Romans 2:17-3:8

Romans 2:17-3:8

SERIES: The Book of Romans

Are Religious People Lost, Too?  

Introduction:  In chapter one of Romans the Apostle Paul dealt with the unreached pagan and declared him to be lost, without excuse, and on his way to Hell.  In the first part of chapter two he took up the case of the moralist, the humanist with high personal ethical standards who looks down his nose at the gross pagan, and declared him, too, to be lost, without excuse, and on his way to hell. That leaves his own people, the Jews, as the only ones who will inherit the Kingdom of God.  Right?  Wrong, for as he makes clear in our text today, they had failed miserably to apply the special knowledge they had of God to their lives, and thus they were every bit as guilty, perhaps more so, than the pagan or the moralist.  Many of them, too, were lost, without excuse, and on their way to hell.

But Paul is speaking in the last half of Romans 2, not only to the Jew, but to any religious person.  In fact, let me read our Scripture passage again.  Only this time I’m going to read from the Andrus Revised Version.  Actually, what I did was to write a modern paraphrase of the text with the intention of showing all of us right from the start that this passage is extremely relevant to us.

The Andrus Revised Version, Romans 2:17-3:8

         If you call yourself a “Christian” and claim to accept the authority of the Bible, and act as though you and God are personal friends, and if you know the Ten Commandments and are able to appreciate high moral standards because you have been taught Bible stories from the time you were a kid, and if you are so confident of your understanding of spiritual truth that you think you could serve as a guide to blind men and as a light to those who are groping in the dark, and if you think you can instruct the simple and those who are spiritually just out of the cradle, and if you know the Bible well enough that you can explain all the basic doctrines; if all these things are true and you consider yourself a great teacher of others, have you ever thought about practicing what you preach?  

You preach against stealing, but are you sure of your own honesty?  You denounce the sin of adultery, but are you so sure of your own purity?  You loathe the cults and false religions, yet have you made money your God?  Everyone knows how proud you are of being a Bible-believing Christian, but that merely results in greater dishonor to God when those you witness to discover that you don’t live by the Scriptures.  Don’t you know that the very name of God is blasphemed by unbelievers because of the behavior of many so-called Christians?

For indeed your religious practices—confirmation, baptism, communion, regular church attendance, tithing—are of value if you consistently practice a biblical lifestyle.  But if you violate the Scriptures whenever it’s convenient, you are, to all intents and purposes, unconfirming yourself, unbaptizing yourself, taking money out of the offering plate.  Conversely, if a person who, because of ignorance, has never been baptized, yet nevertheless lives consistently as a Christian, then his obedience in effect baptizes him.  

In fact, won’t this man who has never participated in the rites and rituals and ordinances of Christianity but who has sought to be obedient to what he did know, end up being appointed by God as a judge over you who know the Scriptures well and keep all the outward “rules,” yet violate them in your heart?  

Friends, the bottom line is this: a true Christian is not the man or woman who is born into a Christian home or attends a Christian church or even goes through the rite of baptism.  Rather the true Christian is the one who belongs to God in the heart, a person whose baptism is not just an outward physical affair but is a God-made sign upon the heart and soul, resulting in a life lived not for the approval of man, but for the approval of God.

As you can see Paul is teaching principles which have application to all religious people everywhere.  He is intent on getting everyone to quit relying upon human effort and human righteousness and human religion, and to turn to God in repentance to receive the salvation that He alone can offer.  The problem isn’t, of course, with religion itself—it’s with those who are “religious without a relationship with God.”  That phrase, unfortunately, describes the vast majority of people in the world today, and it has always been so.  Nearly everyone is religious, but for most people religion is exactly what Karl Marx called it—the opiate of the people, an opiate which actually dulls their sensitivity to God.  But the answer is not found in Marx’s communism.  It is found in moving beyond religion to a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  

This morning I’m asking you to think with me about the important question, “What’s wrong with religion?”  

