But We Have the Law!
Passage: Romans 2:12– 3:20
Again, we are walking through Roman’s this summer at a high level. There is so much in Paul’s letter to the Romans that it is really easy to slow down and lose the forest for the trees. It’s easy to come away with great doctrine, but have no idea what the problem in Rome is or what Paul’s main argument is in this letter. If you missed last week, I would encourage you to go back and listen, but the main thing Paul argued is that all humans have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God. Both the Jew and the Greek.
Now this flies in the face of the Jewish Christians in the Roman church because they felt like these gentile Christians need the full grace of Jesus, but the Jewish Christians, they have a massive head start on salvation simply because they were Jewish. They also feel like their Jewish heritage and ethnicity gives them a superior position in the church. Again, last week’s sermon explains a lot of that, but in the previous chapter Paul basically questions whether these Jewish Christians in Rome are actually Christians at all.
In Paul’s letter, he uses what’s called a diatribe. It’s when he asks questions he expects the audience to ask. And in this part of the letter, he’s addressing the Jewish Christians. That’s why verse 17 says, “But if you call yourself a Jew…” So, he’s asking questions he expects the Jewish Christian audience to ask as they push back on his argument. All these questions that Paul expects his audience to ask fall under the banner of “But we have the law! We are not just any old gentile Christian, we are Jewish Christians and we don’t appreciate you just lumping us in with them.”
I worked hard this week to try and simplify the outline, but I really think the most helpful thing to do is to just walk through the objections Paul expects the Jewish Christians to have…all six of them…one at a time. Six points. Happy Father’s day:) To be fair though, it’s not as bad as lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem on Mother’s Day. So, here is the first one:
- But we have the law!
Paul is talking specifically about the Mosaic Law that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai for the Israelites. The argument Paul is anticipating is how can you say we are on the same plain as the gentile Christians when we are Jews who have the law? To which Paul says, “Great! But having it isn’t enough. You have to do it.” You who have the law and teach the law, still break the very thing you teach! Paul says it isn’t those who hear the law that are righteous before God, but those who do the law and they haven’t done the very thing their precious law requires.
A few months ago I was at my kids' school and there was a conversation happening in a group of high school students about an honors class. And no kids referenced in this story go here, so this one isn’t going to cost me any money:) One kid was bragging about being in the honors class as opposed to some kids who weren’t. Well, it came out in that conversation that this kid was failing the honors class! An honors class only benefits you if you do well in that class. It doesn’t get you where you are trying to go if you don’t pass the class. Replace honors class with the law and this is what Paul is saying. The law is a special privilege to have and hear, but it doesn’t do you any good if you can’t do what it requires!
Paul says that you who have the law and teach things like you should not steal, you should not commit adultery, and you should not worship idols…you do all those things!! And in verses 23 and 24 Paul says that in boasting in the law, but failing to keep it, they dishonor God and, because of their hypocrisy, (and quoting the prophet Isaiah) the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles.
Then, Paul pokes at them even more and says beginning in verse 14 that these Christian gentiles in the church don't even have the law, but, because of the gospel, they have the law written on their hearts and their actions display this. And on the day of judgment, it will go better for them than you, so called Jewish Christians in Rome. Paul is referencing here the prophecy of Jeremiah 31 which we looked at about three weeks ago. One day the law would not be this external standard, but an internal desire. And that is exactly what has happened with the gentile Christians in Rome and everywhere else in the Roman Empire who heard and believed in the gospel.
Then, we have the second anticipated objection.
- But we have circumcision!
This was a big deal to them. Circumcision was the outward sign of the covenant relationship they had with God. And if you don’t know what circumcision is, it’s important for you to know, so I’m going to tell you…to ask your parents about it later today:) Again, happy Father’s Day:) Circumcision was the final card in the deck for the Jews. They believed that circumcision, which was an OT counterpart to baptism, made their status as God’s people certain.
And how does Paul respond? He says circumcision is great…if you follow the law which we have already established that you don’t. It doesn’t matter what something looks like on the outside, what’s on the inside is what matters. A few months ago I bought some milk and Ivey took a sip of it and immediately threw up. I went and looked at the milk jug and I bought the same brand I always do and the expiration date was weeks away. I told her it looked like it was fine. Then she said, “Just taste it though! It’s not fine!” So I opened it and smelled it and just the smell made me gag. It was so rank inside. It had all the proper labels on the outside, but none of that matters if it’s sour on the inside. And that is Paul’s point. Paul says that their inability to follow the law shows that they are sour on the inside and because of that, their circumcision became uncircumcision.
Then, Paul says something that would have sounded so odd to the Jews. He says that if an uncircumcised person keeps the requirements of the law, they become like the circumcised. The Jews would have immediately wondered how this was even possible since circumcision IS a requirement of the law. The only way this is possible is if we are talking about gentiles who have become Christians and had the law written on their hearts by the Holy Spirit. Which, again, is exactly what Jeremiah 31 prophesied would happen. Ok, I’ve mentioned Jeremiah 31 twice now. It might be helpful if you missed that sermon from a few weeks ago to go back and listen to it.
