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Romans (Series 2)

The Solution to Sin

Romans 2:12 - 3:31

Lesson audio

The reader will bear with us, please. This is a long section of Scripture, and can be taken in several lessons. But it seems good to bring Paul’s argument about sin to its proper conclusion. Today we will see three things:

  1. The universal effects of sin, and the judgment to come.
  2. How this makes things better – and worse – for believers.
  3. God’s solution to the divine dilemma.

Universal Judgment

Romans 2:12-16 NIV All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. (13) For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (14) (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, (15) since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) (16) This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

The pygmy in Africa

There is an old debating question for Christians which runs something like this: suppose there is a pygmy in Africa. He’s never heard of Christ, or the Jewish Law, but he’s a good pygmy (by whatever standards they might have). He’s nice to his mother, honors his father, treats his wife and kids well and is generally respected among the other pygmies. How, then, could God condemn our pygmy to hell?

Paul answers that thusly:

  • If you sin outside the Law of Moses (or, by extension, the obedience required of a Christian), you are going to be judged by the law you knew. This would apply to the pygmy.
  • If you are a Christian, you will be judged by the Scripture – because that what you knew (or at least should have known.)

So – the standard is still sinless perfection for all. It’s just that God evaluates you on what you actually knew as right and wrong. Which, for instance, is why God judges teachers more severely.[1] The problem is this: law or not, we are still all sinners, even based upon the little we knew. Who among us has not sinned?

Law unto themselves

It is seldom noticed, but the religious systems of this world are largely in agreement on what is right and what is wrong.[2] Universally we find honor for parents, care for children, faithfulness to your wife (or wives), honesty in dealing with others, prohibition of theft and so on.

This thus gives rise to the conviction shown here: we are all sinners. We have all violated the law we know. Good, bad or ugly, we are all sinners. It is the universal condition of mankind. This explains much about modern humanism. Our society now approaches this problem in various ways:

  • Psychiatry tells us that guilt is an emotion, unfounded in fact. Guilt, itself, is the problem; psychiatry is the solution. (Science is our real god).
  • We have our own form of legalism: “if it’s legal, it’s moral.” Useful for politicians and the self-excusing everywhere.
  • A more amplified version is this: there is no absolute right and wrong, only what works for me.

But note that last one: OK, let me buy your argument for the moment. Are you telling me that you’ve never done anything that you personally consider wrong? Even if you’re the only one with your standards, have you always kept them? More to the point, have you ever condemned anyone else for doing what you yourself have done? Are you really such a hypocrite as to say “it’s morally right for me to steal from you, for example, but not for you to steal from me?”

Paul hints at the answer to the problem. Those who obey will be declared righteous. This tells us two things:

  • Whatever God’s solution to this problem is, it involves us being obedient to the best moral law we know.
  • God’s solution is not to pretend we are sinless – but by His own power to declare us righteous.

We shall see how this works.

Day of Judgment

It’s a long topic, but may I point out from this passage what the ultimate result will be on the Day of Judgment?

  • Judgment will be by God, through Christ. The righteous Judge will be Jesus himself.[3]
  • Everything will be made known. Closed doors, aren’t.
  • “As my gospel declares.” This judgment is something revealed and yet to come. God is not finished with us yet.

Speaking to the believers

Perils of the believer

Romans 2:17-29 NIV 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."[2] (25) Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. (26) If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? (27) The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the[3] written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. (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.

Here’s the warning: if you think you are so good and pious, then you need to examine yourself. If you do what you condemn in others, and do not confess and repent of it, then you are a hypocrite. Remember that Christ’s wrath was concentrated on the hypocrites of his time.

Why? One reason is this: it produces blasphemy among those who don’t believe. Your example as a Christian will be noticed, one way or another. If people see you as a hypocrite, that’s not just your problem. You have caused them to blaspheme God; you have provoked them to a most serious sin. If someone leads your child astray, do you feel kindly toward them?

Look at it this way: suppose you say, “I am a baptized Christian.” That’s good – if you are also an obedient Christian, obeying from the heart, not just the rules. Otherwise, it’s a formality with no real meaning – or power.

Advantages of being a Christian

Romans 3:1-8 NIV What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? (2) Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. (3) What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? (4) Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written:

"So that you may be proved right when you speak

and prevail when you judge."[1] (5) But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) (6) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? (7) Someone might argue, "If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" (8) Why not say--as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say--"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved.

We might update this to apply to Christians. Is there an advantage to being a Christian? Yes indeed. It’s all the difference between having the repair manual and not having it. If you are willing to read the manual, fixing is a lot easier than if you have to blunder through it.

