No escape! - Romans 2:1-16

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 11th May 2008.

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Well a fortnight ago we were reflecting on the mess in our world and I mentioned the Boxing Day Tsunami back in 2004.     And of course, since then we’ve seen another massive natural disaster:  the cyclone in Burma where 65,000 people have already died and 200,000 more are at risk if we can’t get aid to them quickly.    So can I encourage you both to pray about that situation;  and if you’d like to give to the relief fund and channel your giving through the Barnabas Fund, then pl use the usual gift aid envelopes and write Burma Cyclone on them + fill in the address label if you’re a tax payer.  And there are some information leaflets by the Info Stand about that appeal if you’d like to know more.

So what’s wrong with the world?  Natural disasters like Tsunami and Cyclones.  But also road accidents and crime, and last time we reflected on the latest mindless murder by a teenage gang.  And since last time there’s been another mindless teenage murder in SE London.  But as we went through 1:18-32, we saw that ultimately there were 2 things wrong with the world. 

1.      The world is a mess because people had rejected their Creator (v18-23)

2.      The word is a mess because their Creator was handing them over to judgement

 

And we saw the result of God handing them over to judgment was a downward spiral of people’s sexual behaviour and the rise of anti-social behaviour.    Look with me again back at 1:29:

29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

 

And if you were here you might remember that we traced the rise of crime over the last century which occurred at the same time as the most phenomenal rise in income our country has even known.  And so the argument that poverty causes crime is simply not true.  Abandoning the One True Creator God and his moral standards is the underlying cause of the rising tide of crime. 

What’s wrong with the world?  What’s wrong with our country?  Well the short answer was that, as a nation, we’ve turned our backs on God.  And so now we’re suffering the consequences.

And as I was outlining that argument, you might have been sitting there thinking:  yes that’s right.    What about all those drunken louts on Beverley Road and Princess Avenues on Fri and Sat nights.    What about the groupies that hang out at 2 in the morning outside my bedroom widow shouting and swearing at each other.  What about the drug dealers in the pub down the road [not the Ship Inn of course!].  What about the gang that broke into our back garden last year and nicked all our garden furniture in the middle of the night.  Outrageous.  I bet most of that lot have never darkened the door or a church or been to Sunday School.    You’re absolutely right, what we need is not just more police and ASBOs, but more people in church to be taught the 10 commandments and all that.  Amen.

So was that you?  Were you thinking things along those lines? 

God will judge Christians too (v1-5)

Well the shocking point from the first 5 verses of chapter 2 is that God will judge us Christians too.  Look with me at v1:

1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

And to get the point we need to remember the context as always.   The Jews were back in town remember.  The Christian Jews and Non-Christian Jews.  But within the church, there was a deep division between Jews and Gentiles.    A division partly caused by underlying pride;  by the Jews’ sense of moral and spiritual superiority over the gentiles;  a sort of ‘holier-than-thou attitude as we might say.  The sexuality of 1st Century Roman culture was much the same as it is today:  adultery and homosexuality were normal.  The Emperor of the day, Emperor Nero had a sort of Civil Partnership ceremony with a boy named ‘Sporus’ and lived with him as his wife.  And if you think Beverley Road is bad at the weekend, think about the 1st century equivalent of Ant and Dec’s Saturday night take way:  Gladiator contests in the Coliseum.  People killing each other to entertain the masses;  and not just the masses:  respectively Roman citizens looking on and clapping the winner. 

And the Jews looked on and said:  we’re not like that.  We don’t believe in sex before marriage or homosexuality.  And we don’t kill people for fun.    But Paul says to these Jewish Christians:

1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

 

J had said the same thing to the Jewish leaders in his day in Mt’s Gospel:

Mt 23: 27 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

And that’s a warning for us isn’t it?  It’s really easy to be a hypocrites isn’t it? It’s possible to sit in church nodding our heads in agreement with all we’ve heard about what’s wrong with the world.  We might even want to join God in condemning the sins of those around us – the sexual mess and the anti-social behaviour.  And we might be very genuine about all this. But, despite our genuineness we might still be guilty of doing the very ‘same things’ as everybody else. OK – our sin might not be quite so obvious – we might be much more subtle - but as far as God is concerned it’s essentially the same.

