False Religion - Romans 2:17 - 3:8

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 18th May 2008.

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What’s the point?    If you were here last week, that’s what you might have been thinking. If God’s going to judge Christians;  if there’s no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between Christians, and non-Christian that is for us, then what’s the point.      And that’s the key issues picked up in today’s passage.   So look with me if you would to 3:1

 1What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?

Or for us:  what advantage is there is being a Christian;  a baptised fully signed-up church member?    If at the end of the day, God’s going to treat us the same as everyone else, then what’s the point?    And the answer depends on what kind of Judaism we’re talking about; it depends on what kind of Christianity we’re talking about.  Because today’s passage is all about False Religion. 

So first in v17-24, we’re  going to see a Portrait of False Religion

2.      In v25-28, we’ll see the exposure of false religion

3.      And in 3:1-8, we’ll see the solution to false religion.

1.      A portrait of False Religion (v17-24)

So first of all then in v17-24, a Portrait of False Religion.   Well as some of you might know, Bethan has recently moved up from Rainbows to Brownies.      So what does it mean to be a Brownie?   Well to become a Brownie, you have to make a promise:  you have to promise to do your best: to love your God, to serve the Queen and your country, to help other people
and to keep the Brownie Guide Law.     What’s the Brownie guide law you might be thinking?  Well the Brownie Guide Law is simply this:  “A Brownie Guide thinks of others before herself and does a good turn every day.”   And so that’s what it means to be a Brownie. 

And in v17-20, we’re told what it means to be a true Jew;  to be a true child of God that is.   There’s no rebuke or sarcasm in these words.  This is what it meant to be a Jew.  And as always, remember the context:  the surrounding Greek and Roman world with a load of false gods, but also a load of morally dubious behaviour to go with them.    Contrast that with the Jews;  the people to whom God had revealed His divine law; a people with whom the one True God has established a covenant relationship.    A people who knew a better way to live than the pagans around them;  why?  Because of that Law which had been revealed to them.  And because they’d received this great light, this revelation from God;  as the prophet Isaiah put it, the Jews were meant to be a light to the gentiles;  a light to the surrounding pagans;  or as v19 puts it, a guide for the spiritual and morally blind;  or as v20 goes on to say:  an instructor to the foolish and immature.   Why?  How could the Jews perform such a lofty role?  Because, as the rest of v20 tell us, in God’s divinely revealed law, the OT that is, the Jews had the embodiment of knowledge and truth.  In a broken and confused world, God’s people have the answer.  And the answer’s in His word.  The answer’s in the Bible.

And so that’s what it meant to be a Jew.  To have and know God’s Word and to teach it to others.  So how did all that compare with the reality among God’s people?  Well look on to v21:

‘…you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?

And what we’ve got here is rank hypocrisy.    It’s like the religious leaders of J’s day:

Mt 23:23 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! [J said in Mt 23] You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

And it’s been the same ever since.  There was a pastor of a local free church near where we used to live in London.  He had a thriving ministry, had published books and was known as a strong preacher and campaigner on traditional Christian family values.  He’d crossed swords with gay rights activities and campaigned against the Jerry Springer, the Opera.  But last month, this pastor resigned after confessing an 8 year affair with the church’s music director.  Not a one-off slip up, but an extended period of rank hypocrisy. 

And before we start tut tutting, let’s remember the words of the Apostle Paul:   “if you think you’re standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!  (1 Cor 10:12).

But of course the bloggers and the press have had a field day with this fallen pastor.   Flicking through his books and on-line sermons to quote him denouncing adulterers and the otherwise sexually deviant.  And the pagan world looks and says:  well what do you expect in a vicar  - they’re all a load of hypocrites aren’t they.    Or as v23 puts it:

23You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the [pagans] because of you."

But it’s not just vicars and adultery is it?  Come back to the second half of v21:

You who preach against stealing, do you steal?

Now if anyone here this morning has committed a burglary or some shop lifting, then now is the time to repent.  You must be joking, some of you might be thinking.  Well maybe you haven’t, but I wonder if you’ve rented a DVD recently and seen that clip at the beginning about illegal downloads:  you wouldn’t steal a car, the clip goes;  you wouldn’t steal a handbag.  You wouldn’t go into a video shop and steal a DVD.  But what about illegal downloads?  Downloading films, software or games from the internet without paying for them;  it’s so easy to do, but it’s still theft.  And the point is that you don’t have to be a burglar to be a thief.   

