Romans 3:9-20

St. Paul now rejects a third possible objection, or misunderstanding, concerning the gospel. The beginning of verse 9 could read one of two ways: “Are we any better off?” or “Are we at a disadvantage?” What is the point? St. Paul is condemning a view that tries to pit one sinner against another, as if one has better or worse standing before God based on ethnicity or human judgment. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “None is righteous.” “No one does good.”

St. Paul is still combating a view that approaches God through the law, looking for a loophole or something to tip the scales a bit. The fact of the matter is that, while the law drives us to Christ, it is only through the gospel that we can approach God with the expectation of mercy and salvation; it is only through faith in God’s promise of grace. Apart from the gospel, and faith in it, all are under the power of sin. Notice St. Paul says “sin,” the singular. He is speaking of the sin we are born with, the sin that gives birth to sins. Because of this sin, we instinctively sin against the First Commandment, from which all the other commandments flow. Because we do not love God, our throat is an open grave, our feet are swift to shed blood, etc.

Thus, the mouth is stopped. Gone are the excuses St. Paul has rebuffed. Gone is any attempt to find loopholes and tip the scales. All that is left is the awkward silence of the damned. All that is left is accountability. All that is left is a clarity of mind, the worst punishment of all, which sees sin in all its despicability, gravity, and damnability. Will that not be the greatest suffering of hell? Being separated from God and knowing for all eternity that you yourself merited every bit of that separation, that is, being keenly aware of sin.

We cannot justify sin, especially not by the law. We cannot even excuse sin by the law. Rather, we the law rejects any attempt to defend, rationalize, or diminish our wickedness and our culpability for it. The law merely declares the law’s verdict on sinners, the fruit of the power of sin: guilty. And that verdict, echoed by the hammer of the justice’s gavel, rings for all eternity, forbidding anyone to forget it.

But… While we cannot justify our sin, God can justify us, and he has done so in Christ. St. Paul continues, in the passage we will study tomorrow: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” Here is our hope. Here is our salvation. Here is our justification. It is no loophole. Christ’s blood is no loophole—it is God’s justice in all its severity. But… Thank God St. Paul keeps writing.

Romans 3:5-8

If our sinning ultimately brings glory to God by showing forth his justice and faithfulness in keeping the covenant, how can he be mad at us for sinning, in fact, shouldn’t he be grateful for our sinning? St. Paul must have heard that reply before, or he anticipated it, and so he shoots down such logic right away. Unfortunately, such thinking has plagued the Church throughout history. Many have taken the good news of forgiveness in Christ as an excuse for libertinism, that is, sinning without care and restraint. Many have taken the good news that way, and, I would venture to say, unless we need to ring the church bells as each of you approaches on Sunday and proclaim the presence of an unsoiled saint, you have taken the good news that same way at times. The knowledge that God forgives sin has led you to view sin a little more lightly. Knowing that you will have time to repent later has taken the edge off of the urgency of turning from sin now. But how many have died suddenly in such crass and inane thought and been justly condemned for all eternity!

The gospel is not a game. We don’t see who can put off their repentance longest and thus have the most fun possible in life and still be saved, and any attitude that considers sin fun is a hardened attitude that will in all likelihood be unbreakable on a death bed. What makes us think that God is dumb enough to fall for such child’s play? What makes us think that God is so trite? Such thought is abominable and St. Paul apologizes for even having to speak it, qualifying his statement with the not that he is speaking in a human way. Sin is sin and it is not fun and it is not trite and it is not easily escaped. Our condemnation is just when we think and act such ways. Thus, St. Paul writes elsewhere, (2 Cor. 6:2), “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

Now is the time of God’s favor, and the gospel announces that fact. Take heart, that the abuse of the gospel cannot negate it. Now is the time of God’s favor—the time for abominable attitudes and thoughts to be forgiven and for minds to be restored and renewed. See sin as sin, and flee sin as sin, because then the gospel will shine all the brighter as the gospel, that is, the antidote for sin and not the excuse for it. Now is the time of God’s favor. Your condemnation is just, but so is your God, and he has punished your sin in his Son. Now is the time of God’s favor. Flee God’s coming wrath and hide in the outstretched arms of his Son, mercy made man.  

Romans 3:1-4

Amen and alleluia! You can’t do it. I can’t do it. Satan can’t do it. No one can nullify the faithfulness of God. St. Paul uses the strongest possible Greek formula of denial here. By no means! God’s faithfulness cannot be nullified. The value of God’s gifts cannot be nullified, even though one may lose its benefits through unbelief. For instance, our riding lawn mower has the power to mow the lawn. If I refuse to believe it an use the push mower instead, I have not stripped it of its power. I have simply robbed myself of the benefits of its power.

