God’s promises are ready to claim

Have you ever been given an empty promise? This happened to me many years ago. We responded to a marketing pitch to get a free washer and dryer by touring property at Lake Livingston Village. Our first thought was, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” But we went anyway – we really needed a washer and dryer. After we toured the property, the salesman asked us purchase a parcel of land.  We told him no and he pushed harder.  He wanted us to change our income tax status to add more dependents to pay for the land.  We just stared at each other.  We finally convinced him we would not be purchasing the land and he finally gave us what we came for – except, what we got was a coupon to get a free washer and dryer FOR AN RV which we would have to pay $600 to have shipped to us. As we drove out of the Village parking lot, I made the commitment to not trust these kinds of deals ever again.

The Lake Livingston Village experiences in life can lead us to wonder if anyone can be trusted anymore. It’s natural to become skeptical, if not downright cynical. We think to ourselves, “Promises, promises, promises. Yea, I’ve heard this line before. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” We live in an era of broken promises and promise breakers. Nations sign important treaties and then break them at will.

Many couples show little regard for their wedding vows.

Children and parents break promises to one another.

Employers and employees break promises.

Even pastors and church members break promises.

In a world of so many empty promises, we can, fortunately, still trust in God. Faith in God’s promises guarantees blessing. In Rom 4:13-25, Paul provides two facts about faith.


  1. Faith Obtains God’s Promises (4:13-17)

In this section Paul continues to discuss justification, but he also introduces the idea of inheritance, which is the goal of salvation. He explains that justification and inheritance are both by means of faith. We’re given a free salvation in order to “inherit.” Paul begins with his basic thesis: “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith” (4:13). The key term in this section is “promise.” The noun appears four times (4:13, 14, 16, 20) and the verb appears once (4:21). Paul explains (“for”) that the promise that Abraham would be heir of the world was not through the Law. Rather, the promise was “through the righteousness of faith.”


Gal 3:16, 19 clarifies that the seed of Abraham is Jesus. Hence, those who are Abraham’s children by faith will inherit the world and rule with Christ. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul is likely fleshing out the original prophecy. In either case, his primary goal is to make it clear that God’s promise comes through faith not through the Law. He wants us to recognize that faith and the promise are distinct. Law language says “you shall,” while promise language says, “I will.” Law language demands our obedience, but promise language demands our faith. This explains why it’s critical to distinguish between the Law and the promise. Whenever we add works or obedience to salvation we cancel out the importance of faith. Salvation is F + N = E: Faith plus nothing equals everything. Or as I stated earlier: Faith in God’s promises guarantees blessing.


In 4:14-15, Paul develops the negative side of his thesis. He writes, “For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified. For the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.” If only the Jews are heirs through the Law, “faith is made void” [or “empty”]. This means that faith is canceled out when the Law is mixed with it. Paul’s point is simple: If the Law could save, there would be no need for faith. Yet, Paul has said many times throughout the first four chapters that we’re justified through faith. Verse 14 elevates faith and tears down the Law. So what benefit comes from the Law? Verse 15a succinctly explains: “for the Law brings about wrath.” As it pertains to our justification, one of the main purposes of the Law is to “bring about wrath.” This is a benefit because it forces us to acknowledge that we’re sinful and drives us to Christ. How does the Law bring about wrath? It brings about wrath by allowing us to experience consequences every time we sin.

Have you ever been pulled over by a police officer? (Come on, confession is good for the soul.) Now tell me if this has ever happened to you. A police officer pulls you over, gets out of his car, slowly makes his way up to the driver’s window, and says, “I couldn’t help but notice on my radar that you were going the speed limit. So I just wanted to pull you over and let you know how blessed the police department of this city is to have a law abiding citizen like you. Here, let me write you a thank you ticket.” Has this ever happened to you? Why not? For one simple reason: The police radar is not there to congratulate you for obeying the law. It’s there to catch you when you exceed the speed limit. It’s there to condemn you because that’s what the law does. The problem with the Law is that it doesn’t give you the power to obey it. All it can do is give you the guidelines and punish you when you have broken them. That’s what Paul means when he writes that the Law “brings about wrath.”

In 4:15b, Paul writes, “but where there is no law, there also is no violation.” He doesn’t mean that there’s no “sin” apart from the Law; rather, he is teaching that the definite form of sin translated “violation” or “transgression” (parabasis) can only exist in the face of definite, clear commandments of God for which one is responsible. What Paul means, then, is that the explicit commands of the Mosaic Law reveal sin to a much greater degree than is otherwise known and understood by men. When sin is exposed as such, the wrath of God is aroused. But where the Mosaic Law is not in force or is not known, there is no knowledge of specific sin among people, at least not to the same degree.


Why does Paul make this point here? It’s because he’s trying to show why it’s futile to attempt, through the Law, to obtain God’s blessing. It only winds up in wrath. The Law only reveals what great sinners we really are and obliges the wrath of God to flare up against us.


Perhaps you’re saying, “We’ve spent an awful lot of time on the point that a person can’t be saved by keeping the Mosaic Law, but I don’t know anyone who’s trying to be justified that way.” Well, that may be true, but I’ll bet you know many who are trying to get to heaven by some list of rules, and the principle is the same. The trouble with any system of salvation-by-law is that one never knows for sure if he or she has kept a sufficient number of laws with sufficient regularity to merit God’s favor. All systems of salvation-by-law are doomed to fail. It’s the same way with God’s law. There’s no such thing as being a “moderate” sinner. That’s like being a “little bit” pregnant. You’re either a sinner or you’re not. If you break any part of God’s law, it’s as if you’ve broken the whole thing (see James 2:10). That’s why the Law was doomed from the start.


Paul now develops the positive side of his thesis. He writes in 4:16-17: “For this reason [the inability and futility of the Law] it [salvation and inheritance] is by faith, in order that it[justification and inheritance] may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law [Jews], but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham [Gentiles], who is the father of us all, (as it is written, ‘A FATHER OF MANY NATIONS HAVE I MADE YOU’ [Genesis 15:5]) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.”


The promise of God’s great salvation and all its accompanying blessings comes as a result of grace. Grace is God’s unmerited favor given to man. God gives us what we don’t deserve. Why must God’s promise be according to grace? The promise must be offered freely to all freely. The term “guaranteed” or “certain” (bebaios) means “firm,” “dependable,” “unmovable,” and is used in connection with the function of an anchor in Heb 6:19. If the promise was according to the Law, a person could only be certain of one thing, its non-fulfillment. If it’s by faith, one can be confident that the fulfillment is as guaranteed as the One who is being trusted.


Since the blessings of God are based upon faith and not Law, they are assured to those who are of the Law (Jews) and those who are not (Gentiles). They are assured through faith in Jesus Christ. The whole point seems to be that if the Law were the basis for salvation, only those who possessed that Law (i.e., the Jews) could be saved. And, even in the case of the Jews, there’s no salvation apart from faith because all have sinned (Rom 3:23). But if faith is the basis for salvation, then everyone is eligible. Faith in God’s promises guarantees blessing.


I am holding a key ring. [Display keys.] I have keys to my house, vehicles, and even my work. Faith is the key that opens the door to heaven. There’s nothing else in the world that will open that door. Furthermore, faith is also the only way of blessing. If we can trust God for salvation, we can trust Him for everything. Every blessing of God comes to the believer by way of faith. Today, if you have never exercised faith in Jesus Christ, will you believe in Him as your Savior? If you have already believed in Christ, will you continue to trust Him with your daily life? Will you consciously and continually invite Him to grow you up in Him?

[The first fact of faith is faith obtains God’s promises. Fact number two is . . .]

  1. Faith Believes God’s Promises (4:18-22)

Paul continues to demonstrate the truths of justification and a maturing faith through the story of Abraham. If you have entered into a relationship with God, like Abraham, God has granted you His unconditional love. This comes by grace, through faith. These eight verses describe the nature of faith. In 4:18, Paul writes, “In hope against hope he [Abraham] believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘so shall your descendants be.’” The phrase, “In hope against hope he believed,” means that every natural odd was against God fulfilling the promise that He made to Abraham. “Hope” (elpis) is one of Paul’s favorite words. He uses the term thirteen times in the book of Romans, which is more than in any other New Testament book. The biblical concept of “hope” is not wishful thinking; it’s a confident certainty. In spite of the odds, Abraham believed God’s promise that he would become “a father of many nations.” He had a definite promise from God and that was enough for him.


Paul explains the nature of Abraham’s faith further in 4:19-21. “Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.” These verses demonstrate that Abraham’s faith didn’t weaken even though his physical body was progressively weakening. Paul bluntly states that Abraham and Sarah were both basically dead (4:19)!


In the natural realm, sexual intimacy was not even an option, much less having a baby! To put it bluntly, Abraham was impotent and Sarah was forty-five years past menopause. John Calvin summarized the matter well when he said that Abraham and Sarah were closer to the grave than to the marriage bed. Unless God did a miracle, no baby would be born.


What are you facing right now that is “as good as dead?”

Has God given you a promise that has yet to be fulfilled?

Has God placed a calling on your life that has yet to be realized?

Have you sensed God leading you to wait on Him for certain things that have not come to pass? Perhaps it’s marital harmony? Maybe it’s reconciliation with a wayward child?

Whatever promise, calling, or biblical desire you may have, ask God for grace to persevere in your faith with patience. Until He says “no,” He likely wants you to wait on Him and continue to trust in Him.


Although Abraham knew all of the overwhelming obstacles, he trusted God to do as He promised (4:20a). His faith overlooked the obstacles and focused upon the object of faith, God. This is a reminder to us that justification and spiritual growth comes when we come to the end of ourselves. In the same way, God wants those without Christ to acknowledge that they are spiritually “dead.” He wants men and women to recognize that, unless He steps in, they are without hope. This is a perfect picture of salvation. God also wants those of us who are in Christ to recognize this same truth. This means acknowledging that we are dead in and of ourselves. We need Christ in order to live the Christian life. This means that we begin to realize we can’t do it on our own.


If you’re like me, it’s all too easy to focus on performance more than on Jesus Christ. Yet, the Bible teaches that fruitful Christian living doesn’t come by trying; it comes by trusting Christ to express His life through us. Faith in God’s promises guarantees blessing.


Surprisingly, Paul states that Abraham “did not waver in unbelief” (4:20a). Yet, the Genesis account indicates that Abraham did waver in unbelief. He tried to give Sarah away twice (Gen 12:10-19; 20:1-7). He took Hagar as a surrogate solution (16:1-16). He also laughed when God reaffirmed His promise of a future seed (17:17). So how do we reconcile Paul’s statement with Genesis? It’s likely that Paul is referring to the overall character of Abraham’s faith. While Abraham had struggles like all of us, in the end he could be said to be a man who “did not waver in unbelief.” Thank God, salvation and reward do not require perfect faith, but only the proper object. This should encourage us. God is more gracious than most of us think He is. Aren’t you glad? I sure am.


Paul writes that Abraham “grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform” (4:20b). The verb translated “grew strong” (endunamoo) literally means, “to make powerful.” This verb is from the same root as the word translated “he was able” (dunatos). In other words, Abraham’s faith was empowered by contemplating God’s power! The more Abraham looked at who he was and who God was, the more empowered or “fully assured” (plerophoreo) he became that God was able to do that which He had promised. This is how we can rise above the tests and trials of our lives—by believing in an all-powerful God. Faith in God’s promises guarantees blessing.


Before moving on, we must ask the question: How can our faith “give glory to God”? When we believe God and take Him at His Word, we make Him look as good as He really is. In one sense, we can’t give God more glory, but we can glorify Him by showing off His greatness in our lives. We give glory to God when we trust Him to do what He has promised to do.

My three children have always enjoyed swimming. When they were young, I would generally jump in first and then beckon any of my kids to jump from the edge of the pool into my arms. I simply hold out my arms and exclaim, “Jump! I’ll catch you; I promise.” Now, let me ask you an obvious question: How can my children make me look and feel good? Answer: By trusting me and jumping into my arms. When my kids take that leap of faith they make me look strong, wise, and loving. But when they refuse to jump, shake their heads, and run away from the edge of the pool, they make me look bad. It appears like they are saying, “my daddy can’t catch me,” or “he won’t catch me,” or “it’s not a good idea to do what he tells me to do.” All three of those responses make me look bad. However, when any of my children trust me and jump, in spite of their fear, they give me glory.

Paul concludes the story of Abraham in 4:22: “Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.” This is another citation from Gen 15:6. Paul referred to this same verse in 4:3. These two quotes serve as bookends. In quoting this verse, Paul brings to a conclusion all that he has said up to this point, beginning in 1:18: We are sinners and we will not be justified by works of the Law but by faith. Abraham is the classic example of this truth, and he stands as the father of all those who believe.


In 4:23-25 Paul concludes and summarizes everything he’s been saying since 3:21 before proceeding to a new section in 5:1. “Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” When Moses was penning Genesis, I’m sure he never understood the full significance of the statement made in 15:6. This verse simply reads: “Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham believed that God could resurrect both his and Sarah’s bodies. We believe that God resurrected Jesus and will one day resurrect us as well. God planned from the very beginning that Abraham might be a model for the entire world and for the rest of human history. He’s the model of what biblical faith should look like.


Please notice in 4:25 that Jesus was “delivered over because of our transgressions.”  It was because of our sin that Jesus had to die. Yet this verse tells us that “justification” has been provided for the entire human race through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection confirms our salvation. It’s the divine guarantee that His death satisfied the payment demanded for sin. If you’ve received Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith, His resurrection is a guarantee that your salvation is secure. The resurrection assures what the cross secures.