In my last parish we used a piece of software that allowed us to cut & paste different bits of Anglican liturgy to put a service together.  Liturgy like some of the confessions we use here at [SF/ Riv]. The licence for this software covered the whole parish, so I had a legitimate copy on my PC.  But SJs doesn’t have a licence for this software.  I knew that, but it was always an issue I’d get round to sorting;  sometime; eventually.  But the point is that, since I left my last parish, I’ve had a piece of unlicensed software on my PC.  And as I was writing this sermon, I was so convicted by my own hypocrisy, that I stopped writing the talk and uninstalled that software on the spot.    And I confess that not so you’ll commend me;  but to show you that there’s hypocrisy lurking in all of us that needs dealing with.    So if there’s an issue lurking in your life that you’ve been putting off sorting, an issue of sexual ethics, an issue of honesty and integrity or whatever it is, then stop putting it off:  repent and get it sorted today.

But there’s an even bigger issue in v21-23 than specific instances of sin and hypocrisy.  The theft, adultery and the sacrilege in v22 are all linked in the OT to the main underlying sin of idolatry.  The idolatry of turning our backs on the one true God and doing things our way.  And so the main point Paul’s making is that the Jews, God’s people that is, were just as guilty of idolatry as the pagans surrounding us.  The shocking catalogue of idolatry we looked at in 1:18-32 describes the attitude of God’s people as well as the pagans.  That’s Paul’s main point.  We’ve all turned our backs on the One true God who made us.  Which is the conclusion Paul’s working towards in 3:9:

9What shall we conclude then? Are we any better[b]? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.

God’s people were meant to be an attractive light for the pagan world around.    The OC people of God, the Jews, failed miserably.  But are we any better?  Left to ourselves, we’d still be in the downward spiral of sin and judgment and more sin that we saw back in 1:18-32.

But here in 2:17-24, we’ve seen a portrait of hypocrisy;  a portrait of false religion that is.  A portrait that leads to God's name being blasphemed among the surrounding pagans. 

2.      The Exposure of False Religion (v25-29)

And in v25-29, we move on to the exposure of False religion.  The exposure of false religion.

And the main point in these verses is that it’s perfectly possible to be a fully signed-up church member, and yet still be stuck in false religion. 

Now I suspect most of us here this morning want Hull to beat Bristol in next Saturday’s Championship play-off.  I certainly do.   It would certainly be a great boost to our city to have a Premiership football team wouldn’t it?    I live in Hull, so in some sense I support Hull City.  I want them to win.  But I’ve not got the stripe.  I’ve only been to one match since we’ve been here, and that was because I got free tickets.   I couldn’t name you many of the squad and I don’t really follow their fortunes week by week.  So am I a Hull City Supporter?  Well I’m certainly not in the 100% league.  The best you could say is that I’m a nominal supporter;  I live in Hull, so I support Hull City in a vague sort of way.    And some might say:  you fraud:  you’re no Hull City Supporter!

And that’s the point of v25-29.  Under the OC, circumcision was a sign that you belonged to God’s special people – it showed you were a member of the club. In fact, the act of circumcision was something God commanded His people to do as a way of identifying who were his people and who weren’t.   And by the time of Jesus, many Jews regarded circumcision as a Divine stamp of approval. An approval which would never be withdrawn.  But Paul warns his readers not to base too much on the outward ritual of circumcision. Look at verse 25.

‘Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.’

And look on to 28:

‘A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.’

Paul’s point is that the physical act of circumcision was only meant to be a sign of an inner commitment to God – a heart felt obedience to him. Without that –the outward act was worthless.  Why?  Because it didn’t symbolise anything real. Like wearing a Hull City Stripe, but never going to a match.  Or like being a member of a Gym or tennis club, but never actually going along. 

In fact in verses 26 & 27, we’re told that an uncircumcised person who was obedient to God’s law was much better off than the circumcised rebel.   Who’s the real member:  the one with all the badges of club membership, or the one with no externals, but who gets on and does what members are meant to do?  Like the Gentile we saw last week in v2:14 who isn’t circumcised and doesn’t have the Law but does what the Law requires.  Such a person is more Jewish that the hypocritical Jewish Rabbi.   And this would have really shocked Paul’s readers – but it makes the point doesn’t it?  Don’t rely on external symbols –they’re just that - symbols.  Without obedience, you’re no different from anybody else – you’re condemned as guilty sinners.

So what about us?  Well you might be baptised, confirmed and on the electoral roll:  a fully signed-up member of the Church of England in other words.  You might even be serving in some area of the church, on one of the various rotas or helping out with the youth work or whatever.  But if we’re false on the inside, then none of it matters;  your symbols of church membership are worthless.  If our religion is all show – all outward and not inward – then church membership or involvement won’t save us.  And if that is you, then the Holy Spirit is exposing the falseness of your religion right now.  So if that is you, then you need to heed the warning:  your religion in worthless and you stand just as condemned as the surrounding pagans we read about back in chapter 1.  The exposure of false religion then. 

