Why morality isn't enough - Romans 2:1-16

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 14th October 2001.

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Let me tell you about Mr Abercrombie. Mr Abercrombie was a respectable pillar in the local community. If you needed any help, Mr Abercrombie was your man. He was also a highly successful business executive and an active member of his local church. Why, he was so keen that each week he a hosted a lunchtime Bible study in his office. Then came the day he invited a speaker who would normally be found in prison. Not serving time, although he had done that, but rather that he spent most of working life now speaking to prison inmates about the Christian faith. But this day he was addressing 19 businessmen elegantly dressed in their blue pinstriped suits and white shirts. It looked like a scene straight out of the film ‘Wall Street’. And so the speaker began his talk. It was about half way through that he said something which caused several of the dignified gentleman to pull a face as if a skunk had just walked into the room. What he did was to refer to our ‘sinful nature’- the actual phrase he used was our ‘total depravity’, the belief that every part of us is morally twisted- that we are crooked through and through- mind, body and soul. Believe in the tooth fairy, believe in UFO’s, believe in Father Christmas if you like-but belief that we are morally corrupted? No that is too much to take and one of the businessmen said so. ‘ You don’t really believe that we are sinners do you? I mean you are far to sophisticated to be one of those hellfire and brimstone fellows, intelligent people don’t go in for that kind of stuff.’ So the speaker replied, ‘Well, yes sir I really do believe that we are desperately sinful. What’s inside of each of us is really pretty ugly. In fact we deserve hell and we would get it, but for the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.’ Then Mr Abercrombie chimed in: ‘ Well, I don’t know about that,’ he said. ‘I’m a good person and have been all my life. I go to church and I get exhausted spending all my time doing good works.’ The room went so quiet you could hear a pin drop as twenty pair of eyes burned into the speaker. How did he reply? He said, ‘Mr Abercrombie, if you believe that- and I hate to say this ,for you will certainly not invite me back again-you are for all your good works, further away from the kingdom of God than the people I work with in prison who are aware of their own sins.’ And Paul’s message that we are looking at tonight is precisely that. It is hell and not heaven that tends to be full of good people. So let us listen in to Paul’s argument to discover that when it comes to being friends with God, by trying to be moral we cannot be moral enough.

As we saw last week, in chapter 1 Paul confronts the pleasure seeking hedonist of the ‘eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we diet’ variety. Every conceivable vice is listed and an ugly list it is too. But somewhere between the escort service and the church service is another group- the upright moralist. We might even say the ‘moral majority.’ They have been listening to Paul’s sermon as he has spoken about God’s irrepressible anger and opposition to all that degrades and demeans the human soul. And they have applauded him, ‘Preach brother preach, they have said-Go on Paul you tell them. That’s what we need a back to basics programme, a keep Britain morally tidy campaign- you go for it.’ And he sees them sitting there in the congregation- looking smug, full of moral indignation, comfortable in the best seats of course, and he pauses, and turns to them and says: v 1 ‘ You, yes I am talking to you, you have no excuse. Who me? Yes, you who pass judgement on someone else (well that narrows it down-he does mean the morally respectable); for at whatever point you judge the other, you condemn yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.’ ‘Well, I hope you can back that up Paul otherwise I am going to be suing you in court for slander.’ Do you see who Paul has in his sights? It is the charity worker, the hard working father seeking to provide for his family, the dedicated schoolteacher, the war on terrorism politician, and yes, even the Church of England clergyman who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. It is the very people who publicly disassociate with all the social riff raff mentioned at the end of chapter 1. And the question Paul is putting before each one of us tonight is how do we stand? Not in our own eyes, or in the estimation of other people, but how do we stand in God’s sight? How does he see us for all our claims to be morally respectable?

The conclusion that Paul is working towards, as he builds up his formidable case, is that as far as God is concerned there really is no difference between the professional prostitute and professional do-gooder. Failure is failure. If the pass mark for the exam is 52%- you fail whether you managed to get 50% or 1%. Romans 3:23 ‘There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ So why is our moral respectability of no use when it comes to eternity? Paul gives us four reasons.