I have a trivia question for all of you shoppers out there. Are you ready? What policy do Costco and Nordstrom have in common? Both companies have an unconditional return policy. This policy permits the customer to return a purchase at any time (in most cases). You might be surprised at some of the stories they recount. At Costco, for instance, customers routinely purchase a lawn mower in the spring and then return it in the winter for a full refund. Some of the customers don’t even bother cleaning up the lawnmower before bringing it back! At Nordstrom there are customers who will buy suits or formal dresses and then return those years later. This is astounding to me! It amazes me that there are customers who are brave enough to make such returns. It also amazes me that these companies continue to honor such a policy. Obviously, Costco and Nordstrom are unusual companies. In fact, they are the exception to the rule. While they do many other things well, what sets them apart from their competition is that they honor their word. The message of the Bible is that God honors His Word. He keeps His promises. He is a covenant-keeping God. In doing so, God demonstrates that He has no rivals and is set apart from His creation.

Maybe you want to purchase something somewhere which has an unconditional return policy. After purchasing our gifts, you put the receipt in a safe place in case anything went wrong with one of our purchases. Receipts are valuable, if not essential. You know how important it is to get a receipt when you make a major purchase. If there is a problem with the product or if a dispute arises about whether you actually bought the item, your receipt proves your purchase and authorizes your claim to have the problem fixed. The receipt shows that the payment for the product was made and accepted. Jesus’ resurrection serves the same purpose for us. It is God’s “receipt.” When Jesus cried, “It is finished!” on the cross (John 19:30), He was announcing that the price for sin had been paid in full. We can spend eternity in the presence of God through the death and resurrection of Christ. Right now, will you place your faith in Jesus Christ alone? Jesus Christ loves you and wants you to place your faith in His promise and work. Will you do so?


Works won’t work

The late Alex Haley, who wrote Roots, had on his office wall a unique picture of a turtle sitting atop a fence post. When someone asked him about it, Haley would say, “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know that he had some help. Anytime I start thinking, ‘Wow, isn’t this marvelous what I’ve done?’ I look at that picture and remember how this turtle, me, got up on that post.”

Obviously, a turtle can’t get on top of a fence post unless a hand picks it up and puts it there. If you see a turtle on top of a fencepost bragging his heart out, you know something is terribly wrong! Yet it’s so easy to boast, isn’t it? We can boast about our accomplishments, our finances, our possessions, our grades, our athletic abilities, our friends, our looks, and nearly anything else. We’re braggadocios people. Sadly, our bragging ways can creep into our spiritual lives as well.

Have you ever made critical comments about unbelievers calling them “ignorant,” stupid,” or “blind” because they have refused to trust in Christ?

Have you ever claimed that you chose Christ?

Or have you ever assumed that God chose you because you were smarter or better than others?

In Romans 3:27-4:12, Paul expounds the great theological thesis of 3:21-26. In what I called “the greatest paragraph in the Bible,” Paul expounded the guts of the gospel, but he hasn’t yet finished what he wants to say. Having shown what justification is, he now reaffirms that it is available only by faith. In 3:27-31 he states this theme, and 4:1-12 elucidates and elaborates it. In these seventeen verses, Paul explains three essential truths related to justification.

  1. Justification Excludes Pride (3:27-31)

Since salvation is by faith, there’s no place for boasting. Paul raises three questions and provides three answers in these five verses. These questions and answers begin to interpret and apply his teaching in the first three chapters and serve as an introduction to what follows. Paul’s first question and answer is found in 3:27-28: “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man [a person] is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Paul’s rhetorical question assumes that boasting is illegitimate. He says, “It is excluded” (lit. “to shut out, to make no room for”). We can’t boast about receiving something that we didn’t earn! Any boasting has been “excluded” not by a law of works but “by a law of faith.” This is a wordplay in which Paul uses the concept of “law” (nomos) to contrast works and faith. He insists that we’ve been “justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

You may recall that the word “justified” (dikaioo) means “to declare righteous.” The term comes from the courtroom of the first century. As a trial drew to a close, the judge, having heard all the evidence, would pronounce his verdict. To justify a person meant to declare they were not guilty in the eyes of the law. Yet, there’s another more contemporary way to understand the term. If you have a computer you probably know what it means to have justified margins. A “justified” margin is one that is absolutely straight from top to bottom. The computer arranges the words and spaces so that all the lines end up at exactly the same place. In that sense to justify means “to make straight that which would otherwise be crooked.” Now take those two concepts and put them together. When you trust Jesus Christ as Savior, God declares you “not guilty” of sin and “straight” instead of “crooked” in His eyes. This can only take place through faith.

Imagine your car runs out of gas in a remote area. It’s late at night and you need a ride to a gas station. Out of sheer desperation, you begin to hitchhike. Eventually, a gracious motorist picks you up. He then takes you to the gas station, buys you a gas can, fills it up, and takes you back to your car. Since its dark outside, he even stays with you until you’ve finished filling up your car. Now can you imagine telling this story to your spouse, your children, your friends, and bragging about your thumb? “My thumb sparkled like a diamond in the moonlight. The curvature of my thumb notified the motorist of my need.” That would be crazy, right?! The motorist deserves all the credit. It was his work; you merely responded.

Similarly, Jesus Christ is the basis of our justification while “faith” (pistis) is equivalent to the thumb. Faith is the instrument through which we embrace what he did as our only hope. God doesn’t justify us because we have faith. God justifies us because of what Jesus did, which we receive through faith. The only boasting is not in what I have done for Him, but in what He has done for me (see 1 Cor 1:29, 31). In Gal 6:14 Paul writes: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV).

In 3:29-30 Paul records the second question and answer: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.” The Jews may have thought God’s only interest was in them and that He couldn’t care less about the Gentiles. But Paul affirms that God “is one” and deals with both Jews and Gentiles on the same basis. God has worked salvation in such a way that the gospel is for everyone. Are you sharing the good news of God’s grace with people of all races or have you let barriers of age, class, color, or status creep in? Why not talk to someone outside your own circle about the good news of Christ?

The third question and answer is found in 3:31: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish [“uphold, validate”] the Law.” After reading 3:21-30, most Jews would have assumed that the Law was to be discarded. Yet, in this context, Paul states that the Law is to be upheld or validated. The reason is simple: The Law is fulfilled in the believer through the power of the Spirit. Paul will develop this point more fully in chapter 8. For the moment let’s simply note that when we trust Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us to enable and empower us daily to please God. He supernaturally lives His life in and through us.

[Now that Paul has briefly answered three pertinent questions, he transitions into chapter 4 to answer these same three questions in even greater detail. The second essential truth that Paul explains is . . .]

  1. Justification Excludes Works (4:1-8)

The Bible has always taught the doctrine of justification apart from works. Hence, Paul calls forth two examples to validate his argument. In 4:1, Paul brings up Abraham and asks the question: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?” Paul is addressing the question: How did Abraham get to be righteous before God? He gives two arguments (“for”), one logical and the other biblical, concerning Abraham’s justification. Paul begins with the logical argument in 4:2. He picks up on the concept of “boasting” (cf. 3:27) and states, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Paul’s point is that even if works justified Abraham, he still couldn’t boast before God. Admittedly, Abraham was a man of great works. He kept the commandments to such an extent that the Lord called Abraham His “friend.” As a result, the three great world religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism identify Abraham with the coveted title, “friend of God.” Yet, even Abraham was saved by faith, apart from works, because it’s impossible to boast before God.

In 4:3, Paul follows up his logical argument with a biblical argument. Paul quotes Gen 15:6, which doesn’t say one word about Abraham’s good works. Rather, it says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Bear in mind, this experience of Abraham was prior to the Law of Moses by about six hundred years. The setting is rather memorable. God told Abraham that at the age of eighty-five he was about to have a child. Abraham assumed that God was kidding. He must have said, “What kind of joke is this?” “It’s no joke, Abraham. You’re going to have a son.” “Lord, you know full well, I lost that ability years ago.” “Don’t worry, just trust me and I will work a miracle on your behalf.” God took Abraham outside and said, “Look up!” Abraham looked up and God said, “Count the stars.” As Abraham began counting, God said, “Before I’m through, I will give you more descendants than the stars in the skies.” “Abraham believed God it was credited to him as righteousness.”

To believe is to be persuaded. It’s to place one’s trust in God’s promises apart from any works. In the case of Abraham and other Old Testament saints, it was to believe God’s promise of a coming Savior. While these believers didn’t understand all of the details concerning the Messiah, nor did they know His name, they certainly knew enough to believe in a coming seed that would deliver them.

Hence, Old Testament saints and New Testament saints were saved the very same way—belief in God’s promise of a Messiah. The only difference is that New Testament saints have the benefit of progressive revelation (i.e., they know the name Jesus and live on this side of the cross). Again, the issue is that faith excludes boasting because the one with the faith doesn’t do anything. Works are antithetical to faith. In 4:2-3, Paul sharply contrasts “belief” with “works.” Why? Because faith and works are opposites, like water and oil that don’t mix. To do good works is one thing; to believe God is another thing.

The key to Paul’s explanation is in the term “credited.” The verb “credited” (logizomai) occurs eight times in 4:1-12. It’s the key word in the chapter. Logizomai is an accounting term that means “to take into account or credit something to someone.” It’s what happens when you deposit money in the bank. If you bring a $1,000 check, the teller “credits” your account with one thousand dollars. Similarly, when you’re justified by faith, God puts His righteousness into your bank account!

Although you were spiritually bankrupt, now you’re a spiritual millionaire because Christ’s perfection has been placed in your account. In this verse, Paul is saying that you have a choice. You can be credited for your works, as payment for what’s owed, or you can be credited with righteousness for simply trusting God. The point of this passage turns on what you want credited to your account. Do you want God to credit you with what you’re owed according to your works or do you want Him to credit you with righteousness for your faith? The simple equation is: Belief in the promise of God plus nothing equals righteousness (B + N = R).

The next two verses exhort people not to mingle faith and works when seeking eternal life and forgiveness. In 4:4 Paul states the negative side of the principle: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.” A person who “works” receives what’s due or owed, which is contrary to grace.

Imagine your current job. You’re working hard for your employer. By the end of the month you’ve worked well. Now you’re eager to collect your paycheck. But your employer seems very causal. He says, “Well, I’m not planning to give you anything. But I’ll give you a gift to keep you going.” What would you say? “What do you mean you’ll give me a gift? I don’t want a gift. I want my salary, my wages. I’ve worked hard for it. You owe it to me.” That’s Paul’s argument. When a person works, his wages aren’t credited to him as a gift. But the point is that salvation doesn’t come by way of works; it comes freely. It’s not earned; it’s free. If God justified people on the basis of their good works outweighing their bad He would owe them something. Yet, I assure you, God is no man’s debtor.

The positive side of the principle is found in 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” This is the strongest statement of justification in the Bible. The scandal of the gospel is that we’re justified by doing absolutely nothing!

Justification is effortless. It’s shockingly free. Another startling statement is found in this verse: “God justifies the ungodly!” He puts our sins on Christ’s account that He might put Christ’s righteousness on our account. What an amazing plan orchestrated by an amazing God! Salvation is a gift, not a paycheck. So don’t take credit; receive God’s credit.

In case his audience missed the point about Abraham, in 4:6-8 Paul calls another witness from the Old Testament to testify to justification through faith. According to Jewish Law, two or three witnesses settled a question. So Paul chooses David—a man after God’s heart—whom the Jews deeply respected. He wants to demonstrate that Abraham (who lived before the Law) wasn’t an exceptional case. David (a man who lived after the Law) was also declared righteous “apart from works.” In 4:6 Paul writes: “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” This verse makes it clear that the “crediting” of righteousness to David wasn’t part of what was owed him but was in spite of what was owed.

In 4:7-8 Paul quotes from Psalm 32, which is a Psalm of David. “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” These verses were penned after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. Although the Law existed in David’s day, David refuses to quote it or even refer to it. David finds his refuge against sin and guilt in God. He experiences the great blessing of being justified.

These two verses are not only for David, they are also for us. They teach us three valuable truths about justification.

(1) When we’re justified our “lawless deeds have been forgiven.” The word “forgiven” (aphiemi) means to “send away.” It has the idea of physical removal from one location to another. When God forgives you, He removes your sins from you and takes them so far away that you will never be able to find them again. There’s a tombstone which bears only one word on it: “FORGIVEN!” That word is more important than anything else that could be said about the person. Forgiveness is only found in Jesus Christ.

(2) When we’re justified our “sins have been covered.” The word “covered” (epikalupto) means to “cover so completely that it can never be uncovered again.”

(3) We can have confidence that the Lord will not take our sins into account. We’ve been given Christ’s righteousness.

Have you ever used System Restore on your computer or a hard reset?  I have the option of setting my computer back to a prior date. All the things I somehow messed up are put back in their original configuration. These simple steps forgive and cover my computer sins. My sins aren’t taken into account or held against me. Likewise, when God justifies you, He declares you righteous and covers all your sins past, present, and future. Now, He won’t erase all the consequences of your actions, but when it comes to your eternal status with Him, you are forgiven and declared righteous.

[After making an irrefutable case that justification excludes pride and works, Paul now explains that . . .]

