Sermon by: Robert Austell
We are continuing a series in which we are trying to take an honest and realistic look at the human spiritual condition. We have looked at original sin in Genesis 2-3; we have looked at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20; and last week we looked at Jesus’ expansion on the Law in Matthew 5. We concluded that God’s Law, in particular, and God’s Word, in general, have a two-edged impact on the lives of those who listen and obey it.
One edge is one of challenge, reminding us of just how far we are from a perfectly holy, just, and right God. The point of that challenge isn’t shame or humiliation, but humility, seeing our own finitude, culpability, mortality, and need for God’s intervention.
The other edge of God’s Word may be surprising, particularly as we think about the Law or Commandments. God intends us to know and experience joy through obedience to His Word. The Bible, even the Law and Commandments, are not meant to confine and constrain us, but to provide a protected and blessed space in which to live in joy. I didn’t make the rules about not playing in the street to make sure my kids had a horrible time in the front yard, but so that they could enjoy playing outside; so also God has given us His Word so that we may experience a measure of joy in life that points us towards the hope of Heaven and life with God.
Today we are going to focus in a bit more on the first edge of God’s Word, the challenge of the Law. We are going to look at a passage in Romans 3 that talks about the complete and utter pervasiveness of sin. You may wonder what may be the point or benefit of recognizing the pervasiveness of sin. What is the point of being confronted and challenged by the Law, by God’s Word? We have already mentioned humility as one result, but there is more. The passage in Romans explores at least three teachings that result from acknowledging the pervasiveness of sin.
A Level Playing Field: Two Arguments
Paul begins the section of Romans that we are looking at with the double-question: “What then? Are we better than they?” (v. 9) ‘We’ refers to Jewish Christians and ‘they’ refers to Greek Christians. We talked about the end of Romans 2 last week. There Paul was challenging the Jewish Christians not to be pre-occupied with the “wrong kind of perfect” – with an external observance of the Law that ignored an inward obedience. In Romans 3 he stays after the Jewish Christians about the dangers of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.
To the extent that we modern-day American Christians can confuse church membership and culture with internal faith in Christ, many of Paul’s words here can apply to us. Paul’s broad argument is that the pervasiveness of sin creates a level playing field for Jews and Greeks. Framed for us, we might say that the pervasiveness of sin creates a level playing field with churched and unchurched. Let’s look at three teachings in Romans 3 that result from this level playing field of pervasive sinfulness.
Argument #1: “All are under sin” (v. 9) – so no better than “them”
Paul goes on to answer this question he has raised in v. 9. He answers, “Not at all.” All have sinned and all are under sin. This is just what we’ve been looking at for several weeks. Each human being bears the curse of Adam and Eve’s original sin. And each human being persists in sinning themselves. The Ten Commandments are comprehensive in describing what it looks like to order and submit every area of life to the one and only God’s sovereign rule. And in the face of a surface reading of those Commandments, Jesus and Paul challenge us further to look deep at the attitudes and obedience of the heart. We all fall short; it’s not even close. That’s the challenge we talked about last week, and rightly understood in the context of faith, that should produce a humility before God.
Paul spends a number of verses at this point “proving” his point by quoting Hebrew Scripture. He quotes Psalms 14 and 53 (which read the same) about no one being righteous. He quotes four or other Psalms as well, as if to make the point very comprehensively and clearly.
The bottom line is that those who have grown up with or who live in the community of God are no better than those who don’t. If anything, those with God’s Word and community are more liable for sin because of having the explicit Word of God. In no way can ‘we’ be seen as better than those outside the church!
Argument #2: “There is no distinction” (v. 22) – only ONE righteousness
Paul follows up with a second argument, writing of Jews and Greeks who would be Christian that “there is no distinction.” (v. 22) Still in some ways responding to the “Are we better than they are” question, Paul again answers, “Not at all.”
For even if one ignores the first argument that all are equally sinful, Paul now asserts that it is not our righteousness which God measures – and thank God! We’d be sunk if He did. Rather, “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed…” (v. 25) No, God only considers one righteousness for our salvation, and that is the righteousness of Christ. That’s the first part of v. 22 – it is the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” that is the righteousness that saves us. Again, thank God!
So do you see the difference? It is hard to swallow this because we do make such a big deal about the relativity of sins. There are some with worse earthly consequences than others; some crimes are worse than others. But let me paint the spiritual picture as bluntly as I can and frame them with Paul’s two arguments…
We have sinned against God (as human beings and individually) and the consequence of that sin is spiritual death to God. Paul’s first point is that there is no distinction between us because we are all equally dead. There is no “really dead” and “a little dead” – so, no distinction spiritually. His second point is that there is only one kind of resuscitation – through faith in Jesus Christ, the only one whose humanity is spiritually alive and can give life. If we have dressed ourselves up like the living, but are dead, then we’ve fooled ourselves. If we’ve been resuscitated by Christ but attribute the life to our own goodness, we’ve also fooled ourselves. All are spiritually dead and only Christ has the power of life… it’s a level playing field.
“Boasting is Excluded” (v. 27) – a Law of Faith For All Who Believe (v. 22)
Paul has presented the pervasiveness of sin and the sole life-giving righteousness of Christ as two reasons for a level playing field. He returns then with a short and pointed answer to the question, “Are we better than they are?” He answers, “Boasting… is excluded.” (v. 27) There is no basis, he says, for my boasting that I am better than this person or that person. Since it was an appeal to the Law (regarding circumcision) that started much of this problem, he comes back around to Law. But the Law to which he appeals is not the external keeping of the circumcision law, but a “law of faith.” He has taken the point of division between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ passed it through the theological reality check of pervasive sin and perfect righteousness, and pointed Jew, Greek, us, and them – everyone – to our only hope of salvation and resuscitation, Jesus Christ.
Said another way, we are so completely and utterly lost and dead that our only hope is the miraculous intervention of God, to breathe fire and life into dead ashes. It is precisely in and through Jesus Christ that God has intervened miraculously to do this. And Paul is directing us away from two things – false hope in ourselves and damaging judgment of others – to point us towards the miraculous and resuscitating intervention of God through Christ.
Interestingly, this is not a New Testament or late concept, but present throughout God’s history with the human race. I’ve mentioned the hope of God’s intervention even in the curse in the Garden on Adam and Eve. I’ve mentioned the hope and vision of God’s intervention woven into the Ten Commandments. And the very Psalm that Paul quotes, which starts out so bleak about none being righteous, ends with the hopeful plea that “salvation would come out of Zion” and the hopeful vision of God restoring His captive people. To that the Psalmist sings, “Let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad!” (Psalm 53:6)
That’s the bottom-line of looking realistically at sin. It’s not simply to convince you that we are spiritually dead and woe us us – get the sackcloth and ashes. It is to mention in the same breath that God has accomplished that very miraculous intervention that fills the Bible throughout with hope. It is why we look to Easter in hope, to once again declare and celebrate the God who brings life from death. And that promise, as Paul writes in v. 22, is for all who believe. Amen.