We might not have committed adultery, but Jesus says that if you’ve ever looked at a woman lustfully, then you’ve committed adultery with her in your heart.  As Melvin pointed out in a sermon down at SJs a couple of weeks ago, addiction to internet pornography, even among church leaders, is shockingly high.  And if that’s you, then God’s very angry with you, no matter how respectable you are on the outside.   You might not have murdered anyone, but Jesus says, that if you’ve been angry with someone and thrashed out, even it it’s only in your head, then you’re in danger of the fire of hell.  Do you know what the Bible’s most mentioned sin is?  It’s nothing to do with sex;  no, it’s pride.  And our pride and sense of self importance often leads us to put others down.    We build ourselves up at the expense of others.  We gossip and slander, and spread dissention.  And God’s not happy.  In fact, he’s very angry.    As respectable Christians, our sins might be more subtle than the yobs on Beverley Road, but deep down, we’re no different.  We might even fool others and even ourselves, but we can’t fool God. And so God will judge Christians too.  Look with me at v2 again:

2Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? 4Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?   5But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.

God has no favourites (v6-11)

So God will judge Christians too we’ve seen in v1-5.  And in v6-11 we see the reason.  Because God has no favourites.   Look with me at v6:

‘God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done’. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. For God does not show favouritism.’

Now in these verses we learn that God judges everyone equally;  not on their religious background;  no - God judges people based on how they’ve lived their lives. If someone has lived a good life and sought God’s glory then they will gain God’s approval and eternal life. But, if they’ve lived a bad life – if they’ve been self-seeking, then they’ll have to face God’s anger and condemnation. Simple as that – no exceptions, no special cases, no exceptions.  Or as the sermon title puts it:  no escape. 

Even the distinction between Jew and Gentile makes no difference –we’re all treated the same way by God.  And so it doesn’t matter whether you regard yourself as a Christian or not, what country you come from, what colour your skin is, whether you are male or female, how rich or intelligent you are, God treats you the same as everybody else.  God has no favourites.

And that’s so different from what we’re used to isn’t it?  For our 10th wedding anniversary a couple of years ago, Kate and I went to central London for the weekend and I’d booked tickets for a West End show.  But somehow, I’d managed to book the wrong Saturday and they were sold out for the evening we were there.  Needless to say Kate wasn’t happy, and I pleaded and pleaded with them, but it was no use; until eventually, the bloke had pity on me and said: well we do reserve 6 seats right at the front for any VIPs that turn up at the last minute.  I’ve had a word with the manager and I can let you have a couple of those!

It’s the way of the world isn’t it?  If you’re a VIP, then you get special treatment.  And if we’re not careful we can begin to think that God works the same way;  we can start thinking that if we’re Christians, then we’re God’s VIPs and the normal rules don’t apply to us. So we can fall into the trap of thinking that if we go to church regularly, or if we read our Bibles, or if we go to home groups, or if we cut out certain sins – well then God will let us off the hook when it comes to the sins we do commit – perhaps those hidden inner sins of pride and self-righteousness. But the truth is that God’s not like that. He doesn’t have favourites and he judges everyone the same way:  according to their deeds.  God has no favourites. 

God levels the playing field (v12-15)

But is that fair you might still be thinking?  It sounds fine to say God judges everyone on the same basis, but don’t some people have an unfair advantage?  What about those who’ve never been taught the Bible?  What about those who’ve never even heard of 10 commandments?  Haven’t those who go to church got an unfair advantage?  They know for example that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that pride and gossip are wicked.  Aren’t they more likely to pass God’s moral test than the yobs on Beverley Road? 

And God’s answer in v12-15 is that God levels the playing field.  God levels the playing field.  In Paul’s day the major distinction was between the Jews and the Gentiles.   Remember back to the context.  The massive divide between Jews and Gentiles.  And of course, God had given the Jews many privileges as we’ll see next week in chapter 3.  Supremely, they had the Law.  They’d been taught by God.  The Gentiles hadn’t.  The average gentile pagan hadn’t a clue about the 10 commandments just like the average school child today.  And so it seems that God’s people had an unfair advantage because they knew about God’s moral law.  Absolutely not says Paul in v12-15;  because God levels the playing field.  Look with me at v12:

V12: ‘All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)’

And the point is that God judges everyone according to the light they’ve been given. God’s people have been given the law and so God will judge them against the 10 commandments and the rest of the Law:  so how did God’s people measure up?    Well, not very well.   So what about the Gentiles?  Well they didn’t have the Law, but they did have a God-given conscience;  an innate moral sense of right and wrong;  deep down everyone knows that murder’s wrong even if they’ve never been near a Bible.  Deep down, people agree that we should treat others as we’d like to be treated ourselves, even if we never heard J’s teaching.  And this conscience, this innate moral law, is something God’s given everyone without exception.    People might try to suppress their conscience, just like they try to suppress the truth about God’s existence.  But deep down, our conscience is still there, just like God’s still there even if we pretend he isn’t! 

