What kind of person are you? I hope that doesn’t seem too impertinent a question. The reason I ask what kind of person you are is that the part of the Bible that I want us to look at together this morning relates most directly to a particular kind of person. This person, I’m sure, would think of themselves as a decent sort of person. This person, if asked, would say, ‘Yes, I believe in God’. I don’t know if you’ve seen the invitation card that we produced for this service. If you have, you will have seen that the title of this talk is ‘Good enough for God?’ – with a question mark on the end. And the person that this Bible passage is talking to would answer that question in the affirmative. ‘Am I good enough for God? Yes. Nobody’s perfect. But on the whole, in the round, am I basically good enough to win God’s approval? Yes, I suppose I am. Am I headed for heaven rather than for hell? Yes, I am.’
Now it could be that you are already ruling yourself out. You might already be deciding that you’re not in the target audience.
That could be because you don’t believe in God. If asked, you would say, ‘No, I don’t believe God exists’. Or at least, you might say, ‘I don’t know whether God exists’. If that’s you, please don’t feel that you’re out of place here. We obviously differ on that rather crucial question, but we’re really glad you’re with us today, and I hope that listening to what the Bible has to say to those with a different starting point to you will give you some helpful insight in to what the Christian faith is really all about, as opposed to the common caricatures. I’m not on this occasion going to deal with that fundamental question of whether God is there. However, if you’d like to know more about why we’re convinced not only that God is there but also that we know what he’s like (which in a word is because of Jesus), can I recommend the Christianity Explored course that we run regularly? That’s really a relaxed opportunity to look at some of the extensive evidence about Jesus for yourself in the company of others doing the same.
On the other hand, you might be clear that you do believe in God but you’re still ruling yourself out of the target audience for this passage because you would not say that you are good enough for God. You do not think of yourself as a decent sort of person. You look at your life, and you look in your heart, and you see what you’ve done, and you think you stink inside, if I can put it like that. You’re so aware of the corruption inside you, and of the disaster area that your behaviour has created around you in your life, that you don’t imagine that God could ever possibly tolerate you anywhere within a million miles of heaven. There are some people, you think, who are beyond even the possibility of forgiveness – and you’re one of them. Well, if that’s you, can I say that you do not need to give in to despair, because help is closer than you think (again, in a word, his name is Jesus). And what this part of the Bible has to say to those who do think they’re OK will be indirectly very relevant to you.
Either way, whether you don’t believe in God, or you don’t think you’re good enough for him, please bear with me. It’s those who think they are good enough for God that the Bible is talking to here.
The passage is from the letter of the apostle Paul to the Romans, chapter 2 verses 17-29. We’re working our way through this letter section by section on Sunday mornings at the moment. This letter – 16 pages long in our church Bibles – is a comprehensive explanation of the heart of the Christian faith and of God’s plan for us and the world. I would really appreciate it if you could have that in front of you. It’s perhaps worth adding, before we dive in, that we pay close attention to the Bible’s teaching because it claims – and we have found this to be true – that the Bible is not just human writing (though it is that) but that it is also God speaking.
Now I have four main headings I’ll go through as I try to explain why what is said here matters so much for us. Let me just give them to you now. The first is my opening question: What kind of person are you? That relates to verses 17-20. Then, secondly, another question: How do you behave? That’s for verses 21-24. Thirdly: Outward signs have no value in themselves. That’s verses 25-27. And fourthly and finally (this is verses 28-29): What counts is an inward change of heart. Back, then, to start with, to that question. So:
First, WHAT KIND OF PERSON ARE YOU?
If you’re not Jewish, don’t stop listening. You’ll see why I say that as I read verses 17-20, which I shall now do:
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – .
And we’ll pause there because that really is the description of the kind of person the apostle Paul is talking to. Now, obviously, he has in mind those who are Jews. It could be that you are Jewish, but that’s not likely to be many of us. However, despite that, the description still applies indirectly to many people. For instance, let’s restate it in this way: ‘Now you, if you call yourself a Christian…’ What kind of person who calls themselves Christian is this then talking about?
This kind of person, Paul says, relies on the law. What does that mean? The law that’s being talked about is God’s law. It’s summed up in the Ten Commandments. So he’s talking about relying on a God-given moral code. But relying on it in what way? This is you if you believe in God, you know right from wrong, and as far as you’re concerned you behave well enough that you are confident that you are in the right with God and that when the time comes he will accept you and welcome you into heaven. This is somebody who thinks of themselves as good enough for God.
This kind of person, says Paul, brags about their relationship to God. Not if we’re English, of course. We’re far too polite to brag in any vulgar way. But maybe there’s a quiet confidence that God approves of us – unlike those who clearly drive a coach and horses through his moral code. We pay our taxes. We’ve never abducted anybody’s child. We’ve never sold drugs to anyone on a street corner. We’re decent people. We’re nice people, and God gives us the thumbs up – we’re confident of that.
