Romans – Digging Deep: Is Religion Good or Bad?

Is Religion Good or Bad?

Romans 3:1-8


In 1886, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a novella that reflected a disturbing truth about everyone. He titled it The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s the story of a respected physician and medical researcher, who embodied the very best Victorian ideals of morality and decency. If any man was ever a good man, Dr. Jekyll was one. But medical research experiments run on himself released a murderous savage that had been lurking in the shadows of his gentle public demeanor.


At the heart of great literature, you will often find good theology. The bizarre tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continues to captivate and fascinate us today because – at some level – we see ourselves in Dr. Jekyll and we fear the Mr. Hyde we keep hidden, not just from others, but from ourselves. You see, it wasn’t just that Dr. Jekyll kept his dark, Mr. Hyde side hidden from others. Mr. Hyde was hidden from himself too, until something happened to release him. Dr. Jekyll didn’t realize he existed. His wife and children wouldn’t have known. His neighbors wouldn’t have known. His co-workers and friends wouldn’t have known. This was no child molester who knew very well what he was but kept it hidden. Mr. Hyde was hidden from everyone, including Dr. Jekyll, but Mr. Hyde was there nonetheless, lurking beneath the surface. Mark Twain noted, “Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”[i]


By the time we get to this point in Romans, we’re all like, “Okay Paul, we get it. We’re all sinners. Move on. Next topic please.” But Paul won’t let up. He keeps hammering his point home with a 15 pound sledge hammer. Those secular people out there are twisted and corrupt, full of sin, lost. BANG! Even within the body of Christ there are those who run around judging everyone. Self-righteous prigs who want everyone to clean up their act before they can come to church, but you do the very same things. You’re so quick to condemn everyone else, but do you ever take a look in the mirror? When you judge others, you’re condemning yourself too. BANG! And you shallow ones, those of you who think you’ve been diving into the deep end of the spiritual pool but are really still playing in the shallows, those of you who look religious on the outside but are dead and rotting inside – you’re lost. BANG! All of us, the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the unspiritual, the good people and the bad people – we’re all in the same boat: a boat called “sin.” Paul keeps hammering us with this depressing news so that the truth of our standing before God sinks in. The whole message is grace, but if we don’t understand where we are apart from grace, grace itself won’t mean anything to us. Especially to those of us whose lives look pretty good on the outside. Those of us who aren’t in prison, or molesting children, or abusing our spouses, or cheating, or selling drugs. I don’t care who you are. If the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t the best news you’ve ever heard, you’re oblivious to the reality of your situation before God. If you’re response is, “Meh,” you’re clueless.


Reminds me of a cartoon I saw on Facebook this week. It doesn’t make a lick of difference what you look like on the outside, whether you wear a suit and tie, drive a nice car, have a nice house, coach your kids sports teams, and are the best spouse and parent in the world and rehabilitate abandoned baby birds in your off time, or whether you’re a burned out drug addict with no home, no car, no job, and no future, we’re all in the same boat. Some of us just look better than others on the outside as we ride down the river toward our destruction.


Well Pastor, if none of this makes any difference, why bother? What’s the point? If going to church can’t save me, there are some much better uses of my time. If the inside is all that matters, I can connect with God on my own, out in the woods, or hiking the shoreline, or watching a sunset. What’s the point of being a member of a church, of being baptized, of all of this Bible knowledge, of living the moral life if those things can’t save me? That’s what Jewish Christians were starting to ask Paul. “If circumcision and keeping the law, being good people, can’t save us, what’s the point? Is there ANY value to living the Jewish life that we’ve known? If all I need is Jesus, why do I need the church? Turn to Romans 3:1-8.


What’s the advantage? Look at V. 2. You’ve been entrusted with the Word of God! “The oracles of God.” The written message of who God is and what God has done. For them, because the New Testament was still being written, he was talking about the books of the Law, the prophetic writings, the wisdom literature, the Psalms. What we today call the Old Testament. And the New Testament was written through them as well. Only one Biblical writer, Luke, was a gentile. The rest were Jews. They were entrusted with the Word of God, and with sharing that Word with the rest of the world. And through them, we too, having been made a part of their family, the people of God, have been entrusted with the Word of God, not just for ourselves, but for those who have not yet heard.


It is in the Word of God that we see what God is like. We have a description and pictures of God’s eternal nature. Yes, we see God clearly in the world he has made. Paul has already made that point. Look back at Romans 1:19-20. In studying this world, in observing the coming and going of days, of seasons, in enjoying this world God has made we see evidence of God, of who God is, of what God is like.


Author Philip Yancey describes a moment of profound wonder and awe in Alaska’s wilderness. He was driving down the road when he came upon a number of cars pulled off to the edge of the highway. Like any of us would have done, he stopped to see what everyone was looking at. Yancey describes the scene: Against the slate-gray sky, the water of an ocean inlet had a slight greenish cast, interrupted by small whitecaps. Soon I saw these were not whitecaps at all, but whales—silvery white beluga whales in a pod feeding no more than fifty feet offshore. I stood with the other onlookers for forty minutes, listening to the rhythmic motion of the sea, following the graceful, ghostly crescents of surfacing whales. The crowd was hushed, even reverent. For just that moment, nothing else – dinner reservations, the trip schedule, life back home – mattered. We were confronted with a scene of quiet beauty and a majesty of scale. We felt small. We strangers stood together in silence until the whales moved farther out. Then we climbed the bank together and got in our cars to resume our busy, ordered lives that suddenly seemed less urgent. What we can see of God in the universe he has made is plain to see. Specifically we encounter the incredible might and power of God in this natural world. But we don’t necessarily see a God who loves and saves us and is involved in the intimate details of our lives. The Holy Spirit inspired Word of God fills that picture out. The picture of God that nature paints in broad strokes is filled in in minute detail in the Word of God. In the natural world we see a God who is infinitely powerful and infinitely creative. In the Word of God, we encounter a God who is infinitely good, and just, and merciful, and holy, and wise, and faithful. In the Word of God we encounter the love and the grace of God. What we know of God from the natural world is enough for us to stand without excuse before God someday, but it is not enough to save us. It was intended to make us curious about what this God we see in creation is all about.


