What's gone wrong? - Romans 3:9-20

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 22nd October 2006.

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One of my favourite stories from childhood is Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A certain emperor was very fond of appearances and clothing. So when certain clever philosophers (actually they were con men) offered to weave him a rare and costly garment, he was overjoyed. He especially liked their promise that the garment would be invisible to all but the wise and pure in heart. The delighted emperor commissioned his new clothing at great cost, and the con men sat before their empty looms and pretended to weave. Soon the emperor’s curiosity became so great that he sent his chief minister to go and see how the work was progressing. Seeing no cloth on the busy looms, and not wanting to be thought unwise and impure in heart, the official returned reporting the fabulous beauty of the cloth. After a time the weavers asked for more money. Again the emperor became impatient, and sent his second minister to find out how the work was progressing. He too returned, giving an enthusiastic report. A few days later, the emperor himself went to find out what was going on. Though he too, like his ministers, saw nothing on the looms, he also did not want to appear foolish, so he proclaimed the clothing to be excellent and beautiful. He even gave the weavers medals. Well finally on the day set for the grand parade, the con men dressed the emperor in his nakedness and then quickly left town. As the emperor paraded through the town wearing absolutely nothing but a crown, all the people joined in praising the beautiful new clothes, lest they too be thought foolish. So the absurd parade continued, until in a moment of quietness, a little boy was heard to say: “The emperor’s got no clothes on!” At once everyone knew the truth, including the emperor. One innocent remark from a small boy had exposed the hypocritical pretence of an entire nation.

            Well sometimes the most obvious truth is the very last thing we are willing to admit. And all too often it is easy to kid ourselves that everything is OK, when it fact it isn’t. And when we come to the passage before us, then there is definitely an element of exposure going on. For the writer Paul is like the little boy who points out what is obvious to the shame and horror of those being exposed. And the painful thing for us who are reading is that it is we who are being exposed.

            Now if you were here last week, you’ll remember that we began a sermon series called Two Ways to Live, in which we are going to look at six foundation stones of Christian belief. (Slide 1) Last week we saw that God was the loving creator of the world and he made human beings to live in his perfect world. Human beings were the pinnacle of God’s creation and were made to live in relationship with their creator God. We are God’s workmanship and we are designed by and for him. That’s where we got to last week. But the sad fact is that is not the world we see today. Instead the world is marred by brokenness, sadness, disease and death. Something has gone tragically wrong. And the Bible’s answer to the question “What’s gone wrong with the world?” is that we have. Human beings are the heart of the problem. (Slide 2) For we have all rebelled against our creator, and instead of living under his rule, we make ourselves kings, wearing our own paper crowns, and turning away from him. And it’s that truth that we are focussing on this evening from Romans 3. And whilst this truth is bad news, yet it is vital that wherever we stand with God this evening, whether we are Christians or not, we understand this truth, because as we will see it has massive implications for how we relate to our creator. And all of us will have to take a long hard look in the mirror of God’s Word. So we’re in the courthouse this evening. We are all there, sat in the dock, with God as the Judge facing us. And as the writer Paul describes the scene, he tells us about three things:

1) The Charge is Read (Vv 9-12)

2) The Evidence is Presented (Vv 13-18)

3) The Verdict is Given (Vv 19-20)

1) The Charge is Read (Vv 9-12)

So first, then, the charge is read. And it has to be said, it is a pretty grim charge sheet. Verse 9: “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:
‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away,  they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’” Now Paul has just been arguing for the last two chapters of his letter that all mankind are infected with a disease called “sin”. Jews and Gentiles alike, he says in verse 9, are under sin. Now very often today, that little word “sin” is misunderstood. Today it’s a tabloid word for a sleazy parliamentary sex scandal. Or its used by advertisers in a naughty but nice sort of way. You know the sort of thing: Yes you’re on a diet, but eat a cream doughnut anyway. It’s only a small sin! So sin is thought to be either naughty but nice or so bad that none of us would ever dream of committing sin. The trouble is, the meaning of sin in the Bible is something that applies to us all. And the writer Paul goes on to explain what sin means in verse 10: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” Do you notice the emphasis- how many times in these short verses does the word “no-one” come up? It’s very clear isn’t it? Everyone is in the same boat! No-one is righteous- that is no-one does what is perfectly good and right in God’s eyes. There is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God. Because the fact is sin is not so much bad deeds as an attitude which leads to doing things which are wrong. The disease of sin leads to the symptoms of that disease which are sins plural.        

