The Gospel of Godís Grace #4

Whoís Going to Fix This Mess?

September 28, 1997 / Romans 2:1-16

Have you ever noticed how inadequate our good intentions are? How helpless we really are to change much? How our attempts at "fixing" often make things worse than they were originally?

Years ago now, the Diaks tribe in Borneo was suffering from a severe malaria epidemic. So the United Nations World Health Organization stepped in to fix the problem by spraying DDT to kill the mosquitoes. The mosquito population fell dramatically, but soon all the thatched roofs of the Diaksí home did too! Not only did their roofs begin to collapse but rats were overwhelming the village. It turns out that the DDT killed the wasps that eat thatch-eating caterpillars. With no wasps, the caterpillars proliferated and literally ate the roofs off their houses. In the meantime, the bugs killed by the DDT were eaten by lizards that in turn were eaten by cats who died; with no cats, the rat population burgeoned. So the World Health Organization had to come back and literally parachute cats onto a de-catted island.

We have done the same thing in my region of the United States. Fifteen years ago, entomologists released ladybugs across the South to fight off aphids. The aphids were destroying apple and pecan trees, and ladybugs are their natural enemies. Today the fruits and nuts are doing well, but millions of ladybugs now invade Southern houses for the winter. And can anyone say kudzu? Our best attempts at fixing things often go unexpectedly awry.

The same principle holds true in our spiritual lives. Sometimes we come off our nervous denial to somber confession. There has been animated avoidance, attempts at covering up, and outright lying. But something happens to put break through. The defenses crumble, and the truth comes tumbling out. Now what? The tendency is to take what appears to be the "natural" next step and offer to do something to "set the record straight" and "fix the mess Iíve made."

As Paul is explaining the need for the gospel of Godís grace in the opening of Romans, he writes about the two things we humans are most inclined to embrace as the solution to our spiritual brokenness: moralism and religion. After describing the sinful excesses of the pagan world of his time, he launches into these two responses ó and why they are insufficient as responses. The world of Paulís time was filled with envy, murder, depravity, arrogance, and heartlessness (1:29-31). So is ours! And both ancient and modern people who are sensitive enough to admit it tend then to set about to set things back in order. They couldnít. We canít. Only God can fix what is wrong with us.

Lifting Ourselves by Our Own Bootstraps

Do you know the old expression that speaks of "lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps"? It ranks right up there with "He is a self-made man" and "If anybody deserves to go to heaven she does" as my top three candidates for lies weíve heard so often we think theyíre true. Human beings cannot elevate our spiritual stature by anything we do. We canít do enough good to be good enough. There is not one thing we can do to repair the gaping hole our sins have torn in the spiritual universe.

Many of Paulís contemporaries would have agreed with his pulpit-pounding affirmation of Godís displeasure with pagan immoralities. Socrates, for example, railed at the horrible myths of Greek polytheism four centuries before the birth of Christ. In Platoís famous Republic, he recalls how Socrates described the ideal state he would like to create. For one thing, he would not allow the traditional tales of anger, lust, and murder among the "gods" to be hold to children lest they corrupt their characters in formation. In essence, Socrates said that people would never be better than the gods they worshiped, and the gods of Greece were nothing more than larger-than-life tyrants, thieves, adulterers, and murderers.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher who was a contemporary to Paul, would also have shouted a ringing endorsement to much of what Paul had written about pagan vices. If he had been asked to produce a catalog of vices, it would have looked very much like the one Paul drew up in Romans 1.

Using a literary device called diatribe, the great apostle anticipates what the moralists of his day might have said in response to his exposť of pagan excess. Heíll get to the response of his own Jewish people at 2:17ff.

Every culture needs a strong sense of moral responsibility. Therefore it needs teachers and coaches for the moral life. Some of us are encouraged that Dr. Ruth has retired and that Dr. Laura is on the air. Laura Schlessinger has become a sensation in America with her no-nonsense approach to some very important issues. A young man calls to explain his ambivalence about commitment. He and his girlfriend have an eight-month-old daughter and are thinking about marriage, but heís not sure about such a big commitment as marriage. Dr. Laura gives no quarter. Not ready for the commitment of marriage? Why, youíve already made a baby. If youíre going to make babies, youíre already in the commitment-making business.

A single woman calls her about pursuing a career but wanting desperately to be a mother. So, she explains, sheís thinking about artificial insemination. "Did you have a good father?" asks Dr. Laura. "Oh, yes," the caller says. "Well if you father was important to your life, why would you deliberately set out to deny your child a father? Now tragedies happen. Father get killed in accidents or die of cancer, but why would you set out to do that to your child?" The caller begins, "Well, I want . . ." "I donít care what you want," interrupts Dr. Laura. "Itís the child Iím thinking about."

You want to cheer that somebody is saying something that direct to human irresponsibility. Surely itís her Jewish background in Torah and Decalogue coming through. But I canít stand to listen to her for more than five minutes! She comes across as a shrew. I donít like her rudeness and interruptions. I canít listen to her scolding and nagging. Does she ever come across as self-righteous to anyone but me? Does anyone really believe a guilt-inducing talk show is the answer to the complex ethical problems our world is facing?

Paul had equivalents to Dr. Laura in his own day. He didnít agree with their principles and arguments. He was concerned about something more fundamental. Though they would have regarded themselves as ethically superior to people who practiced such evils and would have put has much distance as possible between themselves and those people, Paul would have none of it. In fact, he said their self-righteous judgment of others was particularly offensive to God. "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things" (Rom. 2:1).

Dr. Laura gives her callers grief for abandoning the authority of their synagogue or church for single motherhood, for example, but defends homosexual relationships. "I am not following Jewish law here, but my conscience does not allow me to say somebody should be alone," she explains. Did Paul say that moralists are sometimes inconsistent? That they often do the very things they chide others for doing? Ummm.

