Judgment is certain. God’s warning to mankind: Don’t show up to the trial of your life armed with nothing but a folder of good deeds.
Twinkies in the Courtroom
In 1979 an ex-San Francisco police officer assassinated the San Francisco mayor. Attorneys for the defense argued that around the time of the murder, their client had begun consuming large amounts of sugary food and drink. This, they said, had triggered deep mood swings in the defendant which in turn substantially contributed to the homicide. It was the first ever courtroom defense based on junk food abuse, and it worked. The jury reduced the charge from murder to voluntary manslaughter. Following those days, the term “Twinkie Defense” became part of the unofficial legal lexicon, describing any improbable defense strategy.
The Bible assures us there will be a Day of Judgment, when God will directly judge every individual. Most people have no plan for that Day. Those who do are piecing together a “Twinkie Defense.” They intend to tell God that although they’ve done many evil things, they’re not completely to blame because forces beyond their control compelled them to sin.
They hope to redirect God’s attention to a portfolio of their nicer, more decent deeds, ranging from Goodwill donations to handing change to the homeless man standing at the highway exit ramp.
Aside from the New Testament faith, every world religion trains, encourages, and indoctrinates its followers to prepare a “Twinkie Defense” for the great day of reckoning—to amplify good works so they can hopefully outweigh the bad. Human beings have an almost unprecedented trust in this strategy. We believe God will credit our works of shaky goodness to the highest possible extent, not only meriting a reduced sentence, but full acquittal.
We are actually hoping God will be more gullible than that San Francisco jury.
As dubious as this plan sounds, it is pervasive. Ask anyone. Begin with grandparents, especially those who are not committed Christians. Say to them, “Statistically speaking, you’re going to meet God before I do. For my peace of mind, please tell me, what is your plan?”
Ask friends and other relatives, too. Listen closely to identify a Twinkie Defense strategy commonly emerging. Most importantly, check with yourself to see whether you are unconsciously trusting in that same plan.
A Dose of Reality
The cold hard reality of Scripture warns us no human being stands a chance of acquittal before God based on his or her personal righteousness. We must look for righteousness outside of ourselves.
The previous sections of Romans have led up to this closing thought, this slam dunk, in 3:9-20. At this point, if any reader still trusts in his native righteousness, Paul will seek to overwhelm that trust before he moves forward into the rest of the gospel.
He begins by pointing out that every human is a sinner, virtually from head to toe.
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off?
Paul leads with this question, because lurking in the subconscious of his Jewish countrymen is still the supposition that a particular group of people is nobler born than the rest of mankind.
No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;
An Apostolic Insult?
“None” is a scandalous assertion, and one that always elicits protest. For that reason, Paul once again unfurls the rap sheet of typical sinners, so that we can come face to face with our own character and symptoms.
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
The apostle begins with the braincase, pointing out that sin is firstly evidenced in the muddled understanding of the mind. Sinners not only find the knowledge of God impenetrable, but they are in a maze of confusion about the obligations of morality, the meaning of life, and the importance of eternity. Their thought processes as to profound matters have been warped to the point of non-understanding.
Nor are they interested in seeking answers. Sinners find the exercise of pursuing God an insufferable bore, especially when compared to other, far more stimulating pastimes. The philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “Man’s sensitivity to trivia, and his insensitivity to matters of major importance, reveal he has a strange disorder.” Strange indeed, that we can name five brands of beer, but not five commandments. We can cite detailed stats from players on our favorite athletic teams, but can’t find the book of Colossians.
Paul goes to write,
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good,
not even one.”
Whether we turn aside because we’re distracted by the tinsel of the world, or drunk on its intoxication, our inability to walk a straight line says something about our sinful condition. As God estimates the global value of this scene, with the entire history of our race, His “math” sums us all up a flat, worthless zero. In the sight of God, every work and deed and accomplishment piled up, resembles a landfill. These calculations are fair, for when no one does good—zero—then the grand total of all such individuals must also be zero.
Moving Right On Down…
But Paul isn’t done with the sinner’s profile. He moves from the brain to the mouth:
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
Human beings sin not just in deed, but in verbal communication. Here the Scriptures resort to thick metaphor in order to portray the garish variety of evil we transmit with our words. “An open grave” refers to a place of exposed death, depicting the way a sinner’s words spread spiritual uncleanness. “The venom of asps” corresponds to the poison of a snake, and well describes sinful words as being analogous to snakebite.
The sinner’s mouth is also full of curses, that is, expressions of ill-will, and bitterness, anger that has been allowed to simmer, sometimes for years. Simply stand next to a sinful human being and it will not be long before all of this—death, lies, poison, mean talk, and anger—creep out.
Your Worst Life Now
Following this sketch, Paul then illustrates in brief, the way, the habit of life, exemplified by a sinful person:
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Humanity is swift to violence, as any study of history will show (or any local police blotter), but even when violence is not present, the path of a sinner is one of ruination. Wherever he goes, ruin occurs, whether it is to himself and his health, or his marriage, or employment. In addition, humans continually taunt themselves into misery, always fancying if they could only get this or that, life would be better. But when they finally obtain the thing long pursued, their pleasure only lasts fleeting moments before misery begins to reemerge.
Paul adds that they do not know peace, which explains why, wherever sinners go, drama breaks out. If none is present, they seek it, or deliberately stir it. Peace to them is unfulfilling. As a final observation, and probably worst of all, their way of life does not incorporate any true fear of God. The sinner feels emboldened to develop ever darker, more destructive strains of sin. In that fearless vacuum, any imaginable evil could occur.