  1. Justification Excludes Race (4:9-12).

At first glance you might be inclined to think that these verses are intended to prove that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works; specifically, not by the rite of circumcision. Although this is true, it’s not the main point Paul is striving to prove. The point which Paul is driving at is the universal nature of justification by faith, and that not for the Jews only, but also for Gentiles (cf. 3:29-30). Paul writes, “Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, ‘Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.” These verses beg the question: Was Abraham saved as a Jew or as a Gentile? Was Abraham declared righteous as one who was circumcised or as uncircumcised? Of course, Abraham believed God and was declared righteous before he was circumcised.

According to Gen 15:6 (cf. Rom 4:3) Abraham was eighty-five years old when he believed God and was justified. But Abraham did not undergo circumcision until Gen 17, some fourteen years later when he was ninety-nine. Thus, long before Abraham submitted to any religious ritual or ordinance, he was saved and accepted in God’s sight.

Technically then, Abraham was saved as a Gentile and not as a Jew for he didn’t enter Judaism by circumcision, nor did he have the Law to keep. What a blow to the Jew who maintained that one couldn’t be saved without becoming a Jew by circumcision and keeping the Law!

So why did Abraham get circumcised? What’s circumcision for? If circumcision doesn’t automatically save, what’s its purpose? Paul answers that for us in Rom 4:11-12. This first half of 4:11 defines circumcision in two specific ways.

(1) Circumcision was a “sign” of new life. Circumcision isn’t the source of one’s salvation, but the sign of it. It’s a symbolic testimony to what has happened inwardly in the man who’s been justified by faith.

(2) Circumcision was a “seal” that God had given the promise and would keep it. Believers today are “sealed” by the Holy Spirit. We experience a spiritual circumcision in the heart, not just a minor physical operation, but the putting off of the old nature through the death and resurrection of Christ. The point of this section is that while circumcision is valuable, justification is available to Jew and Gentile alike through simple faith in Christ.

The outcome of all this great text is that Abraham is the “father” of all who are justified by faith (4:12). Hence, we should follow in his footsteps and exercise faith in God’s promises. We should reach new heights and be a man or a woman who will pass the baton of faith to the next generation. May we revel in the free gift of our justification and share the simple gospel with as many people as possible. May we boast in the Lord Jesus alone.

The “guts” of the Gospel

Imagine it’s Sunday morning and you’re seated in church anticipating the sermon. Suddenly, a man begins frantically canvassing the auditorium offering a life jacket to whoever would take it. Eventually, he approaches you with it. What would you do? You’d probably think he was nuts and turn it down, right? At best, you might politely accept it while yawning internally at your need for it. But, if you were on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, you’d lunge forward and grab that same life jacket as if your life depended upon it.

We’ve spent five lessons working through a section titled “Sin” that spanned Rom 1:18-3:20. These sixty-four verses contain nothing but the bad news that we’re utterly unrighteous. Paul has constructed an airtight case that every creature that has ever lived, or will ever live, is leveled under the weight of sin. The inescapable conclusion is that we’re not only guilty; we’re absolutely helpless and hopeless. In other words, we’re born into this world enslaved to sin on a sinking ship. God holds out a life jacket to us, but until we become convinced that our plight is truly desperate we’ll never joyously and tenaciously grab hold of what’s being offered to us. The intent of God in clearly exposing our sinfulness isn’t to make us feel bad—it’s to make us feel desperate! Desperate enough to wrestle with the question of the ages: “How can a person be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2)


Of course, a great chasm lies between Rom 3:20 and 3:21. It’s a deep canyon, a wide gap separating our condition and God’s character. We’re sinful and God is holy. How can we bridge the gap? How can we go from one side to the other? We can’t. But this is where the good news begins: Paul informs us in 3:21-26 that God does what we cannot do. This is not only the heart of Romans; it’s likely the greatest paragraph in the entire Bible. Therefore, if we fail to understand this passage accurately, we’ll be unable to grasp the central message of the Scriptures. For it’s here that we see who we are, who God is, and what God has done for us. If there’s one passage of Scripture to become an expert on, let it be Rom 3:21-26. Before you spend lots of time looking for principles in the Bible on career success and personal affluence, before scouring the text for ideas on how to change your wife, your husband, your kids, your parents, your pastor, and your church, look at Rom 3:21-26. Meditate on it. Study it. It will change your life! In these six verses, Paul reveals three ways that God’s righteousness bridges the gap between our sin and Himself.


  1. God’s Righteousness Is Revealed In His Word (3:21)

Despite our inability to obey the Law, God’s salvation can be found in the Old Testament Scriptures. In 3:21 Paul writes, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” “But now,” two words made up of three letters each, serve as the hinge pin for the fate of humanity. After sixty-four verses of sin, you’re probably in need of some relief, aren’t you? How do you spell relief? Years ago, the answer was: R-O-L-A-I-D-S. But in this context it is “B-U-T N-O-W!” These two words signify that a “righteousness of God” has inaugurated a new age in world history. Unlike the first revelation of the “righteousness of God” that condemns us (cf. 1:17), this revelation frees us! In this context, the “righteousness of God” primarily refers to God’s activity in salvation; He provides righteousness for people who need it.


The “righteousness of God” has inaugurated a new age that is “apart from the Law.” This is only fitting because righteousness has never been able to be obtained through obedience to the Law (cf. 3:19-20). We have been so infected by sin that we cannot heal ourselves. No one can purge his or her body of cancer by eating healthy food. Shunning cancer-generating toxins is a good way to avoid contracting the disease, but once someone has it, a cure demands radical action. Unfortunately, we were born with the disease of sin. But there is another way God makes His righteousness known, and it is apart from the Law. Once again we see that God does what we cannot do.


The righteousness of God has been “manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” This phrase declares that God’s righteousness has been “manifested” through His Word. The root word “manifested” (phaneroo) is used back in 1:19 where Paul writes that God has made Himself “evident” to humanity through His creation. Now Paul states that God has revealed Himself through His Word. The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is a summary term for the entire Old Testament. “The Law” referred to the first five books of Moses and “the Prophets” to everything else. The primary purpose of the entire Old Testament was to point to “the righteousness of God” that would one day be fully manifested in Christ. This very phrase was used in the theological theme of 1:16-17 where Hab 2:4 is quoted. Paul’s point is that the revelation of “the righteousness of God” isn’t some new phenomenon. Only in the death of Christ is there anything new or unique. God’s righteousness has always been revealed in His Word. Therefore, if you want to know who God is and what He’s like, you must know His Word. I cannot emphasize this enough. Many people have developed erroneous views of God based upon faulty thoughts or emotions. Often, I will hear: “Well, I think God is” or “God would never…”


Whenever I hear someone saying these kinds of things, I cringe. Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Isa 55:8-9. So when it comes to the knowledge of God and how we can be right with Him, the Bible refers us to the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures.


Do you call yourself a “New Testament Christian” and avoid the Old Testament at all costs? If so, you’re missing out on God’s full revelation. Why not balance your diet of Bible reading with healthy portions of the Old Testament? My personal commitment is to alternate between the New Testament and Old Testament. This ensures that I’m always keeping the whole counsel of God’s Word before me. This also helps me to be an accurate Bible interpreter. After all, the only way to truly understand the New Testament is by knowing the Old Testament. May you and I see the promised Messiah and His plan of salvation in the Old Testament.

[Not only is God’s righteousness revealed in His Word, in 3:22-24 we’ll also see that…]

  1. God’s Righteousness Is Revealed In His Grace (3:22-24)

God’s plan of salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul writes in 3:22a that “the righteousness of God” is revealed “through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” He uses the noun “faith” (pistis) and the verb “believe” (pisteuo) to emphasize the sole condition of “God’s righteousness” (i.e., salvation). There are almost two hundred verses that use the words “believe” or “faith” as the sole condition of salvation. However, we must recognize that we’re saved “through” (dia) faith, not “by” faith. Faith is merely the means. What is important is the object of our faith—Jesus Christ! If we have the right object, the amount of our faith is not what is important. This means “all” are welcome who will simply believe in Christ. While Christians are often charged with being narrow and restrictive, it’s really all other religions that are narrow and restrictive. If good works are necessary to heaven, then all of us are excluded.


In these systems, everyone is disqualified. Under the Christian faith, “all” can come, regardless of their background and past failures. The only condition is simple belief. Let me be clear: When you come to Christ, you do not come to give, you come to receive. You do not come to try your best, you come to trust. You do not come just to be helped, but to be rescued. You do not come to be made better, you come to be made alive! God does what we cannot do.


Robert Chesebrough believed in his product. He’s the man who invented Vaseline. He so believed in his own product that he became his own guinea pig. He burned himself with acid and flame; he cut himself and scratched himself so often and so deeply that he bore the scars from his tests for the rest of his life. But, he proved his product worked. People only had to look at the scars from his healed wounds to see the value of his work and the extent of his belief. The gospel is looking at God’s Son and the price He paid for our sins and believing His work alone can take us to heaven.


It’s essential that we believe in Christ because we have a sin problem. Once again, Paul returns to the topic of sin. (Apparently, he didn’t feel that sixty-four verses [1:18-3:20] were sufficient. He enjoys waxing eloquent on the doctrine of sin.) He understands that the good news is only good news if we recognize how bad the bad news is. Although a person can be saved without fully comprehending the depth of the bad news, one can never fully appreciate the gift of salvation unless he or she has come to recognize the wickedness of sin. It is worth noting that the last part of 3:22 and all of 3:23 may be read as a parenthesis: (“for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). One can, therefore, read from 3:22b to 3:24 omitting the parenthetical thought (“for all those who believe… being justified as a gift…”).


Paul states in 3:22b that “there is no distinction.” This verse clearly condemns humankind—“there is no distinction”—we’re all sinners. In 3:23, the word “for” (gar) gives the reason for Paul’s insistence that there’s no distinction: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, we have all committed acts of personal sin. To “fall short” (present tense) speaks of continually lacking the glory of God. The biblical concept of sin is any failure to glorify God. It’s missing what God wants in our lives. Whether you are less of a sinner than someone else is not the issue. The issue is that no matter how well you might have lived, you have fallen short of God’s standard of perfection.


Paul is now ready to return to good news. In 3:24 he writes that those who have believed (cf. 3:22) are “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” This is such an important verse that we must tear it apart word by word. First, let’s consider the word “justified.” Justification is the doctrine for which Romans is most famous—and rightly so. Paul uses some form of the verb “justify” fifteen times in Romans. Justification is a legal term that means “to declare righteous.” On account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, we are declared as good as God.


First: Justification is both instantaneous and irreversible. The moment we believe in Jesus Christ, we’re on the other side of judgment day. Since God always keeps His Word this declaration is eternal. In television programs such as CSI and NCIS there are people who gather what is called forensic evidence, which is used at trial in criminal cases. Forensics has to do with judicial judgment or declaration. Here, Paul shows us that in the act of justification God makes a judicial declaration about a person’s status before He makes His judgment. The person who believes in Jesus receives all the benefits of His person and work.


It may help if we further expose what justification is not.

(1) Justification is not forgiveness. It’s more than forgiveness. While forgiveness is part of it, it’s not all of it. If a teacher cancels out an “F” you got on an exam, that’s forgiveness. However, if your teacher declares your “F” to be an “A+” that is the equivalent of what it means to be justified.

(2) Justification is not a pardon. It’s more than a pardon. A pardon covers sins of the past. No judge has ever issued a pardon for future crimes. Justification deals with the sins of the past, present, and the future.

(3) Justification is not a return to innocence. It’s not “just as if I’d never sinned.” It’s a state of righteousness, not innocence. The fact that we’ve sinned and continue to fall short is the basis for the greatness of what God has done in justification. It’s important to know that this takes place as a transaction. It is not a process. I am not gradually being justified in the hopes that someday I will be fully justified. The death of Christ took place at a point in time, and my justification takes place at a point in time (cf. 1 Cor 6:11). God does what we cannot do.


Secondly, Paul goes on to write that we’re justified “as a gift.” This is one of the most astonishing truths in the entire Bible. Justification is a free gift! The word translated “gift” (dorea) can also be translated “freely” (NET; HCSB; NIV; NKJV) or “for nothing.” In John 15:25, this same word is used when it’s said that Jesus was hated “without a cause.” There was nothing in Jesus that deserved hatred, and there’s nothing in us that deserves salvation. The idea of “freely,” reaches back to Paul’s comment in 3:21 about the righteousness of God being revealed apart from the Law. We cannot do, nor are we required to do—in fact, we are forbidden to do—good works in the hope of earning salvation. Justification comes only to those who exercise naked faith (i.e., empty-handed faith).


One ad for the U.S. Marines Corp pictures a sword, and beneath it the words: “Earned, never given.” If you want to become a Marine, be prepared to earn that slogan through sacrifice, hardship, and training. If you get it, you deserve it. But if you want to become a Christian, you must have the exact opposite attitude, for the message of the gospel is: “Given, never earned.” You cannot save your own soul, and God will not save anyone who tries to earn salvation, but only those who will humbly receive it as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ. If you get it, you absolutely didn’t deserve it.


Thirdly, Paul also states that our salvation is solely “by His grace.” Grace is a giant step beyond mercy. Mercy is not getting what we deserve (i.e., death, hell). Grace is receiving what we don’t deserve (e.g., eternal life, heaven). “Grace” (charis) means God’s undeserved favor or that which God gives us which we don’t deserve. It’s a gift that sets aside all human merit. It doesn’t simply give us a hand, it gives us a resurrection. Grace is all one-sided. I like the old acronym: Grace is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” The reason you and I have salvation is on account of God’s grace. It’s because of Jesus—it’s all about His person and work. God does what we cannot do.

