My parents brought me home from the hospital in a 1963 Ford Galaxie 500. It was a beautiful car – a shiny black two door hardtop with red leather seats – just like this one. It had big round tail lights inspired by the rocket ships of the space race and the science fiction of the time. It was a big car – big enough for four kids to sit in the back seat with plenty of room to spare. It had a huge trunk for hauling all the things a family needs. It had a radio, a clock, bucket seats and a cool floor mounted automatic transmission shifter. On the outside it was a beautiful car. Under the hood, though, it was a lemon. I remember my dad having to have the engine changed on it when the engine conked out. Dad complained about the transmission not working right. On a long trip out to visit my aunt in Manitoba the exhaust broke and we spent an unpleasant time in Northwestern Ontario breathing in the engine exhaust until Dad could get to the Midas Muffler in Thunder Bay. And so, even though it was a pretty car, I never liked it. I like cars that are good looking, but I like cars that run well even more. I imagine that you are the same. I imagine that you want your car is to be more than just a pretty monument to grace your driveway. You want your car to fulfil its intended purposes and you want to avoid a good-looking lemon.
The Bible talks about how important it is for people to see beyond a good looking outside to what is inside. In one Proverb, one that causes a bit of controversy, King Solomon says:
Pr 11:22 Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.
And so, what is behind the facade is very important, even with people and perhaps especially with people. But so often, we rely so much on the facade we present. We pay much attention to and place much faith in what can be seen on the surface and this especially applies to matters of religion. How this happens today I will detail in a few minutes. But it is exactly this that Paul is addressing in Romans chapter 2 verse 17-29. He is addressing people who put much faith in the exterior when it comes to matters of religion but whose faith is misplaced.
Now, in chapter 1, Paul goes to great lengths to show how non-Jewish people were under the judgement of God because of sin. Now he has a much more difficult task – the task of showing religious people that they too are under sin. Sometimes this is quite the task. Dan Spader, founder of the Sonlife ministry, talks about how there are two kinds of lost people in this world – people who need to know the Grace of God but don’t. There are the non-religious lost and the religious lost. The religious lost have a religion, but they don’t understand their need for the forgiveness and grace that is available through Jesus Christ. In chapter 2 of the book of Romans, Paul was addressing his fellow Jews and was trying to convince them that they too need the grace of God in order to be saved. He had trouble doing that for a number of reasons.
I. They were relying on their HERITAGE.
17 ¶ Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God;
To call yourself a Jew in the ancient world was to make a very important claim. The word “Jew” back then was freighted with meaning. It still is today. To be Jewish meant that you came from a remarkable background. It mean that you were a descendant of Abraham – a man God called out of idolatry to become the original ancestor of a people through whom he would bring His blessing on the world. When God called Abraham, he said this to him:
1 ¶ The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. 2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12)
This promise was an amazing promise. Among other things, it meant that through the Jews God was going to bless the world with a Messiah who would reverse the curse of sin and save the world. So it should be no surprise that our Saviour was born a Jew. And so the Jews were a specially chosen people out of all the nations of the world. And many Jews were proud of the fact that they were children of Abraham. They had one problem, though. They assumed that just because they were children of Abraham that God would never judge them for their sins. Often, Paul found that the Jews trusted in the heritage of their fathers. They rode on the coat-tails of their heritage. It didn’t matter if they were thieves, adulterers or extortionists; they still considered themselves God’s chosen few because Abraham was their father.
