The Heart of the Matter

Sermon on Romans 2:17-29, preached on Sunday 25 Nov 2018.

Sermon Recording: Click HERE to Listen

Bible Readings: (OT) Jeremiah 3:22-4:4 / (NT) Romans 2:17-29
Main Points:
I. Then, how can you dishonour God?
II. Shadow and reality
Conclusion: The heart of the matter

Two Sundays ago, we heard a message from Rom. 2:12-16 with the title, ‘The judgment and the Judge.’ The main point of that message was that there’ll be the final judgment for all in humanity and everyone will face the Judge, Jesus Christ, on that day. For the unbelievers, it’ll surely be their doomsday, but for the believers, it’ll be the greatest and the most joyful day because we’ll see our Lord Jesus sitting on the judge’s seat and He’ll enter together with us His eternal kingdom. Now, with the rest of Rom. 2, vs. 17-29, we’ll focus on something that is the heart of the matter, that is, faith which enables Christians to rejoice in Jesus and look forward to seeing that day of final judgment and entering our eternal dwelling place. This faith is the saving faith.

Talking about faith through which salvation comes, the apostle points out in this passage people’s misapprehension of what faith is, thus, misbehaving before God. Then, by their misbehaviour, they dishonour the name of God. So, connecting this with the message of the previous section of vs. 12-16, this passage warns the unbelievers of their need for repentance. In addition to that, it also warns people who claim to have ‘faith’ but dishonour God’s name to examine their faith and repent to believe in the Lord Jesus. The Apostle Paul begins this urge with introducing and pulling down people’s false claims in order to explain true faith in the Lord Jesus that saves sinners.

So, our dear apostle begins and introduces what people claim to be, simply put, ‘I am a good Christian.’ Based on what we hear from vs. 17-20, they sounds alright and let me paraphrase what they say: ‘I’m a Christian and I rely on God’s word; I love God and God knows that I love Him; I know the Bible and able to explain what Jesus’ gospel is.’ People continue and say, ‘You know, I’m a minister, an elder, a deacon, a teacher, or a leader at my church; I help people to believe God and have salvation; that’s who I am!’ So far, they sound alright, don’t they? All sound pretty good and amazing. The Jews of Paul’s time claimed it and argued for their faith’s genuineness.

Then, the apostle raises in vs. 21-22 a series of questions to these people: “You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” The apostle summarises his questions into a short statement as in v. 23: “You who boast in the law dishonour God by breaking the law.”

Wait a minute! People’s self-introduction sounded pretty alright to our ears, but the apostle questions the validity of their faith. He asks something like this – ‘You who see yourselves as good Christians, do you reject God by disobeying His commands? You who claim your faith as genuine, thus, boast of your salvation, do you dismiss or hush your God by putting your desire first and God’s last?’ The apostle implies further: ‘How can you say that you’re a good Christian if you don’t listen to your God, if you don’t regard His commands as of little value?’ In other words, ‘How can you say that God is your Father when you show no evidence of your Father-child relationship?’

This is a serious question. Considering the apostle’s questions literally, I tremble because I’m guilty of every question asked here. I’m not innocent at all in all areas that are under the apostle’s scrutiny because, following the Lord Jesus’ definition of sin, I commit murder whenever I hate anyone in my mind and so do all the other sins. I believe no one is blameless in this sense.

But, our Lord’s message delivered to us through the apostle is not to shrink us Christians for fear of our imperfection or be embarrassed with our slowness in holiness. Rather, this is to prove that no one can save him-/herself with what he/she possesses or has achieved. For example, being a member of a faithful Christian family is not a condition for one’s salvation (one’s parents, grandparents or spouse or siblings or children can’t save others than themselves through faith in Jesus); knowing the Bible cover to cover yet as pure intellectual curiosity or knowledge is nothing to do with one’s purity in the eyes of God; holding an office or position in a church or exercising various deeds of fellowship and service for how many long years doesn’t count at all for one’s righteousness before the righteous God. Although a person gives all her life to charity, although another one gives all his possession to the poor, even die for a friend, that cannot be the basis of his/her right for claiming salvation of his/her soul. Why? Because no one can keep all the laws of God; because we who teach others do not teach ourselves, we who preach others against stealing do steal and commit adultery and so on! No one can argue with God about this and demand salvation as a reward for any of his/her works.

So, the message here is not to accuse us for our sinfulness, but to remind us all, including the unbelievers, of the general and universal incapability of saving oneself and, at the same time, remind us of salvation as God’s gracious gift to unworthy sinners.

But, there’s a serious accusation in vs. 23 and 24 against people’s dishonouring God, thus, His name being blasphemed among the unbelievers. This accusation is raised against those who claim to know God and have His word and follow the Lord. “Because of you,” says the apostle, pointing out some people who claim to be Christians, God’s name is trampled underfoot! Again, this accusation trembles me and all Christians because, although we were not pointed out in the earlier verses, we’re still sinful and guilty of not living out what we preach. By this discrepancy, God is dishonoured and, by dishonouring Him, we let our Lord’s name be blasphemed! What a dreadful sin this is! How could we dishonour our God?