Fourthly, Paul continues his thought by further explaining that this gift came “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” The word “redemption” (apolutrosis) is a term that was used in the slave trade in Paul’s day. It pictures the release of a slave by the paying of a price. Since all people were “under” sin (cf. 3:9) and condemned by the Law (cf. 3:19-20), God the Father chose to offer a solution to our predicament. He sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins and pay our ransom. Christ’s person and work paid the price for our sin and the debt was canceled. We have been set free, if we will only believe.


A boy once captured two little birds and put them in a cage. A man saw the boy carrying the cage and asked him what he was going to do with the birds. The boy replied, “Oh, I’m going to play with them for a while and then I’m going to feed them to my cat.” The man looked at the caged birds and took pity on them. He said, “I’d like to buy the cage and the birds from you. How much do you want for them?” The boy thought for a minute and then named his price. The man paid it and the boy handed over the cage. Immediately, the man opened the cage and set the birds free. That’s what Jesus did for us. Satan had us caged up in our sin and was going to feed us into the jaws of eternal death. But Jesus Christ purchased us and set us free.


Romans 3:22-24 are three of the most important verses in the entire Bible. In these verses, we learned that:

God’s righteousness (i.e., His salvation) is made available to those who will simply believe (3:22a).

Salvation is faith alone in Christ alone.

Paul further expounds on salvation by explaining that we have been justified (i.e., declared righteous, 3:24).

He calls salvation a gift of grace. He even uses the picture of redemption to demonstrate that we were held captive to sin, but Jesus Christ has paid our ransom and released us from our captivity.

God does what we cannot do. In fact, He has already done the work; it is ours for the taking. [God’s righteousness has been revealed in His Word and in His grace, but now we’ll see…]


  1. God’s Righteousness Is Revealed In His Justice (3:25-26)

How can God maintain His justice while forgiving unjust sinners? Paul explains in 3:25: “. . . God displayed [Jesus] publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” [or better “through faith in His blood,” NIV]. The word “propitiation” (hilasterion) refers to the satisfaction of God’s righteous anger, so that He can now deal with us graciously. It’s a sacrifice which takes away wrath—a wrath quencher, which satisfies God’s anger.


Although God is merciful, gracious, and compassionate, He is also righteous, wrathful, and just. He can’t lower His righteous standard. He can’t just wink His eye with the attitude, “Boys will be boys,” or, “Let’s let bygones be bygones.” God must judge sin. He has done so by nailing every sin (past, present, and future) on His Son. Hence, God’s wrath, His holy anger, has been appeased by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Salvation is infinitely costly to the Father and the Son, but absolutely free to you and me.


If you still struggle with this concept, consider that God’s intolerance toward sin is like the intolerance of a surgeon who insists on sterile instruments for an operation. A surgeon’s demand for a pure operating environment is not an angry reaction to the presence of bacteria. Rather, it is an inseparable part of being a surgeon. To expose the surgeon’s scalpel to bacteria would result in contamination, and you would not get upset that your surgeon insists on absolute cleanliness in the operating room where even a speck of dirt could lead to infection. You would insist on absolute purity under those conditions. You would demand that your surgeon be completely intolerant of any impurity. If you understand a surgeon’s “wrath” against contamination in a hospital operating room, you can understand God’s wrath against sin. God is perfect and sinless in every detail, and His character demands that He deal with the slightest contamination of sin. God also knows that sin leads to total corruption and infection, so for these reasons He must judge sin.


In 3:25, Paul indicates that this act of propitiation was “to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” Although the death of Christ for the sins of humankind was planned in eternity past and prophesied in the Old Testament, it didn’t become an earthly reality until almost 2,000 years ago. Therefore, Old Testament believers were forgiven on account of what was about to happen but hadn’t happened yet. God didn’t revoke the punishment for sin, He suspended the punishment. We could say, “Old Testament justification was through faith in the promised Savior; NT justification is through faith in the provided Savior.”


Old Testament believers looked forward to what God would someday do;

Believers today look back at what Christ has already done.


Prior to the cross, Old Testament believers were in paradise “on credit” (i.e., their sins had not yet been paid historically, even though they received some of the benefits from their faith. The same thing happens when we purchase something with a credit card and enjoy possessing the purchased item, even though we have not paid for it yet). God’s righteousness was shown at the cross in that God righteously judged and punished every last sin that man has committed or will ever commit. The cross is and always will be the center point and the focal point of all history.


Verse 26 tells us that God provided salvation for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God the Father demonstrated His righteous character through the cross of Jesus Christ. The words “just” (dikaios) and “justifier” (dikaioo) are both renderings of the root term for righteous. God has revealed His justice through the cross. We deserved death and hell—that would have been justice. But instead of getting what we deserve, we were not given what we deserve. That is mercy!


But God has gone one step further as we saw in 3:24. He’s given us grace, which is receiving what we don’t deserve—the free gift of eternal life. This is the gospel! God has acted with justice by slaying His Son, but He also acted as the Justifier by allowing us to be set free from our sin by trusting in Jesus. What a God! What a Savior! There is no one else like our God! He has created and orchestrated a sovereign plan that you and I would never have come up with. To Him be the glory! God does what we cannot do.


But how can all this heavy-duty theology be fleshed out in our lives? Let’s review this passage and consider three applications.

(1) When we present the gospel, we must always remember to emphasize sin (1:18-3:20). Unless we recognize how bad the bad news truly is, we won’t sense a need for a Savior. The good news of the gospel (3:21-26) isn’t truly good news until we first deal with the bad news.


(2) We need to begin to see fellow believers as those who have been “justified” by God. I rarely think this way about others. It’s easy to see the faults and idiosyncrasies in other people. Yet this passage teaches that fellow believers have been declared righteous and are now seen by the Father through the blood of Jesus Christ.


(3) We must be sure to present an accurate gospel. This means we must understand the words and the central message of 3:21-26. If we do, we’ll have a proper understanding of God’s righteousness and the free gift of salvation. God does what we cannot do.

None of us is okay, okay?

Many years ago, The London Times had a correspondent who ended many of his articles with the words, “What is wrong with the world today?” Finally, in response, G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the well-known Christian writer and apologist, wrote the following reply to the paper, “Dear Editor, What’s wrong with the world? I am. Faithfully Yours, G. K. Chesterton.” In those few words Chesterton beautifully summed up the Bible’s teaching concerning the central problem of the world. It’s people! More specifically, it’s what lies within us—our inner being or person. As the great theologian Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m not okay and neither are you. In short, we’re the problem in the world today. We’re our own worst enemy. As sinful as Satan is, our sin problem is so severe and all-encompassing that we’re in deep trouble all on our own. There’s no need to claim, “The Devil made me do it!” We sin quite well without him or anyone else tempting us to sin (cf. Jas 1:14). We’re disgustingly sinful in our own selves. In Romans 3:9-20, we’re faced squarely with the reality of our sin against God and other people. This text is a fitting climax to the entire section (1:18-3:20) and functions like a great baseball relief pitcher. In the eight or ninth inning, “the closer” comes in to replace whoever is pitching and promptly attempts to “put the game away” for his team. Well, Paul closes his argument here with the same kind of determination and authority. This text is the clincher, the closer, in this section of Romans. This passage, like no other, will tell us the truth about humankind. The bottom line is: I’m not okay, you’re not okay. Paul reveals three penetrating truths about humanity.


  1. We Are Universally Sinful (3:9)

Paul begins with a formal legal charge: All are under sin. He writes, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” In light of Paul’s previous remarks about the Jews (2:1-3:8), an objector asks whether he and his fellow Jews are better than Gentiles. Paul has affirmed that the Jew has certain “advantages” (3:2; cf. 9:4-5) that permit spiritual growth. However, here, Paul reiterates that there’s no difference between Jews and Gentiles—“all are under sin.” No one is exempt from judgment, not even God’s chosen people. Paul repeats his reason for this conclusion with the phrase, “we have already charged.” This is the ongoing message he has been giving, beginning with 1:18 and continuing up to this point (i.e., that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin).


It’s worth noting that the preposition “under” (hupo) is a military term that means to be under the authority of someone or something else. It was used for soldiers who were under the authority of a commanding officer. In this context, it means that the human race is dominated by sin. We’re under its power. The phrase “under sin” implies that we were born sinful and then began willfully committing sin as early as three to six months! A nursing infant who is told not to bite his mother may look her in the eye and bite even harder. A crawling infant may be told by his father to stop, and she may smile and crawl all the faster away from him. We’re sinful and we’re “under” sin’s power at a very young age.


Furthermore, the phrase “under sin” goes beyond “original sin” and our propensity to commit certain sins. Our problem is that we are enslaved to sin. In other words, we were born in sin, intentionally sinned as quickly as possible, and have exhibited sin during the course of our lives. Again, we’re under sin’s power. It will do no good to claim goodness. We are not good; only God is good (cf. Mark 10:18). As an ancient Chinese proverb observed, “There are two good men—one is dead and the other is not yet born.” Paul’s point is simple: I’m not okay, you’re not okay. On the contrary, we are universally sinful. Thus, if you and I want to overcome the junk in our lives, we must own our sin and recognize that God has provided a solution to our sin problem.

[Not only are we universally sinful, Paul will now demonstrate a second truth about us.]

  1. We Are Totally Depraved (3:10-18)

In these nine verses, Paul indicts all people as totally depraved. Total depravity means that there’s no spiritual good in humankind that is able to commend us to God. Many people have trouble with this concept. While not denying they are sinners, many people feel that their sin isn’t bad enough to condemn them. What they don’t understand is that any sin is wholly unacceptable to God. In this section it’s as if Paul says, “Are you still not convinced? Let me show you further proof from the Old Testament.” He uses a technique called “pearl stringing,” where he quotes verse after verse to prove his point. Interestingly, Paul carefully chooses a slew of Old Testament verses directly attributed to God. So the expert witness that Paul calls to the stand—God Himself. In 3:10-18, Paul reveals three categories of sin that demonstrate our depravity.


The first category is: Our character is depraved. In 3:10-12 Paul states: “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’” Paul uses words like “none,” “all,” and “not even one” no fewer than seven times in the first three verses in order to make his point. Paul summarizes the fate of humanity by stating that “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10). Verse 10 is a summary statement and the following verses flesh this truth out more fully. Verses 11-12 indicate that our whole inner being is controlled by sin.

(1) Our mind is depraved (“none who understands”). We don’t spend our time trying to understand God’s thoughts or His ways. We’re more interested in football, our favorite TV show, going to a concert, shopping, or hanging out with friends. We wouldn’t choose to spend considerable time attempting to understand God’s purposes or His program. We don’t go away on personal retreats to understand God.

(2) Our heart is depraved (“none who seeks for God”). If left to our own devices, we would never seek God. While it may appear that there are some who are actually seeking hard after God people are actually running from God. No sinner seeks God; rather, God seeks sinners. If anyone seeks God, it’s only because the Holy Spirit is working in his or her heart.

(3) Our will is depraved (“none who does good”). Consequently, we don’t do good works that honor God. Rather, our works are “filthy rags” (Isa 64:6) before God. Perhaps you’re thinking about a neighbor, a coworker, or a classmate that does seemingly wonderful deeds. I would affirm that this is prevalent from a human perspective. These “good works” are beneficial to your neighborhood, your workplace, and your school. However, from a divine perspective, these works fall short of God’s standard because they haven’t been carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our mind, heart, and will are totally depraved. We’re sinful to the core.

Paul even goes so far as to state that together we have all become “useless.” Ouch! The word translated “useless” (achreioo) means “to corrupt” or “to turn sour” as milk. (Take out a gallon jug with sour milk and invite class members to smell it. Explain that this type of stench is similar to the stench of our sin.) Since the Bible speaks figuratively about God’s nostrils, there’s some precedent to say that the stench of our sin stinks to high heaven and reaches God’s nostrils. Our sin is repulsive and repugnant to Him. Indeed, I’m not okay, you’re not okay.


In 3:13-14, Paul shares another category: Our conversation is depraved. We betray our character by our speech. The heart blazes the way, and the mouth follows. In these two verses it’s as though humanity is given an annual physical exam. As you know when you go to the doctor for some unknown ailment he generally wants to look into your mouth. He puts one of those overgrown Popsicle sticks on your tongue and says, “Say ahhh!” Well, here God looks into the mouth of the sinner, and when we say, “Ahhh,” God says, ‘Yuk!’ Paul writes in 3:13a: “Their throat is an open grave.”

During biblical times embalming wasn’t practiced like it is today. So it goes without saying that an open grave must have reeked! In the same way, Paul is saying that the stench of man’s throat is like a rotting corpse. Interestingly, the phrase “open grave” literally means a yawning grave. I guess that means we should be careful when we yawn so that people don’t see down our throats into our decaying hearts.


In 3:13b-14 Paul goes on to say: “with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” Our tongues are a constant source of deception. Notice the present tense: “they keep on deceiving” (3:13b). Our conversation is so totally depraved that our native language is deception. Paul states that the poison of asps is under our lips. The asp was probably the Egyptian cobra. Under its lips was a sac full of venom. When this snake was provoked pressure was placed on the poison sac, and the venom would surge through the fangs that devoured its victim. One can scarcely think of a more graphic way in which to express the pain and suffering caused by vindictive and unjust words.

How many times have you assassinated someone’s character or reputation?