First, all claims to being morally upright are self-defeating. That is what Paul is getting at when he says that ‘In passing judgement on others you are condemning yourself.’ One of the first cries of a child in the school playground is the plea ‘It’s not fair.’ Where does that moral sense come from? Parents? In part. Society? No doubt. But there is that innate sense of right and wrong we have by virtue of possessing a conscience. So the point is this. We all have our moral standards by which we judge. The problem is that those same moral standards are one day going to be turned on us by God .Even if we have never heard of the ten commandments or the Sermon on the Mount we are not going to be able to plead ignorance. This applies individually and collectively. ‘You are scandalised by the revelation of that politician and the call girl, but that doesn’t stop you casting your eye over pornography on the internet.’ ‘You rightly object to global terrorism in the 21st century, but what of that rigged incursion into Zulu land made by Britain in the 19th century simply so they could get their hands on the gold-how many innocents died then?’ No, you see the standard by which we judge others, is the standard by which God will judge us- v3, ‘So when you a mere man, pass judgement on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgement?’ Of course not. This is the lady who leans across to her friend and says in a whisper shielded by her hand ‘ You know, I can’t stand her-she is always talking about people behind their back.’

The second reason why it is folly to think that our moral respectability will lead us to escape God’s judgement is that it is self-condemning - revealing an impenitent attitude towards God -vv4- 5 ‘ Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realising that God’s kindness leads you to repentance. But because of the stubbornness of your unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath when his righteous judgement is revealed.’ What does Paul mean by that? Well, it is this. By and large the morally respectable person enjoys a good deal of blessings in this life. They generally have good health, comfortable surroundings, a nice home , exhibiting all those solid middle class values which produce a stable life. Yes, they will say ‘Life has been pretty good to us . ’ They may even say that God has been good to them. But the mistake which is often made is that divine blessings are mistaken for divine approval. Just because God has not visited plagues on their houses as he has some other misfortunates in our world, as we see in chapter 1, does not mean that God is especially pleased with them- what he is being is exceptionally patient and tolerant with them in the hope that these kindnesses should lead to people to shift their gaze from the gift to the Giver. But is that what happens? Hardly. Like spoilt children on Christmas morning we are so absorbed with our toys that we do not look up for a moment to say even ‘thank you’ to the one who liberally showers them upon us. Do we honestly think that at the end of the day such a God will be happy to be fobbed off by a pathetic ‘Well I didn’t do any one any harm’ excuse when all the time we have ignored the one for whom we were made, presuming on his kindness, taking his blessings and living as if he were dead and had no right of say on how we should be living our lives? Would it satisfy a loving parent if his offspring kept his bedroom tidy and cleaned his shoes but never gave him a kiss or spent time with him, or only turned to the parent when he wanted something. What sort of relationship is that? And yet that is how many of us are treating God. We reduce him to a divine sugar daddy, only to be called on to bail us out of trouble, but for the rest of the time he is an irrelevance at best and an nuisance at worst-do not tell me it is not so. But what Paul is telling us here is that wrath postponed does not mean wrath escaped. Simply because God has been good to you does not mean he is pleased with you or smiling upon you .He may be frowning upon you, he may even be weeping for you, but if you are still clinging to your own moral respectability as a means of pleasing God then that will provide as much protection for you on the day of judgement as Adam’s fig leaf in a force nine gale.

Self made moral respectability is self-defeating, self-judging and also -self-deluding vv 6-11 (read). What Paul is doing here is setting out the standard of divine judgement. It is not claims to moral respectability which count but deeds. What are the goods we come up with? In principle everyone who consistently perseveres in doing good will get eternal life. Sure. That is fine in principle but does anyone do it in practice? That is the question. And of course the answer is- no. It is an irrelevance what your background is, Jew, non Jew, rich, poor, male, female, when it comes down to it there is not one of us who persistently seeks God’s glory and does good. God does not show favouritism, his judgements are impartial. There is too much self-seeking and evil which still goes on in my life to blot my copy book for good-and I would suspect so it is with you. And God is not going to say to me,’ Well Melvin you did try your best and you are a Vicar after all so let’s throw that in the scales of justice and see what happens’- because trying isn’t enough, being a vicar certainly isn’t enough the road to hell is paved with ecclesiastical drop outs. We might try all we can to pay off our debts with our bank but if we do not get the cash into our account on time then the manager will simply have to take us to court and whether I am a vicar or a good husband or have been trying hard will not make any difference at all- a debt is a debt. And the plain fact is we have been running up a moral debt with God since the day we were born and if we were to live a thousand years and never sin again we could not pay off. Whether you have a Bible or not is an irrelevance , says Paul, we are all in the same boat and it is sinking fast- vv 12- 15 (read).

