Sunday, October 8, 2017

Same Gospel, Different Audience

Today, we take the next step in our stroll through Romans to review some important aspects of the Gospel. It is a step forward, but there is a sense in which we will be covering much of the same territory that we did last week. That will become clear in a bit.

Listen to the first few verses of the chapter.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man — you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself — that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. Romans 2.1-5
Paul is still talking about God's wrath. In that sense, nothing has changed from what we saw last week in chapter one. But there is one important thing that has changed. There is a hint of this in the pronouns. Back in chapter one, Paul was talking about this group of people over there, the Gentiles. So, he used the third person, words like 'they' and 'them'. But here, he changes that. Here, he uses the second person, 'you'. Paul has changed his audience. Here, he is talking to someone as a representative of a different group of people, a group much closer to him. And the hint about who this person and his group is can be found in another pronoun, 'we'.
We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Romans 2.2
Who is this group? Who is this 'we'? Paul is talking to his fellow Jews who know about how God evaluates people's lives. This is confirmed later in this chapter where Paul writes,
But if you call yourself a Jew … Romans 2.17
And that points to what's different here. Having pointed out the sin of the Gentiles in chapter one, Paul now discusses the sin of the Jews. And while in the first chapter he uses God's revelation in creation as the basis for judging that sin, here Paul uses God's revelation in the Scriptures which the Jewish people knew. And that's why he writes, 'We know…'

In this next step of his explanation of the Gospel, Paul is accusing his countrymen. He wants them to know that they, too, are sinners. 

It's as if a group of Jewish people were listening in on Paul's condemning comments about the Gentiles. You could almost hear them in the background agreeing with Paul, with their 'Amens' and 'You tell them, Paul' as he describes the sins of the Gentiles. It's just that Paul now turns his attention to those Jews to inform them that they are in trouble also.

The thing is that they are hypocrites. That's what the first verse is about. Listen again.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
And it's not that they can plead ignorance.
We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Romans 2.2
But - and here's the problem - they do not repent.
Do you suppose, O man — you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself — that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? Romans 2.3-4
So, Paul warns them that there will be consequences for all of this.
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. Romans 2.5
Paul has laid out the problem with his Jewish brethren, his rather religious brethren. They are in great danger, but they refuse to repent.

So, what do you say to a religious person who is being unrepentant and in danger of facing the awful wrath of God? The problem in trying to persuade religious people is that they think everything is fine. After all, they're religious. They do all the suitable religious things. But Paul anticipates that dodge. He points not just to the fact that God will evaluate every life, but also to how He will do that. This is what he writes next.
He will render to each one according to his works. Romans 2.6
Paul is making clear that claims to being religious do not matter when it comes time for God's evaluation. Words are cheap. Any such claims need to be backed up by actions. It's what you do that matters. That's what God will be looking at.

It makes sense for Paul to speak this way. This kind of evaluation is something that his Jewish countrymen should have been familiar with. It's in the Old Testament. Here's just one example.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work. Psalms 62.11-12
So, you see what Paul is doing here. He explains that Jewish sinners are no different from Gentile sinners as far as God is concerned. Just as there is wrath for the one, there will be wrath for the other. And what will make the difference is not what you say about yourself - claims to being religious - but what you do.

Now, it's that last thought that I want to spend the rest of our time on. And I want to do that because while it holds a warning, there is a promise here, a promise that can encourage you. And I really want you to see that.

Let's start with this. It's a simple and objective fact. We are religious people. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But being religious people, we are more susceptible to certain kinds of temptations, just like the Jewish people that Paul was addressing. So, it's important that we take to heart what Paul was getting at when he wrote,
He will render to each one according to his works.
If we are going to be able to do that the first thing that we have to deal with is this: what Paul wrote sounds so wrong. How many times have we been told that salvation is not about works. Our works will not save us. And we have a verse to prove it.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2.8,9
Paul wrote that in Ephesians 2. So, what is he talking about here in Romans 2? To answer that what we need to do is go back to the beginning of this letter to the church in Rome. That's where we found Paul explaining why he was called to be an apostle.
… to bring about the obedience of faith…  Romans 1.5
We tend to lean on the 'faith' part of that phrase, and with good reason. But what Paul is doing in chapter two is leaning on the 'obedience' part of that phrase. Paul's goal was to bring about the obedience that is a fruit of faith, faith in Jesus. And it is that obedience that God will be examining on the Last Day.

So, to clarify, consider this question. Are good works necessary for salvation? It all depends on what you mean. If you are asking, 'Will good works be the basis for our claim to deserve eternal life?', the answer is clear: Absolutely not! Even our best works are ruined by sin. They deserve nothing but hell.

However, if you are asking, 'Will God require good works as the expression of a living faith in Jesus?' the answer is likewise clear: You better believe it.

Let me read again those verses from Ephesians 2 with the next verse added.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2.8-10
Are good works necessary for salvation? Will God be evaluating us by them? Oh yes, He most definitely will.

Now, with that in mind listen to what else Paul wrote in our chapter.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. Romans 2:6-10
Now, the warning in these words is obvious. What we do matters. So, we need to beware of falling into the trap of thinking that simply having the right words - say, a profession of faith - is all that will be needed on the Last Day. That is a trap that religious people have fallen into down through the ages. In this regard, the twenty-first century is no different from the first. Just as then, many are falling into same trap today. You don't want to be one of them.

But what I really want you to see is that there is also a promise here. Are you by patience in well-doing seeking for the fruit of eternal life, glory and honor and immortality and peace? The promise of God is that all who are doing this will be given that eternal life with all of its fruit. And that is a promise worth holding on to because working at this well-doing is hard. There are so many obstacles and difficulties. That's why Paul writes,
          by patience in well-doing…
Paul's word 'patience' is about patient endurance. Pursuing this well-doing with patient endurance is hard. But being reminded that your hard work is worth it, that there will be great benefit at the end, is a tremendous encouragement to keep at it. God has made you a promise.

Now, the fact of the matter is that when some of you see what Paul has written here, you don't see any promise, at least not a promise for you. And that's because you are so hard on yourselves. When I talk about working at this well-doing, what you think about is how you fail so miserably at this. And that results in you becoming depressed and despondent. You just know that you're a terrible person. The problem is that you have only two categories: absolute perfection and utter failure.

I teach the older kids during Sunday school. We're working our way through Luke's Gospel. Here's one verse we spent a little time on. It's about Zechariah and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist.
And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Luke 1:6
So, what do you think? Were they perfect? Is that why it could be said of them that they were righteous and blameless before God? Clearly not. So, what does this mean? It means that they were working at well-doing. And when they blew it, they responded with repentance and faith. And because of that dynamic - working at it and repenting when they blew it - they were called righteous and blameless.

Are you working at this well-doing? And are you repenting when you blow it? If you are, then, as far as God is concerned, you are just like Zechariah and Elizabeth, righteous and walking blamelessly. That is also part of the Gospel for you to believe and enjoy.

On the Last Day, when God will render to each one according to his works, the question that He will ask you will not be, 'Were you perfect?' No, it will be, 'Were you working at it? Were you working at the obedience that comes from faith in Jesus?' It is a sad fact that there will be many religious people who will be found not to have been working at it. They will have all the right words - 'Lord, Lord', and all the rest - but there wasn't the obedience of faith. And Jesus will respond to them,
I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness. Matthew 7:23
I really don't want you to be among them.

There is a promise here to encourage you to work at this well-doing, this obedience of faith. Embrace it, believe it and use it to encourage yourself to continue to work at it. As you do that, what you will find on that last and most fateful day is that you will be given all the glorious fruit of eternal life.

No comments: