The Letter to the Romans



7. Sin in the law-keeper

Romans 2:17-29


Paul has established that God will judge the secrets of every person, whether or not that person has the law. Both Jews and Gentiles will stand before Christ's judgment seat. Paul has also made it clear that "moral" people, including those who observe the law, are accountable to God. Those who claim the law do not have favored standing with Him. If they commit even a small infraction, they stand condemned under the law. In other words, every person who ever lives stands deserving of God's judgment. Whether they have the law or not, their sinfulness is unacceptable to God, and that sinfulness keeps them from achieving the righteousness they try to attain.

Paul now turns specifically to the Jews and addresses their arrogance and their sense of entitlement which they have developed through their generations of carrying the gift of God's law and the prophets. They brag about their relationship to God while living lives in contradiction to the law they carry like a badge of honor.

Paul acknowledges in Romans 9:4-5 that the Jews have a privileged heritage. Theirs is the adoption as sons, the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and the human ancestry of Christ. This privilege, however, became the focus of the Jews' attention instead of the God who blessed them. They began to take the privilege for granted as their right because they were God's chosen people. They completely lost sight of the fact that as God's chosen people, they were accountable for the knowledge of him which was their great responsibility.

Jeremiah asked how they could brag about the law when the "lying pen of the scribes [had] handled it falsely". (Jeremiah 8:8) Micah declared that the Israelite leaders judged for bribes; the priests taught for a price; the prophets told fortunes for money, yet they leaned on the Lord claiming he was among them and no disaster could befall them. (Micah 3:11)

They failed to praise God for his gifts to them. Instead of seeing them as God's grace, they assumed they somehow deserved them. Their sense of entitlement caused them to treat God as if he worked for them instead of as their sovereign Lord. They deserved his blessings, they felt, because of who they were.

Jesus revealed their true character using their own pride against them. When the Pharisees and Jewish leaders scorned him for breaking the Sabbath and calling God his Father, he said to them, "But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me." (John 5:45-46) The law of which they were so proud, God's revelation which they were to protect and share, became an idol to them. That very law and Moses the law-bringer would accuse them before God because they refused to honor him.

The Jews felt superior to everyone except themselves. All Gentiles and Samaritans (half Jews), they believed, were inferior to them in God's eyes as well as in their own.


Strict Judgment for Teachers

Paul took the Jews to task for preaching and teaching the law to others without holding themselves to the standards they proclaimed. The Bible clearly calls teachers to accountability and integrity, reminding them that they will be judged more strictly than others. (James 3:1) Teachers are in a position to shape people's understanding of truth and reality and God, and if they teach false doctrines or heretical ideas, they are jeopardizing other people's souls.

Jesus warned people to beware the teachers of the law. They make a great show of their own importance and piety, yet they "devour widows' houses" and pray lengthy prayers for show. (Luke 20:46-47)

One of Jesus' most powerful discourses was to the teachers of the law on the steps of the temple during the last week of his life. This "speech" is found in Matthew 23. He addresses the Jewish leaders as "teachers of the law, you hypocrites!" He accused them of burdening the people with requirements yet doing nothing to help them. He accused them of disbelief, of murder, of teaching false religion and making converts who were "twice as much [sons] of hell as you are." (v. 15) They appeared holy and pious, intimidating the people with their religiosity and demands, yet they were hypocrites to the bottom of their hearts.

"You snakes! You brood of vipers!" Jesus cried; "How will you escape being condemned to hell?" (v. 33)

Paul confirms this analysis of even the most "moral" and law-abiding Jew. They teach the law with great smugness, confident in their own preferred status, yet they are hypocrites and deserving of God's judgment.


Sensuality-A Sin Against Oneself

Paul proceeds by asking the Jews if they commit adultery while preaching against it. In 1 Corinthians 6:18 Paul establishes the fact that sexual immorality is a sin against oneself. Jesus established the fact that adultery is not limited to a specific physical act. (Matthew 5:27-28) If a man even looks at a woman with lust, he said, he has committed adultery with her in his heart. Lust is as much a sin as is adultery. By questioning the Jews about their morality, he is exposing their whitewashed hypocrisy. What is in their hearts is as real as what their bodies actually do. They are as guilty for mental and emotional sin as they are for physical sin. The law is no protection against the internal, secret sins people practice.

Proverbs also warns against sexual sin. Proverbs 6:20-26 discusses that people should honor their father's and mother's commands about living uprightly. These commands, the wise man says, will keep one "from the immoral woman, from the smooth tongue of the wayward wife." The next admonition in this text echoes Jesus' command above: "Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyesthe adulteress preys upon your very life."

Peter warns against false teachers and their immoral lives which are products of the deceit that drives their manipulation and corruption. He talks about the bold, arrogant men who blaspheme what they do not understand. Further, they "carouse in broad daylightwith eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable," (see 2 Peter 2:10-14)

These behaviors are the types of things Paul is saying the Jews, proud and pompous in their "ownership" of the law, are doing secretly while they publicly preach demanding, legalistic doctrines.


Idolatry-Sin Against God

After asking the Jews if they committed adultery while preaching against it, he asked them if they, who abhorred idols, robbed temples? This question stems from the fact that pagan temples were often storehouses of great wealth and thus were common targets for robberies. Paul was not, however, asking the Jews if they literally robbed pagan temples. He was, though, addressing the fact that they were guilty of idolatry even if it was not in the form of worshiping idols. They had no qualms about finding ways to acquire the pagans' wealth for themselves, even if it meant providing services for which they received temple money.

When Paul was in Ephesus, a silversmith name Demetrius incited a riot because Paul's teaching was resulting in converts who no longer bought the silver idols Demetrius and his colleagues produced. Seeing the gospel as a threat to his profit, Demetrius inflamed the people against Paul, and a riot ensued.

A Jew name Alexander tried to address the crowd, probably either to dissociate himself and his Jewish colleagues from the Christians or to further inflame the crowd against the Christians. The crowd, however, realized the Jews didn't worship their gods either, and they shouted him into silence. The city clerk finally restored order by pointing out that Paul and his companions had come neither defaming their deity nor robbing their temples. (see Acts 19:23-41)

While the Jews were as opposed to idols as were the Christians, they also were threatened by the gospel. They did business with the pagans, and as long as they profited, they ignored whether or not their business enhanced the pagan temple trade. Paul's statement to the Romans addressed the fact that while the Jews claimed not to be idolaters, their greed and disregard for the integrity of their profits made them idolaters as surely as if they bowed to Baal.

Their love of money had become idolatrous. Jesus confronted this greed when he overturned the tables of the merchants selling animals for sacrifices in the temple court. "How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" he rebuked them. (see John 2:13-16) In a very real way, they were "robbing a temple" by that activity. They were robbing the people of a holy place of worship, and they were also profiting from the need of the worshipers.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira also illustrates idolatrous greed. They had publicly agreed to sell a piece of property and turn the profits over to the fledgling church. Secretly they agreed to hold back part of the money, saying to the leaders that they were giving the full profit as pledged. Separately they told Peter that the money they gave was the full amount. Peter rebuked them for lying not to men but to God, and they both died.

God's judgment was swift, and it established that as Christ-followers, believers could not think they could put their love of money over their commitment to God and go unnoticed. Because they have the Spirit of God in them, they grossly misrepresent God when they act deceitfully in his name.

This lesson about honoring God over one's love of money was not new. Early in Israel's history, Achan had privately kept gold, silver, and clothes from the Babylonians after God had led Israel to a military defeat of that nation. God had specifically told them not to take any plunder, but Achan allowed his greed to master him instead of God. He buried his stolen treasure under his tent, thinking no one would know. God knew, however, and exposed him. Achan and his entire family were stoned to death. (see Joshua 7:20-25)

Idolatry in whatever form is sin against God. Whatever has the heart is that for which one lives. Jesus cannot be the king of our hearts and lives if we are motivated by money, power, or any other form of self-promotion. Paul's pointed question about robbing temples is as applicable today as it was then. Do you who claim to be law-abiding and pure throw your scruples to the wind when you see a chance to make a buck, even if it means your profit comes from compromise with evil?


Blaspheming God

Idolatry and adultery were not the only specific ways the Jews broke the law. Malachi chastised Israel for robbing God by withholding tithes and offerings. Stinginess of the pocketbook reflects stinginess of heart. Israel had a long-standing sense of entitlement that expected God to bless them because "they deserved it" while feeling no sense of gratitude or thankfulness in return. Stinginess with God's work is a form of robbing, or stealing.

Jesus also made it clear that keeping the letter of the law without honoring the intent was law-breaking. (Matthew 3:8-9) It's not enough merely not to kill another person; anger against a brother makes one as guilty as if he or she had committed murder. The same principle applies to divorce; divorcing for causes other than unfaithfulness is the same as committing adultery. (Matthew 6:14-15) Likewise being unforgiving to others puts one outside the forgiveness of God (Matthew 23:23), and legalistically keeping the laws while ignoring goodness, justice, and mercy also violates the law. (Matt. 23:28) Jesus also rebuked them for putting their traditions over God's commands. (Mark 7:9-13) The Jews were guilty of all these violations.

Further, Jesus condemned the Pharisees and Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy (Matt. 23:28) and for their complicity in Israel's tradition of killing God's righteous men and refusing to respond to God's call to surrender to him. (Matthew 23:29-31; 35-37)

Paul had all these and other offenses in mind when he condemned the Jews, with all their privilege, of breaking the law while smugly parading it before others, holding others to standards they did not meet themselves.

Paul drives home the seriousness of the Jews' disobedience while claiming to belong to God by quoting from Isaiah, "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." (see Isaiah 52:5)

When Israel was captive in Babylon, their captivity brought disrespect to God. The ancient nations considered military success to reflect the power of their gods. The fact that God allowed Israel to go into captivity as his judgment on their heard-heartedness caused the conquering nations to mock God. Further, when Israel went into captivity they adopted many of the pagan customs of worship. In the eyes of the pagans, God was weak. Israel had made God look bad.

God, however, promised to exonerate his name. Through Ezekiel he promised to reclaim the land and to restore Israel. "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things," God said, "but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone." (Ezekiel 36:22)

Peter compared those who claim to be God's children but refuse to honor his call on their lives to the proverb, "A dog returns to its vomit," and, "A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud." (2 Peter 2:2) No matter how they cleaned the external persona they showed the public, internally they were unchanged, and given the chance, they would match their behaviors to their dark, unrepentant hearts.

Jude also warned against people who blaspheme by masquerading as believers, infiltrating fellowships, and twist the miracle of grace into "a license for immorality." They "deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord" by their heresy.



God is calling you to admit your sin. You may know the truth; you may observe the law; you may even have embraced Jesus' death and resurrection as his gift to you. If, however, you find there are hard, tight spots in your heart where you are unforgiving, where you want to protect your rights and weaknesses at the cost of seeing your own sin, you are dishonoring your Father.

God is asking you to examine your heart. If you accept his grace and call yourself by his name but still persist in hurting others-even in small ways, if you indulge yourself by refusing responsibility or accountability, or if you hold your desires so close to your heart that even God's love and conviction cannot come between you and them-if any of these things are true of you, you are dishonoring God.

God is calling you to repentance. He's not just asking you to say you're sorry; he's calling you to surrender those hidden (or not-so-hidden) sins to him and allowing him to completely change those parts of your heart.

God wants you to know and admit the habitual things you do that dishonor him and that stand between him and you. He wants you to trust him enough to say let him take those habits and fears from you so his Spirit can heal those places in your heart.

Jesus has already forgiven you; you merely need to repent of your behavior and ask him to take it and change you.

Jesus is faithful; he will complete the work he has begun in us. He is faithful also to discipline us when he wants us change. God is a merciful father; he will not abandon us even when we resist him. He will, however, put his restraining hand on us when he wants us to look at something we're avoiding.

Surrender your secrets and your resistance to knowing the truth about yourself to Jesus. Ask him to reveal to you the things about yourself that he wants you to know, and ask him to give you his strength to release them and repent.

We are all born dead to God. But we can all experience the resurrection of our souls as we say "yes" to the Father's love through the person of Jesus Christ. And we can all experience the reality of eternity now through the indwelling Holy Spirit.


Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 14, 2003.
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