The Gospel of Godís Grace #5

Can Religion Save Us?

October 5, 1997 / Romans 2:17 ó 3:20

Paul is preparing to explain the meaning (3:21ó5:21), implications (6:1ó11:36), and practice (12:11ó15:13) of the gospel to the church at Rome. At this point in our study of his epistle, however, we are still tracing out his basic statement of need for the gospel of Godís grace. He is carefully laying out his proof for the following conclusion: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (3:10-12).

In the apostleís development of his thesis that everybody needs the gospel, he first indicted the pagan world for its immoralities and excesses (1:18-32). The moralists among the Greeks and Romans of Paulís time would have agreed with practically everything he said. But what of the moralists themselves? Paul next indicted them for doing the very things they were condemning in others (2:1-16). The pious Jews from Paulís own background and acquaintance would have been happy with that turn in his argument. But they would not have been particularly pleased with his next move ó the text we are examining today ó that put them under indictment along with both the pagans and moralists (2:17ff).

You see, there really is no favoritism with God (cf. 2:11). In his absolute holiness and justice, he sees the behaviors of males and females, slaves and free people, or Gentiles and Jews through the same eyes. He sees the sins of humankind ó whether a gross immorality like murder or its socially acceptable counterpart of character assassination ó in the light of perfect goodness. Yes, he sees and pronounces adultery evil, just as a pagan moralist or Jewish rabbi would; he also sees and pronounces the lustful longings that both the moralist and religionist may have as sinful also.

Could We Be Culprits Too?

My theory is that modern-day church members read the first two chapters of Romans much the same way the Jews would have read Romans 1:1ó2:16. The Jews would have read and approved what Paul wrote without ever realizing that they were sinners too. Might you and I be guilty of reading the entire section that same way? Could we see the humor of Paul getting in the faces of his Jewish-religionist readers for their blindness without realizing that we are sometimes equally blind?

As you read what Paul says to a "Jew" who has taken perverse pleasure in his stinging indictments of the pagans and pagan moralists of his time, try reading the word "church member" in its place. So we donít miss the point, Iíll come back to it later. For now, letís follow the text closely.

Paulís Development of the Theme

The Bible consistently teaches that judgment will be according to knowledge and responsibility for all people. It was Jesus who said this: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48b). God will hold all of us accountable to that part of his will that it was possible for us to know.

Although the Gentiles had suppressed much of what they had been able to know about God through natural revelation (1:18-20), the Jews had done something far worse. With the fuller knowledge of God that had come to them through the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, they had lived in defiance of that superior revelation. Their position as Godís Chosen People had generated pride rather than compassion in relation to other races. Instead of being "a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind" (Isa. 42:7-8), they had walked in darkness themselves and had become blind leaders of the blind.

According to Paulís Spirit-guided view of the matter, his fellow-Jews lacked the humility needed to seek the Lord. They boasted of their ethnic stock (i.e., "you call yourself a Jew," 2:17a; cf. John 8:31ff) and privileged status (i.e., "you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God," 2:17b). They were turning their benefits and advantages as religious persons into curses.

. . . if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth ó 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? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? (2:18-23).

Without a doubt, however, the most pointed part of the apostleís rebuke is couched in these words quoted from Scripture: "Godís name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you" (2:24). Echoing a lament of the Old Testament prophets (cf. Isa. 52:5), Paul insists that Jewish inconsistencies between profession and performance had caused Gentiles to be turned still further away from God. When they saw the Jews ó who took such pride in the Decalogue that forbids stealing, adultery, or lying ó practicing those very sins, they felt justified in dismissing the whole business of divine revelation and human responsibility to it as nonsensical hypocrisy.

Youíll have to admit that Christians are liable to the very same indictment. When church members make claims ó whether explicit or implicit is irrelevant ó to having the Bible and knowing God and then live hypocritically, non-Christians feel justified in their rejection of everything associated with religion. They visit spiritless worship or read about another preacher who has been found out for some duplicity in his life. They suffer the consequences of some Christianís unethical business dealings. They watch us destroy another church with a fuss. They laugh up their sleeves, blaspheme the name of God, and turn their backs on the whole thing with contempt.

Recently I talked to a young woman about her relationship with Christ. She told me of being in a church several years ago where a family was humiliated and destroyed by leaders who were more concerned to distance themselves from an alcoholic than to help him. So they excommunicated him ó and not one of them came to him to pray, to urge him into Alcoholics Anonymous, or to help his family get through a financial crisis. That man was her father, and that family was her mother and three younger brothers. Are you surprised that she has no interest in the church today?

Circumcision (i.e., the physical sign of the old covenant, Gen. 17:10) was of value only if the person receiving the mark actually lived the relationship it signified. Substituting the symbol for its meaning effectively classed one with the uncircumcised person in Godís sight: "Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised" (2:25). On the other hand, God would look with greater favor on the Gentile who had not proselyted and received circumcision but who lived conscientiously within the knowledge of God he was able to have. "If those who are not circumcised keep the lawís requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?" (2:26).

What do you think it would do to the blood pressure of an Orthodox Jew to read these words from Paul: "The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 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 a circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a manís praise is not from men, but from God"? (2:27-29).

Shocking as it may have been, even this is not a new theme among the Hebrew prophets. Jeremiah had made the same basic point about how circumcision comes to be meaningful long before Paul wrote about it here (cf. Jer. 4:4). What if we made the same point about our baptism? Our church membership? Our Christian distinctives? God is not terribly impressed with symbols, ordinances, and rituals. They will not substitute for genuine faith.