Paul is saying that the label on the outside of the package is irrelevant. What matters is the substance on the inside. This is why Paul says in verse 29 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. - Romans 2:29 and then he says, “His praise is not from man but from God.” Linguistic scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew name Judah, from which the word ‘Jew’ comes, actually means ‘praise.’ Even though Paul is writing in Greek, where this doesn’t work, he’s thinking in Hebrew. Basically saying, “If it’s praise you want…if you want the name that says you can lift up your head and claim your special dignity…then don’t look for it from other human beings boasting of your ethnic status as a Jew. Get it from God who writes his law on our heart.”
Now, we get to the third anticipated objection. And we are going to move faster through these.
- Is there any value then in being Jewish?
You can almost see them tossing their hands in the air in frustration at this point. The Jews had grown up being taught that being Jewish had spiritual value. And Paul has pushed so far at this point that all have fallen short, both Jew and Gentile, and all need equal mercy and grace, both Jew and Gentile. Then, Paul, is there any value in being Jewish? And Paul’s answer is yes. Absolutely. He says, “First of all” the Jews were given the oracles of God. That is, the word of God in scripture. Whether they followed those words or not, they were given the very word of God and that is of great value! Now, it sounds like there are other blessings to being a Jew when Paul says ‘first of all,’ and I think there are, but possessing the word of God is at the top of the list.
The idea that unlocks this for me is to think of the Jews as being entrusted with the word of God. Some of you know that Angela and I met and dated overseas. We actually dated for four weeks before I proposed. I wouldn’t normally recommend that, but we already knew each other really well. She was shocked that I even had a ring. But, I had bought that ring before our first date. A risky little venture, but it worked. I ordered the ring from a guy back in the States and had a friend who was already coming to Italy in the right window of time bring it over. I had entrusted him with this ring. He could have been faithful or unfaithful with that task, but he was entrusted no less and I wouldn’t have entrusted that task to many people. The Jews had been entrusted with the very word of God and that is of great value. They were called to be the light of the world. They were to fulfill that trust by delivering this message about God to the world. But they had failed. They instead kept it to themselves and saw it as a badge of pride.
Dr. Cole at RTS says as an analogy, think of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Apart from faith, neither of these will do you good. In fact, they will be dangerous because they increase knowledge and therefore culpability. But neither are worthless; they are actually extremely beneficial and are not to be discarded. The same applies to Jewish heritage. Fourth objection.
- Is God unfaithful, then, to his people?
If God made this covenant with the Israelites and the vast majority of them do not believe in Jesus, does that then make God unfaithful. No! Again, we addressed this in Jeremiah 31. It wasn’t that God was unfaithful, but his people were. God did not reject Israel, Israel rejected him. That’s why Paul asks this question: Does the Israelites faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! This phrase ‘by no means’ is even stronger in Greek than it is in English. He’s saying may it never be! May it never come to pass!
To use marital language, and the Bible does this a lot, it’s like being married (which is a covenant relationship) and you are habitually unfaithful to your spouse and your spouse leaves you and you then accuse your spouse of not being faithful to their vows.. It’s a ridiculous argument, but that is exactly what some of the Jews in Paul’s day were saying.
Now, Paul is going to come back to this question of God’s faithfulness in chapter nine, so I’m not going to say anything more than Paul does at this point. God is faithful even if we are faithless. But, in spite of the widespread national unbelief, some Jews now and in centuries past have believed in the Messiah and have been saved through faith in God’s promises. If you have questions about how Old Testament saints were saved through faith in Jesus, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, go back and listen to my sermon on Jeremiah 31. That takes us to the next question in the line of arguments.
- Is God unfair then?
Chapter 3 verse 5. Remember, Paul has already said that the unrighteousness of the unbelieving Gentiles and the unbelieving Jews only serves to show even more the righteousness of God. Our sin highlights the glory of God even more. Some of you might have seen in the news this week that two environmental activists dipped their hands in red paint and splattered that paint all over a Monet painting. Do you think anyone would have cared if they did that on an old dingy subway graffiti mural? No. No one would even talk about it. What’s the difference? The increased glory and beauty of the object of the paint splattering highlights the offense. And that is what happens with our sin. Our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God even more.
So, the accusation that I’m sure Paul had heard many times over is simple. Well, if our unrighteousness accomplishes something positive in the end by putting a spotlight on the righteousness of God, is God unfair to judge us? How can we be condemned as sinners if our sin is just showing off his righteousness even more? What’s more, why not do more evil since good comes from it? Paul says that line of thinking is human, slanderous, and will bring just condemnation. As with the last objection, Paul is going to address it more as we walk through Romans. But there is one more question.
- Are we Jews any better off then?
