We are all in the same boat - Romans 3:1-20
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
~~We are all in the same boat SJN.MP. 14.10.18
Some of you will have heard the story about Mr Abercrombie but it is worth hearing again to help us understand what Paul is getting at in the passage we are looking at together in Romans this morning. 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 a jail sentence, although he had done that, but in that he spent most of working life speaking to prison inmates about the Christian faith. But this day was different for he was addressing 19 businessmen elegantly dressed in their blue pinstriped suits and white shirts. And so the speaker began his talk. It was about half way through that he said something which caused several of the dignified gentlemen to pull a face as if a skunk had just sneaked 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- mind, body and soul. Believe in the tooth fairy, believe in UFO’s, believe in Father Christmas if you like-but believe that we are morally corrupt? No, that was too much to take and one of the businessmen said so. ‘You don’t really believe that we are sinners do you?’ he blustered. ‘I mean you are far too sophisticated to be one of those hellfire and brimstone fellows, intelligent people don’t go in for that kind of stuff.’ And this is how 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 up: ‘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. 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 you can well imagine Mr Abercrombie thinking: ‘Well, what’s the point then, why be good or religious at all?’ And as we have been listening to Paul over the last few weeks we may be tempted to think pretty much the same thing. In chapter 1 Paul confronted the pleasure seeking hedonist of the ‘eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we diet’ variety. Every conceivable vice is listed and a nauseating list it is too. But somewhere between the escort service and the church service is another group- the upright moralist. 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 bit of fire and brimstone, a keep Britain morally tidy campaign- you go for it.’ And he sees them in the congregation sitting in the most comfortable seats, full of moral indignation, and he pauses and turns to them in chapter 2 and says ‘You who pass judgement on others don’t you realise you are at the same time passing judgement on yourself. If you are a good pagan you fail to live up to your own standards because your conscience condemns you and if you are a good Jew- a religious person, your very own Scriptures condemns you.’ No, whichever way we turn we seem to be stuffed- guilty as charged
So is there no advantage in having a religious upbringing? Well, of course there is, says Paul, but not quite in the way you imagine. Because what it cannot do is defeat the beast within, called sin. So let us turn to Romans 3 and see how Paul deals with some tough objections until we get to the point where there is only one hope and it is not to be found within us, but comes from outside us in the most wonderful way imaginable.
First, the advantage of revelation vv 1-8
Look at verse 1, ‘What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.’ Dogs do not know they have a Creator, and neither do daisies! The heavens may declare the glory of God, according to the psalmist, but they don’t do so consciously- only human beings (as well as angels) can do that. So humans are endowed with this wonderful capacity to think and reflect and relate- and in principle, to think about their Maker. But the Jews were in a category all of their own for God had revealed himself to them especially- speaking to them personally as with Abraham; giving his law to Moses and then speaking countless times in countless ways through countless prophets. Think of that- the God of heaven choosing you to speak to personally! That is some advantage over every other human being living on the planet! Similarly today, it is a tremendous blessing to be brought up in a Christian home or attend a Christian school or enjoy the freedoms provided by what historically has been a Christian country.
But it is what you do with those privileges that matter-acting upon them rather than presuming upon them. Sometimes people will say to me, ‘But what of those who have never heard the Gospel?’ And I have to say that is not my primary concern, I am more worried about those who have heard or at least have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and yet do nothing about it. There are 20,000 people in our parish, everyone one within walking distance of this church and here we are this morning a mere handful in comparison. The advantages people have in this country in having access to the Gospel and enjoying a culture which is the fruit of the Gospel are immense- and yet for all of that the turning away from God sadly continues. Whatever advantages God gives us are to be grasped, if they are not it is simply further evidence of our innate rebelliousness against him.
Now it might be helpful to look
at the next few verses as a kind of Q and A session (Questions by an imaginary
objector and answers by Paul).
Having shown there is an advantage in biblical religion, the first question is then:
Q- v 3a ‘Surely
that revelation failed, because not everyone believed it?
A -‘Despite people’s failure to believe, God is still faithful in reaching out to us, he can’t be blame for trying to befriend humanity. Even King David saw this after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and effectively murdered her husband. God had been so kind to David and yet he treated God shabbily and so he knew he couldn’t say anything in his defence’- hence the quote from Psalm 51 in verse 4.
Next Q, ‘If unrighteousness is necessary for God’s righteousness to be seen, how fair is it for him to judge us? V5
A-v6‘On that basis God couldn’t judge anybody and everyone agrees that God should judge –that is part and parcel of what it means to be God.
Final Q,v7 ‘Well, if sinning makes God look better in showing up his righteousness in judgement and mercy in forgiveness, should we not sin all the more so God will be glorified all the more?
A-v8 ‘I know some people accuse us of saying that but it is ridiculous and reveals a poor understanding of the personal nature of grace, what you have said is like the teenager leaving his room like a tip just to show his friends what a great Mum he has in her willingly cleaning it up for him!’
So again the message is that formality without inner reality thinks of a relationship with God in mechanical, impersonal ways. If you love someone, then you don’t do things which will upset them.
And so having dealt with what might be well intended but misplaced objections, Paul gets back to our real problem which the moralist would seek to deny and the religious would attempt to avoid – our sin. And so we come to the anatomy of sin vv 9-18.