The religious person is often guilty of profession without performance. (17-20)

What does the religious person within the Judeo-Christian tradition profess?  What does he have going for him?  Well, there are at least seven assets in his favor, or at least he thinks they are.

He claims to be a member of God’s spiritual family.  Verse 17: “You call yourself a Jew.”  He could just as easily have said, “You call yourself a Christian.”  You belong, you have an identity, you are part of an important tradition that goes back hundreds, even thousands of years.  You are not just a meaningless blob of protoplasm unleashed by the forces of evolution, only to vanish from existence after 60, 70, or 80 years.  That’s a real advantage when compared to the atheist or agnostic, who must experience a terrible sense of futility if he ever stops to ask, “What is life all about?”  

He has confidence in the Bible.  In verse 17 Paul says to the Jew, “You rely on the Law.”  Whether one is speaking of the Jew with his Old Testament or the Christian with his complete Bible, the more religious a person is, generally speaking, the more emphasis he will put upon the Scriptures.  And his possession of a Bible, or even a part of the Bible, is not a privilege to be taken lightly.  After all, the Bible is the very Word of God (according to 3:2).  It is the revelation of His character and His will for man.  It is a guidebook that prevents a person from feeling rudderless on the sea of human society.  

He is proud of his “relationship” with God.  In verse 17 Paul says, “You brag about your relationship to God,” i.e., “you brag that you and God are special friends.”  There are millions and millions of religious people who are unashamedly sitting in church or synagogue this very hour, invoking the name of God, singing magnificent hymns, praying, and in various ways claiming God as their father.  I put “relationship” in quotation marks, however, because the religious person may or may not have a personal relationship with God, but he thinks he has.  

He knows God’s will.  Paul mentions this at the beginning of verse 18.  Of course, the knowledge a person has of God’s will is almost directly proportional to the confidence he has in the Scriptures and the time he spends studying it.  Many religious people have a pretty fair grasp of God’s will in respect to basic moral questions, priorities in life, family responsibilities, etc.  When faced with questions like, “Shall I cheat on my income taxes?” or “Shall I neglect my family in favor of my career?”, most religious people know what God’s will is.  Whether or not they are willing to accept it and live by it is another matter, but they do know it in their hearts.  

He appreciates high moral standards.  Verse 18 says, “You approve of what is superior.”  His point seems to be that, on balance, religious people have higher standards in regard to moral issues than the average person.  They tend to have stronger family values, make better neighbors, are more faithful employees, and more often avoid criminal behavior because they know the difference between right and wrong.  Certainly, anyone can point to some notable counter-examples, such as the religious terrorists in the Middle East and Northern Ireland and the abortion clinic terrorists who have recently killed several doctors in our own country, but in general religious people approve of what is morally superior.  

He is doctrinally knowledgeable.  The last phrase in verse 18 tells us that the religious Jew is “instructed by the Law.”  There are millions of people within Christendom, as well, who have gone through catechism, confirmation, and other kinds of doctrinal training.  Countless numbers can recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, or some other statement of faith.  Within evangelicalism itself there are many who know the five points of Calvinism, can describe the seven seals and seven bowls of Revelation, and can cite all manner of evidence for the Resurrection of Christ.  Some can even quote large portions of Scripture.

And finally, the religious person makes a number of claims for himself. 

He claims to be: 

         1.  A guide to the blind, 

         2.  A light to those in darkness, 

         3.  An instructor of the simple,

         4.  A teacher of spiritual infants, 

         5.  And in possession of knowledge and Truth.  

We’ll see in a minute whether these claims in verses 19 and 20 are valid, but it is not unusual to find religious people playing these roles in other people’s lives.  Many of us here this morning do so in one context or another.

So far we have examined with Paul what the religious person professes.  But all through this description there has been the hint that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  Now in verse 21 the Apostle speaks openly and bluntly of the fact that despite the religious person’s claims, …

Nevertheless, he is often a hypocrite.  Look again at verses 21-24:  

“You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?  You who preach against stealing, do you steal?  You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?  You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?  You who brag about the law, do youdishonor God by breaking the law?  As it is written:  ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.'” 