This is different than asking if there is any value to being Jewish. Value, yes. But are they spiritually better off by being Jewish? Paul has likely heard this already, that they would say something like, “Ok, Paul, you’re saying that even though the Jews have been entrusted with the oracles of God, that we are in just as bad of a plight. You’re saying that a true Jew, that is a true member of the covenant community of God’s people, is one inwardly, not outwardly. You’re saying that to be truly Jewish is a spiritual reality, not an ethnic one. If that’s true, then are we Jews, those who come from the physical line of Abraham, any better off than the rest of the world?”
And Paul’s answer is clear. No, not at all. You’re not any better off than the rest of the world. And remember, Paul himself is a Jew. That’s why he can say ‘we.’ Are ‘we’ Jews any better off? Not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin. - Rom 3:9 Then, Paul draws from all over the Psalms to make his point. There are two things I want us to see in what Paul says next. First, and I said this a few weeks ago, look at all the places Paul cites a body part. He’s doing something very intentional here. n“None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 o“Their throat is pan open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.” q“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 r“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 s“Their feet are swift to shed blood;16 in their paths are ruin and misery,17 and tthe way of peace they have not known.”18 u“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” - Rom 3:11-18
Paul is teaching a doctrine called Total Depravity. This doesn’t mean that we are all as bad as we can possibly be. That’s not true. We can all be worse than we are. He’s teaching that every aspect of our being is mired by sin. Our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our souls. This is true of all humans, Jew and Gentile.
Paul, then, finishes with one more thing about the law. Just in case their point wasn’t already clear enough. He says that the law does two things. First, it stops every mouth. This is a legal phrase. When you were done defending yourself, you would cover your mouth. Or if your defense was junk, the court would close your mouth for you. When Collins was two, we had a terrible time getting him to stay in his bed. We would find him in every room of the apartment. We had been very clear that he was supposed to stay in his bed, but one night I heard rustling in the den and I went out and turned the light on and there he was. I said, “Collins, did you get out of your bed?” And there was nothing he could say. He was caught. His mouth was shut. This is what Paul is saying about the law for all those who are under it. It shuts our mouths because all who have it and don’t do it are without excuse.
Not only that, but it is through the law that knowledge of sin comes. The law doesn’t fix our sin problem, it just amplifies it. I can remember being on a bus in Italy when I was in my early 20’s and there was this yellow line near the front that you could not pass. And the driver of the bus who seemed to have seen the bus as his little kingdom would yell at everyone to stay behind that line. Now, there was no desire in me to pass that line..until the rules were held over my head. As soon as that bus took off, the first thing I did was put my foot past that line. The rule not only highlighted my own sin, but actually increased it. That is what Paul is saying the law was doing, that the whole world would be held accountable.
So, the question this passage demands that we ask ourselves is this: are we guilty of or tempted to look to the law or something like it for our sense of righteousness. Two signs that we might be guilty of it are 1) we are going to look down on other people who don’t do the things that we do. If they don’t parent the way we do, if they don’t school the way we do, if they don’t know the Bible the way we do, or if they aren’t as socially conscious as we are. And 2) we are going to be spiritually and emotionally worn out. Seeking out our own righteousness is exhausting because it’s impossible. And God wants us to be free of that. He also wants us to be free of any secular creed that teaches the same thing. Do more good than bad. Live a good life. Be true to who you are inside. It’s all the same thing. It’s a search to attain a righteousness that none of us has. And it’s exhausting because we will never attain it through our own pursuits.
Now we have arrived at what seems like the lowest point in Paul’s argument, but there is a glimmer of hope. Remember I said that there are two things I want us to see in the way Paul draws from the Psalms. Whenever Paul draws from the Old Testament, he usually has an eye on the context from which the verse comes. I don’t have time to go through each verse and its context, but there is a unifying context that threads through them all. ‘In more or less each passage the charge against the wicked is framed within, or followed by, the promise that God will act to rescue those who are helpless before evil, and to make good his covenant despite everything.’ This is the point to which Paul is building and we will see that next week.
There is hope. He’s building to the hope of the One true Jew, the One faithful Israelite who would fulfill the law in our place and take us out from under the law. Not only that, but give us his spirit and take the law from being an external judgment that stops our mouths and shows us our sin and make that law the desire of our hearts. The one who would remove us from judgment because he took that judgment for us. The one who would make his people true Jews who weren’t merely physical descendants of Abraham, but those who shared the faith of Abraham. And through that faith, the one who would turn us from enemies of God to beloved sons and daughters. That one is Jesus. To whom Paul is building.
The Gospel says that there is nothing we can do and our identity is that of an idolater and that is why Jesus came. To do it for us. To give a new identity as beloved, perfect sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father that we don’t pursue, we freely recieve. It reminds us that we work not to be saved, but because we are saved. It affirms us when we fail because we aren’t saved by our works, but by Jesus’. It gives us humility and grace for others because we know how deeply we need that same grace. It allows us to sleep well at night because we don’t have to say, “we have the law,” whatever that law is to you. But instead, we can say, “We have the grace of Jesus.” A grace that has no end, a grace that will not fail, and a grace that we could never earn. And this changes everything about the way we will see ourselves and this world around us.
Pre-benediction: Remember to have your ticket to pick up your kid