Let me rephrase this question to ‘What is wrong with my faith?’ because I boast in God, but my boast dishonours Him; I say that I am His, but my claim to be the Lord’s seems to provide the unbelievers a reason to disgrace God’s name. So, the question is, ‘What is wrong with my faith in God?’

The apostle answers to it from v. 25 and on. That is, people take shadows and disregard the reality. I mean, grabbing hold of what is not as what is, like trying to keep the bathwater while throwing the baby out. The example given by the apostle in v. 25 is circumcision. The Jews of Paul’s time and their forefathers as well regarded their circumcision as the sign of their assured salvation. As long as their bodily circumcision was with them, they would surely have the Lord’s eternal blessing. In a word, it was their ticket to heaven. That was, however, a false understanding. Their bodily circumcision was nothing unless it was connected to the circumcision of their heart. Their heart must be circumcised in order to have the full benefit of their bodily circumcision. Bodily circumcision was a shadow and the reality it pointed out was their heart’s circumcision, in other words, their inward conviction and submission to God. The Jews missed it.

So, do many of us. Some Christians in our time regard water baptism as the sufficient requisite for their salvation, thinking, ‘I’m washed and so are my sins washed away!’ There’s nothing wrong with this understanding, but the problem is that some people regard it as the only requisite sufficient for their salvation. So they think, ‘There’s no more to be done’ – no need for knowing God’s will by reading and studying His word, no need for living the Lord’s commands out in their life, no need for attending the church or even becoming a part of the Lord’s church. It’s sad, but such is some people’s belief.

Or some others regard their attendance at Sunday worship service as the thing that is required of them for keeping their salvation ‘valid.’ Quickly tick it ‘done,’ and go away, completely forgetting what Sunday, the Lord’s Day is about. And the list goes on and on and on.

The point is that many Christians, like those Jews of Paul’s time, miss what these ‘shadows’ imply, that is, the reality of our faith. And this reality all shadows point to is our Lord’s saving grace, His love for us! Thus, our absolute need for dependence on His grace alone! This reality of our faith means that there’s nothing we can or may do to our salvation; God alone saves us in His grace through Jesus; thus, God alone owes us and our all. This is the reality of our faith.

So, all shadows reflect this reality. To explain this with some examples or shadows, water baptism is the shadow of the reality, that is, God’s washing of our sins and cleansing us to put the robe of Jesus’ righteousness. So, with this shadow, our heart and soul’s focus is to rejoice in Jesus, seeking to walk with Him always. What about church and its membership? A local church is a shadow that points out the reality, that is, the body of Christ, and its membership implies Christian’s eternal membership in Christ’s body. So, each believer should and must desire to be a part and member of the church he/she attends and worships. By becoming a church member and continuing as a member, his heart and soul should always picture the joy and beauty of being a member of Christ’s eternal church! So is Christian fellowship shared among the church members; it is the shadow of God’s children’s eternal fellowship in our eternal home. So is the Lord’s Supper we’ll participate in next Lord’s Day which represents our eternal feast with the Lord Jesus, sitting around the heavenly table! And every Lord’s Day is the foretaste of heaven and what we’ll eternally do in the presence of the Triune God! There are more shadows, such as prayer, evangelism, mission, praise, church offices, serving one another. This list goes on and on.

Missing this reality of our Christian faith but holding onto its shadow means missing so deep and abundant and true blessings of God and Christ. The Jews of Jesus’ time missed it completely, so they missed that strangely great opportunity to meet their God, Jesus Christ, and to praise Him, bowing before His feet! Can you believe what they missed? The invisible God, amazing and awesome God appeared before their eyes, but they obsessively clung to shadows not even true ones, but false ones like bodily circumcision and the man-made traditions of their forefathers! So, they dishonoured God.

I wonder how many of us appreciate the true meaning of our presence in worship service on the Lord’s Days. I truly pray that all of us do, by God’s grace! Also when we pray, I wonder how many of us picture in heart and soul that we speak to our loving Heavenly Father through our gracious Lord Jesus and He listens to us attentively, never missing any word that comes from our mouth! I truly pray that all of us do, by the mighty God’s tender grace! I too pray that, by God’s grace, all of us may hear the true voice of our Father when we read the Bible in our public worship and in personal reading! And bow in spirit to His feet!

So, the heart of the matter is to know the reality of our faith in Jesus. That is, by God’s grace alone we’re saved, and nothing can we add to that. No Christian should miss it. Missing God’s grace that saves sinners like us is what the apostle warns against in this passage as the act of dishonouring God, thus, making God’s name be blasphemed among the unbelievers! The heart of the matter is our appreciation of the depth and height and length and width of God’s love and the grace of our Lord Jesus. This is exactly what the apostle means when he concludes in v. 29, saying this, “A Jew [he means, ‘a spiritual Jew,’ that is true child of God] is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” A child who knows and appreciates the depth of his Heavenly Father’ love for him is a true child of God.

Then, the apostle adds this amazing phrase at the end of v. 29, “His praise is not from man but from God”! Meaning, not man, nor this world, but God Himself approves a true child of God and embraces him/her in His mighty, yet, gracious arms! ***

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