Why religion always fails - Romans 2:17 - 3:20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
They said it was safe. As safe as houses, absolutely unsinkable. So confident were they that they provided lifeboats for only half the passengers. It was a waste of space they said. Then on April 15th, 1912 on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic ,the Titanic struck an iceberg at 22 knots and sank with the loss of 1513 people. What is the moral of that? It is this: you should never be too sure. Especially when lives are at risk. There is this fatal tendency in human nature isnt there to have a misplaced sense of security. The fact that we feel safe does not mean that we are safe. And if that is true of journey by ship across the Oceans, how much more is it the case of the spiritual journey we all have to make from this world to the next. That at least, is the lesson that Paul wants to teach us this evening from that passage we read in his letter to the Romans. So do turn with me to Romans chapter 2 and v 17ff.
Over the past couple of weeks we have been hearing of the bad news which is the prelude to the good news which Paul unfolds at the end of chapter 3. And perhaps for some of us it has come as a bit of a shock to realise how bad that news really is. Paul began by telling us that Gods righteous anger with a world on the run from him is presently being revealed all around us in a morally degenerating society. He then went on to deflate the moral complacency of those of us who think that simply being good and respectable will greatly impress God on the judgement day. There s no refuge there says Paul, for we are not good enough. And in the section we are looking at together tonight, Paul fires one final salvo in the same general direction, but this time towards religious people in particular. In other words folk who might normally be found in a building such as this on a Sunday- v 17 - Now you who call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship with God.- he begins. In other words he is no longer addressing the good humanist but those who take pride in their biblical heritage. So if moral respectability cannot deliver us from the certainty of judgement ,then can having a Bible?
Well, some Jews at the time of Paul certainly thought so. Some of their rabbis actually taught that father Abraham sat at the gates of hell in order to ensure that not a single Israelite would go through. And it is so easy for people to think along the same self-assured lines today. Will I go to heaven? What a question , of course I will. I have been baptised, I have been confirmed, I went forward at a youth rally, why, I am a member of the Church of England, surely all Anglicans go to heaven dont they? Well, Paul says- no. Your religiosity can no more save you than your moral respectability can. To think otherwise puts you in the same category as a passenger on the Titanic.
So why is it that religion can offer no protection against the anger of God towards our sin? Paul gives us two very good reasons.
First of all, it is generally recognised that there is no hypocrisy worse than religious hypocrisy- vv 21- 24 You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law , do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written Gods name among the Gentiles is dishonoured because of you. And I am quite sure that if Paul were here this evening talking to us rather than the Jews he would make precisely the same point. To those who attend not the synagogue but the church, to people who are not circumcised but baptised he would turn round and say, You who call yourself a Christian, claiming as he says in v18 to be a light to those in darkness-what are you really like? I am not concerned about your opinion of yourself but the worlds opinion of you. Is it the case that as he says in v 24 Gods name is being blasphemed because of you? Well, is it?
You know sometimes we may feel that the charge the church is full of hypocrites is more than a little unwarranted, and often used as a smoke screen to hide behind from facing the real challenges of Christian truth. But we ought not to let ourselves off the hook that easily. Rather we should stop and consider whether there is any substance in the charge.
Listen to this. Here is part of a Gallop poll on religion in the United States. It says: Fewer than 10% of North Americans are deeply committed Christians. These people are a breed apart. They are more tolerant of people of diverse backgrounds and are involved in charitable works and are committed to prayer and are far, far happier than the rest of the population. But most Americans who profess Christianity dont know the basic teachings of the faith, and they dont act significantly differently from non-Christians in their daily lives. Now if that could be said of the United States, what on earth could be said of the United Kingdom? What is the world to make of a church which lectures the world about justice or the importance of family life and fidelity, while at the same time promotes those very things which undermine them. And so within our own Diocese there is a meeting being organised in which, and I quote the publicity, Two lesbians and two gay men will tell their stories emphasising the relationship between the spiritual and sexual sides of their lives. And by the way I was expected to advertise that meeting to you here in St Johns. How does Paul put it: You who preach against adultery -sex outside marriage- do you commit adultery? Obviously the answer is yes and the church is proud of the fact.
It is the problem of nominal Christianity you see, Christian in name only
But perhaps we think that everyone who carries a Bible is a real Christian? I certainly used to think so, but time and experience has taught me differently. And perhaps the most beguiling hypocrisy of all is evangelical hypocrisy. There is such a thing as the nominal evangelical- the nominal Bible believer. This is the one who loves to make all the pious statements, who speaks so much about mission and evangelism, but would be the last person in the world to do it. Who loves pride of place in being on all the committees, being looked up to as the elder statesman, who gives large cheques to the church treasurer and seems so impressive with his long, earnest prayers rendered at the prayer meeting-and yet- and yet for all of this, if the truth be known it is all but a pious mask worn to hide the spiritual barrenness of his own soul. Do you remember Mr Talkertive in John Bunyans Pilgrims Progress? He could talk for hours about spiritual things, he could quote the Bible backwards, you could not have found a more impressive person. And Pilgrim was understandably taken in, until someone put him right by taking him to one side and pointing out that it was a sure rule that the one who likes to talk the most about spiritual experiences is the one who has least had them.
Jesus says something very similar doesnt he ? towards the end of the Sermon on Mount, how does he put it? Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father. Many will say to me on that day Lord, Lord (professing believers you see) did we not prophecy in your name, and drive out demons in your name and perform many miracles ( of course they did). Then I will tell you plainly, I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers. (Matt 7:21).