So the issue is not how much of the Bible you know, but how obedient you are with however much of God’s law you do know.    So God’s judgement isn’t unfair. Everyone will be judged according to their deeds;  but they’ll be judged according to the revelation they’ve received. When it comes to judgement, God levels the playing field so no-one has an unfair advantage.

So we can be reassured that God isn’t being unfair.  God has no favourites and He levels the playing field.  No one has an unfair advantage by being in the right place at the right time.  But actually it’s a pretty empty comfort isn’t it.  Because what it means is that no-one’s got an excuse to hide behind.  There’s no escape.    The person who grew up in a Christian family and has been to church all their life is just as guilty before God as the yobs on Beverley Road.  Each and every one of us here this morning, no matter what our background;  each and every one of us is a sinner guilty before the judgment seat of Almighty God.  That’s the conclusion Paul is heading towards in chapter 3:  ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God’.  No favourites, no excuses and no escape from God's judgement then.

God’s solution is the Gospel (v16)

Well that sounds pretty bleak doesn’t it?    Which brings us to God’s solution in the final verse of the passage in v16. 

16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

The final judgement we’ve been talking about will happen on the day Jesus returns to wind up human history;  J's second coming that is.    But that word Gospel at the end of the sentence literally means Good News.    And it should be reminding us of the theme tune for the whole book we read back in chapter 1:16:

‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

And even within today’s passage there are hints of this good news.  Come back with me to 2:6 which is a quote from Psalm 62 which we read earlier.    And the context of that Psalm is that King David is being oppressed by wicked men;  perhaps even wicked men who profess to be the Lord’s people.  David knows he’s not perfect.  He was a murderer and an adulterer remember;  he’d personally and directly broken at least 2 of the 10 commandments.  But he appeals to God for mercy on the basis of God’s covenant promises.  And David knows that the Lord is a faithful God;  a God who keeps his promises to save and rescue His people. 

And so there’s a hint that the reward he’s talking about is actually God’s undeserved mercy and salvation;  a reward which is really a gift to those who’ve got true faith and trust in God’s promises of forgiveness and salvation.  A righteousness that is by faith in order words.      And some commentators think that that’s what Paul’s hinting at when he quotes the last verse of that Psalm in Rom 2:6. 

6God "will give to each person according to what he has done."[a] 7To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

So in other words, the test of whether we’re truly one of God covenant people is whether our conscience does indeed remind us that we are guilty before God.  A true child of God is cut to the heart when Jesus accuses them of hypocrisy.  Yes that’s me, the true child of God cries out.   O Lord, have mercy on me a wretched hypocritical sinner.  Someone who, in the words of 2:4, understands God’s character and standards and is moved to repentance.  Someone who, in the words of v5, doesn’t have a stubborn and unrepentant heart, but rather a tender heart that’s fled to Jesus for mercy;  a repentant heart that’s abandoned all pride and self-righteousness.  Someone who can kneel before the Lord with the tax collector and say in all genuineness:  Lord have mercy on me a sinner. 

9There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile;

1:16: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

God is angry with the sinful mess in our world that’s resulted from people turning their backs on Him.  But God will judge professing Christians by the same standard as everyone else.  Because God has no favourites.  God levels the playing field.  But God’s solution is the Gospel.  The Good news of sins forgiven in J’s name.   Thanks be to God for the Gospel of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ – the only hope for wretched sinners like me and you.  Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a just and fair God.  Thank you that you have no favourites and we’re all on a level playing field.   And so we thank you for your solution in the Gospel, that in Jesus we can be forgiven and be right with you, not because we’re good enough, but because Jesus can justly forgive us through His death on the cross.  Help us all to have tender consciences, to admit our sin and cling to the cross of Jesus as our only hope of rescue and salvation.  For our eternal good, but your ultimate glory we pray.  Amen. 

 

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