Here I see three ways in which the religious person demonstrates hypocrisy.  

1.  He fails to teach himself while he teaches others.  I can’t think of a single statement in the Word of God that should cause preachers, teachers, disciplers and others in ministry to pause and take inventory of their spiritual lives more than the opening statement of verse 21:  “You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?”  Those of us who are busy in ministry must come to grips with this truth:  God requires that we practice what we preach.  

The Apostle James warned in the third chapter of his epistle, “Not many of you should presume to be teachersmy brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  That’s a sobering thought for every pastor and every Bible teacher to consider.  It may, in fact, be ample justification for the advice one of my professors in seminary gave to his students, “If you can be happy doing anything else in the world, don’t go into the ministry.”

Friends, I want to be very forthright with you.  As your pastor, if I did not see spiritual growth in my own life, and if my wife could not say that I am a better husband and father today than I was a year ago, and if those of you who know me best were unable to see that I am walking closer to God as I expound the Scriptures week after week and month after month and year after year, I would feel duty-bound to resign and find a more honest way to make a living.

I’m not suggesting that every sin and every temptation I have preached on has been totally conquered in my own life or that every Christian grace about which I speak is perfectly modeled in my life.  (I wish that were the case, but I know it is not).  But if you have listened to me preach for 2, 4, 6, or even 10 years, and you see me as the same person spiritually that I was at the beginning or, God forbid, that I have even regressed, then, either I shouldn’t be here or you shouldn’t be here.  I know one thing—I wouldn’t sit under a man’s ministry for two weeks if I thought he was a conscious hypocrite in respect to the Scriptures.  I would go and tell him he ought to get out of the ministry, and barring that, I would find another church.  

2.  He commits the same or similar sins he denounces in others.  (22)  The Jewish religious leaders of Paul’s day were notorious for their inconsistency and hypocrisy in respect to the Scriptures.  They preached against stealing but were willing to cheat on a business deal.  They preached against adultery but were not above a little hanky-panky with the slave girls.  They professed to hate idolatry, but they carried on a lively business selling supplies to idol temples and robbing them at the same time through exorbitant prices.  They preached against Sabbath violation yet at the same time wrote all kinds of special regulations which allowed themselves to do most anything they pleased on the Sabbath.

But our major concern really shouldn’t be with the Jews of Paul’s day but with ourselves.  Do we also commit the same or similar sins that we denounce in others?  Do we rebuke the pornographers publicly, yet keep a little stash of it hidden away for our own lustful enjoyment?  Do we decry the breakdown of the family yet head for the divorce court when faced with difficult marriage problems?  Do we vilify the welfare cheats yet take deductions on our income tax return to which we are not lawfully entitled?  Do we censure the gamblers who go to the river boats, yet take our own turn when the company has a convention in Las Vegas?  Do we castigate the sexual looseness of our society yet vicariously live out other people’s sexual adventures through TV soap operas, movies, and romance novels?

3.  He brings dishonor to God.  (23-24) Verse 24 reads, “As it is written:  ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  Every time a church splits, every time a pastor runs off with his secretary, every time a Christian ministry declares bankruptcy, every time a Christian couple ends up in divorce court, every time a squabble within the family of God becomes public knowledge, the work of the Lord is set back immeasurably, and people point a finger saying, “You call that Christianity?  I don’t want to have a thing to do with it.”

