Three boys were talking and bragging about their fathers. The first boy said, “My dad owns his own business and he works over ten people!” The second boy retorted, “My dad is the bank president, and he works over a hundred people!” The third boy said, “That’s nothing, my dad works over thousands of people!” The other two boys were in awe, and they asked, “What does your dad do?” The third boy replied, “He’s the groundskeeper at Woodlawn cemetery in Houston.
There is something in human nature that leads us toward boasting. That little joke is a joke, but how many of us in our youth played the “my dad can beat up your dad” card? How many of us bragged about our grades? How many bragged about our athletic accomplishments? How many of us bragged about the kind of cars our parents drove?
And boasting doesn’t stop when we get to be adults. Perhaps it becomes more subtle for most of us, but for politicians–geez, the bragging becomes over the top. “I will make America great again!” Does anybody really believe that one person can do that? Eight years ago a particular politician promised all kinds of change for the better. That didn’t quite work out either. But that doesn’t stop folks from bragging that they can. It doesn’t stop them from showing how much better than they are than the person they are running against. Our current two politicians vying for commander and chief both excel at pointing out the flaws of the other candidate and boasting in their own accomplishments. And most folks are sick of it.
Boasting comes from a heart that is self-inflated. It comes from an ego that believes it has accomplished things on its own with no help from anyone else. Boasting comes from a heart that believes it is superior to others along the lines of race, color, creed, accomplishments, and the like. And it is easy to fall into the trap of boasting.
I know this very, very well. A few sermons ago, I spoke about burning out because I was seeking my own desires above God’s desires. I wanted this congregation to grow, not because we were getting people to Christ but because I wanted to be recognized as a pastor who could make a congregation grow. I wanted status. I wanted people to call me for advice. I wanted to write books on how to grow a church. I wanted to be important. I wanted to be able to boast in my accomplishments. Even those of us who are pastors are not immune to boasting.
And so it is quite interesting that after St. Paul reveals to us the glorious Gospel: that the righteousness of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ for all who believe; that we have been justified by grace as a gift through the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ; effective by faith alone; after revealing this good news, He writes 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
Paul says, “You can’t boast. You can’t brag.” Boasting is excluded. “By what law?” Paul asks in rhetorical style. I think what Paul is asking here is this: “Is there a law that says, ‘Thou shall not boast?” Is there a work that says, ‘Do not boast?’”
No, Paul asserts. It is not a law of works that says, “You shall not boast.” It is a law of faith. That sounds kind of goofy, but please let me explain.
Paul reasserts the Gospel in a condensed form, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
Think about it in this way. I used the illustration a couple of weeks ago about three swimmers who were swimming to Japan. The first couldn’t swim. The second was a marginal swimmer. The third was an Olympian. The first immediately drowned in his attempt. The second swam 100 yards in his attempt before drowning. The Olympian swam 30 miles before perishing. All were dead. All were far from Japan.
Being justified by grace through faith is tantamount to God reaching down and carrying all three swimmers across the Pacific Ocean to Japan and setting them down. Can anyone boast in their achievement after that? Can any of those swimmers claim superiority over the other? Can anyone at that moment brag on his achievements in swimming? Not in the least. God carried them across the ocean when even the efforts of the best one would have ended in failure.
It is not a law that says, “You shall not boast.” Because if it were a law in the sense of works, then someone could boast and say, “Look how I am not boasting!!!” That sort of defeats the purpose. The “law of faith” simply says, you were saved by sheer grace; by God’s action alone; there was nothing you did to achieve your salvation. Therefore, you cannot boast in any action that you take or took. None of that came even close in getting you right with God. You cannot say that you are better in the eyes of God than anyone else. This has some extremely important implications, and we will get to those in a moment. But first let us finish Paul’s argument.
Verse 29: Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Most scholars believe that Paul is ensuring that Jews, who once thought of themselves as exclusively privileged, now understood that Gentiles have equal access to God. The Jewish literature at this time shows very clearly that Jews believed they had exclusive access to God–that God was the God of the Jews alone.
But Paul is using Jewish faith against itself here. One of the central proclamations of Judaism is the Shema, “Here O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Jews proclaim that there is only one God. Period. There are no other Gods. Therefore, if there is only one God, that God cannot exclusively be God of the Jews. He must be God over all! And if the God who justifies the Jews–the circumcised–does so by faith and not works of the law, then that God will also justify the Gentiles in the same fashion. Paul wants to make it very, very clear that the Jews and Gentiles who stood alike in their condemnation also stand alike in their justification. There is no distinction!