How many times have you cut someone else down in order to build yourself up? How many times have you cursed or even used the Lord’s name in vain? Gulp. How many times have you expressed bitterness in your speech (3:14)?

We are all guilty.

Even as believers who’ve been given a new nature from God, we still struggle with our conversation, don’t we? I know I do. It’s easy to speak words of deception and bitterness. It’s easy to be critical. All of us are guilty of slander and gossip in some way, shape, or form. James put it well: The tongue is a “restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:8b). Our worst enemy is our mouth! This is what makes Jesus’ words in Matt 12:36 so terrifying: “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the Day of Judgment.” I know when I stand before Jesus Christ, I will have two give an account for my speech. I’m not looking forward to this accounting one bit. It will be a sobering day indeed when I fully come to grips with how I have dishonored God in my conversation. I’m not okay, you’re not okay. I’m totally depraved.


The third and final category of our depravity is found in 3:15-18: Our conduct is depraved. What the mouth utters, the feet usually carry out. Paul writes, “Their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known” (3:15-17). These verses describe America to a tee. Life is so cheap in our country today, particularly in the major cities. People kill one another over a set of car keys or a verbal insult or even a sinister look.


Today, there is at least one murder every twenty minutes. Furthermore, every year upwards of 50,000 people die as the direct result of someone else’s abuse of alcohol. And all that pales into insignificance when compared to the 1.2 million babies murdered every year under “freedom of choice” laws related to abortion. And if you’re innocent so far, do you still claim innocence when confronted with Jesus’ claim that murder is committed when one hates another person (Matt 5:21-22)?


Rom 3:17 would be an appropriate slogan for the United Nations: “The path of peace have they not known.” Indeed, we’re a warring people who constantly seek evil. Back in 1968, Will Durant wrote a book entitled, Lessons from History. In this book Durant wrote, “In the past 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war.” The search for peace goes on unabated because we don’t know the way of peace. Tragically, we’ve failed to recognize that there will be no peace until we acknowledge our sin and trust in the Prince of Peace.

What is the cause of all this violent and sinful behavior? The answer is found in 3:18: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” As individuals and as a country, we have failed to fear God. Prov 1:7 states, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” yet we have opted for foolishness instead of wisdom. God is left out of our conversations, decisions, and life. He’s ignored. When God is ignored, the consequences of Rom 1 are set into motion: He gives us over (1:24, 26, 28). This leads to the problems that are facing our country and our world today. Once again, we are the problem. We need to point the finger at ourselves. I’m not okay, you’re not okay.

[Paul has indisputably argued that we are universally sinful and totally depraved. Now he decrees a final truth about us.]

  1. We Are Helplessly Lost (3:19-20)

Paul concludes this passage with a verdict: GUILTY! These two verses also summarize the entire section (1:18-3:20). Paul writes, “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law so that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:19-20). The phrase, “Now we know that” indicates that what follows has already been established as fact. The Law has a message to those under the Law (i.e., Jews), which declares that the whole world is held accountable to God. Implied here is the responsibility of Jews to relay information from the Law to the world largely via their obedience. The Jews are to be an example to the world of how to carry out the standards of the Law.

The Jewish people of Paul’s day didn’t understand that they were condemned under the Law. They knew that they sinned, but they thought they had diplomatic immunity from God’s judgment because they were Jewish. The phrase “whatever the Law says,” refers back to the Old Testament passages that Paul quoted in 3:10-18. The word translated “closed” (phrasso) is literally translated “shut up,” that every mouth may be shut up! The Law brings us up short with God every time. So much so, that when we stand before Him, we’ll be silenced! This verb evokes the image of a defendant in court, who, when given the opportunity to speak in his own defense, remains silent, overwhelmed by the weight of the evidence against him.


Your brain is more incredible than the most vast computer system in the world. Every experience we have and every word we speak is recorded in our brains. Concerning the judgment day I think that in the last day God is going to take our brain out of our head, put it on a table there in his court room, plug in a recorder, and punch rewind. We are going to have to sit there and listen to our brain replay everything we’ve ever done, said, and thought. The prosecuting attorney doesn’t have to say a word. Indeed, when we receive a glorified mind and body and we stand before Christ, we will be shut up.


In 3:20, Paul explains that the Law was given for condemnation, not justification (i.e., “to declare not guilty,” see 3:24). The Jews had distorted the purpose of the Law. It was never intended to commend a man before God, but to condemn him. Like the blood-alcohol test is designed to prove men are drunk, so the Law is designed to prove men are sinners, under the wrath of God. The Law provided a standard of righteousness, not that men could ever attain such human righteousness, but to demonstrate they’re incapable of doing so and must find a source of righteousness outside themselves. That’s the point of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. When the Law revealed man’s sin, God provided a way of sacrifice so that a man wouldn’t need to bear the condemnation of God. The Law was never given to save us, but to show us that we need a Savior.


The Law has been likened to a mirror. The purpose of a mirror is to reveal what is wrong with my face (e.g., gunk in the eyes, food in the teeth, messy hair, blemishes, etc.) As I carry on the activities of my day, I may somehow get dirt on my face and not even realize it. A mirror serves a wonderful purpose of showing me that I have a dirty face. It shows me that I have a problem. But the mirror cannot wash away the dirt! It makes a very poor washcloth. Likewise, God’s Law can show me that I am a guilty sinner (incapable of keeping God’s holy commandments), but it can never save me. It can only condemn me and show me that I need a Savior.

It is tempting to conclude my lesson on this negative note. However, you would be left with a sense of hopelessness and despair. While this may be Paul’s aim in 1:18-3:20, it is not the end of the story. Hence, I think it’s fitting for me to whet your appetite for the next section in Romans. In 3:21, Paul opens with the conjunction “but” (de). This three letter word that we often overlook may be the most important word in the Bible. The word “but” informs us that sin does not win the day. In a similar passage, Paul exclaims: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…” (Eph 2:4). He utters these words after laying out total depravity (2:1-3). In both of these texts, the word “but” reminds us that God’s grace is greater than all our sin! Now that’s good news.


Like Paul, I have attempted to level you under the weight of your sin. I want you to feel the full brunt of your depravity. I desire for you to sense that you are hopelessly lost. If you’ve arrived at the end of yourself, there will be nowhere to turn but to Jesus Christ. Today, Jesus offers you His righteousness in exchange for your unrighteousness. If you will simply bring your sin to Jesus, He will offer you His perfection. Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sin and the sin of the entire world. He rose from the dead to demonstrate that He is God. He simply asks you to believe in His person and in His work. The decision is yours. Will you be pardoned or punished? I urge you: Believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and cross over from death to life (John 5:24).



Think rightly about yourself and God

What false beliefs do you hold? What ideas have you adopted that are contrary to Scripture? Have you ever thought that your sin was so great that it could keep you from God? Perhaps you’ve wondered if God could ever love and forgive a person like you. Have you ever felt so shackled by your sin that you justified it both mentally and verbally? Certainly one area that we err is in how we view ourselves in relationship to God. It’s so easy to think certain thoughts about ourselves and God that are not in keeping with the Bible. Hence, we must constantly go back to God’s Word and determine what Scripture says. In Romans 3:1-8 Paul says: Think rightly about yourself and God. Before we consider this text, let’s review how we got here. In 1:1-17, Paul gave an introduction in which he shared his ministry, his mission, and the theme of his book. In 1:18-32, Paul lambasted the blatant sin of the Gentiles. Then in chapter 2, Paul attacked the counterfeit obedience of the Jews. Now in 3:1-8, Paul raises and answers four objections that a Jew might have offered to squirm out from under the guilty verdict Paul had pronounced on him in chapter 2. In these eight verses Paul provides two contrasts between humanity and God.

  1. We Are Faithless, But God Is Faithful (3:1-4)

God’s faithfulness is powerfully vindicated in this section. Paul’s statements to the Jews in chapter 2 could be taken to mean that there’s no advantage to being a Jew. Thus, 3:1 opens with a question: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” Although there are two questions in most English versions, there is only one question in the Greek text. (This translation is reflected in the NET, NIV, and NKJV.) To paraphrase the question, Paul is asking, “If Jews and Gentiles are both guilty before God, what advantage is there in being a Jew, particularly to being circumcised?” Today we might say, “If there is nothing to be gained by reading the Bible and going to church, why bother?”


Paul answers this question in 3:2 when he exclaims, “Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Paul insists that there are many great benefits to being an ethnic Jew. Here, he only gives the most important benefit (“first of all”): “they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” The phrase “the oracles of God” is likely a reference to the Old Testament, specifically those texts that refer to the future salvation of Israel. However, the privilege of the Jews went much further than simply having this revelation from God. They didn’t just possess the Old Testament Scriptures; they were “entrusted” (pisteuo) with them. This means that the Scriptures weren’t given to the Jews to keep for themselves. They were given to be both studied and shared. If you recall, God’s first Great Commission is found back in Gen 12:1-3 when God exhorts Abram to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. Unfortunately, as we know, the Jewish people were faithless and failed to fulfill God’s calling.


Imagine that we lose power in our church auditorium and our building is engulfed in flames. We all desperately need to escape this building before we are all burned to the ground. But only one person has a flashlight—me. [Turn on flashlight.] Instead of using my flashlight to help you find your way out and escape, I am busy studying the intricacies of the Scriptures. This is ludicrous, right? I would have failed to use my knowledge and my resources for your personal well-being. Similarly, though the Jews had a tremendous advantage in having the Law, Paul says they failed to use it properly.


The greatest advantage of being a Jew was the exposure it gave to the Old Testament from infancy. These Old Testament Scriptures were given to point the Jews to Jesus. Similarly, this is one of the great privileges of being raised in a Christian home. By reading God’s Word to us from infancy, God uses parents to persuade us that we were sinners in need of a Savior. Parents, this should be your primary agenda. Nothing is more important in this life than sharing Jesus Christ with your children. Don’t ever buy into the lie that they need to find their own spiritual way and come to their own conclusions. If you don’t influence your kids, I can assure you that someone else will.

Help your children to understand their sin.

Explain to them that they have missed the mark of God’s perfection (i.e., they have sinned in their works, words, thoughts, motives, and attitudes).

Bring them low so that they will look up to Christ.

This is your calling as a parent.


As a believer, you’ve been “entrusted” with the whole of the Scriptures. This is a very great privilege, but one privilege that brings added responsibility. Do you study God’s Word to know and serve Him better? Has your Bible study drawn you closer to God? Have you then taken this knowledge and shared it with someone else? Bible knowledge, if kept to ourselves, is contrary to God’s expressed will. Share what you know about Jesus and His offer of salvation today. Help others think rightly about themselves and God.


Paul responds to the Jews’ great benefit of the Scriptures with two more questions in 3:3. “What then? If some did not believe [If some were unfaithful], their unbelief [unfaithfulness] will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?” Perhaps you’ve used the expression, “What the…?” This goes all the way back to the apostle Paul; however, many people have included an expletive in this phrase. Here, Paul asks a rhetorical question that anticipates an indignant response of “No way!” Israel’s unfaithfulness will never frustrate God’s faithfulness. The certainty of all God’s promises rests on His character, not on our faithfulness. As you likely know, the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness.


Even when God’s people had sunk to the lowest forms of idolatry, God remained faithful to His chosen nation. This is truly amazing! God can’t deny Himself, and thus when His people fail Him, He will not—indeed, He cannot—fail to do as He’s promised. God is faithful to His chosen people. Romans 3:3 is a strong verse for the eternal security of Israel, God’s chosen people. It verifies that God still has a plan for Israel, and when we relate this aspect of His character to the believer today we know that His faithfulness to us is not dependent upon our faithfulness to Him. Paul said it best in 2 Tim 2:13, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”


Just in case we didn’t get his point, Paul follows up the rhetorical question in 3:3 with the powerful words of 3:4a: “May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.” The phrase “May it never be” (me genoito) is a very potent phrase. This is the first of ten times this phrase is used in Romans. This phrase has been variously translated: “Absolutely not” (NET); “By no means” (ESV); “God forbid” (KJV); and “Perish the thought!” It’s a phrase of outrage! Paul responds with both guns loaded to the notion that God could or would ever be unfaithful. He exclaims, “Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.”


This idea is likely taken from Psalm 116:11 where the Psalmist writes, “All men are liars!” We might not think much about the sin of lying (e.g., “to lie is human”), but God does. In Proverbs 6:16-19, Solomon mentions seven things the Lord hates. Only one is repeated, and it’s not pride, shedding innocent blood, or sowing strife. As terrible as these sins are, they are not repeated. The only repeated sin is lying (“a lying tongue” and “a false witness who utters lies”). Returning to Rom 3:4, Paul uses the sin of lying to level all people (“every man”) under sin. His point is that all men, women, and children are unfaithful. Yet, Paul also states, “Let God be found true.” This means that He is faithful to His Word.


Paul is saying that God never gives up on anyone… under any circumstances! There’s nothing you can do that will cause God to leave you or forsake you. If there is, then your sin is greater than God’s grace. This doesn’t make sin any less sinful, nor does it excuse your disobedience, but it does mean that no matter what you’ve done, you can be forgiven.


