Self-confidence works great for afternoon softball games, but it is terribly overrated when it comes to one’s eternal salvation.
In 2013, a drug bust occurred in Brooklyn. Police confiscated 23,000 hits of oxycodone from dealers who had acquired their stash with stolen prescription sheets. The suspects were also charged with trafficking heroin and cocaine, and possession of illegal firearms.
Compared to the news we’re used to hearing every day, this raid certainly doesn’t sound out of the ordinary. What made it unusual was a text message the dealers had sent to all their buyers, stating their hours of operation. Six days a week they would be open for business. Not the seventh. They would be closed the seventh day, so they could keep the Sabbath.
This strikes a note of irony similar to the deeply “devout” mafia boss who attends church every Sunday, or the assassin who loves to quote Scripture.
The Cherry Tree Approach to God’s Law
All the data is in, and it’s obvious that people who make efforts at being religious often harbor considerable blind spots. They can become so used to living with conflicts of value, that they’re not even aware those conflicts exist anymore.
To be fair, none of these sincere, well-meaning people have a “eureka” moment when they decide to be a hypocrite. Aside from the crass phonies who deliberately set out to deceive others for the sake of material gain, religious people abhor the very idea of game-playing. As far as they’re concerned, their heart is “all in.”
For this very reason, the Apostle Paul devotes a lot of space in Romans to addressing moral, religious folk (2:1-29). They are a notoriously difficult audience to reach.
In the religious mind, God’s law tends to resemble a cherry tree. You walk around underneath it, and pick some low-hanging fruit. Then you assign tremendous significance to those four cherries you collected, making them worth more than the remaining four thousand on the tree. Those I didn’t bother to pick aren’t important, you tell yourself, and besides, I can’t reach them all. At least I got the few important ones.
But even then, your four cherries aren’t so great. One gets mushy because it’s overripe, another is bitter because it’s underripe, another is wormy.
“Nobody’s perfect,” you might say. And that is exactly right. Your paltry attempts could never satisfy all the demands of God’s righteousness.
Which brings us to our main point: Only the righteousness of Christ is perfectly consistent with God’s law, so we should only trust in Him.
His righteousness encompasses the whole cherry tree. Yours doesn’t.
Paul makes this case in meticulous detail throughout the second half of Romans chapter 2, because he understands the fortifications of the religious mind. He knows the labyrinth of crawl spaces and secret passage ways we think will lead to self-justification. He discerns the mason jars of blackened fruit we have squirreled away in the cellar, and that we count on them as proof of our righteousness.
It will take a carefully reasoned “map” to help us navigate out of these places. Paul therefore starts at an elementary point:
Men will be judged based on whether they obeyed what they knew
Superior theological knowledge and profound revelations count as the first and greatest of all religious trump cards. Yet without obedience, they offer no more protection for the soul than pocket lint.
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
If a person didn’t have the codified law of God in writing, but sinned against what he knew to be right, he’ll perish. By the same token, if he heard and knew the law of God but failed to keep it, then the Bible he heard and even mentally agreed with won’t save him. This is an incredibly simple maxim, but somehow lost on those who like to know but not do.
13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Those who want to justify themselves must remember that “doing” is the primary requirement. Not partial doing or intended doing or potential doing. The necessity of knowing-doing works this way even for gentiles who never had access to advanced Judeo-Christian instruction.
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…
The same God who wrote the Law created the gentile, meaning the “fingerprints” of the law-giving God is on that gentile’s heart. The Law is in them, not with the same level of specificity as written on paper, but certainly in the form of basic moral intuition, an oughtness toward what is right and good. This creates a particular dynamic that goes on inside a gentile:
…their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
God-created moral intuition, plus the gentile’s thoughts, reasoning, and conscience, combine to provide God with a grounds for final judgment. Though men might hope their outward appearance will carry the day, their secrets will be judged—the real situation, the real them, what they actually knew and did or didn’t do.
Think of the situation like a downtown firm that hires two new employees. The new guys are fresh out of college and hardly even know how to match their socks, but they learn there’s one critical meeting a week you don’t miss on Monday. It’s so important a memo goes out every Friday to remind everyone that Monday’s coming.
But both of the new hires miss it. The boss asks one of them, why didn’t you show up? He says, “I didn’t get the memo.” The boss says, “But you knew.” The boss then asks the other fellow, “Did you get the memo?” He replies, “Yes, I got it on text and by email, and the receptionist reminded me, and I heard some people talking about it in the break room, too.” “Then why didn’t you show up?” the boss asks. The kid, with sheepish look, says, “I was going to, but just didn’t get around to it. Aw, heck, nobody’s perfect.”