If Paulís indictment of Judaism is sound, does it mean that the entire effort of Yahweh in relation to the descendants of Abraham had been wasted? Does it mean that the Ten Commandments, circumcision, and other requirements of the old covenant were without value? (3:1). Hardly. That the Jews had missed the point of and had even abused some of their privileges did not negate the value of Godís efforts. The Jews had been "entrusted with the very words of God" (3:2); their lack of faithfulness in honoring that covenant in no way nullified Godís nature as a promise-keeper (3:3). From one perspective, it could even be argued that Israelís faithlessness only caused Godís faithfulness to be seen in bolder relief (3:4).

What is the point here then? The point is that there is no one who is in right standing with God on the basis of his own upright behavior. Certainly the pagan who has given himself to idolatry and gross immorality is unrighteous before a holy God. But so is the more sophisticated moralist ó whether Greek or Jew ó who has seen through the self-destructive lifestyle of a libertine and rejected its excesses in his own life. And so is the religionist who tends to be smug in trusting either his racial stock or spiritual pedigree to save him from his transgressions. Are all people sinners? Are Greeks and Jews alike under condemnation? Are both subject to the divine wrath about which Paul had written earlier? Indeed! We are all under the domination and curse of sin.

But That Couldnít Be Us!

Earlier I promised to return to the matter of paralleling Paulís indictment of Hebrew religion to a modern-day indictment that someone might bring against the Christian religion. Could the shoe really fit us?

Yesterday I was present in Washington, D.C., for the "Stand in the Gap" rally called by Promise Keepers. It was a magnificent event! Hundreds of thousands of men from across the United States, Canada, and over 60 foreign countries were there to exalt the name of Jesus Christ. Yet there were a few protests and several suspicious-to-critical remarks about the event in the media. Before we write off that criticism too quickly, is there any way to understand it?

Has there ever been any institutionalized racism in the church that might cause African-Americans to be skeptical about Promise Keepers? Has anyone ever seen vestiges of sexism in the church? Has anyone ever witnessed the church abandoning its mission of lifting up Christ to adopt a political agenda for itself?

I regret the criticisms of the Washington rally and think they were unfounded. I see no evidence of racism or sexism in Coach McCartneyís work. I donít discern a political agenda lurking in the shadows. But I have to be honest and tell you that I can understand why some people are suspicious of Promise Keepers. Christians have been guilty of these things. We have done harm in the name of doing good ó and caused the name of God to be blasphemed among unbelievers.

Let me offer you a couple of stipulative definitions. For many people, religion is that set of humanly controlled institutions, rituals, and authority that have hurt people in the name of God. On the other hand, spirituality may be defined as personal openness to the working of Godís power in oneís life. I think this is the distinction that such groups as Alcoholics Anonymous make in the two words to separate their negative feelings toward religion from their positive sense of spiritual yearning for God. I also think this distinction can help all of us keep our focus clearer in seeking God.

What role have I left for religion? None. And I have left none because the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ leaves none. Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshiping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. About those things, Christianity has only two comments to make. The first is that none of them ever had the least chance of doing the trick: the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins (see the Epistle to the Hebrews) and no effort of ours to keep the law of God can ever succeed (see the Epistle to the Romans). The second is that everything religion tried (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in his death and resurrection. For Christians, therefore, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade. The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical, and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly." It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.

The Need is Universal

There are differences between Greeks and Jews, religious people and non-religious people. For all our differences, however, we are more alike than different. All are sinners. We have sinned under different circumstances, perhaps, but we have all sinned. Thus the text says: "What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin" (3:9).

Verses 10-18 string together a series of statements from different Old Testament passages around a single theme. Drawing principally from Isaiah and the Psalms, Paul builds a powerful polemic on the topic of human depravity. It constitutes something of a legal indictment ó a fact that is significant for the way the epistle unfolds. The hope for humanityís salvation will be presented shortly under another legal figure ó "justification." But that comes later.

For the sake of the formal indictment, the thesis that "There is no one righteous, not even one" ties together everything that follows. Of course there are people who do good things or who perform righteous acts. But doing righteous things no more makes one a righteous person than wearing a white coat makes her a physician or putting on a badge makes him a police officer. No one performs good deeds to the absolute exclusion of bad ones; no one is so habitually righteous in his behavior that evil ones never compromise him. God alone is righteous in his very being, and no Jew or Gentile measures up favorably when compared to God in his perfect holiness.

Why no one is righteous is explained at some length. Even the best of people sin through ignorance, for no one has perfect knowledge of the truth or can always figure out the right decision on every complex ethical problem (3:11a). Furthermore, all of us become weak-willed at times and slack up in our questing for God (3:11b). Worse still, every honest person must admit that at times we have been disobedient to the truth we knew (3:12a). Indeed, there is no one who does good to the exclusion of evil (3:12b).

Many of the human raceís sins trace to the wicked use of the tongue (3:13a) ó for such things as deceit (3:13b) or "cursing and bitterness" (3:14). But the tongue is not our only unruly member. The feet of both Jews and Gentiles have been "swift to shed blood" (3:15) ó leaving behind a trail of "ruin and misery" (3:16) rather than "peace" (3:17). Both tongue and feet do their wicked deeds because "eyes" (3:18) without the controlling factor of the fear of God see and lust for the things of this world.

So the indictment is complete. "The whole world [is] held accountable to God" (3:19). What has been said applies to every human being of whatever color, language, or ethnic background.


We are all sinners. And even religion cannot save us, for we cannot obey the commandments and observe the rituals without failure. "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" (3:20).

But if the problem of Godís wrath for our sin is real and if we cannot save ourselves from it through morality or religion, what hope is there? The name of our hope is Jesus! And the gospel of the grace of God through him is about to be explained. Now that youíve heard the bad news of sin and its consequences, please stay tuned for the good news of what God has done through Jesus to save sinners. Itís too wonderful a story for you to miss!

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