The Religious Unrighteous

Sermon Study Sheets

Grace Bible Church, NY

April 7, 2002


The Religious Unrighteous


Romans 2:17-29


What is the value of religion? An interesting, and somewhat disturbing poll was reported in last
weeks National Weekly Edition of The Washington Times. It was conducted by the Pew Forum on
Religion and Public Life and released March 20. Some of its results: 80% of Americans rank religion as
"beneficial," but 65% also say that religion bears a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of blame for wars and
conflicts. 61% believe that children need religious training to grow up morally upright, but half of them
argue that belief in God is not necessary for adult morality. 67% said that America is a "Christian
nation," but 75% said that "many religions can lead to eternal life."

Obviously, Americans are confused about just what Christianity is and the role that religion has
played in American society. That should not be surprising given the often contradictory way that
religion, especially Christianity, is portrayed in the public arena. While our President and popular
sentiment call for God to bless America, liberal lawyers continue to use our judicial system to keep Him
out of our public schools. Most charitable institutions have been started because of religious motivations
and Sunday church attendance is higher in the U.S. than any other western nation, yet TV and film
commonly portray any "Christian" character they might include as either a nerd, a moron or a

At the same time, we continue to hear from our government that Islam means "peace" and holds no
responsibility for the terrorism in the U.S., Israel, Sudan, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. etc. etc.
Islam does not mean "peace." It means "submission." The beliefs of Islam are at the heart of the terrorist
actions and war done in its name, and that is why you do not hear Islamic leaders condemning them.
Instead they blame the U.S., Israel and whoever else is not Islamic.

I don’t know about you, but I am glad that God does not decide truth based on opinion polls, slanted
news or propaganda. I am also glad that God has revealed Himself in the Bible so that you and I can also
know the truth and follow it instead of opinion polls, slanted news or propaganda. There is only one
opinion that is important, and it is not yours or mine. It is God’s. This is true on the subject of religion as
it is for any other issue the Bible addresses. In Romans 2:17-29 Paul addresses the subject of religion
and whether it could establish a person in righteousness.

We have already seen in Romans 1 and the first part of Romans 2 that the wrath of God is revealed
from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in
(1:18). Paul then proceeds to demonstrate the righteousness of God as revealed in His
wrath upon such ungodly and unrighteous men. God has made Himself evident to men in such ways that
all men are without excuse (1:19,20), yet men do not turn to God. They continue to seek their own way
through life.

Some follow the path of what I call the immoral unrighteous. Paul describes them and their descent
into depravity in 1:21-32. These are the people who are obviously ungodly and unrighteous. They think
themselves to be wise, but they have become fools (1:22). They exchange the worship of God for the
worship of something He has created (1:23,25). God judges them by pulling back His restraining hand
and giving them over to their sinful desires. Emotion and desire take control. As they continue their
downward spiral, they involve themselves in increasing debauchery including degrading passions of
which homosexuality is an example. Their actions are against all common reason because of the natural
consequences of their sin including all sorts of medical problems and a shortened life span, yet the
ungodly continue in their pursuit of fulfilling their passion regardless of the consequence to themselves
or others. The spiral can continue downward to the point that God gives them over to depraved minds
that can no longer discern right and wrong. Their sinful practices are obvious and Paul lists some of
them out in 1:29-31. Though they are still aware that those who practice such things are deserving of
death, they not only do them, but give hearty approval to others who practice them (1:32). These are
those who are obviously ungodly and unrighteous.

Next, Paul deals with the group I refer to as the moral unrighteous in 2:1-16. These are the people
who have a moral code and condemn those who practice such flagrant sins as the immoral unrighteous.
The only problem is that they do the same things. They are just not as flagrant and are better at hiding
their sin. Their hypocrisy condemns them for in condemning those who are flagrantly sinful they
establish that they know right from wrong. When they do the same thing, even if it is to a lesser degree,
they condemn themselves. There is also the matter of their conscience. While they may not have
received the Law of God as had the Jews, yet God did place within their hearts a basic understanding of
what is right and what is wrong. When they do wrong in violation of their own conscience, they also
condemn themselves. God is impartial and His judgement will be based on the very sinful actions these
people have done. God is righteous in His wrath upon all the ungodly including the moral unrighteous.
They do not meet God’s standards. They do not even meet their own.

But what about those who have received the Law of God and are doing their best to follow it? Does
God’s wrath extend to them as well? What about those who are religious? And specifically, what about
the religious Jews who have received God’s law? No group had received as much information about
God as they did. No group is more religious than they were. Paul addresses them in 2:17-29 and the
principles of what he says here could be applied to any religious person or group.

The Religious Jew (vs. 17-20)

"But if you bear the name "Jew," and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, 18 and know [His] will,
and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you
yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a
teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth."

Genetic Heritage (17)

The term "Jew" is derived from "Judah," the name of one of Israel’s sons and the tribe that come
from him. It was also the name given to the Southern kingdom that formed after the Hebrew nation split
into two kingdoms during the reign of Solomon’s son, Reheboam. But during and after the Babylonian
captivity it came to be the common reference to the whole race that traced its lineage through Jacob, to
Isaac, to Abraham. The term "Jew" is a name they proudly wore for it marked this heritage and marked
them as God’s unique and specially chosen people. The many years of persecution they have endured has
never changed that. It is still an honor.

The problem that developed is that many Jews thought that this special relationship that they had
with God as His chosen people gave them an automatic pass into heaven. The fact that they had not
fulfilled their purpose in God calling them as His chosen people, which was to proclaim God to all
nations and in that way fulfill the promise that the descendants of Abraham would be a blessing to the
rest of the world (Exod. 19:6; Gen. 12:3), nor had they lived according to God’s commandments, did not
worry them. They thought God would let them into heaven simply because they were Jews. This lead to
them becoming arrogant, proud and prejudiced.

The ancient prophets had warned them of this many times, but they did not take it to heart. Moses
had warned them that they were to walk with "circumcised hearts" (Deut. 10:16) in obedience to the
Lord’s commands or there would be punishment (Deut. 27, 28). Isaiah (47-48), Jeremiah (7:4-12),
Amos (9:10), Micah (3:11-12), Zephaniah (3:11-13), they all warned of the foolishness of believing their
genetic heritage would protect them in the day of the Lord’s wrath. The soul that sins, it shall die (Ezek.
18:4) regardless of who the father was.

The Jews have a special relationship with God because they are descendants from Abraham, but that
in itself will not save them. John 1:12,13, makes it clear that salvation is not based in anyway upon
genetic heritage, but upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – "But as many as received Him, to them He
gave the right to become children of God, [even] to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born
not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."
Those in our own time that
believe that their heritage will somehow save them, make a very serious error. There is no second hand
faith in heaven, so regardless of the faith and piety of your parents or grandparents, that is insufficient to
get you to heaven. Even if you were born to Christian parents, you were born as a sinner, not a Christian.

Covenant Heritage (17)

Another aspect of the Jews heritage that many trusted with a false security was the covenants that
God had made with them as a people. They had God’s law and boasted in God, yet, none of those
covenants, Abrahamic, Mosaic, or Davidic would save them automatically. The Law required
circumcision as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:10-14), but circumcision could not save them. Whatever
advantage they gained from the covenants also increased their responsibility. Certain aspects of the
covenants were unconditional on God’s part, but for the individual, there were conditions by which
either blessings or curses would come. They boasted in God because of their special covenant
relationship with Him, but they erred in thinking that this meant God belonged to them.

In certain aspects of Christianity today, there is a view that salvation can be based in a supposed
covenant. This is very similar to the idea of a genetic based salvation, but of shorter inheritance value.
For example, many of those in Reformed traditions believe that the children of believers who die in
infancy are saved based in the idea that God has made a covenant with the parents that covers their
children. They do not believe that children of unbelievers are saved. Some Puritans held that this
covenant would extend down two generations and could even skip an ungodly intervening generation.
Roman Catholicism holds to something similar in believing that infant baptism grants salvation to the
child. Supposedly, the faith that the child lacks is replaced by the faith of the church. But again, people
are not born of God by blood or the will of the flesh or by the will of man, but only of God Himself.
Being born to Christian parents and raised in a Christian homes is a great privilege and asset, but it can
not save, and neither can any Christian ritual. A baptized infant is a wet baby, not a saved baby.

Religious Instruction (18-20)

They Jews could also boast in their religious instruction and some thought that their great knowledge
of God’s law would save them. Paul describes them here as those who "know [His] will, and approve the
things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a
guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the
immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth."
All these things are good,
but they in themselves cannot make a person righteous and save them.