John the Baptizer had earlier tried to shock people out of this complacency and he preached to the Jews:
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3)
He was telling them not to rely on their heritage to escape the judgement of God for sins but rather to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
If John the Baptizer came here to preach, he just might have the same message for us. It could be that the branches of your family tree are heavy with saints and seers. Maybe your religious heritage includes such people as Menno Simons or John Knox or John Nelson Darby or Martin Luther or John Calvin. If you know those names and if your religious heritage includes them, be grateful for such a religious pedigree, but don’t think that God will count that to your credit on judgement day. On the other hand, however, maybe you don’t have a religious pedigree. Maybe you haven’t got a clue who those people were that I just mentioned. Don’t worry about it. And don’t worry if your ancestry is more like a rogue’s gallery than a roster of Sunday school teachers. Just as a religious heritage brings no bonus points with God, a lack of one doesn’t count against you either. You see, God has no grandchildren – only children. Any anyone can become one through faith in Jesus Christ. If you have no heritage of faith, God invites you to start one now – with yourself! You see, a Godly heritage, as good as it is, is no ticket to Heaven and a lack of one is no bar to Heaven.
A second reason he had trouble convincing them of their need for God’s grace is that they were relying on their membership in a certain RELIGION.
17 ¶ Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: "God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."
The people Paul were speaking to didn’t think that they needed God’s Grace because they went to the right CHURCH. Again, Paul’s audience were Jews. Being Jewish involved both being part of a certain ETHNIC group (again, the pedigree) and part of a RELIGION, or church if you will. The closest thing we have to this locally are the Mennonites. Those of you with a Mennonite background probably understand this better than anyone else. One of my Mennonite friends once asked a group of us, “What does it mean to be Mennonite? Is it a religion or an ethnic group?” The answer is “yes.” Really, it is both. You can be both born a Mennonite or baptized a Mennonite and many, many people are both.
Now the Jews placed great stock in their religion because they had the RIGHT RULES. They had the Law of Moses. They therefore knew God’s will. In the Law, they had the embodiment of knowledge and truth. Paul doesn’t dispute that the rules were good. His next questions are not aimed at the goodness of the Law. Paul simply asks them, “You have the law, do you keep it?”
You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 24 As it is written: "God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."
Paul is simply emphasizing here that having the law is not nearly as important as keeping it. We might be surprised that people who had God’s law like the Jews didn’t keep it. But why would we be so surprised? Just because we know the right thing to do doesn’t mean that we will do it. We often sin, even though we know better. Sometimes we are simply being rebellious. Sometimes we sin just because we hate the law and we think it is getting in the way of our pleasures. We know what is right, we just don’t care. Andrew Fastow, who defrauded his company Enron as well as the investors in Enron of tens of millions of dollars, said, after being caught,
“I was extremely greedy and lost my moral compass.”
He knew better, he just didn’t care.
But there are times when we want to obey the law, but find that in our own strength, we can’t. Do I need to illustrate this? Do I need to expound on this? Do I need to explain this? Wouldn’t that be a waste of your time? You know exactly what I am talking about because you have been there. You’ve had sinful habits you couldn’t break. You have had times when the spirit was willing but the flesh is weak. You do things and have done things that you would be ashamed to come up to the front here and confess. I know that you do! And I understand. After all, Jesus said that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. The difference is, some realize that they are slaves, and others don’t.
Paul talks much about this later on in the book. He talks about the power of sin in his own life and how he wanted to obey the Law, but found that he couldn’t.
22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7)
He that falls into sin is a man; that grieves at it, is a saint; that boasteth of it, is a devil.
There are times when we sin, and we grieve at it. We know what is good, we want to do what is good, but in our own strength we find that we can’t.
The point is here, that being religious is no guarantee of eternal life. Having the rules and knowing the rules aren’t enough. We have to practice them, and nobody does it perfectly.
They had the right RITUALS. In verse 28 Paul begins to talk about the unique ceremony that all Jewish men underwent: Circumcision. Circumcision symbolized the nearness God desires for his people. It symbolized that God wanted to be part of a person’s identity, intimacy and even potency. Circumcision proclaimed that there is no part of life too private or too personal for God. Originally, circumcision was a sign of submission to God. The Jews, however, had begun to see it as a sign of superiority. With time, they began to trust the symbol more than the Father. And Paul shatters this illusion by proclaiming.
