Monday, October 17, 2016

Avoiding the Truth at All Cost: Romans 3:1-8

Sometimes people will go out of their way to avoid questions they do not like.  Sometimes, they will argue even the minutest of details if they believe they can escape an argument with their particular point of view completely in tact.  Their attention to the minutia can be infuriating, but we should not be surprised by it.  When facts appear that challenge our viewpoint and shake the foundations of our worldview, we are more apt to push back, make excuses, and raise objections than we are to accept those facts.

Long ago, I shared the story written by Ed Friendman called, “The Power of Belief.”  In this story, a man told everyone that he was dead.  Family and friends first tried to argue with him, but to no avail.  Each time the man came up with some sort of argument as to why he was dead.  If the family actually backed the man into a corner, he would play his trump card, “If I am dead, you do not exist..., since surely the living do not traffic with the dead.”

Finally, his family, believing he had gone nuts, invited a doctor talk to the man. This proved fruitless as the doctor left muttering that the man was hopelessly psychotic.  The family turned to their local clergy person who left the house equally frustrated and saying things no man of God should say.

In desperation, the family called in the doctor who had nursed the man through childhood and young adulthood.  The family doctor came in with his gentle demeanor and the wisdom borne of years of hard work.

In conversation, the doctor asked the man, “Do dead men bleed?”

The man responded, “No.”

The doctor then asked if he could make a small cut on the man’s arm promising to clean it thoroughly to prevent infection.  The man agreed as he said, “Dead men do not get infections, nor do they bleed, doctor.”  The man rolled up his sleeve.

The doctor made a small cut, and immediately the blood flowed.  The family cheered.  The doctor said, “Well, I hope that puts an end to this foolishness.”

The man, however, simply said, “I see that I was wrong.  Dead men, in fact, do bleed.”

There were more than a few who, when confronted with the reality of the wrath of God who did not like what they heard, and they would go to great lengths to justify why they believed God would not nor could not unleash His wrath upon us.  Today, as we turn to chapter three of the book of Romans, we see Paul dealing with some of those arguments–some of those questions that arose from Paul’s contention that all deserved God’s judgment upon them.  And they go to great lengths to try and justify themselves.

Please remember that Paul has just brought devastating news to those who believed their Jewish faith saved them.  Paul has just cut them off at the knees and said, “No.  Neither knowing the Law, nor being circumcised will give you any benefit at the judgment.  Just because you know the Law doesn’t mean you follow it, and if you don’t follow it, you might as well turn in your Jew card because a Gentile that follows the Law without even knowing it is a better Jew than you are.”

This strong critique sets the stage for the series of questions that Paul deals with at the beginning of chapter three.  We being with verses one and two, Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.  After what Paul has just written at the end of chapter two, you would expect him to have answered that the Jew had no advantage–that circumcision had zero value.  But Paul does not.  As we will see later in the book of Romans that Paul’s understanding of the Gospel is deeply rooted in the Old Testament–with God’s relationship with the Jews.  For God made promises to the Jews–to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and so on and so forth.  If there is no advantage to being a Jew, these promises are null and void.  But God is faithful!!  It is Paul’s sincere belief that these promises have been fulfilled–not nullified by the Gospel.

Therefore, to understand what has happened in Jesus, you must understand God’s relationship to the people of Israel.  You must understand what God has revealed to Israel.  You must understand God’s self-revelation; His teaching; His Law.  The Jews were trusted with these things and had a special relationship with God because of this.  But it also must be said that being entrusted with God’s Word meant much more than being caretakers; preservers; and recorders of these “oracles” as Paul says.  It meant faithfulness and obedience–and Paul has just shown that the Jews had been neither faithful nor obedient.  Despite having and knowing God’s will, they failed.

It’s not surprising given that we as Christians can claim the same thing.  I know it’s not necessarily chic to claim that anyone knows the Truth, but in a very real way, we as Christians can claim that we know a piece of the Ultimate Truth.  It’s not something we discovered–it is something that God has chosen to reveal to us.  He has revealed His nature; His glory; His forgiveness; His love through Jesus Christ.  He has also revealed His will.  Now, we must make a distinction here because there are many parts of God’s will that remain hidden from us–we don’t know God’s will about who we are supposed to marry; what kind of job we are supposed to have; whether or not it is time to move to another job; how many kids we are supposed to have; what city we should live in; what we should have for lunch today.  These things must be discerned with time, prayer, and effort.  You cannot simply turn to a certain verse in the Bible and discover these things.

But there are certain portions of God’s will that we can unequivocally say, “Yes.  We know this is the will of God!”  Like–the two most important commandments are: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as your love yourself.  We can unequivocally say that it is the will of God that we love one another as Jesus loved us.  We can say that it is the will of God that the hungry are fed; the thirsty are given drink; the sick and imprisoned are visited.  There are many, many more things I could add to this list.  And, the sad part is, we know we have failed to follow the will of God.  We have failed to accomplish what He has intended for us.  So, does that mean God has abandoned us?  Does that mean that when God judges us, He has forsaken His promises to us?