Have you ever heard it said: ‘What about those who have never heard of the Bible?’ What will happen to them? Well, Paul tells us. They too will be judged on the basis of what they do know because they like all people have consciences. Consciences accuse us when we have contravened our own moral principles-making us feel guilty, and guilty we are. I have your consciences on my side ,says Paul, I don't have to do anything to judge you, your consciences do it for you.

But to be frank my real concern is not with the native living in wonga wonga land who has never even heard of Christianity- God will be painstakingly fair with them. The person I am very bothered about is the one who has heard or at least have the most amazing opportunities to hear-like people who live in Hull ,like the students at the Universities. You see our real problem is Pharisaism. The Pharisee is the man or woman who think they are all right and a cut above the rest. ‘I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’ they say , ‘I am just as good as the next person.’ And so they don’t come to church and they don't hear the Gospel. But you see, a Christian isn't someone who thinks that he’s as good as the next person, the Christian is someone who knows they are as bad as the next man and trembles at the thought.

And there is one word which sticks on the throat of the Pharisee, both ancient and modern. It is the word ‘charity’. The morally respectable cannot cope with the idea of receiving charity. If he is going to get into heaven at all, then it will be on his own merits, head held high with his thumbs firmly placed in the pockets of his nicely tailored waistcoat. He would be the last person to go grovelling, and least of all to God.

So what is going to happen to the morally respectable? Well, the same as is going to happen to everyone else- v16 ‘ This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ ,as my good news declares’ Judgement- Good news? Well, yes it is-because judgement means that as far as God is concerned our lives are actually of such value they are worth judging. It is also good news in that it is Jesus who will be doing the judging. For as God Jesus knows everything and so unlike a human judge his judgement will be impeccably fair-no mitigating circumstance will be ignored. But as a man he will be able to sympathise too. We will not be able to turn around and say to God ‘ What do you know. You haven’t a clue as to all the difficulties and problems I had to face, the social handicaps I was born with’. Because he will be able to answer ‘But I do- I have been there too.’ And Jesus is not going to be impressed as we are by superficial externals-how we appear to others and to ourselves, but he will be going much, much deeper for his concern is with what we are really are like on the inside-he will judge the secrets of our hearts. Those selfish thoughts we have nursed privately he will expose publicly. Those unkind words we have whispered secretly he will proclaim from the rooftops openly. And I don't know about you ,but I couldn’t cope with that. What good is it if on the day of judgement I proudly point to all the good things I have done and he exposes all the bad things I have done to the eternal shame of my family and friends who didn’t realise what I was like that on the inside? I tell you ,the shame that some like Jeffrey Archer and his family have felt in the full glare of the national media will be as nothing compared to the crippling shame and self-loathing some of us will feel on that day if we try and cling to our moral respectability.

What I need is someone who is able to take away those things so that there is nothing left to be ashamed of. I need to be able to come before God with no sins to confess- with a conscience which will not accuse me, for there is nothing left of which to be accused. But you say, that is impossible. Well, that is where the good news comes in. It is self-righteousness which is of no use. But God has provided a way whereby his Son’s righteousness can be given to us. We have run up a moral debt and our account is in the red, but in his Son whose moral account is infinitely in the black because he lived a perfect life, as we put our trust in him instead of ourselves our debt is cancelled as his credit is transferred to our account. That is what the cross is all about. The price is paid.

And one person who discovered this for himself was Mr Abercrombie. So let me tell you how the story ends. As Mr Abercrombie led the speaker down the corridor, he took him to an empty office. As soon as they were inside he said ‘I don’t have what you have.’ ‘I know’ replied the speaker, but you can.’ Within a few moments both men were on their knees with Mr Abercrombie asking for the C word -charity- God’s free unmerited forgiveness and love in his Son.

Could I ask is that true of you? Is that your experience ? Or are you still priding yourself on your own goodness, your church connections, your upbringing? If so, then you are great danger. And there is only one you can turn to, to get it all sorted out-so that you can know God as a son or a daughter. And that is the Lord Jesus. Throwing off the filthy, flea infested garment of self-righteousness and putting on the clean, holy garment of the Son’s righteousness. Why not do that now as we pray?

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