Both of these men are going to get canned.
The point is, they didn’t obey what they knew. That ought to be scary for anyone hoping to justify himself, because where God is concerned, none of us do what we know to be right with necessary levels of consistency.
Keep Score the Way God Does
Inconsistency is exactly where religious people get into trouble, because they don’t keep score the way God does.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
Consider the tremendous confidence reflected here. Religious people, folks who got God’s memo, are typically found claiming, relying, boasting, knowing, approving, instructing, and having the Law, yet the elephant in the room proves to be their own self-contradictions.
21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Paul’s line of questioning here exposes blind spots as pronounced as a parent who smokes telling his kids, “I better not ever catch you with a cigarette. Those things are cancer sticks!” Or, when I told my daughter, “Eat your vegetables, they’re good for you. Lay off the candy” (This coming from a man who ate Hershey bars as though they were a food group).
Religious sentiment thinks of consistency as being optional. God however, considers it essential.
Disobedience invalidates the things religious folks get right
The quickest way for a religious person to dismantle the kudos on his resume is by getting it wrong in other areas.
25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.
Disobedience has an invalidating property. Years back I ran across a man who made large contributions to a small area church. It was a generous act and appreciated by all in the congregation. But when he was on junkets or company business away from his wife and kids, he often found himself in seedy “gentlemen’s clubs.”
Too many men with a similar conflict would admit it is not good to be in such places, but expect their hefty financial contributions to offset the seriousness of it. They assume their monthly check writing will invalidate sexual sin. Actually, it is the other way around. This is the conundrum of all who trust in their own righteousness. They must always play the scales, guessing which behavior will outweigh the other, not knowing that breaking the law constitutes a reset to zero.
Paul reminds us,
29 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.
This verse doesn’t describe anyone whose righteousness is self-assembled, self-powered, partial, or outward.
With Apologies to Your Self-Esteem
You’d think this message would end on a call to avoid hypocrisy, but it doesn’t. Paul didn’t write these incendiary verses hoping we would try harder. Much to the contrary, his core message tells us that we don’t have what it takes. Regardless how you try, you cannot high-jump over the bar God has set for the human race.
It has taken me a long time and a lot of honesty to learn something about this. For every subsequent stage of life I’ve entered, a fresh vein of personal unrighteousness has been exposed to my view—and my considerable disappointment.
At 21 years of age, I was a single man living in darkness and surrounded by various lusts. When I got tired of life in that polluted bubble, and came to Christ, I recall the surreal feeling I had that night. It was the first time I ever sensed not having a problem with God. But the next morning, I woke up, still young, single, and surrounded with lusts. I remembered my disappointment and bewilderment to find that problematic things were still inside me.
Then I got married. I thought matrimony would bring out all the best in me. Instead, it made me aware that I had problems in factors of ten, including selfishness. Later we had a baby, and during all the extra chores like getting up late, and handling things smelly and brown, I discovered I was lazy. Then the baby grew up and turned into a teenager with unparalleled argumentative skills. I realized I had no patience. In the middle of it all, I entered full-time vocational ministry, the badge of saintliness. But my close involvement with personalities as strange as my own knocked enough glitter off me to expose the deeper strata of pride, and pettiness.
Every step of my way has been like accidentally unearthing a body. That makes this sinner’s life one long discovery of “crime scenes.” Curiously enough, the backwards religious mindset Paul tackles in Romans chapter 2 has always been there waiting for me in the wings, offering a lot of cheap, quick fixes. I’ve been tempted to settle for them.
But the Christian message doesn’t encourage cultivation of appearances, or pretense. Yes, the deeper we dig, the more unrighteousness is revealed in us. But rather than charge us to do better, the gospel invites us to bring what we’ve found to Jesus. We’re told to dig into this good news, because the deeper we go, the more we uncover the authentic righteousness of God.
This is something Christians quickly forget. At first we’re zealous for Christ. But over time, we start to pay more attention to the Christian lifestyle. In essence, we fall in love with ourselves, our spiritual track records, our ministry accomplishments.
It’s misplaced love. We’ve got to break up with ourselves and go back to the unadjusted gospel showcased in Romans 1:16-17.
Let the excavation begin…