28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
Notice how Paul says that circumcision is not merely outward and physical. It is that, but it was intended to be a symbol of much more. It was a symbol of what God had already done for the people of Israel – a symbol of their being chosen by God as his special people.
have a great example of a similar symbol on my left hand – my wedding band. Debra gave it to me the day we were married. It is made of precious metal, but its preciousness to me goes far beyond that. The ring is a symbol and statement and declaration of our love. It is not, however, the source of our love. If I lost the ring or if I was robbed of it at gunpoint, I would be upset, but our marriage would continue. It is a symbol of something precious, but only a symbol. Suppose I tried to make the ring more than it is. Suppose I became a jerk of a husband and became abusive and unfaithful. And suppose that Debra decided that she had enough of that treatment and said, “There is neither love in your heart nor devotion in your life. I want you to leave!” How do you think she’d respond if I countered, “How dare you say that? I’m wearing the ring you gave me. I never removed it for one minute! Sure I cheat on you and beat you, but I wear the ring. Isn’t that enough?” She’d laugh in my face. Apart from love, the ring is just another fashion accessory. The symbol represents love, but can’t replace love. Paul is accusing the Jews of trusting the symbol of circumcision while neglecting their souls.
Could he accuse us of the same error? Let’s substitute a contemporary symbol such as baptism, communion or church membership. “God, I know I never think about you. I know I hate people and cheat my friends. I abuse my body and lie to my spouse. But you don’t mind, do you? After all, I was baptized when I was ten years old.” Or “I take communion every month.” Or “I’m a member of Grace Bible Chapel.” Do we think that God would say, “You’re right. You never think of me or respect me. You hate your neighbour and sell drugs to kids but since you were baptized, I will overlook your rebellion and evil ways”? Nonsense! Don’t get me wrong. Symbols are important. Some of them, like communion and baptism, illustrate the cross of Christ. They symbolize salvation, they even show the message of salvation, but they do not impart salvation. As Max Lucado write:
“Putting your trust in a symbol is like claiming to be a sailor because you have a tattoo or claiming to be a good husband because you have a ring or claiming to be a football player because you have a letter jacket.”
And Paul even goes so far as to tell the Jews that someone who is uncircumcised physically may be more of Jew than they are if they have been transformed by God from the inside, which Paul calls circumcision of the heart.
29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
Physical circumcision outwardly identified a Jewish man – if anyone got a look. But the real circumcision God is looking for in people is a circumcision of the heart where sinful attitudes and motivations are cut away by God’s Holy Spirit, transforming a person from the inside out, and not simply making him or her look good on the outside.
And so according to the Bible true faith, is internally driven and it transforms us from the inside out. No heritage, no rules and no ceremony can do that. We need a miracle. We need supernatural intervention. We need God to work! Here we cross the line into the supernatural. This is the place where the world starts to think that we are talking nonsense because we believe that something unearthly, something outside the natural realm and something outside scientific understanding actually is at work in people. When we speak of being transformed from the inside out, we are not talking about self-improvement. We are not talking about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We are not talking about trying harder. We are talking about cooperating with God’s Holy Spirit so that He can transform us so that we more and more resemble His Son Jesus Christ. This transformation is a work of GRACE and everyone needs it.
Our heritage, our religion, our rules and our ceremonies are all things that are important, but they are things that are outside of us. They can look good, and they can even be good but they can’t change our hearts. A family religious heritage can be a great thing to have. Biblical standards are great things to adopt. Ceremonies, rites and rituals can be wonderful things and can stand for wonderful truths but we must never forget that these things cannot impart eternal life to us and neither do they make us Holy in sight of God. If we rely on them for eternal life and holiness we may just be like my dad’s 1963 Galaxie – a great looking lemon. We need the engine transformed. We need a circumcised heart. We need God’s Holy Spirit at work within us. It is then that we will know the transforming power of God’s grace and of His Holy Spirit. It is then that we will know real spiritual power.
C. 2011 by Rev. Steven Brown. You are free to use portions of this message but please do not pass this off as your own.