Growing up, my dad often warned me with these words, “Be careful of pointing your finger at someone because you will have three pointing right back at you.”
Being the little smart-alec that I was, I started pointing with an open hand.
Others have offered these words of wisdom, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.”
Being the smart-alec that I am, I’d respond, “I’ll live in a brick house.”
Excuses can come easy if you really want them to, but if you live long enough, take time to reflect on life long enough, and if you probe the depths of your own heart at some station in life, then you will come to see these anecdotes as a description of reality. You will come to see the hypocrisy in your judgment. You will find yourself condemned by your own moral standards. Oh, some of you may readily disagree. Some of you may believe that you not only talk the talk but you walk the walk, but the hard, cold fact of the matter is: we generally are hypocrites without even knowing it, and in the eyes of God, we bring condemnation upon ourselves.
We have just finished a scathing portion of the book of Romans. In chapter one verses 18-32, Paul has laid out a horrid condemnation of humanity beginning with the premise that there are those who have traded the worship of the Creator for the created. These folks’ hearts have been corrupted, and they chase after idols–false gods. They seek their security, safety, worth, value, meaning, and purpose in goods and ideas that can never satisfy–and, in fact, instead of giving freedom and value, they actually end up destroying a person. Hence, God “gave them up” to follow their desires so that the very fabric of God’s created order unravels and they find themselves in hell long before they die. Chapter one ends in this fashion.
But what about people who do believe in God and worship God? What about people who strive to follow God’s commands? What about people who agree that all those things Paul listed at the end of chapter one are wrong and abhorrent? I mean, most of us would agree that the following are indeed wrong: “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossips 30slander, God-hating, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventing evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. Paul says that all of these things flow from a heart which is not seeking God–a heart that does not worship God.
This leaves the door wide open for someone to say, “Well, I do worship God. I do honor God. I am not like all those other people. I do not stand condemned. They are the ones with the problem–not me.” Paul now turns his attention to such a one as Romans chapter 2 begins.
The apostle writes, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?” This must have seemed a bit confusing to those who heard it. They might have thought, “What do you mean, Paul? I strive to avoid such matters. I don’t engage in homosexual acts. I am worshiping God. I work hard to love my neighbor and avoid all those things you listed. How am I condemning myself when I point out the ugly things that people are doing? How am I being hypocritical? How am I doing those things you are talking about?”
Paul continues, “4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.” The clue to this dilemma can be found right here in verse five, “but by your hard and impenitent heart.” These words are the lynch pin of this whole diatribe.
Paul points out that it is in God’s nature to be very forgiving; to be patient; to be kind. This kindness, forgiveness, and patience is meant to melt our hearts–to turn us away from idolatry and toward Him. This is what repentance is. Repentance isn’t just turning away from doing bad things and then doing good things. Repentance is a total change of heart–a change from worshiping idols and worshiping God. Paul is pointing out that this change of heart has not occurred. Paul is pointing out that even these religious folks are committing idolatry, and odds are, they have no idea they are doing it. I will explain what is going on in just a moment. We need to add the next couple of verses to get there.
6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. Now we come to a very interesting point because Paul says that God will repay each of us according to our deeds. If we misunderstand what Paul is saying here, we will come to the conclusion that we’d better get our act together and do as many nice things as we possibly can. We’d better worship regularly. We’d better give to charity and the church. We’d better treat others with respect and kindness. We’d better balance the scales in the favor of doing good because if we haven’t done enough, we will end up in the fires of hell!
But wait a minute. Paul began this chapter addressing people who believed they were doing just this thing. Paul began this chapter by addressing people who thought they were worshiping God who were not committing all the acts laid out in chapter one. He said they were building up wrath for themselves. He said that they had a hardness of heart. How can that be?
Well, let’s return to how Paul defines what it means to do good–to seek for glory and honor and immortality. Paul also defines what it means to do evil–to be self-seeking and obey wickedness or injustice. Hold those two definitions beside each other for just a moment. Doing evil is to be self-seeking. Doing evil is to be consumed with self. And if that is the case, does doing good mean that I am seeking my own glory; my own honor; my own immortality? It cannot!! Hence, doing good means I must be seeking the glory, honor, and immortality of something else. It must mean that I must be seeking the glory, honor, and immortality of God. It means my heart must be tuned to and I must be living for God.