            Let me explain. Last Friday as a few of us were playing football on the Astroturf at Tesco’s, another group turned up on the other half of the ground which was a group of about 30 children no older than about nine or ten with a few adults to supervise them. And the first thing they had to do was run round the whole pitch to get warmed up. The trouble was that meant running round the side of our pitch as well. Now that would have been fine, so long as the children kept off our pitch and ran round the side. But they didn’t. Some of them had the cheek to run right across our pitch and do a short cut. Now for us trying to play our game that was very annoying. So some of us shouted to them to get off the pitch and run round the side, to which one little boy simply shouted out: “Yeah, whatever” and kept running right across our pitch. Now if he’d thought about it, that little boy was being absolutely stupid. If we wanted to, we could have beaten the little brat to a pulp. But what was extraordinary was his fearless and brazenly rebellious attitude. He couldn’t care less. He was going to do what he wanted to do. And it all sprang from an attitude which said: “Yeah whatever. I’ll do what I want because I’m the boss, and I’m not afraid of the consequences.”

            You see it wasn’t so much the fact that he ran across the pitch which was bad. It was his attitude which had no respect for anyone else. That little boy was king of his own life as far as he was concerned. And that is a great picture of sin. Because sin is fundamentally an attitude which says to God “I’m in charge of my life.” And God doesn’t get a look in. And the wrong things we do which go against God’s ways spring from that attitude. So verse 12: “All have turned away; they have together become worthless; there is no-one who does good, not even one.” So do you see the charge. All of us are in this boat. All of us have an attitude which says “I’m the boss” and no-one is innocent in this regard. We are all rebels against our maker. We are all are under sin.

            Now very often when this truth is explained, two very common objections are raised. They are what we might call “yes, but” objections. One is “Yes, but God hasn’t made himself clear.” It’s alright you telling us we are rebels against God, but God could have made himself clearer couldn’t he? Often it’s said as an argument against the judgement of God on human beings. God is being unfair, people say. He needs to give us more evidence of his existence and what he wants us to do about him.      Now interestingly, Paul has already argued against this objection in chapter 1 of Romans. Just glance back to chapter 1 verse 18: “The wrath [or judgement] of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Can you see what Paul is saying. Mankind is without excuse because God has given himself ample testimony in creation. Now it’s not that we can know the full story from creation. God reveals himself fully and finally in Jesus through whom we can be saved. But Paul’s point is that God’s testimony in creation renders all our excuses of ignorance invalid. None of us can say we never heard, or we never had enough evidence. And if we say, “Yes, but I you can’t expect me to look at creation and see God’s glory.” Well Paul reminds us that, verse 18, men suppress the truth by their wickedness. Putting it very simply: Mankind ignores its creator. And it did too when the Creator himself came in human form in the person of Jesus. What could be clearer evidence? But mankind still rejected him. The problem is not lack of evidence but hearts. Human hearts which are fundamentally opposed to God and will reject him no matter what. So Paul’s conclusion to chapter 1 comes in verse 32: “Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things [that is our sin] deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” Each one of us knows right and wrong deep in our consciences and hearts. But we don’t do it. And we stand condemned.

            But there’s often another very common objection that goes something like this. Yes, but I’m not as bad as all that. This is perhaps the most common objection I meet. It’s the lie that basically most people are good, especially you and me, and when we meet God face to face he’ll let us off. Our good deeds will outweigh our bad. The trouble is it is simply not true and is a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s character and our problem. What does Paul say in our passage, verse 12: “All have turned away,  they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” There is no-one who does good. You see it all depends on your definition of good. If it were up to us, then I guess most of us would be fine. OK, we’re not perfect, but we try our best, we try and be nice to people. Some of us do many wonderful things for other people. But the fact is it’s not our definition of good that matters. It’s God’s. And he says good is 100% moral perfection. Because that is what he is. He is 100% moral perfection, so any imperfection, however slight, would be instantly obliterated by his holiness and majesty. Sin and imperfection just cannot co-exist. And in fact it’s even more disturbing than that. For God doesn’t just not like human sin. He’s is rightly angry at human sin. Not in an irrational way. But it a just and totally right way, as we will see next week. And we are facing his judgement.