This kind of person knows right from wrong, and doesn’t buy in to any modern relativistic nonsense that suggests there is no absolute moral code and we all make up morality for ourselves as we go along. So, as a result of being (as Paul says) ‘instructed by the law’ – God’s law that is – you know what God wants; you approve of moral behaviour when you see it in others; you disapprove when you see immoral behaviour; and given the opportunity, you teach those who come under your influence the God-given moral code that you live by. You think of yourself as ‘a guide for the blind’ – you can see what the immoral cannot see; you are ‘a light for those in the dark’ – you have a source of knowledge of right and wrong (God’s moral code) that the immoral don’t have; you are ‘an instructor of the foolish’ – you know what they don’t; and you are ‘a teacher of infants’ – because of your moral maturity you are ready to hand on what you’ve learned to those who are immature. That is, not only do you know right from wrong, but you also teach others right from wrong.
But the key to the kind of person the apostle Paul is talking about here is that little phrase: ‘you rely on the law’. You rely on being good enough for God. When it comes to it, as far as you see it, the scales tip in your favour. That’s why you can give valuable guidance to others. By and large, you’ve got it right. You call yourself a Christian. You know right from wrong, and you behave well enough that you are confident that you are in the right with God and he accepts you and when the time comes, because of your moral record, he will welcome you into heaven.
What kind of person are you? Is that the kind of person you are? Because having described that kind of person, Paul has some sharp questions. And that brings us to my next main heading.
Secondly, HOW DO YOU BEHAVE?
Paul strings together a whole series of questions. The essence of them is that he’s really asking: for all your morality, do you practice what you preach? Take a look at verses 21-24:
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 brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written [in the Bible, that is]: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles [that is, non-Jews] because of you.
Do you practice what you preach?
I heard about a good corporate example of this the other day on the BBC. They were reporting on a banana packing company. The company was selling (in vast quantities) fair-trade bananas – intended to signify a lack of exploitation in their production. But the reporter had found out that there was widespread exploitation and verbal abuse of staff going on in the company in this country. What is more, the BBC reported the content of the company’s policy on the treatment of staff, which spelled out (not surprisingly) that staff would be treated with respect, with proper consideration, and always within the law. There was an embarrassing gulf between what the company signed up to and said, and what it actually did.
Are you really as moral as you like to think you are? You become indignant when you see other people behaving immorally – and given the chance, you let it be known that you don’t approve of what they’re doing and you think they should change their ways. But when a bright light is shone on your life, what does it really look like? Is it as squeaky clean as you like to think? Does it really bear scrutiny? Do you maybe compare yourself to others in areas where you do fairly well yourself, but conveniently ignore other areas in your life that are best kept hidden, if the truth be known?
‘You who preach against stealing, do you steal?’ There is plenty of what we might call respectable theft in so-called decent lives: the misuse of time paid for by an employer, but redirected for our own purposes; a thousand and one forms of tax evasion – theft by convenient forgetfulness, or wholesale and deliberate pulling of the wool over the eyes of the Revenue; copyright breach; or any other form of theft that the decent person can get away with undetected and without actually having to break in to anyone’s home or smash their car window or snatch wadges of bank notes from a till.
‘You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?’ There are many who count themselves as moral in this area of sexual behaviour because they disapprove strongly of adultery, but who engage in sex before marriage, not acknowledging that in Gods’ eyes that too is destructive of his purposes for faithful family life. Or they do actually commit adultery but somehow don’t name it as that because in their case as they see it there is some over-riding justification for what they’re doing. Or there is adultery in the mind if not with the body; there is pornography on the page, on the screen or in the imagination; and we have to take Jesus seriously when he says (this is from Matthew 5.27-28):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
When the light does shine on our lives, it’s often not long before we begin to have to admit to ourselves that perhaps we won’t fare so well on Judgement Day as we like to think. Perhaps beneath our veneer of decency our moral lives are pretty ugly after all, and we can’t ‘rely on the law’ as we thought we could. We can’t depend on God looking favourably on us. We are not, after all, good enough for God. None of us is. That is, in the end, the apostle Paul’s conclusion. Just before our passage, he speaks of ‘the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ’. He sums it up a bit further on in this letter, at 3.20, where he says:
Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
And if we’re relying on the law, and we’re not declared righteous, then we’re declared guilty. And the consequence of that is put in a nutshell in 6.23, where Paul says:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is hope for us in Jesus – but not if we rely on the law; not if we rely on being good enough for God – because, as Paul says, we ‘dishonour God by breaking the law’ – his law. We are law-breakers. Then there is only death – and by that Paul means not only physical but also eternal death. The gate of heaven will not be opened to us if we rely on being good enough for God. We will be shut out for ever.
Thirdly, OUTWARD SIGNS HAVE NO VALUE IN THEMSELVES
In the next few verses Paul talks about the issue of circumcision. Circumcision for the Jews was (and is) the outward mark of their membership of God’s people. It was the God-given sign that they had been chosen by God and given his promises. If we’re not Jewish, what Paul says here is not directly relevant to us. However, just as what he says to Jews is also relevant to those who call themselves Christians, so also what he says about circumcision is of great relevance. I’ll explain more in a moment, but here is what he has to say (this is verses 25-27):
Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 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 law breaker.