And in the Word of God we see ourselves. We see the nature and the purpose and the value and the beauty of humanity. A humanity created “in the image of God.” Given dominion as stewards over the cosmos. Fallen and sinful but also deeply loved and offered grace and forgiveness. In the Word of God, we see and experience the salvation that God has brought to fruition in Jesus Christ. We see a God who could have left us without any hope at all, dead in our sin, who chose instead, at great cost and pain to himself, to save us.


Now look at Vv. 3-4. Paul starts throwing out there some of the objections to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that he has encountered in his ministry. The first kind of goes like this: Well, if some of the people of God are unfaithful, then God either isn’t just, because he doesn’t punish them, OR God isn’t faithful, because he does punish them in spite of his promise to save them. A covenant is a relationship in which two parties promise to remain faithful to one another. So God would be faithful to the people of Israel, and Israel was in turn supposed to be faithful to God. Except that they hardly ever were faithful to God. They were so faithless, in fact, that they were eventually overrun and sent into exile in a foreign land. Even when they returned to the Promised Land, they were under the authority of other world powers. So does God turn his back on his promise to always be faithful to Israel? Of course not. In sending Jesus to stand in for us as the perfect human being, our unfaithfulness can be forgiven by his faithfulness in our place. But God isn’t just faithful. He is also just. Our sin was punished in the brutalized, bleeding body of Jesus, a body that experienced death on the cross. In the Word of God we encounter a God who is faithful, even when we are not. Even if every human being turns out to be unfaithful, which is the point Paul is getting to quickly, God remains faithful, and also just, without compromising either. He is loving and holy, without compromising either. He offers grace and justice, without compromising either. And it is in the law of God, the Word of God, that we are confronted with our sin. Not in the natural world. In the Word of God. But nothing can stop God from saving us.


Now, look at Vv. 5-8. Paul deals with a few more objections that have been thrown at him over the years. “If our unrighteousness, our sin, allows God’s righteousness and grace and mercy to come shining through, then isn’t God being unrighteous if he judges us for it. He uses our sin for his glory, and then judges us for sinning? Come on. And lets take it a step further – if my sin brings God glory, then shouldn’t I sin more so that God’s glory can shine through more in his forgiveness and grace?” Paul doesn’t even bother to answer that objection. He simply says, “Their condemnation is just.”


God is righteous. That means God is right. And God is right to be angry with me, in spite of all of the religious trappings in my life, in spite of all of my good attributes, and I have at least a couple. Because of my sin, God is right to be angry with me. God is angry because he loves me and doesn’t want to see eternal harm come to me. God is also just, and will judge and punish my sin. But God is also faithful. He will not forget his promise to save. And so in perfect love, and perfect justice, and perfect righteousness, he offers grace and forgiveness. Jesus Christ can be my stand in. His perfect life can count for mine. And his death on the cross can be the result of my sin. My punishment, which he bore for me.


This passage is a call to two things: faith, and faithfulness. Faith is belief – knowing the truth in both my mind and my heart about who God is and what God is like, about who I am and what I am like, and about the salvation God offers in Jesus Christ. And when I respond to God’s righteousness and justice and faithfulness and love in faith, I am called to faithfulness. Not to living by a set of rules. Of do’s and don’ts. But of living in this world as a disciple of Jesus, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. There is something for me to believe, to receive, and then to do. And that doing includes being a part of a very imperfect local church. I can meet God in nature. And I love to do that. But I experience God in a much deeper way when I gather with my brothers and sisters in the family of God, as we worship God together, as we pray together and for one another, as we study the Word of God together, as we encourage one another, and as we go out from this place to share the light of Christ together.


God is both a God of love and of justice. A God of righteousness and a God of mercy. Many people struggle with this. They believe that a loving God can’t be a judging God. And people often ask, “How can a God of love be also a God of filled with wrath and anger? If he is loving and perfect, he should forgive and accept everyone. He shouldn’t get angry.” But the truth is that all loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love. If you love a person and you see someone ruining them – even they themselves – you get angry. As Becky Pippert puts it in her book Hope Has Its Reasons:


Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it. . . . Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. . . . God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer . . . which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.


The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation. He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity. Picking, choosing, and deciding which sins are trivial and which are the biggies is a completely human tendency. A young man once told me, “It’s like a heavenly bank account. As long as I make more deposits than withdrawals, I’m in good shape.” I shared the biblical reality with him: the very first time he made a withdrawal, the account was emptied and closed forever. He thought that was a bit harsh. But I explained that I didn’t make the rules; God did. And I shared this truth with him not to depress him, but to make him aware and appreciative of God’s mercy.


If you’re a believer, your account has been closed, and a new one opened in Christ’s name. You’re wealthy, but you can’t make another deposit or withdrawal. As Christians we just get the benefits of this new account, living off the interest—or, to put it another way, living off the blessing granted us by the blood of Jesus.[ii]


[i] Chuck Swindoll

[ii] David Rich, 7 Biblical Truths You Won’t Hear in Church (Harvest House Publishers, 2006), p. 37