A small matter and a heart matter (Romans 2:14-21)

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It has been a contentious week when it comes to identity and status.  Did you pick up in the Meghan and Harry interview that so much of the fall out between the Sussexes and the Royal Family (not forgetting the media and the UK in general) was to do with the status of their son Archie. Would he be judged by his colour – his outward appearance? Would he be entitled to a title and with it a level of automatic security and protection? Where would his parents sit in relation to Harry’s brother and sister-in-law in the pecking order and what about Archie’s relationship to his cousins?

And, we’ve been picking up that there is an identity issue in Romans.  Paul’s intention is to give an account of the Gospel which will bless the church by providing a basis for unity between Jews (Paul’s own people) and Gentiles (those he had a deep heart based calling and concern for).  Paul’s concern was two-fold.

First of all, there was a risk that both Jews and Gentiles alike would seek to excuse themselves in different ways from God’s righteous justice. Secondly there was a risk that Jews in the church would consider themselves as particularly worthy of status in the church over and above Gentiles putting into question the reality of a Gentile believer’s salvation.

A Law unto themselves (v12 -17)

V12 Paul continues to develop his explanation for why the both Jew and Gentile either find glory, honour and eternal life through obedience or judgement through disobedience and this continues to show why he is not ashamed of the Gospel. Here he explains that judgement is coming upon sin and this is not dependent upon whether or not the sinner has access to the Law. This builds on his emphasis in chapter 1 that creation reveals God’s righteousness and justice so that General Revelation removes excuse. It also starts to build towards the argument we will find in chapter 5 that death entered the world and came to all men through sin before the Law was given.

His basis for this argument (v13) is that it is not mere hearers of the Law who are made righteous but doers of the Law. Remember that Jesus made this same point in the sermon on the mount. The one who hears Jesus’ words but does not do them is like a man who builds his house on the sand.

V 14 Gentiles show that they have no excuse because from time to time they do the right thing, They are able to recognise right from wrong. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul comments that the man who has slept with his dad’s wife has sinned in a way that the World would recognise as wrong. Pagans are therefore “a law to themselves.” In other words, they set a standard by which they can be judged.  In v15, Paul goes on to say that their “conflicting thoughts” will convict them on judgement day. In other words, even though they claim ignorance and desire to do evil, their conscience will have been at work challenging them and will condemn then when they appear before the Lord. They have demonstrated that God’s Law is in fact written on their hearts. Note the fascinating point there, that there is a sense in which God rewrites his law on our hearts, instead of on stone tablets but that it was already there, even if we suppressed it.  That coming day of judgement is when the secrets of our hearts will be exposed. Note that this is according to Paul’s (my) Gospel. This is not to say that he is preaching a different Gospel but rather it identifies Paul with an emphasis and telling of it. We might indeed refer to it as Paul’s doctrine or theology (v16).

Practice what you preach (v17-24)

In v17, Paul turns back to the hypothetical or everyman Jew he is addressing. The conscience of the Gentile has implications for him too. Note that this man identifies as a Jew finding comfort in ethnic identity and pride.  He also claims to know the law. This is crucial given Paul’s comments that sinners  are subject to judgement with or without the law because it is doers not hearers who are justified. The Jew therefore relies on legal or Torah righteousness.   Paul then lists a number of things this man claims to be and presumes upon. He claims know God’s will because he has been instructed in Torah (v18) and he claims to be able to teach and instruct those who are blind and foolish (v19-20). Implicitly, it is the Gentiles who are in darkness, blind to the light of God’s word and foolish. The focus is on what they know, in other words what they have read and heard in The Law because in it they find a form or “the embodiment” (ESV) of knowledge and truth.” (v20b).

So, Paul now turns and asks his interlocutor, “What about you? Are you a hearer or a doer.”  He then lists a set of examples of things found in the Law that he can expect his Jewish readers to know about and teach against including theft, adultery and idolatry.  His provocative question is “do you do the same things you condemn?” It is possible either that they are being challenged on the basis of heart desires and lusts based on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Given the “hearer/doer” link, I think we are wise to make some connection here. However, we should not rule out a level of hypocrisy where they engage in the very things they accuse and condemn others of.

The point is that they boast about Torah but by failing to keep it, they in  fact dishonour it (v23).  Their lawlessness brings dishonour to God’s name. It is blasphemed (v23). Here, Paul quotes Isaiah 52:5. The prophecy is a call for Zion to wake up, God’s name is being dishonoured because of their capacity. The Assyrians are patting themselves on the back, praising their gods and mocking Yahwh because of the fall of Israel to them. But, the sting (Isaiah 52:4) is that it is Israel’s choice to live in captivity and so it is Israel that needs to be reminded of God’s name and fame. So Paul uses these verses to show that when God’s people fail to know, trust and honour him then it brings consequences, not only does it affect them but it causes people to mock God instead of worshipping him.

What’s on the inside? (v25-29)

Therefore, the sign both of their ethnic identity and pride, and their Torah righteousness, the act of circumcision only has value, can only be paid back for if the Law is kept. Note, Paul positively states in v25, that circumcision does have value, outward symbolic rituals are not without meaning.  However, it is the inner heart and obedience which counts so that in effect Paul says that heart obedience is reckoned to the devout Gentile as circumcision (v26). Here Paul introduces a theme he will return to in chapter 11, the law keeping Gentile condemns the disobedient Jew because his external sign of circumcision is worthless without obedience so that mere outward appearance is not the basis for his Jewish identity (v27 -28a). In the same way, true circumcision is about the heart and Spirit. It is not about observing the letter of the law but is about a whole life orientation towards God and to faithfulness (v28b-29).

Bringing it up to date

As we saw last time, we are unlikely to have the specific challenge that Jewish and Gentile believers and enquirers faced in Paul’s day in Rome but we’ve also seen how we can put our confidence in the wrong things and how pride in class, ethnicity, gender or education can become the basis for false faith and for division in the church.

Last time, I talked a little about assumed faith. How this works is that in the first generation, you have people who put their trust in Jesus on the basis of a clear presentation of the Gospel. They become part of a new, young, vibrant church.  The Gospel transforms their lives and so they live differently. It brings people together in genuine fellowship. In the second generation, the Gospel message is increasingly assumed, it’s there in the background but emphasis grows more and more on the practical outworking of church life and commitment to social and ethical matters. By the third Generation, the Gospel itself has dropped out and the church has become an ethical and social movement. People are committed to good works and they enjoy the life of the church but don’t know why. By the next generation, even those things have gone because without the Gospel they have no basis for unity and no basis for action.

This is a real problem in our cities. Churches have been around for a hundred and sometimes hundreds of years but even within 40 -50 years the deterioration I’ve mentioned can happen and the Gospel can become assumed.  Children are christened and teenagers baptised s the thing that is done. Of course eventually they don’t even come back for those things.  There is a lot of energy today into planting new churches and revitalising old ones but if we don’t learn the lessons of the past we will repeat them.

In Romans 2, we are challenged as to whether God’s Word is just something that we hear, that goes to the head but fails to cut to the heart and lead to changed lives. Remember, Paul is still building up his argument here and so the focus at this stage is on the first part of the Gospel and the challenge not to treat faith as formal ritual, moral duty, intellectual interest or social duty. 

Paul’s challenge to his listeners is simple. Is the message of God’s Word something that at most has a shallow, external effect or has it cut to the heart. He asks them if they keep God’s law faithfully.  WE too are challenged with those questions.  Has God’s Word cut through to our hearts to make a difference. But we are also challenged by the question “Can anybody meet the standard of persistent heart deep obedience? This is a question we will return to in later weeks.