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The Problem of Religion Exposed - Romans 2

Welcome to Wednesday and our continued reading thru the New Testament - in a year! Today our reading is in Romans 2:1 - 29. This chapter is especially challenging to me and I invite you to read it carefully. Keep looking at the sentences as Paul builds an argument, and keep thinking, even praying your way through it all. Please come back and we’ll take a second look at all he’s saying through the Holy Spirit to us.

Romans 1 was a stark reminder of human depravity. The language was raw, condemning, hard. Paul consistently referred to sinful humanity as “they” and “them”...
“They are without excuse” (1:20).
“Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him” (1:21).
“They became futile” (1:21); “they became fools” (1:22);
“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (1:25).
“God gave them over” (1:24); “God gave them over” (1:26); “God gave them over” (1:28).
In specific details, Paul reminds us of what has happened to humanity after thousands of years ignoring God. One can almost imagine the readers of this letter nodding their heads in agreement. After all, Paul was describing the Roman Empire, the Roman culture, and ethos - it was depraved, evil to the core. Just when we all can relax with a distance of “they”, “them”, “we”, us”, Paul suddenly turns the pronoun from the third person to the second: you!

The indictment is clear - “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 gulp, step back, stop pointing fingers...he’s talking to “you”, and “me”. Who? Is the switch from “them”, the Gentiles, to “you”, the Jews? On the one hand, with reference to the law, it might seem so, but the “you” is singular, not plural. The list of things that the depraved mind is capable of is clearly laid out in 1:29-31. It’s a laundry list of Hollywood movies, television news, neighborhood gossip, and tragedies. Yet we prefer to think of it as “them”, not “we too”. That’s the problem. Paul knew that the Christians were largely made up of converted Jews. The God-fearing Gentiles who had received the Gospel were also in the church, but the church that worshiped and declared Jesus as Lord felt a moral superiority to the everyday life of Romans who had no compulsions when it came to God’s word. Judging a person’s behavior is not always on our minds, but it is on our minds. We do it subtly and we do it more often than we think. Paul is making it clear - the good news of the Gospel is set on the stage alongside the bad news of universal depravity - our depravity also. When it comes to Sin - our Sin nature - there is no moral high ground to stand on.

God’s judgment is universal - all will stand in judgment (vs 3). From a literary standpoint, Paul is building a case - much like a prosecutor in a courtroom. Who are “sinners”? It’s easy to step into a self-righteous “them” point of view, isn’t it? In a straightforward way, Paul is asking us to consider two immediate realities. In vs 4, he asks us to consider God’s character - “the riches of his kindness, forbearance, and patience” and see that these are God’s gifts that lead us from our sin to real repentance - i.e., an acknowledging of truth that we need the gospel also. Then in vs 5, he reminds us that God’s judgment, his wrath - if you will - against Sin will be revealed. There will be universal accountability and we must be clear about that for our own selves also as God does not discriminate as we do between the good and the evil. We love to grade on a scale. “Elliott, I know that I sin, BUT...”, and then the list comes out measuring ourselves as “fairly good” when you think about all the evil things done in the world.
The problem is that we see Sin against the backdrop of comparison with others, and God does not.
There’s a specific literary structure that Paul now borrows from vss 6-11. It is called a Chiasm, or Chiastic literary device. In simple Chiasm comes from the Greek letter “Chi” (as in Kai). The symbol is an X. The structure looks like this. There are lines A, B, C followed by C, B, A. It’s not always that, but you get the idea that it is using parallelism to make a point. Chiasm is used in Old Testament passages numerously, especially in the wisdom literature, but it also appears in places like this in the New Testament. Here Paul creates an argument that is Chiastic.
“God judges everyone the same” (vs 6)
“Life is a reward for doing good” (vs 7)
“Wrath is the penalty of evil” (vs8)
“Wrath is a penalty that shows up in evil for everyone” (vs 9)
“Life rewards the good with good things” (vs 10)
“God does not show favoritism” (vs. 11).

We use the phrase, “at the end of the day” and that’s the point Paul is making. At the end of the day (vs 12), ALL, whether they knew the Law or didn’t know it, will face the consequences. I have spent years teaching from the Scriptures and if one thing makes me more sober in discerning the needs of people than anything, it is that “religion” can deceive us into thinking we are better than others. This chapter might as well have been set into the end of the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Jesus tells a story of a Prodigal who “wastes” his life - throwing it away with drugs, alcohol, debauchery, until one day he “comes to his senses”. He realizes what foolish things have taken over his life and he vows to return to the Father. The Father has been praying for his Son to “wake up”, “come to his senses”, and so when he sees his Son coming home, he “runs out to meet him”. The Son begins to bargain - “Father, I have sinned, I will work to repay...” - but the Father will have none of it. Instead, let’s have a party for my Son, who was lost, has come home. All is well, except, that the Older brother has never left and now feels resentful for this wayward brother’s return. The Older brother is the person in Romans 2.
Being religious must never make us think we’re righteous before God because we’re better than “those” who live in obvious depraved conditions.

Do you know the law of God? Great...honoring God as God, not cursing, keeping a habit of worshiping God, honoring parents, not murdering, stealing, lying, coveting, gossiping, or falsely accusing...Great. This is what Paul is getting to in vss 12-29). Yet we must not be deceived and that is what he is addressing to the Jews. Do not be deceived into thinking of “them” and “us”. Having the law is good, but the dark side of any religious knowledge is pride and arrogance. “You who rely on God’s law(vs 17)...who know his will (vs 18)...who are convinced you know the light (vs 19)...who teach others (vs 20), do you teach yourself? It is a tough place to find ourselves in because we want to be considered as those who try really hard to live life right - but in the end, that’s the problem. We end up deceiving ourselves that we are different, better than, superior to “those others”.

The most dangerous place to be - in relation to God - is in a “treadmill religion”. Paul ends here. The “outward” manifestation of being a Jew was circumcision. Yet the point every Old Testament Prophet tried to make was that the “outward” circumcision was not what God wanted. Rather, God wanted an “inward” circumcision of the heart where the humility of Grace could be found, and the pride of religion was swallowed up by it. Make no mistake, it is a great privilege to wear the badge of “Christian”. As Paul began in chpt. 1, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to Salvation.” I love God, his word, his riches of kindness, his forbearance, and his love, mercy, and grace. I just have to remember that I don’t deserve any of it!



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