The Law gave the Jews the knowledge of God’s will and even what was most important to Him.
This knowledge should have qualified them for their claims in verses 19 & 20, but knowledge must be
put into practice to be of value. Knowing and doing are two different things. They should have been
guides to the blind. This refers to leading those who were ignorant of God’s will, which would have
been especially true of the gentiles. However, when you do not follow what you know, you become a
blind guide leading blind people which is exactly what Jesus said of the Pharisees (Mat. 23:24-28). The
Jews were to be a light to those who were in darkness (Isa. 42:6,7), but again knowledge without
application is like having a candle and no means to get the wick to catch on fire. The potential is there,
but it is worthless for illuminating the darkness until the wick is burning. They should have corrected the
foolish, which the gentiles were considered to be, but how do you correct someone when you are being
even more foolish? They were also to be teachers of the immature which would include both young Jews
and Gentile proselytes. These people needed to know God’s law and will, but what happens when the
teacher does not apply the knowledge? They make the proselyte twice as much of a son of hell as
themselves (Mt. 23:15).

They had the Law of Moses which was the embodiment or appearance of the knowledge and truth of
God to that point in time, but they did not actually follow what it said. Paul points out their hypocrisy in
verses 21-24.

Religious Hypocrisy (vs. 21-24)

The evidence of this is verses 21-22. "you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?
You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say that one should not commit
adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?"

It is not just that they fell short of understanding God’s law themselves, but even worse, they would
not obey what they did know and they would not practice what they preached. They would teach others,
but they were failing to teach themselves. It should not surprise us that they, and those who have
followed in the same path in our own day, can lecture and impart the truth without following it
themselves. There are many reasons that people might preach, and not all of them are honorable.
Remember that even Satan will disguise Himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).

Paul gives specific examples. They correctly taught that it was wrong to steal, and yet they would
steal themselves. The prophets had to rebuke even the national and religious leaders for this on a regular
basis. The Jews were not to charge each other interest or usury (Exod. 22:5), but they often did anyway
(Ezek. 22:12). They would steal by using false weights and balances (Amos 8:5). They would seek after
dishonest gain (Jer. 22:17) and without compassion they would rob and plunder even from widows and
orphans (Isa. 10:2). They even would dare to rob God by withholding their tithes (Mal. 3:8-9). This had
not changed even in Jesus time for Jesus accused the religious leaders of the same things – devouring
widows’ houses (Mk. 12:40), and robbery (Mt. 23:25).

They taught that adultery was wrong and would at times even seek to enforce the Mosaic law
concerning it (John 8:3-5). However, their practice of easy divorce for any reason multiplied divorce in
the land. Divorce and remarriage for any cause other than sexual sin multiples adultery (Mt. 5:32; 19:9).

Idolatry is an abomination before God (Dt. 27:15) and so it is right that they abhorred it, yet they
themselves robbed temples. This could be a reference to robbing their own temple in Jerusalem such as
in withholding tithes (Mal. 3:8,9) or some other means, but since the reference is to "abhorring idols"
being set in contrast to "rob temples’ it is probably something else. One possibility is that in contrast to
the Mosaic command to destroy any graven image that came under their control (Deut. 7:25), they were
seeking to make a profit from them. In Acts 19 the town clerk of Ephesus defended Paul and his Jewish
associates that they were not robbers of temples or blasphemers of their God. That suggests that such
was practiced enough by Jews that these particular ones had to be defended against the possible charge.
Destroying a pagan temple out of obedience to God’s command is one thing, plundering it for personal
gain is quite another. That may be what Paul is referring to here.

The consequence of this religious hypocrisy is stated in verse 23,24 – "You who boast in the Law,
through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the
Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written."

The reference here could to be to a number of passages because the name of the Lord had been
blasphemed many times because of the disobedience of the people. David’s sin with Bathsheba gave the
enemies of the Lord and occasion to blaspheme the name of God (2 Sam. 12:14). The multiplied sins
which resulted in God’s judgment of both Israel and Judah also caused the name of God to be
blasphemed at their deportation (Isa. 52:5; Ezek. 36:17-23).

All sin is an affront to God and an attack on the holiness of His name because all sin is contrary to
the purposes for which God made man. David understood that all sin was against God. That is why in
his confession of his multiple sins related to his adultery with Bathsheba in Psalm 51:4 that he said it
was "against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight." However, the sin of
those who profess to know God and proclaim His ways to others is even more grievous because it causes
more people to blaspheme Him.

