THE SIN OF BEING RELIGIOUS
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
— Romans 2:12-29, ESV
We are knee deep in sin in this letter to the Romans, and ultimately we’ll be covered up to our eyebrows. Then Paul will bring out the firehose of grace and power wash us with a detailed explanation of how the gospel of Jesus Christ can take away all our sin. But for now, let us remain in sin — the study of sin, that is. For a robust soteriology requires an honest hamartiology.
The wrath of a holy God hovers over unredeemed sinners. Some flaunt conventional or biblical morality (1:18-31). Others hope their innate goodness, a myth to be destroyed later in Romans, will overcome their bad sins (2:1-11). Now we get to a text that deals with the sin of being religious (2:12-29).
We will all like this one because we all dislike religious hypocrites. They’re the worst. They say one thing then do another. They keep the rules on the outside but are rotten on the inside. They look down their noses at others. So, we look down our noses at them, until we discover that we might be one of them.
Bridge to Nowhere
The passage begins with a bridge between the irreligious and the religious. Though the main target is the religious, the irreligious, those “without the law,” a.k.a. “Gentiles,” get no pass here. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse. I once told a police officer, honestly, that I did not see that speed limit sign, but he wrote me a ticket anyway.
In this interesting aside we learn that no person, religious or irreligious, Jew or Gentile, can claim ignorance, for “the law is written on their hearts.” God has given all humans made in His image a “conscience.” Upon this conscience is stamped a moral code written by God.
Most sinners know they’ve sinned against God. But, in spite of “their conflicting thoughts,” they choose to love their sin rather than look to God. Go on sinning long enough, and the conscience becomes seared, until you no longer realize you are living in sin. Then, “all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law.” Truly this is a bridge to nowhere, a place where “God judges,” and it won’t be good.
Breaking the Law
Now let’s move on the to the main matter, the sin of being religious. You cannot find the word “religion” in this text. But, the word “law” is a drum beat 20 times in 18 verses. Laws are a reflection of religion, whether it be personal, civil, or divine. Law determines what is right and what is wrong. It provides the premise for punishment, but read rightly it can also procure a pardon.
Our author, raised as the Jewish Saul before becoming the Christian Paul, has not just any “law” in mind but “the law” (the definite article appears 19 of 20 times). “The Law” to the Jew meant either the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch or first five books attributed to Moses, or the entire Old Covenant or Testament.
He addresses “a Jew,” probably a Jewish member of the Roman church, who fancies himself an expert in “the law,” and considers himself a Christian, “a light.” He believes he is right with God by a combination of trusting in the New Testament Jesus while being obedient to the Old Testament “law,” in this case the Ten Commandments. But Paul proves he has broken the law in at least three places.
First of all, he has broken the true meaning of the law. Go through the list of the top ten and tell me, have you kept these commandments or have you broken them, outside, inside, or both? Those who “boast” about keeping them, who are literally trying to work their way to Heaven, “will be judged by the law” they have broken. Then they will be broken, irretrievably.
Secondly, his self-righteousness breaks the purpose of the law. The purpose of the law is to convict of sin, not convince you of your self-righteousness. And even if you can keep some semblance of God’s law “outwardly,” keeping the external rituals and rules or religion (like “circumcision,” a correlation to baptism), you need to know inwardly you are still a sinner. God’s wrath is averted only by grace, through faith, not religious rituals and human works.
Finally, such breaking of the law breaks the bridge of law and Spirit that could bring others over to Jesus Christ. “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Nothing drives sinners farther away from the gospel than cold, calculating, religious hypocrisy.
Around this black cloud of religious sin is a silver lining of saving grace. There is an indication of the right use of the law. There is a direct reference to God’s “Spirit.” There is redemption through regeneration.
You cannot be saved from the outside in, that’s religion. Being circumcised in the Old Covenant marked you as a Jew (for males, at least), it made you part of the religion, it qualified you to participate in other religious rituals, it gave you a law to live by. But the prideful, external keeping of God’s law renders such religion useless, for it only hardens the heart instead of changing it.
The same can be said of outside-in Christianity, practiced by people who have been baptized, whose names appear on church rolls, who own several copies of the Bible. In spite of a few trips to the church each year, their lives are ruled by the lust, greed, and pride they hide behind their starched Sunday best. They’ve joined the religion, they’ve kept the rules (they think), and survey after survey indicates they believe the path to Heaven is paved by good works done by good people, not God’s grace poured upon repentant sinners.
You cannot be saved from the outside in. You must be saved from the inside out. This is not done by religion, but by regeneration. It is “a matter of the heart.” It is wrought “by the Spirit.” It convicts deeply of sin and convinces of the beauty and truth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Keeping God’s laws becomes no longer a duty, but a desire of the new heart, passionate with the love of Christ, pursuing God’s glory alone.
So quit being religious and come into a relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Let the law of God kill you. Experience the Spirit of God birthing you to life, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Then love the law, obey the word of God, not because you love yourself and want to look good, but because you love the Lord and want to please Him and lead others to Him.
We must banish the black sin of religion. Grace must take its place. Then, on judgement day it will be said of you, “His praise is not from man but from God.” Amen.