Look at verse 9, ‘What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.’ Paul is not contradicting himself. Yes, there are advantages in biblical religion- God is known, his laws are given, his kindness displayed and so much more, but when it comes to the thing which plagues us, then the most religious person in the world is in the same position as the most non-religious person in that he like the rest of us is infected by the disease called sin- and neither having a Bible on your shelf or a lucky charm in your pocket makes a blind bit of difference. As the Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton once said, ‘We are all in the same boat and we are all seasick’.
What separates us from God is sin. We are not strong enough to remove it and not good enough to erase it. Whether you are a pauper or a pope, a barman or a bishop- the same virulent moral disease is coursing through your veins, leading your further away from God and nearer to your own destruction. We are all ‘under sin’, (the word ‘power’ is not in the original) v 9 and all are ‘unrighteous’-v10- both amount to the same thing. To be unrighteous speaks of our position before God, to be under sin speaks of our citizenship, we have a spiritual passport which declares we belong to a rebellious race.
Think of it like this. Fred is an excellent sailor- the best. He can shin up the rigging like a monkey on Red Bull. He can swab the decks with the best of them. He can navigate simply by the stars. Fred would win the sailor of the year award every time. But then you discover that Fred sails under the Jolly Roger- he is a pirate. It is not how good we are at doing what we do that counts, but under whose flag we sail, who is our Sovereign? And Paul has been showing that we are all in effect pirates, rebels against our kind, patient, sovereign God and it doesn’t get any more serious than that. Or does it? The imagery Paul is about to use by drawing on raft of Old Testament passages to expose the human condition, borders on the macabre, it really is like a scene from a horror movie. For it is an autopsy of the spiritually diseased riddled body we all inhabit. So I hope you have a strong stomach.
Paul takes us to the spiritual mortuary and shows us three bodies which have been subject to the scalpel of the coroner to determine 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 and how our entire being is infected, from the top of our head to the tips of our toes? Sin, you see, subjecting us all to a slow death-as Paul will later 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.
In fact what we have here in this catena of Old Testament texts is an insight into what the speaker referred to with Mr Abercrombie, total depravity; that is the Bible’s teaching that sin is like a corrupting spiritual virus effecting the totality of our being. It effects our minds, v 11, ‘no one understands’; our motives, v11,‘No one seeks God’; our wills v12 ‘All have turned away’; our speech v13, ‘Their tongues practise deceit, with lying lips and cursing mouths’ and our relationships- with each other, v15 we are ‘swift to shed blood’, and with God, v18, ‘there is no fear of God’. This is the Bible’s summary of our sinful condition but also a pointer to the antidote.
And so finally, the admission of defeat vv 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 God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.’ What’s that all about?
It is this: we saw that when Paul spoke of being ‘under sin’ it was a matter of our citizenship if you like. Well, the Jew who is ‘under the law’ is a citizen of the law, under its rule. But while God gave the law to the Jews in particular, it had a purpose for the whole world in general, namely to silence the world and render it accountable to God. You see, in a Jewish court of law, the way by which you signalled that you had lost your case was by placing your hand over your mouth, ‘stopping your mouth’, that is the picture here. So when we see that even the religious man par excellance- the Jew, can’t be put right with God by having the law, then we are all no hopers. If the best of the best are lost, where does that leave the rest of us?-really lost! On the last day no one is going to be able to accuse God of unfairness- that we never had an opportunity to seek after him, that we didn’t know right from wrong, that he had favourites, or pointing to others saying, ‘I wasn’t as bad as him’ as if such a comparison will let us off the hook. If we have a Bible, that will condemn us. If we haven’t, then our conscience will condemn us. God will be seen to be just and we will have to agree. We are the problem, not God.
And Paul tells us why the moral law is no help in saving us, but instead makes matters worse for that through it we become ‘conscious of sin.’ Now Paul doesn’t mean that we come to know right from wrong by having the law, but that knowing the law has a strange effect on us. You see when the Law meets an unregenerate heart (that is, a person without the Holy Spirit and without faith), the effect is that it reveals the rebellion in our hearts; it brings it out. Sin rises up in the presence of the Law and shows itself in its gaudy colours.
It's like a teenager who goes to the front door when the post has arrived. He brings it in and puts it on the table. He flips through it and sees that there isn’t anything for him, and so he starts to walk away. No bad desires there. But then he notices at the top of one of the postcards the words, "For parents only!" And suddenly there is a desire to read the card, which he does. Are those words on the card sin? No. But through those words come the knowledge of sin. Suddenly what was lying dormant in the heart is shown to really be there - the desire to read what one ought not to read. Do you see how it works? The law stirs up our inner rebelliousness- it triggers sin.
Now in the next passage Paul is going to show God’s answer-the only answer to our real need, how a new power can be put into us by the Holy Spirit and how a new citizenship is given to us by God’s Son.
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 using the the C word -Charity- asking for God’s free unmerited forgiveness and love in his Son.
Now could I ask whether you have done that? Could I ask if you are resting in that or even as a professing Christian you have lapsed back into trying to prove yourself worthy of God? Nothing less will do to help us get off the treadmill of religion and good works and all the burdensome guilt it brings in its wake and instead enjoy the presence of God in Christ.
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