[Bible study on Romans – post 4]
I left off last time with this:
There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. – Romans 2:9-11
This is the beginning of another sub-section of this first part of Romans. Paul is still talking about sin, but now he’s going to explain three things:
1) Why the Old Testament law was given.
2) How Jesus came to fulfill it.
3) Why the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice are available to absolutely everyone–even those who were not Jewish and never knew about the Law or tried to keep it to begin with.
The Law, of course, refers to everything God commanded back when the Israelites were in the wilderness. He gave the 10 commandments which pretty much sum everything up, but He also gave lots of other laws that were, more or less, the nitty gritty details of the original ten. God gave laws about worship, and laws about relationships. He gave laws that had to do with health concerns and laws to govern everyday life.
But here’s the thing… some of these laws weren’t anything new. When God said, “You shall not commit adultery,” He was merely stating something that everybody already knew was wrong, for the ancient peoples knew just as well as today’s never-been-in-a-church teens do that you aren’t supposed cheat on your girlfriend! (Or boyfriend, or wife, etc.) Romans 1:19 mentioned this, and Paul says it again here:
14 Gentiles don’t have the Law. But when they instinctively do what the Law requires they are a Law in themselves, though they don’t have the Law. 15 They show the proof of the Law written on their hearts, and their consciences affirm it. Their conflicting thoughts will accuse them, or even make a defense for them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the hidden truth about human beings through Christ Jesus. – Romans 2:14-16 (CEB) (NASB)
Of course, there are plenty of people today who don’t like those laws and come up with reasons why it can be okay to cheat on your boyfriend or husband, and humanity has been pretty much the same since the beginning…which is why God spelled it all out. (Romans 3:20)
Before he explains that, though, Paul spends some time really hammering in on the fact that the Jews were…well… let’s say that they weren’t much different than the church-at-large today… so self-righteous that we aren’t even aware of the mockery we’re making of God. For example, did you know that many of those who work in the service industry (restaurants, hotels, etc.) agree that Christians are the rudest, most critical, and lowest-tipping group of patrons there are? OUCH! (Hearing that from friends of mine permanently changed my tipping habits. I like these rules, personally.) Or how about the fact that I know people who will personally avoid a business that claims to be Christian because their experience has been that they get dishonest service in such businesses?
I could go on and on, for this is something that God has really opened my eyes to in the last five years… how my own self-righteousness and selfishness is much more deep and hidden (to me) yet obvious (to the world) than I’d ever imagined.
This is the kind of stuff Paul is talking about, and he’s basically saying that those who know the Law but don’t keep it are actually worse off than a Gentile who doesn’t know the Law but still does that which his conscience tells him he must do. No wonder, then, that chapter 3 starts out with, “Then what advantage is it to be a Jew?”
Paul then goes on to strike down some faulty arguments that people try to set forth (both then and now):
Verses 3-4 points out that just because Christians can be hypocritical, that does not mean that God is. He is righteous, and that is that.
Verses 5-8 flatly point out that God is righteous, regardless of what He allows humans to do, and His grace does not make our unrighteousness okay.
Verses 9-18 repeat, over and over again using quotes from the Old Testament, that absolutely everyone in the whole world is under sin.
And that brings us to verse 20:
This is a very important point, here, for we are not born already knowing all of God’s laws. Think of a toddler, just learning how to walk. That toddler knows no law. He does not know about looking both ways before you cross a street. He does not know that he cannot just walk out onto the top of the swimming pool’s water. In the beginning, he doesn’t even know the law that states that if he tries to walk under something that is higher than his eyes but not higher than the top of his head, pain will ensue in the form of a knot on his forehead!
He must learn all of these laws one by one from someone who will continually say, “No! Don’t go there!”
And so it is with us and the unseen universe. Laws of right and wrong are woven into the fabric of existence along with the consequences of each. God endeavors to teach us these laws through our conscience, but humans being what we are, He chose to give us the benefit of a written copy as well.
Unlike the laws for walking, however, we are not capable of ever following these laws perfectly…and God wanted to make sure we knew that as well.
Seriously! This is the crux of the matter…why did God want us to know how impossible this whole keeping-the-law thing really was?
This is where the glory and promise and hope of the gospel differs so drastically from what many people think Christianity is. It’s right here, and it takes humility to receive.
He wanted us to see that we can not do it… so that we would choose to accept the free gift that He offers us instead of the law.
Because Jesus did do the impossible. And God wants Him to get all the glory. He’s the hero of the story, for He did it all, and He offers it freely to us.
And as verses 21-31 say, even the Law itself was pointing to something higher. Something that can only be received through faith. Something called Grace.
I think sometimes our American culture makes this grace thing very difficult to comprehend. For in most things in our culture, a person stands on their own merits. The family they come from means nothing… anyone can rise from whatever circumstances they were born into if they just work hard enough. It’s the American Dream! It’s also how we earn respect, for who looks up to someone who gets ahead on the merits of someone else?
That’s exactly what God tells us to do, though. We are saved on the merits of what Someone else did, rather than our own merits. We are to approach God and say, “I’m here because of what Jesus did.”
It’s humbling… and that’s why God decided that salvation could only be obtained this way. Verse 27 says (my paraphrase), “What then is there for me to boast about? Absolutely nothing. For I am not righteous because of the law or by anything that I could ever do myself. I am righteous only because I believe that Jesus did it all for me.”
That is salvation, right there.
But evidently the Jews and Gentiles in Rome had just as hard a time grasping it as we do today, for Paul spends the rest of Romans explaining this marvelous, glorious miracle of grace.