Paul then turns his attention to an objection that could be raised to this in verse 31: Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. This question could be interpreted several ways. Do we overthrow the covenant that God made with Israel because of this faith? Do we not have to worry about God’s commands and statutes because of this faith? If we are justified by faith and not works of the Law, does God’s covenant still stand, do God’s statutes and commands still stand?
One might be tempted to conclude, “No.” There is no need to worry about these things because they do not justify anyone. But Paul strongly answers the opposite. Paul basically says–in no way, shape or form is the law nullified! It is still upheld! Paul will wrestle with these issues later in the book of Romans, and we shall develop his arguments a little later. But for the time being, it is enough for us to now here that the Law remains the standard for human behavior. It remains the measuring stick for how we are to interact with God and with each other. “Loving your neighbor as yourself,” is still the standard by which we live. The Ten Commandments are still the standard of how we are to govern our lives. These things have not been eradicated!
But they do not become our focus because if they do become our focus, then that would lead us right back to boasting.
It is unfortunate that Christianity has oftentimes been seen as a religion that seeks to impose its morality upon everyone else. It’s unfortunate that many Christians have been seen as people who walk around with their noses up in the air thinking, “I’m better than you are.” It’s unfortunate that we carry the stigma of being hypocrites because we like to tell others what to do but fail to follow it ourselves.
This comes from self-righteousness. It comes from our hearts which tend to get over-inflated because at some level we still think our works set us apart and make us better than others. In God’s eyes, this is patently false, but in the world in which we live, it is difficult to “sell yourself” without boasting.
What do I mean by that? Several years ago, I attended a synod assembly where the presiding bishop asked us to turn to the people next to us and answer the question, “Why should I come to your church?” I had an interesting conversation with the person next to me. She started off by saying, “Well, our congregation is warm and welcoming and we love to have new people come in.” I took a very different tact and said, “Our congregation is a congregation that seeks to live out the message of Jesus by caring for our community. We even built a house for someone who was in need.” I felt pretty smug with my reply because it seemed “better.”
The presiding bishop then invited us to come back to the table and he began his remarks with these words, “Odds are 90% of you began your conversation with, ‘Our congregation is warm and inviting.’” I really felt smug at that moment. I didn’t say that. I talked about what we were doing. Boy, did I feel good about my answer and our congregation.
I don’t remember much of what the bishop said afterward, but here is how I would have continued. “90% of you would have said your congregation was warm and welcoming. The rest of you probably talked about the activities your church was doing. How you were loving your neighbors or had great programming. How many of you talked about Jesus? How many of you spoke of your congregation leading people to the God who came and died for the world? Odds are you are trying to get people to like you and join your group. It is the job of the church to get people to Jesus. I would hope that your response in the future would be, ‘Our congregation pulls out all the stops to show others how much God so loved the world.’”
If the presiding bishop would have said that, I would have had my toes stomped on for sure. I would have realized that I was putting how we follow the law above how we proclaim the Gospel. I might have recognized that I was boasting, and boy did I love boasting. Why?
Because I was also taking credit for what you were doing. As your leader, I was thinking that my leadership was the cause of all that you were doing. I believed that our congregation was well on its way to exploding with growth, and I was sure to be recognized as a fantastic pastor. Honors and rewards were right around the corner. I would be able to put all the rest of the clergy around to shame because I was doing things right! If the bishop would have said those words, it might have gave me severe pause. For I was not working to get people to Jesus. I was more interested in my self. And when your self and your works take precedence, you boast.
But if your work is meaningless? What then? If you are not saved by your actions, what then? If you are shown to be in the same boat as everyone else who you once considered beneath you, what happens? If you see that you are as sinful as everyone else, what can you say?
Nothing. You can say absolutely nothing.
Because it’s all about sheer grace. It’s all about what God has accomplished through Jesus Christ. It’s all about the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. It’s all about Jesus. The Gospel is all about Jesus. He’s accomplished everything for us. Everything. And when we place our trust in Him, our hearts no longer become inflated. Our egos stay the appropriate size. We do not proclaim ourselves, but we joyfully point to Jesus with reckless abandon. We fall down on our knees in thankfulness for what He has done for us. And we lay aside our contempt for others. These are not laws that we follow. These are natural responses of humility. And if you are like me and you believe that humility is a sorely needed corrective to what is going on in society today, then I invite you to join me in proclaiming Jesus and emphasizing what He has done. Amen.