            Let me show you what I mean by an illustration that some of you may have seen before. (Slide) I call it the Tower Block of Morality. Many of us live our lives by the tower block method of morality. That is, most of us would put ourselves at about floor 10 of twenty in the moral tower block. 20 is perfection, ground floor is pure evil. And the past mark for getting into heaven would, in our humble opinion, be about floor 8. No we’re not perfect we admit, but we’ve tried our hardest. Above us are people like Mother Teresa and Cliff Richard. Below us are people like Harold Shipman or J R Ewing, you know the sort of people. But nice people like us will go to heaven. But sadly that is a very long way from the God of the Bible. No, God’s standards are perfect. He is a God who holds perfect standards of justice. And not one of us make the grade. And whilst we draw the line on the tower block horizontally at level 8, God draws the line vertically right down the middle. Which means that none of us naturally can go to heaven, but all of us can no matter what we have done- whether we place ourselves on floor 1 or 19. Because it’s God who saves not us.              

            You see both objections, yes but God hasn’t made himself clear and yes but I’m not all that bad, are wrong. God has made himself clear and we are that bad. No, we’re not as bad as we could be, but fundamentally we are all suffering from the same fatal disease called sin. As Paul says we are all under sin facing God’s judgement. There is no-one righteous, not even one. That’s the charge against us.

2) The Evidence is Presented (Vv 13-18)

But at this point we’re tempted to cry out from the dock. “God, where is your evidence. What evidence have you got to convict us?” Well that’s what Paul describes as he continues his report on the divine courtroom drama. The evidence is presented. And as the evidence is presented, the court is warned that we might find some scenes very disturbing. Because Paul’s description of us is very damning. And Paul mentions two areas in particular where we have fallen: Our words and our actions.

a) Our Words- First, there are our words. Verse 13: “"Their throats are open graves;  their tongues practice deceit." "The poison of vipers is on their lips." "Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."” Do you notice the slow progression here. Paul moves from our throats to our tongues to our lips to our mouths. A slow but devastating movement from thoughts to words. And his point is that by our words we reveal what we are like. Paul is actually quoting from a whole series of psalms from the OT. And as his readers would have read this list they’d have noticed that every quotation comes from a passage about what the psalmist calls wicked men. But Paul is now applying these descriptions to everyone of us. We are all wicked people. It’s very clear isn’t it? Now of course, we might say, “Yes, but I’m not guilty of any of thee crimes?” Really? Well think again. “Their throats are like open graves.” He’s saying that inside us there is a whole host of rottenness bursting to come out. When was the last time you thought something horrible about another person, but just managed to restrain from letting it out. It stuck in your throat but didn’t make it past your lips. Well just because it didn’t come out, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. “Their tongues practice deceit.” How many times have we deceived people this past week. Perhaps we’ve told them a half truth, to give slightly the wrong impression maybe to do someone down or pump ourselves up a little. Maybe you’ve told outright lies to get yourself out of trouble. “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” How many things have we said this week that have cut people to the quick, that have been poisonous and vile. That morsel of gossip, which you say is just for prayer. That cheap cutting remark which has left someone hurt. “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” What has our language been like this week? Have we said bitter and angry things in the heat of the moment? You see, with a bit of thought, not one of us is innocent in terms of the use of our words. And Jesus makes it clear that out of the overflow of the heart, the tongue speaks. That is, our words reveal what is going on in our hearts. Rottenness, deceit, poison, cursing and bitterness all spring from a heart which is the same. It’s a pretty damning report isn’t it?

b) Our Actions- But Paul isn’t finished. Because the evidence includes not only our words but also our actions as well. Verse 15: “"Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know." "There is no fear of God before their eyes."” Now I guess few of us will have done any shedding of blood in our time, but if truth be told that’s what we’d like to do. Policemen always say that all a murderer needs is motive and opportunity and anyone can do it. But certainly in our hearts we are shedding blood all the time, with our attitudes to others. And Paul goes on: “Ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” How many of us are involved in conflict of some sort? Be it at work or in the family or with neighbours or authorities. No, we might not be totally to blame, but some element of guilt can be laid at our door. And the heart of it all? There is no fear of God before their eyes? Again our words and actions reveal a fatal heart condition. Our relationship with God is totally out of kilter. And we’re guilty as charged.