Let God be true though everyone were a liar. For the Jew to deny the power of God’s Word of failure, or declare it ineffective and useless because he himself did not believe and obey it, was to call God a liar, the crassest blasphemy. For the Christian to deny the power of God’s Word, or to declare it ineffective or useless because he himself does not trust it to do what God has promised, or because he does not like its effects, is to call God a liar, the crassest blasphemy. Rather than being disappointed in what God’s oracles and gifts have accomplished in the small picture, one must merely step back and look at the big picture to have their disappointment turned into awe. Who can criticize God’s justice and faithfulness when he views history? Has God not spared us numerous misfortunes we rightly deserved? Was God not unbelievably patient with Israel, especially considering her obstinacy and disobedience? Has God not blessed our own land in spite of our manifold wickedness and kept us safe from the tragedies and catastrophes so many other nations regularly experience? Has God not been patient with each of us individually, even in suffering, especially in suffering?

No one can nullify God’s faithfulness. And when we find ourselves trying to do so, the only thing to do is confess our wrongdoing and turn to God, because, try though we might, it is impossible that we have nullified his faithfulness. We may have rejected and denied it, but we could never nullify it. In fact, in our turning we justify him in his words. While that may make it sound like you lose in the process, nothing could be further from the truth, because the triumph of God’s faithfulness always benefits God’s faithful, that is, those who receive his promises and gifts through faith. That’s you, no matter what you fear may have nullified his faithfulness in the past. Amen and alleluia. By no means could you ever have nullified his faithfulness! By no means let us fail to rejoice in that.

Romans 2:25-29

At the time of the Reformation, when some reformers became frustrated with what seemed many times to be a lack of improvement in the moral quality of the lives of their people, they began to question infant baptism, because baptism apparently had little effect on the people as a whole. For the same reason, some would also question the Lord’s Supper. Because of human rejection of God’s grace, they questioned God’s gracious gifts. What did they turn to instead? The law, just like the Roman Church they had battled against did. They confused law and gospel. They allowed human wickedness to nullify God’s goodness.

Circumcision was a powerful sign and promise given to Israel, but circumcision was of little value if it wasn’t received in faith, because a promise is only received in faith, and only faith can see what is not apparent to the human eye, that is the power of the sign and the grace behind it. Circumcision was a powerful sign and promise, but it was also a purchase. God now owned that person. He adopted him as his child of the covenant. If it became apparent the circumcised man persistently lived as a child of the devil instead, then it became apparent that Jew had rejected his circumcision and could only return to it through repentance. God’s promise was not nullified. It was rejected. That is a significant difference. If you refuse a check from a friend, that promise of money is not nullified; it was rejected. The check is still good, but it does not benefit you, since you refused it. In the case of our text, many Jews had rejected circumcision by treating it like magic, making it a law they kept to merit salvation, imagining that the act of circumcision was an automatic ticket to heaven, even if it was not received by faith.

In Colossians, St. Paul writes,  “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” You, like many men and women, have been baptized. Many have rejected their baptism, so that it does not benefit them unless they return to it in repentance. They have rejected baptism, but they have not nullified it. You have been baptized. You have received a powerful sign and promise, marking you as God’s chosen, marking you as his own. Do not, like the Jew, trust in your baptism as a magical thing, as a law you have kept that merits salvation, as a law that you have kept for your child that merits salvation so that you no longer need to raise them in the faith by teaching them everything whatsoever the Lord has commanded.  Baptism saves, but, through it, the Holy Spirit creates and strengthens the faith that receives its benefits. It is an outward act attached to inward faith. You have been baptized. You cannot nullify this fact, but you can reject it. And, if you do, not blame God’s gifts. Blame yourself, and despair of yourself, and return to those gifts you rejected, because while you can reject them, you cannot nullify them.

Romans 2:17-24

What made the Jew different than the Gentile ultimately led to the Jew’s temptation to arrogance and pride: God had revealed his will most fully to the Jew. Thus, the Gentiles were “the nations,” for that is what Gentiles means, while the Jews were “the nation,” the chosen people. But why were they chosen? It was not because they were more holy, more inclined to godliness, better suited for obedience, or closer to the image of God. No, they were chosen to produce the Savior of all nations. They were chosen in Christ, not in themselves. When they failed to remember this, they were given to the hypocrisy and double standards St. Paul condemns here.

