In Romans 1, Paul tells us two rather alarming truths: firstly, that all the nations of the world are involved in a spiral of increasing unrighteousness. Secondly, that the justice of God means that God must punish all unrighteousness.
In Romans 2, Paul destroys any hope that religion or religious ritual might protect us from the wrath of God. Everyone has done unrighteous deeds therefore everyone is unrighteous, therefore everyone must be judged by God as guilty and sentenced accordingly.
In Romans 3, Paul now shows that both Jew (religious people) and Gentile (unreligious people) are unrighteous. He further nails down anyone who might be trying to say “I am not that bad” by looking at every single person on the earth and pointing out: “Yes, you are that bad.”
But also in Romans 3, Paul lets us see the light at the end of the tunnel. He lets us see that although no human being can stand before God innocent and be acquited because of their perfect lifestyle, maybe there is an alternative route to being righteous. Let’s run through the text:
1What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?
2Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. #
Because Paul in Romans 2 is so scathing of the ineffectiveness of religion, and in particular the Jewish religion, that he feels he must say that there is benefit in being religious. There is a benefit in being part of the Jewish nation, and the benefit is this: the Jewish people were trusted with the oracles (the words) of God. The Jewish people were trusted to receive the Word of God and preserve it. Here Paul is talking about the Old Testament, more specifically the law of God. The Jewish people were told the whole law of God – all 613 commandments.
None of the other nations knew about God’s laws, although we know from Romans 1 that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for being unrighteous due to the conscience and creation. However, the Jews were trusted with all of God’s law. Psalm 19 tells us that the law of the Lord is perfect. The Jews were given something perfect: a perfect standard of how to live a perfect live.
3For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
Now Paul is saying that just because people did not receive or accept the law, and because the Jewish people many times rejected the law, that doesn’t actually matter. God had faith in them, God gave them the law, God’s law is still the perfect standard.
This lie seems to have permeated our society. That if we reject God’s law and decide it is not real or not for today or whatever, that we think that the law doesn’t apply. But crimes against the law of God are statutory crimes – whether you know the law or not, it still exists. You would have a better chance of assuming that gravity is not for today or not real and jumping off the top of Canary Wharf and flying around London than assuming that God’s laws are not for today or not real and expecting to survive the judgment day of the Lord.
Sean McDowell used an excellent illustration of this in a sermon I heard recently. He said that society treats God’s law and God’s revelation like ice cream flavours – you have your favourite flavour and I have mine, and it doesn’t really matter. However, he says that God’s law and God’s revelation are more like a medical prescription. You cannot just choose which medicine you like – you have to take the medicine prescribed or you will not recover. God’s law is real and relevant – just because the laws of the nation have changed does not mean God’s law has changed.
4God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.
Or more simply put: if you disagree with God about the standard to be righteous, then you are wrong and God is right. Here Paul quotes Psalm 51.4, which in the NLT reads: “You will be proved right in what you say, and you will win your case in court.” You have to realize that one day you will stand before God and he will declare you righteous or unrighteous. If you try and stand based on your good deeds, you will be found unrighteous because you have sinned. You have done the things listed in Romans 1. You have broken the Ten Commandments: you have told lies, you have stolen things which are not yours, you have used the Lord’s name as a swear word.
Now if you say that these standards for whatever reason do not apply to you, then God is telling the truth and you are lying. God will win the court case and you will be sentenced to hell.
5But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man)
This is a powerful argument Paul is making. Many people have shyed away from hell, and mocked hellfire preachers. Now Jesus said more about hell than anyone else in the Scripture, so are people who are not talking about hell being Christ-like? No. However, I will qualify this: Jesus spoke about hell to his disciples, not when preaching the gospel. When he preached the gospel, Jesus Christ healed the sick and preached about the kingdom of God. He preached the gospel, which means good news. At this stage in our study of Romans, we have not actually gone through what the gospel is fully, though we have spent time on it while looking at Romans 1.16-17. All that needs to be said is that you don’t evangelise by telling people: you are going to hell.
Why? Because telling people that they are going to hell makes no sense to them. They don’t know the law of God mostly. They don’t know that they are unrighteous. Telling someone who is not aware they are guilty that they are going to receive a sentencing is nonsensical and they will not listen.
If however, you explain to someone the way Paul has done through Romans 1-3 that they are unrighteous because they have broken the perfect law of God and that religious acts and good deeds cannot make them innocent, then they are likely to listen to you. Their own conscience will start to remind them of the times they have done things that they did not want to do, and the Holy Spirit will be hovering over them and convincing them of sin, and then they are open to the gospel.