But we have the tendency to decide that being a Christian makes us intrinsically righteous. This quickly leads the world to see us as hypocrites, not repentant sinners. We need to note that this doesn’t change the truth of the faith; truth exists, whether we exemplify it or not. In that sense our conduct doesn’t matter – but it often matters very much to those who see us.

It can get worse. We can attempt to justify our sins by God’s grace. You will see that this is a pretty far gone condition. For example:

  • “My sins are useful to show that God is righteous.” Since you’ve done him such a favor by being a superb bad example, he’s unjust in judging you. (By which you just called him a liar, by the way.) You wouldn’t take that argument from your kids.
  • “My falsehood only brings out God’s truth by comparison; I am increasing his glory.” Believe it or not, people have used that one.
The net net: all are sinners

Romans 3:9-20 NIV What shall we conclude then? Are we any better[2]? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. (10) As it is written:

"There is no one righteous, not even one; (11) there is no one who understands,

no one who seeks God. (12) All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one."[3] (13) "Their throats are open graves;

their tongues practice deceit."[4]

"The poison of vipers is on their lips."[5] (14) "Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."[6] (15) "Their feet are swift to shed blood; (16) ruin and misery mark their ways, (17) and the way of peace they do not know."[7] (18) "There is no fear of God before their eyes."[8] (19) Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. (20) Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

So let me net it out for you:

  • Christians are accountable for what they do.
  • None of us is righteous of our own efforts or obedience.
  • Rather, we all know, clearly, that we are sinners. Even after salvation.

Which, I submit, is a really difficult problem. For us, at least. So what is God going to do about it? (It has to be him; it sure isn’t going to be us.)

The righteousness of God

Romans 3:21-31 NIV But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. (22) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, (23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (25) God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement,[9] through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- (26) he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (27) Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. (28) For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (29) Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, (30) since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. (31) Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

Righteousness made known – Good News!

God has indeed solved the problem – and this is good news. Which is the meaning of the word “gospel,” and now you can see why this phrase is used. It’s a problem we can’t solve, but God has solved it for us. Three preliminary points:

  • It’s a righteousness from God. Not ours, but from him. We have no bragging rights in this one.
  • It’s not something new. The Law foreshadowed it in teaching us about atonement for sin; the Prophets let us know that it was coming.
  • It is open to all – for God is one.
Divine dilemma

Perhaps we might undertake a shallow bit of theology to make it clear. The sin of man has given God a divine dilemma, which springs from his very nature.

  • God is righteousness itself. As Aquinas tells us, he is his attributes; he is righteousness, he is justice. Therefore, he cannot tolerate sin forever. Justice may be delayed, but the omnipotent cannot deny it.
  • God is love; God is merciful. He therefore longs to forgive his errant children and bring them home to himself. He is omnipotent; therefore his children cannot be barred from him forever.

God’s solution? The atonement. Note that Paul tells us he did this to demonstrate his righteousness, but does not mention his mercy. This is correct. If God was only merciful, he could simply declare us all forgiven. But he is righteous; sin demands payment, or atonement. As his justice is perfect, so must the atonement be – which is satisfied in Christ alone.

Sin comes before judgment. Judgment comes before mercy. We sinned; Christ paid the judgment; we receive the mercy from it.

Justification by faith

By the very nature of sin and judgment, we cannot claim this mercy by our obedience. Our obedience should be a result of this mercy, but it cannot by the cause, for obedience is righteousness, at least partially. Righteousness cannot give rise to mercy. So therefore we come to this mercy by faith. Since it is by faith, and not by religious observances, it is therefore open to all who will take up that faith.

For there is one God – and therefore there is one faith. God is One, and so is the bride of Christ, his church. As much as can be within man, it is the living representation of the mercy of God.

But wait – don’t we still acknowledge the right and wrong of, well, right and wrong? Indeed we do. The faith requires that we admit we need the atonement; we can’t do it ourselves. But to say that is to say that we are sinners. To say that we are sinners is to say that sin exists. If sin exists, it must be defined by a law – Mosaic or otherwise. So it is that by accepting the mercy of God, given at the Cross, we confirm his judgment: we are sinners. Saved by grace.

When I do my lessons I usually close the door. Sometimes this is to keep out the interruptions. Sometimes this is to hide the tears that come when I think of what a sinner I am, and how God is merciful.

[1] James 3:1

[2] The point is amplified nicely by C. S. Lewis in his Abolition of Man.

[3] Classical readers will recall the formula that all good things are “from God the Father, through Christ the Son, by the Holy Spirit.”

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