We are tempted to the same thing as God’s chosen people in Christ, as the New Testament Israel. How often don’t we condemn in the world and in others what we secretly harbor and desire in our own hearts? How often don’t we forget that what sets us apart from the unbeliever is not our personal holiness, inclination to godliness, suitability for obedience, or a closer proximity to the image of God in and of ourselves? No, we are set apart only in Christ, and when we forget that, when we find room for arrogance or pride in our own flesh, when we fail to see our value in Christ alone, then we have lost Christ and become no different than the “Gentiles,” the unbelievers upon whom we look down.

God has revealed his will most fully to us, but, in so doing, he has also exposed our failure to live according to it. See your value in Christ. Recognize your own weakness, lack of personal holiness, inclination to ungodliness, resistance to obedience, and contrast to the image of God. Recognize these things so that you despair of them in yourselves and find them in Christ, through his blessed gospel. You are chosen. You are holy. You are godly. You are obedient. You are being restored in the image of God. Why? You are in Christ. With this attitude, we will battle the temptation to look down on others and we will be motivated to instead share with them where they too can find what they cannot find in themselves, how they too can go from being lost to chosen. We will point them to Christ, or, better yet, without pointing they will know where to look as they watch our own eyes, fixed on what is not ours on our own but is ours through faith in this Savior.

Romans 2:12-16

The law here is the Law of Moses, civil (for Israel’s government), ceremonial (for Israel’s worship), and the moral (for Israel’s life, i.e. the Ten Commandments). The Gentiles had not been given the complete Law of Moses, but rather the moral law had been written on their hearts. They had consciences. They had natural law, by which societies as a whole demonstrate their innate awareness of certain moral standards. For this reason, we see the second table of the Ten Commandments (the fourth through tenth commandments) evident to some extent or another in every culture.

What is St. Paul’s point? The Jews would be judged according to God’s revealed law—all of it. The Gentiles would be judged according to the natural law, written on their hearts, as St. Paul tells us in verse fifteen. Both would be judged according to the law, but the Jews alone would be judged by the Law of Moses. Yet, while the scope of the basis of God’s judgment was greater for the Jew, the result of God’s judgment would be the same for Jew and Gentile alike: damnation for all who have sinned even once in any way and thus fallen short of the glory of God. God would not judge as human judges, that is, only on the basis of the evidence brought to light, but rather God will judge on the basis of all that man has thought, said, or done, even the secret things, for there is nothing that is not disclosed to God and to all on Judgment Day. The Gentile would not be able to plead ignorance on the day of their judgment because they had already been judging themselves in their conscience, accusing and defending their various actions and, in so doing, demonstrating to themselves that there was a divine Judge and there was a divine standard which was, as mentioned above, written on their hearts. The Jew and Gentile alike would have to answer for what was revealed to them, not according to their hearing of it, but according to their doing of it, and, in this way, Jew and Gentile stand on the same level before the Almighty, judged in the same way, by what they have done.

Notice that I have spoken somewhat theoretically in the first two paragraphs. I have talked about what God would do. Now, let me tell you what God will do. He will judge you and I as well, not only according to those things others know about, but even according to the secret things that we have worked so hard to hide, that we have spent so many hours fretting that someone will discover. He will judge us according to what has been revealed to us in his Word and sacraments and according to the law written on our hearts. He will judge us, not by whether we have heard it or not, but by whether we have put it into practice or not, and, in this way, we will be judged all the harsher for having been blessed to have heard so much. Our conscience is a preview of this trial, but it is nowhere as comprehensive or stern. The scope of our judgment will be even greater than the judgment of the Jew and Gentile mentioned in our text. Even more than being judged by the Law of Moses or by the law itself, we will be judged according the gospel, in this case, the message of Christ, who we confess in the creed to be, not only the Savior, but the Judge of mankind. The good news of the gospel is that our Judge is also our Advocate, but when we have rejected our Savior by persistent sin and unbelief, he becomes our Judge alone, and we will have to render an account to him for every bit of mercy, forgiveness, and grace we squandered. In this way, hell will be an even more bitter place for those who have known Christ the Savior, just to reject him through apathetic indifference or zealous opposition, and to be left to know Christ the Judge alone.

My friends, take time to try yourselves according to your conscience today. Where have you sinned against God’s revealed law? Where have you acted against conscience? Where have you hindered the free course of the gospel in your lives? Judge yourselves now that you might fall at the feet of Christ your Savior and receive mercy that he might be your Advocate before Christ your Judge. St. Paul does not convict us now that we might be lost and condemned, but rather he convicts us now that we might then be absolved, justified, and pardoned for Christ’s sake, our Savior and Judge. Be convicted. Admit your guilt. Be declared innocent in the gospel through faith, for the sake of Christ Jesus, who has paid for all your sins, open and secret, big and small, intentional and unintentional. In him is hope. In anything else there is only hell.