Here is where I hope to clear things up. Here is where I hope to show you how this all comes together. For you see, Paul is telling us that you can do good deeds for the wrong reason. Let me say that again, you can do good deeds for the wrong reason. You can do good deeds and be completely and totally self-serving!
How so? Let me show you by this imaginary dialogue.
So, I notice you go to church. Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I also notice that you give to the church. Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I notice that you are kind to others. Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I notice that you give to charity. Why?
It makes me feel good and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I noticed that you try and follow the Ten Commandments all the time. Why?
I don’t want to make God angry and feel bad about myself.
Let’s stop the dialogue right there, and let me ask you: for whose sake is the imaginary person acting? Who is the imaginary religious person actually serving? Me. Myself. And I. The person is not doing these deeds for God’s sake. This person is actually self-serving. This person is actually seeking his or her own good. This person is not getting their sense of value, self-worth, safety and security from God–this person is getting their sense of value, self-worth, safety and security FROM THEIR GOOD WORKS. This person has made an idol out of their good works.
And if I feel like I am successful in doing good...
If I feel like I can accomplish living a good and upright moral life...
If I feel like such a life can be lived with making just a few life choices and sacrifices...
Then I can be very, very contemptuous of others who do not live the same kind of life I live. I can look down my nose at them and sneer. I can say they are the ones with the problem, not me. I’m doing good. I’m living right. I’m following God’s commands and worshiping Him. They are the ones with the idols, not me.
WRONG. You have an idol. You just can’t see it. Your self-righteousness blinds you to it. Your idol is your self. Hence every time you think you are doing good, you are simply storing God’s wrath up against yourself. You are not working and doing such things for God, you are doing them for you. While others are flat out rejecting God and turning to false forms of worship knowingly; you are rejecting God and serving yourself.
I have shared my testimony before you in the past, but it bears repeating now, for I do not want you to think that I am pointing fingers again. I learned my lesson from my father and from the brutal reality of my own life. For the bulk of my ministry, I now know that I was serving myself. If you would have told me this five years ago, I would have denied it vehemently!! I was a pastor. I was preaching God’s Word. I was helping a church to grow and do ministry! There was no way I was serving myself.
But after getting burned out, God revealed to me the deepest desires of my heart. I had to confront what I was living for–what I desperately wanted. I wanted to take a church and make it grow from very small to very big. I wanted this to happen because I wanted people to ask me how I did it in the mist of a culture that is more and more reluctant to embrace Christianity. I wanted people to take notice of my preaching and teaching. I wanted to write several books and become a popular author and public speaker. I wanted fame in the church and the obligatory fortune that would come with it. These were the deepest desires of my heart, and when this congregation didn’t grow as expected–when I felt like you weren’t holding up your end of what I thought you should do, then I became contemptuous of you. I became angry with you. You were why the church wasn’t growing. It just couldn’t be me. I was pouring my heart out to make you grow...so that I could reap the rewards. Selfish. Selfish. Selfish. I deserve your contempt and hatred. It is only just. Even in the midst of preaching God’s word and working in the church, I was not serving Him.
This is why Paul pens verse 11, “For God shows no partiality.” It doesn’t matter if you are doing wrong because you flat out reject God or doing right because you are serving yourself. In neither fashion are you worshiping the true God. In neither case are you seeking His glory, honor, or immortality. In both cases you are serving yourself. In both cases, there is a hardness of heart. In both cases sin is abounding, and in both cases, God’s wrath burns hot.
Paul unequivocally shows with these words that both the religious person and the irreligious person are under the condemnation of God. Both the religious person and the irreligious person are pursuing idols. It’s a hard, hard pill to swallow.
But the good news is that there is a cure. We will not hear that cure today. Not yet. There is still more preparatory work to be done on our hearts. There is still more groundwork that needs to be laid, but hang in there. Walk through this time. Feel the anger of God mounting as you realize the depths of your sin. When the gospel is announced–when Paul reveals what God has done, you will understand why it is called amazing grace. Amen.