Blasphemy is to speak reproachfully of or revile or speak evil of God. It is to slander and dishonor
the very character of God. It also encompasses living in disdain of God’s commands. The Jews boasted
in the Law of God, but they did not keep it themselves. The result was that not only were their own
actions blasphemous, but it gave reason for the Gentiles to disdain God’s commands. What reason
would there be for them to heed God and His commands when His people do not do so? If those who
proclaim the name of the Lord do not respect Him, why should anyone else? If God chastised them for
their sins, the Gentiles would turn from God reasoning that if God causes His own people to suffer in
such ways, why would thy want to serve Him. If God withheld His chastising, then the Gentiles would
claim that either God was not strong enough to control and correct His people, or that He approves of
their sin and is therefore evil Himself. In either case, their sin caused God’s name to be blasphemed.

But don’t think this is a truth just for the Jews. In many ways this is even more true of those who
profess to be Christians. We have both greater knowledge of God through the New Testament and
greater resources available to us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When a Christian falls into
sin, not only is his own testimony damaged, but the name of our Lord is also stained. This is serious and
one of the reasons for church discipline. It begins as an effort to restore a believer who stumbles into sin,
but it if the correction is not heeded, it ends with a pronouncement that this person is not a Christian and
in that way seeks to reduce the blasphemy against God they have caused. Never take your own sin or the
sin of other believers lightly.

I need to add here that the greater the position of leadership and public exposure a Christian has, the
greater the damage caused by his sin. That is why there are such strict standards and judgments upon
those who would be leaders in the church. All of us can think back to pastors, both obscure and
nationally known, that have caused great blasphemy of God through their sins. That is a reason I am
always in need of your prayers on my behalf that I would never cause shame to the name of the Lord.

Outward vs. Inward Religion (vs. 25-29)

For the most part, though there were many exceptions, the ancient Jews and those of Jesus’ time
lived an outward religion. The same is true today of professing Christians. Paul deals with this false
ceremonial religion and the true religion of the heart in verse 25-29. Circumcision and the Law (25-27). Paul first exposes the true relationship of the ceremonial practice of circumcision and God’s Law.
"For indeed circumcision is of value, if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law,
your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 If therefore the uncircumcised man keeps the
requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And will not he
who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter
[of the Law] and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?"

Circumcision was a ceremonial practice that was to be a sign that the person was in the Abrahamic
and Mosaic covenant relationship with God. But as Paul points out, this ceremonial practice is of no
value if it is not joined with the practice of God’s law. If you are a transgressor of the Law, that is,
disobedient to God’s commands, then your ceremonial actions are worthless. Paul even points out that
the person who does obey God is in a better position even if they have not had the benefit if the
ceremonial actions.

This same principle is still true and it applies to Christianity. Many Christian sects are heavy with
traditions and ceremonies resulting in many people thinking those rituals will save them and give them a
relationship with God. Circumcision never saved any Jew, and Baptism, Communion, or any other
church ritual practice has ever saved one Christian. I hate to admit it, but I have baptized and served
communion to people who later demonstrated they were not followers of Christ. All their baptism did
was get them wet, and their partaking of communion gave them no benefit. In fact, it only increased
their condemnation. Ritual is of no benefit unless it is accompanied by obedience. Ritual is supposed to
be an outward sign of an inward reality. Paul points this out in verses 28,29.

Circumcision and the Heart (28-29). "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is
circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and
circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men,
but from God."

Moses had told the people this when he recounted to them the Law of God. In Deut. 10:12,13 Moses
said, "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to
walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your
soul, 13 [and] to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for
your good?"
Moses added in verse 16,"Circumcise then your heart, and stiffen your neck no more."

A true relationship with God has never been based on outward rituals, but rather on an inward
reality. Outward religion seeks to keep the rituals and gain the praise of men. "So and so is such a good
person, see how faithful they are at coming and practicing the rituals of our religion."
God’s law is
approached with a defense lawyers attitude. "How can I interpret and manipulate this law to my favor so
that my client is not guilty."
But salvation and life in God is not outward. It is a matter of the heart that
will express itself outwardly in obedience to the leading of the Spirit of God because of the desire to
please God had have His praise. You can be religious and still be very ungodly and unrighteous.

It all boils down to this? Are you religious, or do you have a relationship with the living God? There
is a big difference between the two. The former is outward and gains the praise of men but causes God to
be blasphemed. The later arises from an inward reality that saves from sin and brings praise from God.
Do you have religion or a relationship? Which do you want?