Paul refers to one of Israel’s greatest heroes, King David, when he states in 3:4b: “. . . as it is written, ‘THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTIFIED IN YOUR WORDS, AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU ARE JUDGED [or “when you judge”].’” The phrase translated “it is written” occurs fifteen times in Romans. It’s a formula that alerts the readers that the writer is making a significant point from the Old Testament. In this case, Paul turns to the words of David in Psalm 51:4. The occasion was Nathan’s rebuke of David, after his adultery with Bathsheba (cf. 2 Sam 12:9-14). When confronted by Nathan, David acknowledged his sin and repented. He didn’t seek to offer any excuses for his actions. He had no word of defense for his sin. His sin only served to highlight the righteousness of God.


David knew that God was absolutely just and righteous in pronouncing sentence on his sin. The only hope that David had was the faithfulness of God. He didn’t speak of his good works nor did he promise future good works. The Law didn’t even make a provision for the forgiveness of the sin he had committed. He was worthy of death. But it was God’s faithfulness, combined with His mercy and compassion that gave David cause for hope.


The good news of the gospel is our “unfaithfulness” will not “nullify the faithfulness of God.” Even though David was an adulterer, a liar, and a murderer, God forgave him. If God can forgive David, He can forgive anybody! Do you need to be forgiven by God? Is there a sin in your life that you don’t think God could ever forgive you for? Please don’t let the enemy lie to you. If God can forgive David, He can forgive you and me. He only asks that we humbly come to Him, acknowledge our sin, and seek the forgiveness that He has made available in and through Christ.

The model that David provides for us in Psalm 51:1-4 is a thing of beauty. At one point it seems that David thought God’s judgment was too severe. But then he sees his great need (51:1-2). He wants to experience God’s grace. He has sinned and yearns for total cleansing, so he fully confesses what he has done. David acknowledges his sin (51:3) and grieves over how his sin hurt God (51:4). He refuses to defend himself against God (51:4b). David’s thinking is contrary to the Jews of Paul’s day, who would often blame God for their adverse circumstances. Similarly, we are to say, “Lord, it is my fault. What you say is right and what you have done is right. Whatever blessing I have lost is altogether my own fault.” When we lose out, we should not blame God, we should blame ourselves. We must own our sin and see sin as God does. Again, we must think rightly about ourselves and God.

[In 3:1-4 Paul has argued that we are faithless, but God is faithful. Now we’ll see a second contrast…]

  1. We Are Unrighteous, But God Is Righteous (3:5-8)

The questions Paul raises in 3:5-8 reveal a rebellious response to Paul’s indictment of sin and his condemnation of the self-righteous. These verses demonstrate God’s righteous judgment on unbelieving and rebellious Jews. In 3:5: “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms).”


Although this objection is to be expected, it is nonetheless absurd and sinful. The phrase “what shall we say?” is found seven times in Romans and nowhere else in the New Testament. It may be used to introduce a conclusion Paul rejects or one that he accepts. In this case, Paul clearly rejects the notion. The word “not” (me) introduces Paul’s response to this question. When this word begins a Greek sentence, a negative reply is to be anticipated. This is one of Paul’s familiar literary devices. He asks a question, but doesn’t think there’s anything to it. That God might be unrighteous is so preposterous that Paul excuses himself for even mentioning such a thing. In other words, how could God be “just” to inflict wrath on me if my unrighteousness works itself out for the “good” of showing how righteous God is?


Paul exclaims in 3:6: “May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?” It’s absolutely unfathomable that God should be unjust. If God can’t righteously judge in time and in eternity, we will have total anarchy. God’s righteous character demands judgment. If God refused to judge sin, He would cease to be God. Righteous judgment is an attribute of a holy, perfect, sinless God.

In 3:7-8, Paul tackles the same objection found in 3:5. The final line (3:8b) nails the coffin shut on the Jew. Paul writes: “But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ Their condemnation is just.” This is essentially the same argument as the one in 3:5, but this time stated in terms of “lie” and “truth.”


It is the ultimate justification for one’s sinfulness and demonstrates the utter depravity of man. It is the wicked and unbiblical philosophy that “the end justifies the means.”

It would be like saying, “Pray for sickness so doctors will have a chance to heal people.

Pray for more fires so firemen can show their stuff.

Pray for more disasters so ambulance drivers will have something to do.

It would be similar to a murderer saying to the court after his conviction, “My conviction proves the system works; therefore, I should be rewarded, not incarcerated.” This is ludicrous and outright sinful! Getting to the right place (i.e., God’s glory) by the wrong means (i.e., man’s sin) can never be justified. Paul says that the condemnation of those who say these things is just.


However, we must keep two tensions in mind: (1) Sin is always sinful. There’s no such thing as “good” sin. Sin is the reason Jesus came to the earth. Sin is the reason He died on the cross. There’s nothing good about it. It’s evil through and through. (2) God is able to bring about good things from our dumb mistakes. That’s what the grace of God is all about. But please understand: The fact that God can bring good things out of bad choices doesn’t turn stupidity into wisdom! And, it doesn’t justify sin! Sin is always sinful!


When an unbeliever sins, he or she misses out on eternal life and is storing up wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (2:5). The sobering truth is that all unbelievers will stand before Jesus Christ and give an account for their works, or lack thereof, at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15). This will be an excruciating moment! Even as an unbeliever, sin is serious because hell is not the same punishment for every person—it is an individual judgment of works. Similarly, when a believer sins he or she misses out on some of God’s conditional promises in this life. There can also be severe chastening because God wants His children to be in fellowship with Him.


Furthermore, we will give an account of our Christian lives at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10). Paul acknowledged the “terror” associated with this event (5:11). Hence, it would be wise to think rightly about yourself and God.

It is worth mentioning that the apostle Paul appears to be accused of preaching a gospel that leads to licentiousness (Rom 3:8a; see also 6:12). Like Paul, when you preach that salvation is a “gift” or “free gift” you will be accused of promoting “easy believism” or “cheap grace.” However, these allegations are erroneous. Quite the opposite, while salvation may be simple, it’s not “easy.” Everything in us wants to earn our way to heaven. Consequently, it’s difficult to transfer our trust from what we can “do” to Jesus’ work. Calling God’s gift “cheap grace” fails to take into account two things: (1) Grace is not cheap; it’s free (3:24). (2) Grace is not cheap; it cost Jesus His life. The only reason we can have a free salvation is because God paid a tremendous price. In light of Jesus’ sacrifice, you and I ought to live lives that are worthy of our calling. We should express utter gratitude to Jesus for the free gift of grace. We must also urge others to press on to Christian maturity. Anything less is unbiblical. We who proclaim God’s grace apart from works should expect God’s grace to change believers from the inside out.


If you’ve never trusted in Jesus Christ, will you do so? God is eternally faithful and righteous. The Bible teaches that it’s appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment (Heb 9:27). I don’t know when your appointment will come. I bet you don’t either. So why not be sure where you’ll spend eternity? Simply acknowledge that you are a sinner and express to God that you would like to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior. I’ve received this free gift, and I know beyond the shadow of any doubt that I’m forgiven and God will be faithful to take me to heaven when I die or when He returns. For me, there’s no greater joy in life than knowing what my future holds and who is holding it.

Don’t believe the lie

Many years ago a man in San Francisco was caught speeding. The man blew through an intersection without realizing there was a camera on the traffic light. A couple weeks later he received in the mail a picture of his car and a ticket for $40. Since he had never had a ticket like this before, he decided to have a little fun. So he wrote out a check for $40, took a picture of the check and sent the picture back to the police department. A couple of days later, the police responded in return and sent him a picture. This time it was of handcuffs. He got the point, and they got their money.

There are some laws that we just can’t get away from. One such a law is this: Trusting in religion brings condemnation. Religion on the whole has been Satan’s great counterfeit to true spirituality. Religion has done far more damage to the church than all the atheists, communists, and world-class sinners. Religion is Satan’s greatest lie because it keeps so many people out of God’s heaven. I guess you could rightly say: Religion is all pain, no gain.


The overall purpose of Romans 1-3 is to level humankind under sin. Paul begins with Gentiles who are guilty of blatant disobedience (1:18-32). He then pronounces the moralist guilty of counterfeit obedience (2:1-16). Now in 2:17-29, Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews, goes after his own people the Jews and demonstrates that even the Jew is a sinner who stands guilty before God. Paul issues two timely warnings that have greater relevance to us.


  1. Beware Of Religious Overconfidence (2:17-24).

With this section Paul begins a long sentence in which he piles up description after description of the Jews’ privileges (2:17-20), only to show that these blessings mean little because Jews have not lived up to their privileges (2:21-24). Like all good speakers, Paul begins with the positive. In 2:17-20, he summarizes three great privileges or advantages the Jews held over the Gentiles. The first privilege of the Jews is their name. Paul writes in 2:17a, “But if you bear the name Jew.” The name “Jew” means “praise to Yahweh.” This name reminded them that they were privileged among all the people of the world—they were God’s chosen people. So proud were they of this name that many of the Jews living in Gentile cities used it as a surname such as (insert your name), Jew.


In the same way, many modern day churchgoers pride themselves in their names: conservative, charismatic, Pentecostal, evangelical, Baptist, and Presbyterian just to name a few. It’s so easy to brag on a preacher or writer. Yet, a principle that we must always bear in mind is: When people are steeped in religion, they talk about names and churches; when people are steeped in Christianity, they talk about Jesus. We must be careful to distinguish between religion and a relationship with Christ. Religion is all pain, no gain. A relationship with Jesus, however, is the difference between pain and gain.


The second privilege of the Jews is their book. In 2:17b-18 Paul writes that the Jews “rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law.” The Jews possessed the Old Testament and were the keepers of the Law. They knew God’s will in a way the Romans and Greeks never knew it. They knew what was right and what was wrong. They were a people of the book! Sadly, they often failed to see the big picture (i.e., recognize Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament) to fulfill their primary calling (i.e., be a light to the Gentiles). Likewise, a great danger that we face in the 21st century is getting high on our knowledge of the Bible without allowing it to affect our lives. Unlike the Jews, we utilize the full revelation of God’s Word—all sixty-six books. We have multiple versions, cutting edge Bible software, thousands of internet search sites and the Bible on CD and Mp3. Here in America we have every opportunity to know God’s Word. But we must ensure that we don’t fool ourselves into assuming that we know the God of the Bible when all we really know are the contents of the Bible. As R.E.M. once sang, “We need to ‘lose our religion.’” The reason for this seemingly extreme measure is religion is all pain, no gain.


The third privilege of the Jews is their works. In 2:19-20, Paul lists four advantages the Jews made for themselves: “. . . you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth.” These are pretty heavy claims, yet Paul never contradicts them. Each of these claims is good if used in the right way. If you widen the lens to take in all three advantages, they are all outward—a name, a book, and a series of good works. None of those things touch the heart, and since they don’t touch the heart, they can all be faked. They require no inward change. Without a change of heart, the Jew has no advantage at all! The truth applies to us as well. We must be careful not to place confidence in our Christian service, whether it’s children’s ministry, youth ministry, the worship team, or pastoral ministry. Our confidence must be in Christ, not works.


Do you like to watch boxing? I bring up boxing because in 2:17-20, Paul was shadowboxing. In 2:21-24, he abruptly turns aggressive and his blows become lethal as he confronts the Jew with the disparity between what he teaches others and his own manner of life. Paul’s right hand comes over the top and breaks the jaw of the Jew with four consecutive questions. This series of questions is an attempt by Paul to turn the complacent Jew back on himself to search his own soul. The Jewish religious leaders of Paul’s day were notorious for their inconsistency and hypocrisy in respect to the Scriptures.


Paul begins with the thesis question in 2:21a, “. . . you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” The word “therefore” (oun) links 2:21-24 with 2:17-20. Paul argues that, given all the amazing advantages listed in 2:17-20, it seems that the Jews would teach themselves. It is important that we apply the sermon to ourselves first. John Calvin said, “If the preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon.”


In 2:21b, Paul writes, “You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal?” The Jews were stealing from one another, perhaps by collecting extreme interest or cheating on business deals. They preached against stealing, yet they themselves broke the eighth commandment. Paul follows this up in 2:22a with, “You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” The Jews preached against adultery but were also guilty of breaking the seventh commandment as well. Finally, Paul questions the Jews again in 2:22b, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” God’s Law commanded Israel to destroy pagan temples in Canaan (Deut 7:1-6) and zealous Jews sometimes acted on this statute. However, they often broke the second commandment by confiscating the temples’ treasures (Deut 20:16-18; Josh 6:18-19; 20). This isn’t the obedience that God demands. Verse 23 appears to be a fifth and final question; however, it is likely a statement since there is not a question mark in the Greek text. Thus, this verse should be translated: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (ESV; cf. NET, NLT). On one hand the Jews boasted in their knowledge of the Law, yet on the other hand, they were guilty of breaking the Law and dishonoring God. We would call this hypocrisy!


After doing a search on “hypocrisy” on the web, here is what I found:

Def: the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform

(1) Driving School owner drives drunk;

(2) a fire station goes up in flames because it didn’t install a smoke detector; (3) a robber who dresses up in police clothing;

(4) a Lowe’s Home Improvement store that failed to pass a building inspection; and

(5) Typo checking software that has a typo in their press releases. 


What about for us?

