Religion at its best is not the best - Romans 2:17-29

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 30th September 2018.

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Religion at its best is not the best.   SJN MP 30.9.18

They said it was safe, as safe as houses, absolutely unsinkable. One employee of the White Star Line went so far as to declare that even God couldn’t sink this ship. So confident were they in fact 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 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 morning 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 few weeks we have been hearing of the appalling bad news which is the prelude to the wonderful 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 God’s righteous anger with a world on the run from him is 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 is bound to impress God on the judgment day. There is no refuge there says Paul, for we are not good enough. And in the section we are looking at together this morning, 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 - v 17 – ‘Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in 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 judgment, then can having a Bible?

Well, many 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 for goodness sake, surely all Anglicans go to heaven don’t they? ‘Well’, says Paul- ‘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 reasons.

First, it is generally recognised that there is no hypocrisy worse than religious hypocrisy- vv 21- ‘You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” And I am quite sure that if Paul were here this morning 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 to 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 world’s opinion of you. Is it the case, as he says in v 24, that ‘God’s 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 is 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 don’t know the basic teachings of the faith, and they don’t act significantly differently from non-Christians in their daily lives.’ Now if that could be said of the United States, what do you think might be said of the United Kingdom? What are people to make of a church which lectures the world about justice and the importance of family life and fidelity, while at the same time refuses to put its own house in order as the recent sexual abuse by clergy and attempted cover ups so sadly illustrate? Then the Church not only becomes an object of ridicule, but contempt- God’s name is being blasphemed by people outside and who can blame them?

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 let me tell you that time and experience has taught me differently. And so 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 about mission and evangelism, but would be the last person in the world to do it themselves. It is the  one who loves pride of place in being on all the committees, being looked up to as the elder statesman, even giving large cheques to the church treasurer and seeming 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 being worn to hide the spiritual barrenness of his own soul. Do you remember Mr Talkative in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? He could talk for hours about spiritual things, he was capable of quoting the Bible backwards, indeed, 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 least has had them.

Jesus says something very similar towards the end of the Sermon on Mount doesn’t he? ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:21). And those are words you never, want to hear.

So what is God looking for? Religious talk? Enthusiastic singing? Miracles? Good sermons? No, he is looking for fruit which befits repentance, signs of changed lives. Look again 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 lawbreaker.’ Isn’t 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 as do you, who put many professing Christians to shame by their devotion to the things they are committed to, and whose kindness and generosity are exemplary. Religiosity counts for nothing, argues Paul, unless it is accompanied by changed lives. So Mr Professional with all your obsession with your career at the neglect of your family, do you think that going to church will save you? Think again it will not. And you Mr Sophisticated sleeping with your girlfriend, do you think that belonging to the church youth group will save you? Think again it will not. And you Mrs Involved with all your rumour making, do you think that simply by being within these four walls with a song sheet in your hand, 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- that is an authentic member of God’s people-is not a matter of something external and physical but internal and spiritual. You know, there is many a person today who thinks 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  will be so easily fobbed off with such a ritual? Of course not. The very idea is blasphemous. I 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 isn’t 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, blindly being led by your friends, your parents, whether quietly or loudly, with ceremony or without, but with no inner reality or belief of your own.

Religious formality is useless, indeed it is worse than useless, it is positively dangerous because it breeds complacency-the complacency of the Titanic.

Let me tell you something. In the middle of the 19th century there was a Vicar who lived in Cornwall by the name of William Haslam. One day, much to his surprise, his gardener became a Christian and he didn’t quite know what to make of this change. And so he visited a friend who told him quite bluntly that the reason he didn’t understand was because he himself was not a real Christian. His friend asked him: ‘Have you peace with God?’ To which the Vicar replied, ‘Of course, God is my friend.’ Pursuing the point further, his colleague asked him, ‘How did you get that peace?’ ‘Oh’ replied Haslam,’ I get it at the daily service. I get it through prayer and reading and especially at Holy Communion. I have made it a rule to carry my sins there every Sunday and often come away from the Holy Sacrament as free as a bird.’ ‘And how long does this peace last?’ enquired his friend. ‘I suppose not a week,’ said Haslam thoughtfully, ‘for I have to do the same thing every Sunday.’ The friend went on to tell him about the living waters that Jesus promised, welling up from within to eternal life. Haslam admitted he didn’t know of that but would love to have it. Then he went on his way. Well, the following Sunday the strangest thing happened. The Vicar climbed into his pulpit and announced the text, ‘Who do you think Christ is?’  Then Haslam explained what occurred next, ‘As I went on to explain the passage, I saw that the Pharisees and Scribes did not know that Christ was the Son of God or that he came to save them. Something was telling me all the time, “You are no better than the Pharisees yourself, you do not believe he is the Son of God and that he came to save you any more than they did.” I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy come into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not. Whether it was my words or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up and putting up his arms shouted out in a Cornish manner, “The parson is converted! Hallelujah.”  He then describes how at least twenty in the congregation cried out for mercy themselves and said they found the joy and peace which Christ gives, including four members of the Vicar’s own family. Well, the news spread like wildfire through the town that the Vicar had been converted by his own sermon!  Do you see that you can be religious about God without having a relationship with God? And do you see how that relationship becomes real? When you personally embrace the message about who Jesus is and what he came to do- what Paul here calls obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ through faith.
Don’t be content with mere religion- that never saved anybody. Like Haslam, be only content with Christ.


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