Paul knew that among those in Rome who would vigorously agree with his first chapter, there would be legalistic Jews, proud of their heritage as God’s chosen people. But their agreement with his case would surely turn to anger as they realized that they were being included in the judgment, as equal members in the fallen human race. Possessing God’s law increased both privilege and responsibility. Because these Jews knew more, they were expected to do more. At first they thought they were Paul’s allies, but suddenly they were confronted by him.
For Paul, this was familiar territory. Throughout his ministry the antagonism from Jewish leaders had steadily grown:
Acts 13:42-52 (ESV) As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
Acts 14:1-4 (ESV) Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles.
Acts 17:1-5 (ESV) Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.
In their eyes, Paul was a heretic for continuing to hold up Jesus as the Messiah, and they were insulted by his open offer of salvation to the Gentiles. Even among early Christians, there were struggles to understand that a person did not have to become Jewish in order to be accepted by God.
The first church wide council (Acts 15:1-35) addressed this question. Their answer focused on the relationship of Gentile converts to the Jewish laws. The council made no statement regarding the expected behavior of Jewish believers. But Paul held the view that being Jewish did not automatically mean God’s acceptance. By the time he wrote Romans, his approach was to confront the attitude even before it surfaced. His diatribe gains in intensity as he focuses on what he sees as a major barrier between Gentiles and Jews.
The religious sinner is a believer in God; he understands that religion is important, and he trusts in his religion. The religious sinner believes that because he does some of what God wants him to do that God is under obligation to approve of him.
The religious sinner Paul has under consideration is the Jew. The Jew had certain wonderful benefits others did not have. For example, he belonged to the nation of Israel and for 1,500 years this nation had been the chosen people of God. To the nation of Israel God had given a written law through Moses at Mount Sinai. They tended to believe that they were better than others and that their religion would save them.
What then is the problem with the religious sinner of Romans 2 and 3? The problem is that he trusts in his religion.
Trusting in Religion
Begin with Romans 2:17-18 (ESV) But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law.
The religious sinner is the man who has a Bible in his hand; he is instructed in the way of God. He takes pride in the fact that he knows the words of God. Paul says, Romans 2:19-20 (ESV) and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
Not only does this man have a Bible in his hand, but he is a teacher of others.
But notice what Paul says next: Romans 2:21 (ESV) you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?
He has a Bible in his hand; he teaches other people the Word of God, but he breaks the Word of God. Even though he has a Bible, even though he teaches others, he is a sinner. That is what Paul wants all men to see. It does not matter if you are a rational man and reason God out of your thoughts, a reformed
sinner and try to be good, or a religious man and have a Bible in your hand and teach other people, you are imperfect. You are a sinner.
What is the problem with the religious man? He has a tendency to trust in his religion. Religion cannot save anyone. When one trusts in his religion, he is simply deluding himself. If the religious man kept the will of God perfectly he would not need the gospel. You say, “I have the Bible in my hand.” It does not matter. You say, “I teach others.” It does not matter. You are a sinner. You need Christ and the gospel.
Romans 2:23-24 (ESV) You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
In the first century the Gentiles would look at the Jew. The Jew had the Word of God in his hand and was teaching others, but he broke the law. Through the breaking of the law, he dishonored God, and the Gentiles would see him living as a lawbreaker and blaspheme the name of God. The Gentiles turned away from God because of the activity of the religious man.
The religious man has a tendency to trust in his religion and live as he pleases. The religious man may say, “I go to church every Sunday.” I hope you go to church on Sunday, but going to church on Sunday does not make you a child of God. Practicing religion does not make you a child of God. Religion is not the savior of men; Christ is the Savior. The religious sinner is the man who trusts in his religion.
Trusting in Ceremony
The second truth Paul mentions regarding the religious sinner is he trusts in ceremony.
Romans 2:25 (ESV) For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.
What can that mean to us living in the 21st century? For fifteen centuries the Jews were the chosen people of God, but when Jesus died on the cross Judaism was laid aside. Until the gospel came, circumcision was a religious practice that was very important to the Jews. It was a ceremony; it was a demonstration of the fact that they were God’s chosen people. Circumcision was profitable if they kept the law. But if one did not keep the law circumcision became uncircumcision. The religious sinner trusted in his ceremony. The New Testament teaches baptism in water. It is interesting that nearly every religious group practices something that it calls baptism.
Baptism is a ceremony, but going through a ceremony is important only when it is done in obedience to Christ. For example, the New Testament teaches that baptism in water is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). It is a burial with Christ where the old man is planted together with Christ.
It is a resurrection with Christ to newness of life. The old man died to sin, was buried, and the new man was raised. But what does it profit a person to be immersed in water if there is no newness of life? It is not simply an immersion that makes baptism “baptism.” It is the purpose and result that make it biblical and right.
We may say with Paul that baptism is profitable. Jesus commanded it, remission of sins follows it, and we are buried with Christ and are raised with Him. But what profit is it if the will of God is not done? The will of God is what one is seeking to accomplish. True baptism occurs when a sincere person seeks to do God’s will as he is immersed.
The religious sinner trusts in religion. He trusts in religious ceremony. Paul says this man is a breaker of the law and is a sinner. He is a lost man.
A person can do some of what Christ wants us to do, but that does not mean he is right with God. A person may say, “Oh, but I am religious. I go to church. I’ve been baptized.” That is fine. But the question we are asking is this: “What does your practice of religious ceremony mean in your life on Monday? What difference does it make?”
A person has a tendency to believe, “I have been baptized and therefore it does not matter what I do.” How wrong can we be? The question is this: “Have we been converted to Christ?” That is the only hope. We have to be real and genuine. Being a religious person does not make one right with God.