            Now I don’t know about you, but reading such a list and thinking about my own life is something I find pretty devastating. This is a description of me and my heart. And everyone of us is in the same boat. We need to realise that we are the ones in the dock. The story is told of a man who was convicted for a whole series of crimes, some of them deeply shocking. And when it came for the trial to begin, the judge asked the man how he was pleading. And the man replied: “Not guilty!” Well everyone in the room was shocked since it was blatantly obvious he was guilty. But over the next weeks and months the case against the man was built up by the prosecutors. And one day, the accused asked to say something to the court. He said: “I wish to change my plea from not guilty to guilty.” “Why, asked the judge. After all this time and expense? Why change your plea now?” “Well, said the man, I just didn’t understand the weight of evidence against me. But I do now.” And as we stand in the dock, I hope one thing is clear. That as the weight of evidence has been presented, we must all plead guilty.

3) The Verdict is Given (Vv 19-20)

And that brings us to the last action in the courtroom for today. And that is the verdict is given, verses 19-20: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Very simply what Paul is saying is that God’s verdict on humanity is that we are all guilty. Every mouth is silenced, he says. No-one can be declared right with God by doing their own thing, trying to follow God’s law. It is simply not possible. In fact, all God’s law does for us is show we don’t come up to scratch. And it shows how God who is holy and just will hold us accountable. So as the charge has been read and the evidence has been presented, the verdict given is guilty as charged, every single human being, including everyone here tonight. And the judge’s gavel comes down on the table with a thunderous crash.

            So how should we response to such a message? Well as we finish, I want to ask us three very brief questions. First, will we admit we are guilty? You see there may be some here tonight who still refuse to admit their guilt. You still think that you are good enough for God, that he will as the gentleman that he is, allow you in to heaven because you’re a good chap. But please at least understand what we’re looking at, even if you don’t agree. The knife is in our hands. There is blood on our hands. There’s CCTV footage showing the crime with us doing the deed. It’s an open and shut case. Our nakedness has been exposed like the Emperor’s new clothes. And the first step on the road to rescue is to admit your guilt. Have you done that?

            The second question is for those of us who have admitted their guilt. And that is will we hate our sin? Because surely one of the benefits of studying a passage like this this evening for those of us who are Christians is to help us see our sin as it really is. Utterly disgusting and degrading. Surely when we understand how awful sin is, then we won’t want to touch it with a bargepole will we? If we’ve grasped how poisonous and bitter and destructive our tongues and hands can be, then we will work hard with God’s help to battle with sin. We won’t want anything to do with it. And when we see what God thinks of our sins, that he finds it repulsive and a slur on his character, then surely as those who love him, we will seek to hate our sin and be ruthless with it.

            And then the third question: Will we come to the Saviour? For the very reason Paul is putting us through the mill like this this evening is because he wants to show us up for what we are, and then to show us that God has done everything needed to rescue us from such a terrible fate. Yes, we are guilty as charged. And as we will see next week we deserve eternal condemnation, hell itself. But when we see our fate, then we understand all the more what an incredible act of sacrifice it was for God to rescue us. For on the cross, Jesus Christ bore our penalty of judgement for us. He took hell upon himself for us. As Paul will say later in Romans, “God demonstrated his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Can you believe that? Can you believe that after the Judge’s gavel slams down on the desk declaring us guilty, the Judge himself goes to the gallows for us to offer us forgiveness, a cleared name, a fresh start. Surely there is no better news than that in the world. To be right with the God who made us and living life as God intended it. Surely nothing else is worth giving our lives to whole heartedly. And outside of Christ, there is no hope. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress, helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me Saviour or I die.”

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