What Paul is essentially saying in this verse is that because we are unrighteous, because we are guilty – then for God to judge us on judgment day shows that God is righteous, that God is innocent. If a judge just let criminals off, that judge would be as guilty as the criminals. Those people who expect mercy from God simply because He is good are mistaken: God is not going to show you mercy and the reason why He will not show you mercy is because He is good. His goodness means that He must punish all unrighteousness.
6God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world?
7For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?
The more we reject God’s judgment and act unrighteousness, the more truthful God will be when He judges us for being unrighteous.
8And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just.
Paul is saying here: if our sin makes God act in a good way, the answer is not to sin as much as you can. When we reach Romans 6, we will deal with this fully.
9What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;
In Romans 1, Paul shows us the Gentiles are all unrighteous. In Romans 2, Paul shows us the Jews are all unrighteous. Just in case you have missed the point, Paul is about to show that everyone is unrighteous:
10As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:
11There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.
12They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
13Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:
14Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
15Their feet are swift to shed blood:
16Destruction and misery are in their ways:
17And the way of peace have they not known:
18There is no fear of God before their eyes.
The above description applies to every human being on the earth. It applies to you and it applies to me. Verse 10 sums up Romans 3 – there is none righteous, no, not one. This is the key message of this chapter: if you think you are righteous, if you think on judgment day you will be found innocent before God, you are completely wrong. I will not go through vv. 11-18, but if you have any shred of self-righteousness – if you believe you could be worthy before God on the basis of your goodness – I suggest you read it, meditate on it and study it until you know that there is nothing in you that could please or impress God.
19Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Now Paul is telling us something very important. The whole purpose of holding your life up to the law of God and showing you that you are unrighteous, that you do not fear God, that you do not live right, that you will be judged on the day of judgment is for one reason only: so that you will have your mouth stopped and be guilty before God.
The law was not given to you because God knew that if He only gave you enough strict instructions you would be able to obey them all and please Him. The law was given to you because God knew that you can not obey it and that the law would shut your mouth and show you that you are guilty before God.
Before the law of God was revealed through Moses, people did not shut their mouth and did not think they were guilty before God. Cain was protected by God after he murdered Abel, and Cain’s descendent felt that meant he could murder who he liked. And in today’s society, generally a lawless society, people do not shut their mouths – they say things that are so inappropriate, so disrespectful to God. They do not know they are guilty.
This is such a key point. Many Christians still feel that they impress God with their actions. No – the law was not given so you could impress God by keeping it. The law was given so that you know that you could never impress God by keeping it. You could never do all the things in it. You could never even keep the Ten Commandments.
20Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Can you see Paul’s point? By doing good things no flesh – not you, not me, not Mother Theresa, not anyone shall be justified. The word justified simply means “made righteous” or “declared innocent”. Can you see the purpose of the law – it is not for you to obey and for God to give you brownie points for obeying it so well. It is to show you beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are not innocent before God at all. You are guilty. You are unrighteous. You are damned to hell by God’s goodness and justice and righteousness because you are unrighteous.
21But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
Romans 1-3 is a serious message, and it needs to be understood. You are not righteous because of your actions. You are not righteous because of your religious rituals. You are certainly not righteous because of your attempts to obey God’s law. You are unrighteous because of your actions. Your religious rituals cannot change the fact that your actions have made you unrighteous and guilty. Your attempts to follow God’s law cannot undo your unrighteous actions and besides you fail to follow the law again and again. The purpose of the law was not to show you a way to be good, but to show you that you are not good.
When you truly understand that, and only when you understand that, are you ready for the good news of the New Testament. And this is the good news of the New Testament in one sentence: But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested. Paul spends three chapters stripping every human being – religious or not, Jew or Gentile – of any form of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is your attempt to stand before God and presumptiously declare yourself good enough for God based on your actions. If you can read Romans 1-3 and still feel you can stand before God and declare yourself good enough for God based on your actions, you must be spiritually blind and have a very hard heart.
But once you realize that there is nothing you can do to make yourself good enough for God and that you are unrighteous and deserve hell on earth and hell when you die, Paul then decides you are ready for the good news: there is another way to be right with God that has nothing at all to do with the law of God. In fact, it has nothing to do with anything you can do or have ever done or ever will do.
And tomorrow, we will examine what this way is.
As always any questions or comments are more than welcome.