Now please donít miss either Paulís point or mine. I appreciate anything Dr. Laura or Plato or Seneca can do to promote ethical behavior. But strident moralism doesnít fix the basic human problem of sin, alienation, and guilt. Pointing to the moral law often only succeeds in making us feel terrible for our failures. Sometimes it pushes people over the edge to suicide. But it doesnít fix anything. It doesnít forgive anything. It doesnít heal anything. It doesnít empower an upright future life. It takes Jesus to do that.

People Who Live in Glass Houses . . .

Sitting in judgment on others is both hypocritical and unproductive. Since all of us live in glass houses, it hardly seems appropriate for any of us to be throwing stones at our neighbors. While it may salve our consciences to point to othersí sins and cause our own pet vices to seem inconsequential by comparison, it doesnít bring us to the real issue of our own personal sinfulness. It canít effect forgiveness. It doesnít transform character.

In his book People of the Lie, Scott Peck provides insights into the type of behavior Paul is pointing to here. His insight begins with a distinction between genuine evil and ordinary sin. He writes: "It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it." In other words, Peck explains, it takes more than evil deeds to produce an evil person. One crosses the line between doing wrong things and being a truly evil person "by their absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness."

Evil people see and expose sin in others; they are totally unwilling to engage in self-examination. They see and attack evil in others instead of coming to terms with their own failures. These are not necessarily societyís criminals but may be its bankers, school teachers, PTA members, and preachers. Quoting Peck a final time, he writes: "Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil. The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil. Instead of destroying others they should be destroying the sickness within themselves."

This appears to be the essence of Paulís point in the first sixteen verses of chapter two. The moralist ó whether Greek of Jew ó is tempted to live a lie. He points to evil in others and lives a life of pretentious goodness. Like some of the ancient Pharisees, they appear righteous but have hearts thoroughly infected with the same evils they criticize in others (cf. Matt. 23:25-28). The judgment of God, however, is not by appearances but is "according to truth" (2:2) and will not spare the self-righteous person who condemns in others what he tolerates in one form or another within himself (2:3).

Created in Godís image and after his likeness, all people are responsible before him. Each of us is obligated to glorify and honor our Creator by upright living. After all, divine "goodness and forbearance and longsuffering" are extended daily; these attributes express Godís love and are designed to lead people to repentance (2:4). But precisely because some people live the lie of an absolute refusal to face their personal sinfulness, they simply compound the wrath that awaits them in the final day of divine judgment (2:5).

Divine Judgment

Having brought up the subject of judgment, Paul makes three important observations about it.

Observation #1: God will judge each person according to his or her deeds (2:6-10). Romans emphasizes repeatedly that justification is by faith in Godís work through Christ rather than through our good works. Yet it also stresses the corollary truth that true faith is never without appropriate actions. No one will be justified because of the worth of his upright deeds, but those who are justified in Christ have a faith that shows itself in holy living.

Observation #2: "There is no respect of persons with God" (2:11). Money, position, and connections sometimes pervert human justice. One who commits a serious crime but who has enough dollars, favors, and friends may go free. The man whose crime is minuscule by comparison but who has neither wealth, influence, nor sympathizers may be punished severely. No such miscarriages of justice will take place in the Day of the Lord.

Observation #3: Judgment will be according to knowledge and opportunity (2:12-15). It would be unjust to judge Gentiles on the basis of a law that had been revealed to the Jews or to judge Jews without reference to that special revelation. On the other hand, it would be unjust to Judge the Jews in relation to the Law of Moses while ignoring the sins of the Gentiles which stand condemned in the light of natural revelation and universal conscience. A God who is perfect in justice bases his judgments on the knowledge one has access to and not on the things they have not been given.

So, whether Jew or Gentile, all people will face judgment. The personal, impartial, and just judgment of God will be rendered to everyone by Jesus Christ (2:16; cf. Acts 17:30-31). With judgment coming, what can we do?

Purchasing Peace of Mind?

Last week a man died for a terrible double murder he committed. Benjamin Stone was put do death Thursday night for raping and murdering his 34-year-old former wife and her 12-year-old daughter in 1995. His seventeen months on death row was the second-shortest time a condemned inmate in Texas had waited between conviction and execution.

Stone refused legal help. He would not allow lawyers to file any appeals on his behalf. "As far as Iím concerned," he said, "itís the only way Iíll find peace of mind."

What a sad extension of Paulís teaching in todayís text. We find peace of mind by paying for our own crimes? We "fix" something by suffering what our sins deserve? We purchase our own forgiveness? The strident moralist of ancient and modern times believes it is so. The Bible says it cannot be.

Saving people is Christís work. What the world needs is not more hall monitors or murderers purchasing peace of mind for themselves. What the world needs is a clear vision of Jesus Christ.


Another story that made newspapers last week was the story of a homeless man in New York City who saved a two-year-old boy from a burning house. He persuaded the boyís mother to throw the child out the window to him. After catching the 27-pound boy, the man then helped rescue the mother.

John Byrnes, 45, has been homeless for two years and describes himself as a "drunken bum." What a self-image! "Drunk as I am," he said, "I knew what to do right then and there."

Will somebody please tell John that heís a hero ó not a bum? When a mother trusts somebody with her child, his status is immediately elevated. And the same goes for you. No matter where youíve been, no matter what youíve done, no matter how far you have wandered away from God ó he loves you! You are more than the liar, adulterer, drug addict, or worthless nobody youíve told yourself you are. You are someone God loves ó and to whom he has handed his Beloved Son. That should convince you there is still hope. Please donít turn your back on his offer.

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