Now frankly, Paul is not trying to excuse the person who blasphemes God because of all the hypocrites in the Church.  That person will have to answer to God for his own failure to bow the knee to Christ.  After all, there were hypocrites, a denier, and even a betrayer among the Twelve Apostles, but that didn’t invalidate Christ’s message.  What Paul is pointing out is that many so-called Christians share guilt in that blasphemy because their lives have contributed to it.  Ray Stedman asked an interesting question, “Isn’t it amazing how some of the people who keep such close records on how many they win to Christ never keep any records on how many they drive away!”[i]  

Barnhouse has written along the same line, 

We expect a pagan to live like a pagan and to have the booths of prostitutes within the portals of his temples, as is the case in India.  We expect the followers of Allah to take the sword and exterminate their enemies in wholesale carnage.  We are not astonished when the veil is lifted on the secret rites of the devil worshipers of Africa to find the devotees in orgies of lust and blood.  But the Jew of Old Testament times from Moses to Christ, and the Christian from the day of Pentecost even unto us, have standards that are divinely given and must, therefore, produce a type of life that is divine. If the demon gods cannot produce men of high moral culture, founded on principles of justice and truth, the lack is comprehensible; a stream cannot rise higher than its source.  If the Russians in their atheism talk peace with their lips while their hearts prepare destruction and slavery for those who oppose their ruthless desires, it is to be expected. But the men who drew their calling from the Lord Jehovah should have lived according to His name.  The men who name the name of the Lord Jesus Christ should walk worthy of Him.  But history is full of noteworthy examples of men of highest profession and lowest practice.[ii]  

Now so far Paul has been stressing that the religious person is often guilty of profession without performance.  Beginning in verse 25 he touches upon a closely related issue.

The religious person is often guilty of ritual without reality.  (25-29)

The particular religious ritual that he chooses is the rite of circumcision, which was the outward distinguishing mark which God put upon the people of Israel to remind them of their spiritual separation from the world.  It was not an optional thing either.  When Moses failed to circumcise his son, God considered taking Moses’ life, according to Exodus 4:24.  But even in the Old Testament the real meaning of circumcision was never physical but spiritual.  This is obvious from the number of references in the Old Testament to circumcised hearts, circumcised ears, and circumcised lips.  For example, Deut. 10:16 reads, “Circumcise your hearts, therefore and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” 

The fact that religious ritual is worthless in and of itself seems to be the point here in Romans 2:25:  “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.”  And we have only to substitute for circumcision one of the rites or rituals of the Christian Church in order to apply this text to our own lives.  Child dedication is of value if and only if you follow through as a parent with your public commitment to rear the child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  Baptism is of value if and only if you really are identifying yourself with Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection and are trusting Him and Him alone for your salvation.  Confirmation, participation in the Lord’s Supper, church membership, tithing, ordination, are all of value if and only if one’s heart is genuinely committed to God and one is seeking to be obedient to His revealed will.

I’ve attempted to capsulize the teaching of verses 25-29 by means of three propositions:

         The rite without the Reality is worthless.  

         The Reality without the rite is acceptable.

         The rite with the Reality is best.

The rite without the Reality is worthless.  “If you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.” (verse 25) The knife used in circumcision might as well be spared because it avails nothing if your heart is not circumcised.  You might as well keep your clothes dry instead of being baptized because baptism is worthless if you are living the life of a hypocrite.  You might as well blow your money on yourself as to tithe it, if you are living a life of disobedience.  The rite without the Reality is worthless.  

The Reality without the rite is acceptable.  “If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?”  On a number of occasions I have had the opportunity to talk about spiritual things with a person from the Church of Christ.  If you’ve ever spoken to someone from that denomination, you are aware that the most important thing in the world to them is baptism.  You must be baptized in order to be saved and it’s your baptism that saves you.  I always take my Church of Christ friends to verse 26, which teaches that if the person who hasn’t experienced the rite has, nevertheless, the reality of saving faith, then God considers him to have experienced the rite even though he hasn’t experienced it outwardly.  Isn’t that what Paul is saying?

Suppose there is someone who has sought the Lord with his whole heart but has neglected baptism—not because of a rebellious attitude but because of ignorance, or perhaps because he misunderstood biblical teaching, or perhaps because he never had the opportunity to be baptized (as in the case of a death-bed conversion).  God isn’t going to hold that omission against such a person.  He will read the person’s heart and impute to Him the act in accord with the intent of the man’s heart.  The result, according to verse 27, is that there will be uncircumcised Jews (and I suggest, unbaptized Christians) who will one day judge circumcised Jews and baptized Christians who think they have it made just because they’ve experienced all the rites and rituals of their faith.  