The Myth of Exceptions to the Rule
The disinterested reader of Romans may find these verses needlessly negative, full of sweeping generalizations, unfair and inaccurate. We want to believe there are plenty of praiseworthy things in human life, moments we can brag on, works even God must admit don’t fit the dark paradigm painted here.
Some heroic souls seem to defy pessimism. One such person, Oskar Schindler, has become famous as the protagonist in the movie Schindler’s List. We learn from the film that Schindler was an aspiring German war profiteer. Having friends in the Nazi government, he hoped to build great wealth at the beginning of World War II.
But somewhere along the line, he developed a conscience toward the Jews, and at great risk to himself, he began using his industrial genius to protect them. At the end of the movie we find a financially broke Schindler, only distraught over not having done more for his fellow man. The Jews he saved surround him and attempt to console him, saying, “You did all you could.” It is the most moving moment of the film, when someone’s humanity has against all odds, valiantly fought upward. As the credits roll, we discover that a memorial was erected in Israel for Schindler and that the Jews have bestowed on him the title of “Righteous Gentile.” And then the movie is over.
But Schindler’s life wasn’t over in 1945. His biography wasn’t frozen at some moral high tide. As with all other human beings, there was the rest of the story. After his good work, Schindler eventually abandoned his wife and became a drunk and a womanizer. The Jews had given him a gold ring, made from their teeth. He hocked it for a bottle of booze.
I don’t bring these things up to smear a man’s memory. What he did for others is beyond what most of us, Christian or not, would ever do. But this further anecdote about him is a reminder to us that even the most touching, heroic, self-sacrificial act we could ever do, has a dark underbelly. The rest of the story always insists that we are still sinners.
The Sin that Keeps on Coming
Nor will the sinning cease.
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law,
The very thing mankind is under—the Law of God—exposes the sin in all of us. It commands us to do or to stop doing, but the deeper we look within ourselves for the resources to comply with God, the more we find disobedience. Whether you are a Jew with the Law written on paper or a gentile with the Law written on your heart, the Law speaks to you, saying, “Wrong!” “Sinner!” and ultimately, “Condemned!”
The effect is:
that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
Even as human mouths chatter on in self-defense, the Law booms an authoritative “Shut up!” and holds the entire column of human history accountable to the righteousness of God.
20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…
This statement tells us well in advance that as long as any human plans on reciting their good deeds on the Day of Judgment—in other words, mounting a Twinkie Defense—he or she is leaning on a strategy guaranteed to lose. Why?
…through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Whether we ignore it or strive to keep it, the law of God makes us aware of the sin hiding in our hearts.
I love to fish, and my favorite place in the world to do it is my home state of Louisiana. Some of the venues there are difficult and dirty. Underbrush often chokes the banks of the places I like to go, so I have to actually get into the water. The lake bottoms are often composed of thick, soft sediment. One step into it with a sneakered foot immediately discolors the water, limiting my visibility. If I stand still and do nothing for a few moments, the sediment settles again. The moment I try to take a step though, no matter how gingerly, I create a fresh mud cloud. Faster maneuvers leave a mud trail behind me that’s visible from space. Any movement stirs mud because I’m standing in it up to my shins.
This is life under the Law of God. No matter how carefully one walks around in it, feet pf flesh cannot help but stir sin.
Your Heart: The Worst Place to Look for Righteousness
We need to look for righteousness somewhere other than within ourselves. It must be an alien righteousness, that is, one outside of us and foreign to us. But from where will it come? Romans 1:16-17 says the place to look is in the gospel of Jesus. Some of you who have been following these posts for the last few weeks will notice I’ve been going back to these verses repeatedly. You might also wonder when I’m going to find a fresh punchline.
But a responsible study of Scripture is not about variety hour. It’s about getting established in the power and blessings of the gospel.
Take the Gospel of God with you to the Movies
As believers, we should be gospel-oriented. That means looking for the good news of the Person and work of Christ in everything, even in the cultural items we consume like books, movies, and music. We have to understand that everything employs some sort of emotional narrative to attract us, draw us in, and soften our receptivity toward a position or view.
If we’re not careful, we’ll end up going down that road of feelings and buying whatever is being sold. This is the trouble many Christians have today. They accept more doctrinal cues from pop culture than from the Bible.
Recently, The Shack hit movie theaters everywhere. The film is a Christianish yarn adapted from a book that sold millions of copies. Hostile critiques of it are currently more popular than the movie itself, and if the list of its core doctrinal errors is accurate, it ought to warrant theological outrage.
Rather than try to rehearse the problems in a book I’ve never read or a movie I’ve never seen, it’s better to suggest the gospel as a filter that should be applied across the board. After all, until Christ returns, there will be no end of tales with compelling emotional arcs masking shrewd error.
Before we take a trip down feeling lane, especially into something that attempts to comment about spiritual things, we ought to ask, “How does this particular piece of pop culture square with the gospel of God?” For instance, does it deny sin exists, instead suggesting that maybe religious people cooked up the concept? And if sin exists, is God ambivalent toward it, telling us we just need to relax and not be so uptight? And if God is bothered with sin, can we find the solution to it by digging further down into our allegedly enlightened selves?
If the answer is yes, yes, and yes, we definitely need to become more discerning as to what we allow into our hearts. Otherwise, we’ll end up becoming followers of Twentieth Century Fox, rather than followers of Jesus.
We want to be careful with the good news, because that’s where the power and blessings of God reside. This means simultaneously rejecting goulash dreamed up by creatives who have jettisoned orthodox Christian faith.
Real Christians settle for no less than what the apostles had—“the power of God for salvation.”
Image credit: Chance Agrella