christ and in virtue of his saving work.  But this does not undermine the necessity of the gospel for those who can hear it since this is God’s chosen means to gather in his elect (cf. 2 Tim. 2:9-10).

Another category of person also brought up in this context are those who live and die without ever having access to the gospel.  Isn’t it unfair for God to require a person to believe in the gospel when they never had a chance to hear it in the first place?  

The answer is no.  Salvation is by grace precisely because we don’t deserve it.  And this includes people who will never have access to the gospel.  God does not owe them a shot at salvation.  He doesn’t owe them a chance to hear the gospel.  Really, all he owes them is judgment because they have already sinned against him.  The chance to hear the gospel is itself grace and the gift of God to us.

However, that does not give us the right to sit back and be careless about those who have never heard.  I am always convicted when I think of William Carey weeping over his map of the world.  I want to be more like our Lord who wept over Jerusalem because they had rejected him.  I want to be like Paul who wept over his brothers and prayed and worked for the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike.  If we have heard and been saved, we should want others to hear and be saved as well.  

Let us beware of separating the law from the gospel or thinking that the law is enough.  It is not.  We need the gospel to be saved.  The law is not the power of God for salvation but for judgment.  It is the gospel which is the power of God for salvation.  Let us therefore pray for those who have never heard.  Let us pray for the missionaries we support who are taking the gospel to those who have never heard, and perhaps join them ourselves.  And let us look for opportunities to share the gospel with those around us who don’t know what the gospel message is.  As our culture grows more and more secular, we are going to see more and more ignorance of the gospel.  Our own country will look more and more like a place where people have never heard.  Let us therefore be a light and a witness to this saving message of life, doing what Paul exhorted the Philippian Christians to do: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16).

Why we need the gospel - Rom. 3:9-20

Despite the fact that we live in a world filled with evil and unimaginable wickedness, and despite the fact that you don’t have to b...