3.      The Solution for False Religion (3:1-8)

So is your religion false?  Is mine?    And that brings us to the solution for false religion in 3:1-8.  The solution for false religion.   Earlier on, I confessed some of my own hypocrisy and law breaking.  And that’s the point isn’t it.  We’re all law-breakers.  We’re all hypocrites in some sense.  As the Apostle James puts it: 

2:10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.

And so with that in mind come back with me to Rom 2:25

25Circumcision [or church membership] has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised [or had never been a church member].

And the point in v26 & 27 was whether or not we keep the law;  the whole law that is.  But the hard truth is that none of us do.    And so in some sense, all of our religion is false and worthless.    False and worthless, that is, if we’re trying to be good enough or God in our own strength.  Because the main function of the law isn’t to help us be good enough for God.  No the main function of the law was to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that we can never be good enough for God;  to prove that we’re all hypocritical law-breakers.  Look ahead to 3:20:

20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

Which is building on the conclusion we’ve already seen in 3:9:

9What shall we conclude then? Are we any better[b]? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.

And so the point is that professing Christians are in the same boat as everyone else;  breakers of God’s law and facing God’s just wrath, which is what v4-8 are about back in this week’s passage.  The justice of God’s judgement.    And that brings us back to the question we started with.  What’s the point?    If there’s no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between Christians, and non-Christians, then what’s the point?      As 3:1 put it

 1What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?

And the answer’s in v2:

2Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.  3What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? 4Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar.

The key value of being a church member, a member of a true church that is, is that you come under God’s word;  you have the Bible taught to you;  you’re encouraged to read the Bible for yourself and grapple with what it means.    What if some church members choose not to believe the Bible, does that mean that the promises in the Bible have failed.  Not at all.  God is unchanging and His promises stand forever.  But only those who actually trust in those promises, only those who actually believe the word they’re taught, will benefit from them.    So what’s the key promise in God’s word?  Well the clue’s in v4, where we have a quote from Ps 51 which [Doreen/ Tom] read for us earlier.   When Paul quotes from the OT, he’s usually assuming we get the context surrounding the quote.  So let’s flip back to Ps 51 on p[535/  889]. 

Notice the heading:  this Psalm was written by David after God has exposed his own hypocrisy in his adultery with Bathsheba.  It’s v4 which Paul quotes in Romans chapter 3, so let’s pick it up at v3:

V3:  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

King David knows he’s a guilty sinner and he confesses his sin to almighty God.  He knows God’s justice demands that he be punished;  and he knows that that punishment would be just and fair.  So what does David do?  Sink in to despair and depression. 

No.  In v1, he cries out to the Lord for mercy.    In v7 he asks God to cleanse him from his sin.  In v9, he asks God to blot out his inequity.    Or in other words, he’s asking God to forgive his sin and in v12, he’s asking to be restored to a position of salvation; to the status of a forgiven sinner who can withstand God’s coming judgment;  not because he didn’t break the law, but because God has somehow dealt with his sin and no longer needs to punish David for it.    Notice what David doesn’t do:  he doesn’t try to cover up his sin and pretend he's not that bad after all.  No he confesses his sin and appeals to God’s covenant promises of forgiveness and salvation. 

And that’s exactly what Paul’s picking up in Romans 3.  So come back again to Rom 3:20:

20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. 21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the [OT points forward]. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

And so back in 3:1-8, we get a hint of the solution for false religion; the solution for sin and hypocrisy.  And the solution we see in v3 is to have faith in God’s Word;  to have faith in God’s promise of salvation;  His promise of sins forgiven.  And this side of Easter, that means to have faith Christ Jesus, the one who sorted out the problem of sin and judgment.  And Dave Norton will be unpacking the rest of chapter 3 for us next week so we can see how all that fits together.  But as we close this week, let’s finish back where we began.  What’s the point of being a professing Christian and coming to church?  Much in every way.  You get to hear the Bible taught.  You have your sins and false religion exposed.  You’re warned about the coming judgment.  And you learn about God’s plan of forgiveness and salvation;  a plan that will save all those who have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  The ultimate solution for false religion. 

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.

Thanks be to God for the Gospel of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ – the only hope for hypocritical law-breakers like me and you.  Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;    according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin, not because I deserve it, but because of your Son, our saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.  For my eternal salvation, but your ultimate glory we pray, Amen. 


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