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Deep Grace: When Religion Goes Wrong


When Religion Goes Wrong
Romans 10:1-21

How many of you have heard the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves”? Comedian Jay Leno once conducted a “man-on-the-street” interview by asking random people to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most common response was something that wasn’t even on God’s original list – “God helps those who help themselves.” That phrase, which is often used to emphasize a get-your-act-together approach to salvation, is often attributed to the Bible.

But that phrase doesn’t even appear in the Bible, and it is certainly not “biblical.” It is, however, closely tied to non-biblical sources. In a first century A.D. Greek fable, a wagon falls into a ravine, but when its driver appeals to Hercules for help, he is told to get to work himself. One of Aesop’s fables has a similar theme. When a man calls on the goddess Athena for help during a shipwreck, she tells him to try swimming first. Both of these stories were probably created to illustrate an already existing proverb about helping yourself first.

A French author from the 1600s once said “Help yourself and Heaven will help you too.” But it was the 17th century English thinker Algernon Sidney who has been credited with the now familiar wording, “God helps those who help themselves.” Benjamin Franklin later used it in his Poor Richard’s Almanack (1736) and it has been widely quoted ever since. A passage with similar sentiments can be found in the Quran, Chapter 13:11: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”

But that phrase never appears in the Bible, and the way it’s often used (as a self-help approach to salvation) is the exact opposite of the Bible’s message of salvation by God’s grace.

What happens when religion goes wrong? That’s the question St. Paul confronts us with as we continue working our way through the New Testament book of Romans, Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Today we’re looking at Romans 10. This is the 2nd of three chapters in which Paul focuses on what is going on with his Jewish brothers and sisters. He’s wrestling with the fact that those who had all of the benefits of knowledge of God, the Word of God, the Law of God, God’s hand on them as a people, were rejecting Christ while the unbelieving Gentiles, heathens, pagans, were coming to faith in Christ in droves.

In Romans 10, Paul explores what exactly had gone wrong in the hearts and minds of his people. But he isn’t just talking about them. He’s giving us a warning today. A warning about the very attitude that says “God helps those who help themselves.” If you have a Bible with you, turn to Romans 10. What happens when religion goes wrong?

As far as knowledge of God goes, these people had everything going for them. Up in Romans 9:4-5, the text we looked at last week, Paul says that to them belonged “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving in the law, the worship, and the promises … the patriarchs … and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ …” God had chosen them, little old them, undeserving them, from among all the nations, all the peoples of the earth, to serve as his special possession, to be set aside for the purpose of showing to the world who God is and what God is like, what life in God’s kingdom is really like. And they would also be the people through whom God would birth and carry out his plan for salvation, for forgiveness of sin, for a restored relationship with God.

And they were, in a way, zealous for God. They were passionate about being God’s special people and about the law of God. The problem was that their passion was actually a misplaced passion. They were zealous … for the wrong cause. Look at Vv. 2-3. They had become so focused on following the rules, on keeping the law, that they ignored the role of faith in their lives. They spent so much time, and devoted so much of their attention, their energy, their passion to being worthy of being called God’s people that they forgot about faith. They were trying to EARN their role as God’s children instead of resting in the reality, the truth, that God had made them his people as a gift, both to them and, through them, to the rest of the world. And now the rest of the world was coming to Christ and enjoying God’s gracious gift, while the ones through whom God was blessing the rest of the world were missing out. They were so focused on earning God’s favor, that they missed the undeserved gift of grace that had been born in their midst.

Look at V. 4. For those who believe, Christ is the end of the law. The word translated as “end” here can mean either “termination” or “goal.” The truth is, Paul likely has both nuances of that word in mind here. Christ is the goal of the law in the sense that God’s law was intended both to reveal the character and nature of God AND to shine a light on the sinfulness of the human heart. The annual cycle of religious life for Israel was designed to hammer into them the need of all humanity for the grace of God as they, year after year, for millennia, observed the day of atonement, the day on which atonement was made for all of the people for their sin. And on the day of Passover, when they remembered God’s saving grace in bringing them out of Egypt, sparing the lives of the firstborn in every house over whose door was painted the blood of the lamb. And now Christ had come, and lived, and died, and risen to life, the once-for-all atoning sacrifice, the perfect and final Passover lamb. Their whole existence as God’s people had pointed to this moment in history. And they’d missed it.

And Christ lived perfectly under the law. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In his life, Christ lived under the law as a Jew, and as the Son of God, fully God and fully human, he did so perfectly, something no Jew had ever done before. And then 2 Corinthians 5:21 says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” There it is again. He knew no sin. He lived a sinless life. The only sinless life. And then he took our sin upon himself as a gift of grace. And he died with it on him. The perfect atoning sacrifice. The spotless lamb dying for all. And then he was raised to life as a testament to his divine nature. The law, as the people had been living under it for millennia, was no longer needed. Christ was both the termination and the goal of the law. And in its place, the law of Christ. Living a transformed life, “doing good,” not in order to EARN God’s favor but as a response of faith to the gift God has given us in Christ.

Look at Vv. 3-4. They had completely missed the truth, the reality, that righteousness wasn’t something they could achieve on their own, by trying harder and harder and harder to be good, to do good, to live a good life. Righteousness is a gift from God that cannot be earned. It is a gift given when we respond to God’s offer in faith.