  1. Texting while driving, yet yelling at your children or others not to do it. Guilty as charged on this one. And perhaps the best of all hypocrisy examples in the modern world.
  2. Saying, “I have black friends” as if you have no prejudice against the race, but then holding tighter to your purse or locking your doors at the first sight of a black man. If you were brought up with fear of people of other races, maybe it’s time to work on letting it go.
  3. This is one of the most obvious examples of hypocrisy: thinking that gossip is bad, and then repeating it to a friend. This needs no explanation.
  4. Saying, “No child should go hungry,” but then neglecting to donate to a food bank or doing something about it. If you can afford that daily cup of fancy coffee, you can afford to give to someone in need.
  5. Here’s another one of the best hypocrisy examples out there: espousing the whole work/life balance thing but then not really modeling it yourself. Who is not guilty of this one from time to time?
  6. Telling your teenager to slow down on the road, but then you roll through a stop sign ‘cause you don’t want to miss the season premiere of God knows what. Try to model good driving habits for your kids always.
  7. Telling your children that stealing is bad, but “borrowing” some paper clips or other items from your office to take home. It may not seem like much, but it adds up over time.
  8. Complaining about the government, but not voting. This makes us so mad! Let’s just stop there. Now, with all these in mind, go do better, be better and live better.



Such examples demonstrate that hypocrisy remains a problem today. It is both timeless and universal. But our major concern shouldn’t be with the Jews of Paul’s day or even other contemporary examples. We should be concerned with ourselves. Do we also commit the same or similar sins that we denounce in others? Do we slander the welfare cheats yet take deductions on our income tax return to which we’re not lawfully entitled? Do we rebuke the pornographers publicly, yet vicariously live out other people’s sexual adventures through the media? Do we decry the breakdown of the family yet head for divorce court when faced with difficult marriage problems? What about you? Are you practicing what you’re preaching? Does your life match up to your lips? If not, humble yourself, forsake the spiritual snobbery, and submit your life fully to Christ. 


The hypocritical behavior of the Jews led to a disturbing result in 2:24. Paul explains: “For ‘THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU’, just as it is written.” This quotation can be traced back to Isaiah 52:5 LXX (cf. Ezek 36:20-21) where God is mocked by the Gentiles on account of Israel’s disregard for and disobedience of the Law. The Gentiles knew that Israel was God’s “chosen people.” They expected them to live accordingly. When the Jews violated God’s Law, the Gentiles “blasphemed” (blasphemeo) God’s name. In other words, they developed a wrong attitude about God. On one hand, the Jews were so jealous for God’s name that they would not even pronounce it; they would substitute another word for God instead. Yet, their conduct caused the Gentiles to blaspheme that very name. The Jews utterly failed in their calling to make God known. Will we?


Friederick Nietzche (1844-1900) once said that the best argument against Christianity is Christians. Nietzche was so right! We are our own worst enemies. The acid test is not so much what we say about ourselves but what the world says about God because of us! Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Does your life point people to the Savior? Or, does your life cause people to blaspheme His holy name? We must recognize that there is nothing that God is more concerned about than His Name (i.e., His reputation and glory). Our job is to live godly and make Him look good before the nations. If we’re striving for practical righteousness in our lives, the world will sit up and take notice. If they see that we live lives of humility, integrity, and purity, they may just be attracted to what we believe.

[Confidence in one’s good works provides no assurance for salvation. God requires complete obedience. Thus, Paul exclaims, “Beware of religious overconfidence.” His second warning is . . .]

  1. Beware Of Religious Association (2:25-29).

These verses serve as “the great reversal.” Paul levels Jews and puts them on par with Gentiles. He does so by calling out their favorite religious work—circumcision. He indicates that even circumcision will not ensure salvation. Paul puts it like this: “For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (2:25). Paul is quite clear that circumcision is only valuable “if” (repeated twice) you continually practice the Law. For those Jews who have failed to keep the Law and are relying on their circumcision, it’s “uncircumcision.” Paul is slapping his readers silly with a spiritual 2×4. One of the greatest insults in Judaism was to call another Jew “an uncircumcised one,” and this is exactly what Paul is doing here. He’s showing no mercy on his fellow Jews! He argues that the circumcised Jew who transgresses the Law will literally “become a foreskin” (Greek). This means they are no different than a Gentile. What a slam upon these overconfident Jews!


Our primary problem in approaching these verses is that circumcision doesn’t mean to us what it meant to the Jews. To us, circumcision is an optional physical act performed on baby boys. Some are circumcised; some aren’t. Outside of the Jewish faith, few people are circumcised for religious reasons. Most undergo the procedure for hygienic reasons. But the act of circumcision was incredibly significant to Jews. God first instituted circumcision as a “sign of the covenant” that God entered into with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 17:10-14). All males descended from Abraham were to be circumcised on the eighth day as a mark of their identity as the people of God. To the Jews circumcision was intended to demonstrate that a man had committed himself to obey the Lord, and it invited God to cut off the man and his heirs if he rebelled against God. Unfortunately, many Jews came to think that the mere rite guaranteed their salvation.


One Jewish Rabbi stated that Abraham himself will sit at the entrance of Hell to make sure that no circumcised man was ever cast into Hell. However, circumcision was never meant to be an end in itself. The physical mark was meant to be accompanied by a deep spiritual commitment to God. Where commitment was absent, circumcision soon degenerated into ritualism. That’s roughly what happened over the centuries. By the first century many rabbis spoke of circumcision as if it were an automatic ticket to heaven. However, this is like placing a Mercedes Benz hood ornament on a broken down Yugo.


Circumcision was a ritual meant to be an outward sign or seal (Rom 4:11) of an inward reality. The outward ritual profits a person only if it is accompanied by the inner reality. The outward rite is worthless (of no benefit or advantage) apart from the inward reality. Apart from this, it is just ritual with no reality, a symbol with no substance. Now, in the place of circumcision, you can put a number of equivalent things: baptism, confirmation, church membership, communion, and other good works. Personally, I’m concerned for many who regard their infant baptism in much the same way the Jews regarded circumcision.


Some churches even teach that baptism saves from sin and guarantees entrance into heaven. To put a sharp point on it, this is one place where the practice of infant baptism may be rightly criticized. Multiplied millions of people today are putting their hope of heaven in the fact that a priest sprinkled some water on their forehead when they were a few days old. Whatever may be said in favor of infant baptism, this is the most damning indictment against it! It can become a religious ritual that leads many people away from saving faith in Jesus Christ. Hence, when a well-meaning individual acknowledges that he or she is trusting in infant baptism or any other work for salvation, please urge this person to believe in Christ alone. Religion is all pain, no gain.


In 2:26-27, Paul expounds on his thought that Jews face God’s judgment because they have sinned just like Gentiles. “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?” In these two verses Paul powerfully sets forth the truth that inner change happens without works. If the Gentile has the inward reality, then he has the one thing that really counts. The uncircumcised Gentile who perfectly keeps the Law (or as some argue: the Christian who fulfills the Law through the Spirit) is capable of surpassing the circumcised Jew who transgresses the Law. Paul even puts forth the possibility that if the uncircumcised Gentile keeps the Law he or she will judge the circumcised Jew who does not. Ouch! This is a serious slap across the face of the Jew who is reading this letter or listening to Paul’s words being read.


(optional) Do you like peaches? If so, I have a can of peaches right here that I’d be willing to give you. But what you don’t know is that this can of peaches is actually a can of peas. I replaced the labels, so that it has the appearance of being peaches, when in reality, it is a can of peas. (UGH! I don’t know about you, but I hate canned peas.) The outside of this can is not consistent with what is inside.

In our day cans and bottles have labels on them to indicate what is inside. Circumcision was a label, and it implied that the Jew was obedient to God. However, if he was not completely obedient the label was not only worthless but misleading. The contents of the can are more important than the label. Similarly, if a Gentile was completely obedient to God, the absence of the label of circumcision was not of major consequence. The Jews had put more emphasis on the presence of the label than on the contents of the can. Paul’s point is that disobedience brings condemnation and perfect obedience, hypothetically, brings salvation, regardless of whether one is a Jew or a Gentile. Circumcision or baptism or any other rite practiced in an attempt to gain salvation is analogous to a label on a can of fruit or vegetables. If the outer label doesn’t match with the inner product, something is rotten! Religion is all pain, no gain.


Again, let me be clear on this point. Paul is saying that all religious ritual is worthless unless something has already happened in the heart! Baptism can’t save you or help you. The Lord’s Supper can’t save you or help you. Church membership can’t save you or help you. Good works can’t save you or help you. These things aren’t bad—they are wonderful. God expects you to obey Him in each of these areas. But to whatever extent you base your hope of eternal life upon any of these things, you’re making the same mistake the Jews made 2000 years ago. Good works are always an expression of gratitude for the gift of salvation. They are never to be equated with salvation or included in the salvation equation.

Paul closes this section by explaining positively what a true Jew is: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (2:28-29). The real message of this passage may be summed up in one simple sentence: Being a Jew is not a matter of racial heritage or religious ritual, but is instead a matter of the heart. No outward circumcision will ultimately earn praise from God. Salvation is by sheer grace, for God will not share His glory with another.


The great ignorance of religion is that people don’t realize that God approves matters of the heart. He seeks a circumcision of the heart by the Spirit. This is what results in the praise of God. Why? Because what a man is inwardly is the true measure of what he is before God. The word translated “but” (alla) in 2:29 is the strongest contrast in the Greek language. Paul transitions from the exterior to the interior, from the body to the heart. In doing so, he uses a play on words to summarize the point of this section. The word “praise” (epainos) links back to the word “Jew” (Ioudaios) in 2:17, because the word Jew means “praise.” It comes from the Hebrew word judah, which means “praise.” These Jews were praising themselves because they had the rite of circumcision. This was the great mark of the true people of God. Whenever anybody questioned their standing before God, they only had to refer to the fact that they were circumcised. Yet, they failed to appropriate true praise from God.


With this we come to the bottom line. As shocking as it may sound, there will be many church members in hell. In fact, hell will be populated with people from every religious persuasion. Why? It is because many people are locked into a false religious confidence. They trusted in religion instead of Christ. In the end, they were too religious for their own good. What are you trusting for your eternal salvation? Or, to put it more accurately: In whom are you trusting to take you to heaven? After all, salvation isn’t a what; it’s a who. The issue on the floor is your relationship with Jesus Christ. Let me give you five simple words that can take you all the way from earth to heaven. Here they are: Faith alone in Christ alone. Only Jesus can save you, so put your trust in Jesus only.

It was every business person’s nightmare. Arriving at Harv’s Metro Car Wash in Sacramento, CA were two dark-suited IRS agents demanding payment of delinquent taxes. “They were deadly serious, very aggressive, very condescending,” says Harv’s owner, Aaron Zeff. The really odd part of this: The letter that was hand-delivered to Zeff’s on-site manager showed the amount of money owed to the feds was . . . four cents. Inexplicably, penalties and taxes accruing on the debt—stemming from the 2006 tax year—were listed as $202.31, leaving Harv’s with an obligation of $202.35. Thank God, when it comes to our sin debt, Jesus paid it all; He didn’t leave a balance.


Aren’t you glad that the debt you owe has been paid for by the person and work of Jesus Christ? His sinless life and His excruciating death have turned away God’s wrath and satisfied His holy demands. Your sins—past, present, future—have been forgiven, forgotten, forever. All that is necessary for you to have eternal life is to place your confidence in Jesus Christ alone. Today, will you simply acknowledge your sin and turn to the Savior?

Judge and Jury

On March 26, 2000 at 8:32 a.m., Seattle’s famed Kingdome—home of the Seahawks, the Mariners, and at times, the Sonics—was blown to kingdom come. Working for the Seattle office of Turner Construction Co., the Maryland based Controlled Demolition Incorporated (CDI) was hired to do the job of imploding the 125,000-ton structure that had marked Seattle’s skyline for almost twenty-five years. The remarkable thing about the event was the extreme measures taken to ensure no one was hurt. CDI had experience with over 7,000 demolitions and knew how to protect people. Engineers checked and rechecked the structure. The authorities evacuated several blocks around the Kingdome. Safety measures were in place to allow the countdown to stop at any time if there was concern about safety. All workers were individually accounted for by radio before the explosives were detonated. A large public address system was used to announce the final countdown. In short, CDI took every reasonable measure, and then some, to warn people of the impending danger.

The Bible teaches a final judgment and destruction for this sinful world. Like the engineers who blew up the Kingdome, our heavenly Father has spared no expense to make sure everyone can “get out” safely. He especially warns us of judgment in the first three chapters of Romans. In 1:18-32, Paul dealt with humankind’s unrighteousness in fifteen verses. In 2:1-3:8, he deals with our self-righteous in a whopping thirty-seven verses. Paul spills over twice as much ink on the self-righteousness because they are the most difficult people to persuade of their sin. The apostle’s point is that all men need salvation either because of blatant disobedience or counterfeit obedience. In 2:1-16, he confronts those who think their works can justify them before God. He will make it clear that the self-righteous person is as guilty before God as the unrighteous person. He states: Excuses for sin will not be excused. In this text Paul answers the question: How does God judge people? He then provides three ways: God judges according to truth, works, and light.

1. God Judges According To Truth (2:1-5).
Paul insists that the self-righteous person is guilty before God. Now if you’ve never judged anyone, you’re welcome to stop reading right now. But I suspect you’ve judged at least one person on one occasion, so keep reading. Paul begins in 2:1 with these penetrating words: “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you5 who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.” After hearing about the blatant idolatry, immorality, and wickedness of the pagan unbeliever (1:18-32), some of Paul’s readers must have become smug with pride. However, he abruptly cuts them down to size. He uses the word “therefore” (dio) to connect the overt sinner of 1:21-32 with the covert sinner who judges another (2:1-5). Paul also clearly implies that God’s wrath in 1:18-20 will fall upon the moralist. The word “excuse” (anapologetos) is the same word used in 1:20 where Paul writes that the wicked are “without excuse” because of God’s witness in creation. Interestingly, Paul’s focus moves from “them/they” to “you/yourself” (six times in 2:1). He points the finger at the moralist and says, “You are guilty!” While the moralist may not indulge in gross manifestations of sin as some do, all people have impure thoughts, motives, and attitudes. So even “nice sinners” who pass judgment stand condemned.