So what is God looking for? Talk? Enthusiastic singing? Miracles? Good sermons? Hardly. He is looking for fruit which befits repentance, signs of changed lives. Look at v 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a law-breaker. Isnt that striking? Pagans will condemn you who have a Bible, says Paul, for they do the very things you do not do for all your religion. Yes, I know unbelievers, and you do too, who put many professing Christians to shame by their devotion and hard work to the things they are committed to. Religiosity counts for nothing, argues Paul, unless it is accompanied by changed lives. So Mr Professional with all your pride and materialism , do you think hat going to church will save you/Think again it will not. And you Mr Sophisticated who is sleeping with his girlfriend, do you think that belonging to the Christian Union will save you? Think again it will not. And you Miss Involved with all your snide remarks and rumour making, do you think that simply by being within these four walls with a hymn book in your hand, that is going to save you? Think again, it will not. It is not good enough to say, I am a church member- so was Judas.
But there is another reason Paul gives which should cause us to take no assurance in our being religious and that is religious formality without inner spirituality is useless- v 25 Circumcision is of value if you observe the law, but if you break the law you have become as though you had not been circumcised. Here are people who think that the very act of circumcision will guarantee them eternal life. Not so says, Paul. Circumcision is meant to be an outward sign of an inner spiritual attitude, without that the ritual is no good at all, which is what Paul is getting at in v 28 when he says that being a real Jew- an authentic member of Gods people-is not a matter of something external and physical but internal and spiritual. You know, there is many a person today who think that simply being baptised is going to work wonders with St Peter at the gates of heaven. There are scores of people who put the same superstitious trust in a baptism ceremony as did the Jews in the circumcision ceremony. But do we honestly think that a holy God who has made us for a personal relationship with himself could be so easily fobbed off with such a ritual? Of course not The very idea is blasphemous. It tell you, religious formality can no more make you a Christian than having a gold ring and a prayer book can make you truly married. It is the inner spiritual reality that matters, that personal commitment to Christ which is of the heart -v 29.
And yet religious formality is so common isnt it? It is to be found in every type of church. It can be there in the mass of the Catholics and the meditation of the Quakers. You will find it in the routine of the Anglican Prayer book and in the exuberance of the charismatics. It is no respecter of persons or churches- going through the motions, being swept along by the crowd, by your friends, by your parents, whether quietly or loudly, with ceremony or without, but with no inner reality or belief.
So religious formality is useless, indeed it is worse than useless it is positively dangerous because it breeds complacency-the complacency of the Titanic.
So is there no advantage in having a religious upbringing? Well, of course there is says Paul in 3:1-8. It is a tremendous blessing to be brought up in a Christian home or attend a Christian school and to enjoy the freedoms provided by a Christian country, having access to Gods Word- v 2 . But it is what you do with those privileges that matter-acting upon them rather than presuming upon them. And let us not be so perverse as some would argue in v5 that perhaps its a good thing that we sin now and again because that gives God the opportunity to show how merciful he is. That is like the teenager leaving his or her room like a tip just to show their friends what a great Mum they have in clearing it up! Again formality without inner reality thinks of a relationship with God in such mechanical terms.
So what is the conclusion? Paul takes us to the spiritual mortuary and shows us three bodies which have been subject to the scalpel of the coroner to determine the cause of death. There is the hedonist ,the moralist and the religionist. And do you know what, as they lie side by side, there is no difference between them at all- v 10 There is no one righteous not even one. Their anatomy is identical- vv 14-18; throats like open graves, deceitful tongues, viper lips, mouths full of vulgarity, feet marching towards violence, all because there is no fear of God before their eyes. Do you see how the disease of sin is no respecter of persons, how the entire person is infected, from eyes to feet? Sin, you see, subjecting us all to a slow, painful death-as Paul is to say in chapter 6:23 The wages of sin is death. And no amount of pleasure seeking, or moral campaigning or religious ritual can do a thing about it.
Let me tell you something. On July 8th 1741 a man stood up in a church pulpit in Enfield Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards was his name, one of the greatest intellects and preachers America has ever produced. He had a very large congregation, made up of nice, respectable, New England stock, the grandchildren of the Pilgrim Fathers no less, who had been brought up on Christianity with their mothers milk. They attended church not just once but twice or even three times every Sunday and would stand to hear sermons up to two hours long. Impressed? Edwards wasnt. He began to preach and do you know what he called his sermon? Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Let me read to you some of what he said to these good religious people: You have offended God infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet, it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire this very moment. There is no other reason why you have not gone to hell since you have been sitting in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful manner of attending his most solemn worship.. Now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day when Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling, crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day when many are flocking to him, many until recently were in the same miserable state as you are in, and are now in a happy state with their hearts filled with love for him who loved them. Now undoubtedly ,it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is now in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees, that every tree that does not bring forth good fruit, may be cast down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, let everyone who is without Christ, now awake and flee from the wrath to come.
That sermon led to a revival. Hundreds of people were wailing and sobbing by the end of the sermon. Edwards could hardly make himself heard. These religious, churchgoing people you see, found themselves condemned by his words. And if there is no revival amongst us, maybe it is because we are incapable of having such an experience or listening to such preaching, because the bad news is too unpalatable for our delicate western tastes.
So I say to you, as Edwards said to his congregation-flee from the wrath to come. Flee where? Flee to Christ of course, the one who bled to save you, who out of love for sinners, even religious sinners like us died and rose again so that we might found pardon and renewal in the Holy Spirit. But whatever you do, do not be lured into that false security by your religious background, however impeccable and sound, dont be satisfied with anything less than a personal relationship with the Saviour.
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