Now the principle here that applies to us is what I’ve used for my heading: outward signs have no value in themselves. What do I mean by outward signs when we’re talking about Christians rather than Jews? I mean any outward marker of the fact that we identify ourselves as Christian. So it could be, for instance, the fact that you’ve been baptised; or maybe you were confirmed as a teenager; or it could be that your parents were Christian; or you identify yourself as belonging to a Christian country; or perhaps it’s simply the fact that you go to church; or you’ve gone one step further and got yourself on to the electoral roll; or you’re involved in one of the small groups that are a part of our life here.
And the point is this: we can no more rely on any or all of these things as evidence that we are in the right with God than we can rely on our perception that we are good enough for God. We cannot fall back from the position that we are good enough for God, and say, as it were: ‘well, I may or may not be good enough, but I’m OK because there’s all this evidence that I’m a Christian. I go to church. I’ve been baptised. I put ‘Christian’ on the census form [or whatever your particular outward Christian markers may be]. These things do not and cannot put us right with God. In themselves they do not show that we are in the right with God. We cannot rely on them. A Jew cannot say to God: ‘I’m OK because I’ve been circumcised.’ No more will it be any good as we stand before Christ on the Day of Judgement for us to say: ‘I have the right to enter heaven because my parents got me Christened’ (or whatever). We might restate the first part of verse 28 in this way: ‘A man or woman is not a Christian if they are only one outwardly’. We can’t rely on being good enough for God. Nor can we rely on any outward marks of being Christian.
The trouble is, we are law-breakers, and with God, law-breaking brings eternal death. What hope, then, is there for us? What does count? That brings me to my fourth and final heading.
Fourthly, WHAT COUNTS IS AN INWARD CHANGE OF HEART
That’s the point that Paul comes to next. Look at verses 28-29:
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
God looks not at the outward makers in our lives, but at what is going on inside. God looks at the heart. Are our hearts proud and presumptuous, reckoning ourselves good enough for God, pointing to outward signs that are belied by our inner arrogance and self-righteousness? Or have we learned the humility that acknowledges we are not good enough for God and never will be? The humility that knows that the only hope that we have is to rely not our non-existent moral adequacy but on the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who laid down his life as he died on that cross, taking on himself the penalty of our moral failure, disobedience and rebellion.
That change of heart – from deep-seated pride to profound humility – is a work of God’s Spirit. It is an inward transformation of the heart ‘by the Spirit’ says Paul. It is God by his Spirit who enables us to face up to the truth about ourselves. It is God by his Spirit who enables us to believe in his Son Jesus who, as Paul says later in this letter, in 3.25, God presented as “a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood”.
I was talking the other day to somebody who’s been a member of this church for 25 years, and a believer for half a century. I asked him for an account of how he discovered what the Christian faith was really all about, and how he became a Christian. What he said was this:
I was born in London within cheering distance of Queens Park Rangers football ground and escape distance of Wormwood Scrubs prison. From an early age my parents took me to church. When I was fourteen I was prepared for church membership (Confirmation) but to the disappointment of the Minister and my parents I declined to go through with it. Christianity in that particular church consisted of obeying the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Even at that age I realised that joining the church would be like becoming the member of a ‘club’ the rules of which I knew beforehand I could not keep.
Even then, he knew he was never going to be good enough for God, however hard he tried. He went on:
When I was sixteen I distinctly remember being puzzled as to why Christ had to die a terrible death at such an early age. The only answer that I could discover was that the cross was a perfect example to the world of self-sacrifice.
After leaving school and spending two years in the Army, I went up to Balliol College, Oxford. I was twenty-one and if asked if I was a Christian I would have answered ‘I hope so’ or ‘I try to be’. In my first term I sat with another student in his room overlooking the front quadrangle of the college. He was a committed Christian. He said, ‘When Jesus died on the cross he died for you personally to forgive you all your sins.’ I said, ‘Personally?’ He said, ‘Personally.’
For the first time as an educated English churchgoer I heard the heart of the historic, apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ. Within days I came to faith in him, not just as a wonderful example, but as a living Saviour. I came to know that although living a good life (which I could not do in my own strength) was important, essentially being a Christian was believing personally in a crucified and risen Lord. Love, joy and peace came into my life through the gift of his Holy Spirit…
And he finished his story by quoting the Bible. He said:
The apostle Peter sums it up in his first letter chapter 2 verse 24 when he writes: “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
What sort of person are you? Do you think you’re good enough for God? Or are you ready to admit that you’re not and never will be? Are you ready to ask God to get to work on your heart, changing you from within? Are you ready to trust that Jesus died for you personally, and to ask him by his Spirit to take over the driving seat of your life?
Because then, and only then, will you be able to know that God takes delight in you, whatever other people might think, and accepts you and welcomes you, now and for all eternity – not because you’re good enough, but because Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross. Not because you rely on the law. But because you rely on Jesus.