The rite with the Reality is best.  God never intended that rite and Reality would be an either/or option.  Circumcision with obedience was God’s desire for the Jewish people.  And for us, God’s desire is baptism with sincere commitment, communion with personal examination and repentance, tithing with a heart of love and thankfulness, church membership with a desire to serve the Lord.  

Religious ritual does have value when it is accompanied by genuine faith.  In fact, God Himself gave us these rituals, and we as evangelicals are in considerable danger of taking them too lightly.  We should not casually dismiss 2,000 years of church history.  Yet the plain truth taught in these verses is this:  you don’t become a part of the family of God through religious rites and rituals.  Look at verse 28:  “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is a circumcision merely outward and physical.  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”  Let’s change it slightly:  “A person is not a Christian if he is only one outwardly, nor is baptism merely outward and physical.  No, a person is a Christian if he is one inwardly; and true baptism is baptism of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”  

You see, as one pastor put it, it is not a question of whether one has been circumcised, baptized, galvanized, Sanforized, or pasteurized.[iii]  Rather the questions we need to answer are:  “Are you trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins?  Has the Spirit of God regenerated you and given you a new heart?  Have you been born again?”

Our chapter ends with the observation that for the person who is a believer inwardly, “such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”  It is praise from God, friends, that really counts, not praise from people.  Approval by God is really all that matters.  If I have the smile of the world and the frown of God, it will profit me nothing in the day of Judgment.  But if I enjoy the smile of God, it matters not then (and it should not matter now!) what people may think of me.  

There’s one final question I would like to ask:

Is there, then, no point in being religious? 

That is what Paul asks at the beginning of the next chapter.  “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?”  We could rephrase it:  “What advantage, then, is there in being a Christian, or what value is there in baptism?”  The answer?  “Much in every way! Principally the fact that believers have been entrusted with the very words of God.”  That is a privilege not to be taken lightly.  The Creator, the Sustainer, the Lord of the Universe has communicated with us and shared with us His will and His ways.  As a member of the family of God it is an enormous privilege to come together with other believers to worship that God, to study His Word, and to encourage one another in our faith.  

In other words, there is no point in being religious just for the sake of being religious.  But if religion leads one to the truth of God’s Word and through the Word into a personal relationship with almighty God, then it is of great value.  Fifteen or twenty years ago a book was published entitled, How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious.  While a better title may have been, How to Be a Christian While Being Religious, I appreciate that the author was trying to point out the same contrast between humanistic religion and biblical Christianity that Paul addresses in Romans 2.  

         Religion is our effort to find God.

                  Christianity is God’s effort to find us.

         Religion is what we do for God.

                  Christianity is what God does for us.

         Religion has its focus on behaving.

                  Christianity has its focus first on believing, then on behaving.

         Religion puts its trust in work being done.

                  Christianity puts its trust in a work that is finished.

         Religion’s effort is to find an appropriate sacrifice for sin.

                  Christianity accepts the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ for sin.

         Religion’s ultimate concern is for outward form.

                  Christianity’s ultimate concern is for inward reality.

Someone here this morning may be so religious, so good, and so sincere that you are tempted to ask, “How could I possibly be spiritually lost?”  Charlie Brown asked the same question when he stood on the ball field and exclaimed as he looked at the scoreboard, “165 to nothing!  How can we lose when we’re so sincere!”  The fact is that sincerity without truth is worthless, but Paul also reminds us of the equally important fact that truth without sincerity is worthless.  What makes you a Christian is not the culture from which you came, the ritual through which you have passed, or your background, ancestry, or history, but rather the simple fact that you have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ and have experienced the forgiveness of sins through faith in Him.

DATE: January 8, 1995






[i] Ray C. Stedman, Expository Studies in Romans 1-8, From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1, 53.  

[ii] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans, Vol. 1, Part 2, God’s Wrath, 126-7.

[iii] Stedman, 54.