So what is faith, anyway? V. 4 says “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” For most of us, faith is trying really hard to believe something you really don’t believe. But that isn’t really faith. In reality, faith grows from, and with knowledge. James Bryan Smith says that faith is acting on what you do not know, on the basis of what you do know. And uses this example to illustrate it: How many of us have ever put something in our calendar that was happening in the future? We might not be putting a ton in our calendars right now, but we’ve all done that in the past, right? We don’t typically put things in our calendars AFTER they happen, do we? That would be dumb. We put things in our calendars BEFORE they happen. So let’s say that when life gets back a little more to normal, I schedule lunch with a friend for tomorrow. Now, the reality is, I don’t really KNOW that tomorrow will come, do I? But in my life, in my almost 46 years, I’ve seen tomorrow come almost 17,000 times. I’ve experienced almost 17,000 tomorrows. So while I can never say with 100% certainty that tomorrow will come, I believe that it will, and so I can schedule lunch with my friend.

Faith is actually an extension of knowledge from what I do know to what I do not know. It isn’t based on nothing. Look at V. 17. For the person who follows Christ, faith in Christ is based on the word of Christ. It comes from hearing the word of God and trusting it. And my ability to trust God and to trust his Word grows over time, just as my ability to trust a person grows with time and experience with that person. When I first meet someone, I don’t trust them very much, do I. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trustworthy. It simply means my personal experience with them is limited. But as my experience with them grows, so does my trust in who they are and their ability to follow through on their commitments and be who they say they are, right? My faith in Christ grows in the same way. Because he has been faithful in my life in the past, I can place my trust in him today, and I can trust him with my future. But faith is never unqualified 100% certainty. It is projecting forward into what I don’t know that which I do know.

Biblical faith is relational. We’ve reduced it to an intellectual thing. For us, today, words like “faith” and “believe” have an intellectual sense to them. Agreeing with a certain set of propositions about who God is and what God has done in Christ. In a sense reading the gospel story and saying, “Yes, this is right. I believe this.” And biblical faith does have that kind of component to it, but it doesn’t end there. Faith is actually relational. God is not an idea to be agreed with, God is a divine being with whom I have a relationship. When I have a relationship with someone, my knowledge of that person AND my trust in that person grow as my experience with them grows. And I can take what I do know about that person and project it forward into new situations and new adventures in the relationship. So with Becky, I can enter uncharted territory with her, not knowing exactly how she might respond or ask of me, but with an ever-growing base of knowledge of her, I can extrapolate that no matter what we face together, she will always be by my side, because if Becky is nothing else (and she’s a LOT else), she’s loyal. Her loyalty to me is something I need never question.

And we need to realize that this relationship begins where we are. We don’t have to master a certain amount of knowledge first. We come to God as we are, and as our experience of God grows, so does our knowledge. Faith is a living and dynamic relationship with God, an interaction, not just an idea. Faith is our response to grace. And our response to grace isn’t perfection, it’s devotion. A heart fully devoted to Christ.

The Israelites had never understood the reality that they didn’t have to earn God’s favor, they needed only respond in devotion to the favor he was already showing them. Now, there’s something important we need to understand here. Dallas Willard said, “Grace is NOT opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.” There are actually two ways in which religion can get things wrong when it comes to grace. The first is the path of legalism. Trying to earn God’s favor. Following a looooong list of rules, the do’s and don’ts. The second is the path of cheap grace, of assuming that because salvation is a gift I cannot earn (which is true) there is absolutely nothing for me to do in following Christ. So I can live pretty much however I please. I don’t need to put any effort into my discipleship, into following Christ, because God’s grace is a work in my life and will zap me with transformation. Neither one of those errors, the error of legalism or the error of cheap grace, recognizes that faith is, in reality, a relationship.

I cannot DO anything to EARN God’s grace. But I CAN, and in fact must, make the EFFORT to create the conditions for growth in my life, by practicing spiritual disciplines and studying and meditating on God’s Word AS WAYS OF GETTING TO KNOW CHRIST BETTER, not as ways of earning God’s favor. A relationship is, by definition, bi-directional. I can’t just sit here like a bump on a log and pay absolutely no attention to Christ at all and expect him to transform me, because that isn’t a relationship. He wants me to make loving effort to spend time getting to know him.

There’s one final mistake that religion makes that we need to avoid. There’s the mistake of legalism, and the opposite mistake of cheap grace. And then there’s the mistake of hoarding grace. Of assuming that it’s just about us. Of assuming that God loves us because we’re such great people (remember, that’s the attitude behind legalism), and everyone else can just go to hell. Literally. God has chosen us because we’re so great. The rest of you just suck. Look at Vv. 13-17. The promise is that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Now remember, every promise contains with it a command, and every command of God is actually a promise in disguise. The command here is to SHARE our relationship with God with others. To share the good news that we can get of the religious treadmill of trying to do more good than harm in this life so that God will accept us, to get off the religious treadmill of “God helps those who help themselves.” In other words, God helps those, saves those, who are already trying their best and not messing up. And in place of that exhausting treadmill is a the possibility of a dynamic, interactive, two-way relationship with God. Talk about an honor. Talk about a privilege. Talk about grace! All we have to do is respond.

“All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

But look at Vv. 19-21. Israel HAD heard. They had all of the benefits. They had the Word of God. They had the promises. They had the covenants. God had been at work in their history in a powerful way, revealing himself to them and to the rest of the world through his relationship with them. And yet, they missed it. They missed the point. They got it all wrong. May we not be the same. May it not be said of us, “How could they not have known? How could they not have seen the beauty of God’s grace?” God doesn’t just give us a set of rules. He gives us himself. He gives us relationship. He gives us forgiveness. And in return, we give him ourselves. We give him our devotion. We give him our trust. Let us pray.