Hence, the next objection to Paul’s teaching arises: 3What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written, ‘So that you may be justified in your words, and prevail in your judging.’ This is actually a nit-picky sort of question that Paul has to address here, but it is quite relevant to the discussion.  It’s similar to those who say, “I can’t imagine a God of overwhelming, inexhaustible love sending anyone to hell. To believe such a thing contradicts the understanding that God is love.”  The objection Paul is basically dealing with is this: if God judges the Jews doesn’t that mean He has rejected them.  And if He has rejected them, doesn’t that mean God is not faithful to the promises He made them?

Paul responds with two quotes from scriptures, both from the Psalms.  First Paul quotes Psalm 116:11 and then turns to Psalm 51:4.  Now, before we put these quotes together, we need to understand what Paul means by the terms of true and liar.  For Paul, the understanding of God being true does not mean honesty–as we understand telling the truth.  For Paul, truth is rooted in the Hebrew concept of being reliable or trustworthy.  And liar, for Paul means unreliable or faithless.   And while humans are unreliable and faithless, God certainly is not.  Psalm 51:4 shows unequivocally that God will judge those who are not faithful.  Therefore, God is faithful when He showers blessings upon the obedient, and God is faithful when He judges those who are disobedient.  God is being consistent with what He said He would do.  If you are faithful and put your trust in God, you have no worries, but if you are not faithful and put your trust in something else, God will give you up to that desire for eternity just like He said He would.  This is not rocket science.

But, again, as I said before, some folks won’t quit.  They will continue to raise objections, and Paul has been hearing them for some time.  He deals with the next one in sequence.  5But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6By no means! For then how could God judge the world?  This goes back to something I preached on a few years ago in regards to the moon.  When we look into the night sky, we see the moon shining a brilliant white as it reflects the sun’s light back to the earth.  Yet, in reality, the moon is actually the color of asphalt–dark to light gray.  So, why does it appear brilliant white?  Because of the darkness of space.  Space is so dark, that asphalt appears brilliant white up against it.

When we compare God’s justice against our injustice, God stands out brilliant; holy; incomparable.  God is a majestic, snow topped mountain compared to us as a mound of garbage.  The contrast makes God look really, really good!  So, why would God judge us if we make Him look so good?  Doesn’t He stand out more when we are unjust?  Aren’t we helping God look good when we are evil?  And isn’t it unjust of Him to judge us when we make Him look so good?

Paul doesn’t deal with the morality of the argument.  Instead, he simply shuts this one down with the question: well, then how could God judge the world?  You see, everyone agreed that God would judge the world.  That was not in question.  And God isn’t going to judge us on whether or not we made God look good.  It’s impossible to make God any greater than He already is.  We will be judged, as Paul has said before, on whether or not we have followed the Law–if we are Jewish; or by whatever standards we hold another person to–if we are Gentile.  This question is actually a bogus question, but people will grasp at anything to avoid what they don’t like.

And so, there is one more that is tried.  7But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!  This is an old objection to Paul’s theology.  It continues to hang around in some circles even today.  It’s basically the old argument, “I like to sin.  God likes to forgive sin.  Therefore, I will sin as much as I can so that God can forgive as much as He can, and He can reveal His love and glory over and over and over because I am sinning.”

Paul responds, “You deserve your condemnation.”  Paul knows this is really, really grasping at straws, and the thought that people have accused him of this train of thought obviously has gotten to him a bit.  Paul again doesn’t bother to argue because he knows this is simply an avoidance question.  I mean, if you think about the reality of what the question suggests, you see just how patently absurd it is.  Let’s press it, shall we.

The person who asks this question would be buying into the following logic: God says don’t murder.  God is also forgiving and His glory shines when He forgives.  Therefore, I will murder so that God can forgive, and His glory will shine because I murder.  If you believe this, you are a special kind of stupid.  As Paul says, “You deserve condemnation.”

But this kind of argument goes to show the lengths that some will go to hold onto their particular ideology–their particular worldview.  It shows just how stubborn some people–well, all people–can be.  Don’t pretend that at some level you aren’t the same way.  Don’t pretend that there are areas in your life that you and I don’t guard even to ridiculous extremes.  Don’t pretend that we are above this kind of action.  Even when the strongest evidence possible is given to us, we are more apt to say, “Dead men do bleed,” instead of admitting that we are alive.  We are more apt to say that we are good, decent, honest people, instead of admitting that we deserve God’s wrath.  We are more apt to dismiss the reality of hell and eternal punishment so that we can live without a holy and reverent fear of the one who created and yes, who will indeed judge each and every one of us.  The stubbornness and hard heartedness of human nature runs very deep to the point where we deserve condemnation.  There is no escaping that fact, and the only question is: is there a way to avoid it?  Is there something that can fundamentally change our human nature and crush our stubborn hearts of stone?

The answer is: Yes.  There is.  Yes. There is.  We will see it shortly. Amen.

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