We are quick to notice the grain of pepper in someone else’s teeth but slow to deal with the burrito in our own. Jesus’ words are fitting: “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:3-5). We need to stop being oblivious to our own sin and deal with our junk before we approach another person. This may be as simple as changing pronouns. Like Paul in 2:1 we need to stop using “them/they” and “he/she.” Instead, we must first address me, myself, and I.

Tragically, we can all be self-righteous to one degree or another. We judge both ourselves and others poorly. We defend ourselves and find it difficult to believe that God’s judgment will touch us. Yet, we judge others severely and assume that they deserve God’s judgment. Have you ever noticed how we like to “rename” our sins? We do that by ascribing the worst motives to others, while using other phrases to let ourselves off the hook. Ray Pritchard provides the following examples: If you do it, you’re a liar; I merely “stretch the truth.” If you do it, you’re cheating; I am “bending the rules.” You lose your temper; I have righteous anger. You’re a jerk; I’m having a bad day. You have a critical spirit; I bluntly tell the truth. You gossip; I share prayer requests. You curse and swear; I let off steam. You’re pushy; I’m intensely goal-oriented. You’re greedy; I’m simply taking care of business. You’re a hypochondriac; but I’m really sick. You stink; I merely have an “earthy aroma.” Are we a sad bunch or what? We need to be reminded that excuses for sin will not be excused.

Paul further convicts us in 2:2: “And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.” Paul is saying that deep down we know within the core of our being that judging others is sinful, and God will judge us for inappropriately judging others. Can I prove this? Yes, I can. What’s the most often quoted Bible verse in the world? John 3:16? Nope. It’s Matt 7:1a: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” The reason that this verse is so frequently quoted by believers and unbelievers alike is twofold: (1) We don’t want to be reminded of our sinfulness. (2) We are aware of God’s judgment. Yet, this verse is taken out of context. This verse doesn’t mean that we can’t judge sin. On the contrary, we’re commanded to judge sin. Jesus teaches us in this verse that we need to deal with our own sin before we point out a brother or sister’s sin. When it comes right down to it, the only positive thing that we really accomplish by our self-righteous illegitimate judgment of others is to demonstrate our awareness of God’s holy and righteous standards. If we will leave judgment in God’s capable hands we express our faith. He is the sovereign judge who judges “rightly.” Let’s give God His job back and ask Him to help us be perfectly content to allow Him to judge people instead of trying to do His job for Him.

In 2:3-4, Paul asks a rhetorical question that expects a resounding “NO!” “But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” When Paul really wants to get down to business he uses the phrase “O man!” (He uses this same phrase in the Greek text of 2:1.) It is his way of getting into his reader’s grill and going eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose. He has to be in our face because there’s a perverse tendency in the human heart to imagine that somehow divine punishment will pass us by. We’re so permeated with a sense of being “special” that we find it easy to rationalize that judgment can’t happen to us. Yet, God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience is not an opportunity to sin; it’s a call to repent! Repentance is simply a change of mind or attitude that should lead to a change of feet. It means we examine our own mind and heart first before we judge anyone else. Paul concludes 2:4 by emphasizing kindness for the second time. As important as God’s wrath is Paul sees God’s kindness as the primary impetus to bring about repentance.

In my parenting, I am prone to be a disciplinarian when necessary. I have felt that every offense needs to be punished. This may have worked well with my children up to age ten or so, but the authoritarian approach is not always as effective anymore. Instead, I have discovered that kindness cultivates obedience. When I heap love and grace upon my children they seem to be more responsive to my discipline. I became persuaded of this reality from my experience as a Dad. More importantly, when I reflected on how God treats me, I realized He overwhelms me with His kindness, tolerance, and patience. If He treated me as I deserve I would be a bloodied corpse. Instead, He pours out grace day after day. Am I suggesting we chuck discipline? Not on your life! But I am saying we need to have a better understanding of how God treats us. Honestly, I am astounded at times by how rebellious and sinful I can be. My prayer has been: “Lord, remind me of how utterly wicked I can be so that I have a great appreciation for you and a deeper empathy for my children and others.” There are times when only God’s kindness (and our kindness) can break through a hard heart. Hence, when I talk to unbelievers, I talk about sin, righteousness, and judgment, but I also woo them with God’s kindness. To always speak of hellfire and judgment is not a balanced treatment of God. It is both kindness and wrath.
Paul concludes this section with a disturbing verse: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5). Paul really goes after the moralist in this verse. He indicates that a stubborn and unrepentant heart leads to “storing up” (lit. “treasuring”) wrath. Whether this wrath is God’s present wrath, His Tribulation wrath, or His future wrath is debated. However, it seems evident that there’s a shift from God’s present wrath in chapter 1 to His future wrath in chapter 2 (see esp. 2:16). In either case, the moralist is being challenged to repent ASAP . . . before it’s too late!

You may have noticed in 2:2-5 there is a repeated emphasis upon God’s judgment. Yet many people in our culture balk at the notion of God’s judgment. Such individuals just want to focus on God’s love, mercy, compassion, and grace. While these attributes are certainly important, we must not neglect God’s holiness, wrath, righteousness, and justice. Upon closer examination, it is easy to see why that makes no sense at all. How loving is a God who ignores wrong-doing? How loving would God be if He looked at the Holocaust and said, “Oh, we’ll just ignore what happened there?” How righteous and good would God be if He saw the outright rebellion of men and did nothing? How could we call God just if He never addressed wrong? Do we consider parents who refuse to discipline their children loving? Or do we see them as weak and neglecting their responsibility? Do we see employers who overlook the disrespectful and lazy work of some workers as loving? Or do we feel they are being unfair to the rest of the workers? If our government responded to terrorist activity by saying, “Oh well; these things happen!” would we say our government was showing love or weakness? The answer to these scenarios is obvious. We respect individuals who execute grace and truth (see Jesus in John 1:14).

There are times when God’s love and kindness must be tough. This principle applies to us as well. We all want justice for the world, but we each carry within us a standard of righteousness based on our own perceived goodness. Furthermore, we will tolerate only as much evil in the world as we can accept within ourselves. When we feel resentment towards God for not eradicating evil in the world, we forget that eliminating all evil would mean the end of us too. Yet, if we genuinely care to eradicate evil from the world, we must look at our own sin. We must recognize that God doesn’t grade on a one to ten scale as we do. In light of His awesome holiness, it doesn’t matter whether our sin is in the form of an act, a word, or a thought; it’s still exceedingly sinful. As believers we must repent of our sin and then challenge moralist unbelievers to recognize their sin and turn to the Savior who has paid for their sin. Excuses for sin will not be excused.
[The first way that God judges is according to truth. Now we will see that . . .]
2. God Judges According To Works (2:6-11).
Paul argues that God will judge impartially according to a perfect standard. To put it simply: God only accepts perfect tens. Paul writes, “[He] who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. 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.” Paul is not talking about salvation in this section. He is not showing us how we are saved, because we are not saved by works. He is showing us why we are lost. This section is about God giving humankind what we deserve. But with all the emphasis in the Bible on faith, why is humankind judged according to works? Although we can be saved on the basis of faith, if we reject God’s offer, we are condemned on the basis of works (cf. Rev 20:11-15). This is a crucial distinction. When a person rejects the righteousness which God has provided as a free gift in Jesus Christ, in effect, he chooses to establish his own righteousness, and this can only be judged on a performance basis.

Remember that 2:1-16 is a paragraph which must be interpreted in its immediate context as well as its thought unit (1:18-3:20). Paul has been arguing that the moralist is under God’s condemnation because, though he condemns other sinners, he practices the same (types of) sin in his own life (2:1-5). Thus, he argues in 2:6 (quoting Ps 62 and Prov 24:12) that God pays such unbelievers back according to their works. According to 2:7, those who by perseverance continue in doing good and those who seek for glory and honor and immortality will receive eternal life. Paul means exactly what he says: Any person who shows up at the judgment matching the description of 2:7 will receive eternal life. But if someone did, it wouldn’t be salvation. A person who could do that wouldn’t need to be saved; he would just be getting what he deserved. He would be rewarded according to his works. And Paul is careful to say, “To those who by perseverance continue” to do such things . . . day after day after day. If you take a day off, you miss it. And the best of us take a day off. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory God” (3:23). Since the moralist’s deeds are evil he earns wrath and indignation just like the hedonist (1:18-32). The theological point of the whole is that God is no respecter of persons (2:11) and that all have sinned (2:12). If people lived up to the light they had (natural revelation for the Gentiles, special revelation for the Jews, cf. 10:5) then they would be right with God. However, the summary of 3:9-18, 23 shows that none ever have, nor can they! Hence, we are condemned sinners in need of a Savior. This section serves as an indictment. Humanity is being hauled before God’s bar of justice, and the standards of judgment are the issue. No one gets eternal life on the basis of their works because no one perfectly obeys. Therefore, the only method of justification is by faith alone (see 3:21-26). In other words, no one fits 2:7.

Ultimately, there are only two religions in the world—do good (400 varieties in the world) or have good done to you (Christianity). Today, will you believe in Christ’s perfect person and work? Assurance can only be found in Him.

In 2:8-10, Paul uses the term “Greek” to refer to Gentiles. He then makes it clear that the Jews (the religious) will experience “tribulation and distress” first and foremost. The reason is obvious. Jews are more accountable than Greeks because they knew more and had the privilege of knowing God’s will before anyone else. To whom much is given much is required (Luke 12:48). Verse 11 gives the reason, “For there is no partiality with God.” The word “partiality” (prosopolempsia) literally means “to receive (a person’s) face.” God does not deal with a person on the basis of his “face” (surface considerations such as nationality, race, color of skin, wealth, etc.). God looks deeper than the surface. This verse is the point of the whole argument: Since God isn’t partial, His children should be careful not to exercise partiality. Instead, we are called to call sin “SIN” and look to the perfect One who offers salvation.
[Make no mistake, God will judge according to truth and works. Finally. . .]
3. God Judges According To Light (2:12-16).
Paul explains that no one will be judged for the light they did not receive; everyone will be judged for light they did receive. However, more knowledge brings more responsibility and greater accountability. In these five verses, the word “law” is used eleven times. Clearly, that is what is on Paul’s mind: the law of God and how God holds humanity accountable to it. He explains: “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (2:12-16). These five verses are all one long, complex sentence. If you will notice, 2:13 begins with a parenthesis, and the parenthetical section doesn’t end until the end of 2:15. (To see this, read 2:12 and then go directly to 2:16). Verse 12 is clear that humankind is guilty before God whether they have the Law or not. All men are judged and condemned. Paul’s point, simply stated is this: Ignorance of the Law will not save the Gentile; possession of the Law will not save the Jew. Both are condemned before God the righteous Judge. In 2:13, he states that if one is seeking to justify himself by the Law he must be a doer of the Law. In 2:14-15, we learn that Gentiles will be judged according to the moral law. Paul says that when Gentiles instinctively follow God’s Law, they’re revealing that they know that Law.

This explains why, in almost every culture, it’s considered wrong to steal and murder. This also explains why a man with no knowledge of the Bible will know it’s wrong to commit adultery. Let me say something very important. Every human being lives according to a law, a standard of performance. For some, this is a vague standard. These people say, “I have lived a good life. I’ve never killed anyone!” Others will point to the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Golden Rule. Each of these represents very good precepts for life. However, what most people don’t know is that God will hold them to their standard but will require 100% conformity to that law. In fact, God requires nothing short of absolute perfection. For those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior, the free gift of Christ’s perfection is placed in their accounts. However, those who don’t receive Jesus as Savior face eternal condemnation for their sins.

If we’ve sinned even one time in word, thought, or deed, we’re eternally disconnected from God. In other words, we must do it all according to the Law, and we can make no mistakes to be justified. We must be perfect to please God.

Paul concludes our passage in 2:16 by stating that God will not only judge people’s actions, but their secrets as well. Are you ready to give an account of your secrets? I know I’m not! It’s scary enough to think about giving an account of my works or lack thereof. But my secrets? OH MY! In that day of accounting, the most “excused” sin will come into the light. Excuses for sin will not be excused. If you’re a believer, confess your sin to God right now. If you’re an unbeliever, repent of your self-righteous attitude and believe in Jesus as your Savior. This section begins in 2:1 with man in the seat of judgment and end in 2:16 with God on the throne of judgment. In 2:1 man is condemned by his own judgment; in 2:2-16 he is condemned by God’s judgment. The riveting point is: We ought to let God be God. Jesus is the just Judge who is also the perfect Savior. Let us cling to His cross and evade the present and future judgment that God will bring upon the self-righteous.

Did you know that judgment day is not far away? Romans 2 teaches that God’s future judgment will be according to truth, works, and light. Are you ready to face that judgment? Are you ready to stand before a holy and righteous God? God has leveled the Gentile and Jew and condemned every person who has ever lived or will ever live under sin. He has demolished us into dust and sprinkled us at the foot of the cross. It’s there that we must acknowledge our sin and trust in Jesus Christ alone.