The Danger of Religious Righteousness

Text: Romans 2:17-29

Introduction:  How dangerous is false doctrine? Increasingly the Evangelical church at large has grown indifferent to doctrine and this has given rise to blatant denials of such important doctrines as the sovereignty of God and His omniscience and omnipotence. Some noted Evangelicals have called for a completely new way of understanding such biblical themes as sin, judgment, hell and the cross. This mega-shift in Evangelicalism is rapidly gaining acceptance among many who identify themselves as evangelicals.[i] Recent developments from within the Reformed community over the doctrine of justification (i.e., the views of N. T. Wright, Norman Shepherd and The Federal Vision) are equally alarming. Does it really matter if we change or alter or even distort the truth of the Gospel? Not a lot, mind you, just a little here and maybe a little there.

There is a very sobering warning given us in James 3:1, ”Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Paul admonishes the Ephesian elders to be alert to dangers of false teachers (Acts 20:28-33; cf. also I Timothy 1:3). The Apostle Peter likewise issued a similar warning (II Peter 3:16-17). The strongest words in all of the New Testament on the subject are found on the lips of Jesus. In commenting on Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:13-33, the late S. Lewis Johnson, my prof. of theology, wrote, “To keep men in spiritual darkness, not permitting the glorious light of the gospel to penetrate the dark corners of their lives, neither living in it ourselves nor permitting others to do so (v. 13); to enroll members in our denomination or sect, arrogantly claiming that such membership is membership in the church of God, and yet instructing them only in our darkness (v. 15); to overthrow the sense of proportion in spiritual things by reducing all things to the same level, the small and the great, the important and the more important, at the same time, omitting one’s duty to the latter (vv. 23-24); to play at Christianity as if it were a game, to put appearance above the real thing, to reduce spiritual living to the tragedy of an hilarious farce (vv. 27-28); to praise the past, and yet practice the sins of the past while pretending to be horrified by them, to praise the Reformers and live as unreformed, to build memorials to the great spiritual leaders of the past, in deed or in word, and at the same time denigrate and vilify the simple Bible-believing and living Christian (vv. 29-33); –these are the things that cause a tempest of anger and wrath to sweep over the soul of Jesus and burst over the heads of His enemies in His devastating words, ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’”[ii]

In this section of Romans, Paul points out the peril that faces the Jew, whose guilt involves, not only thinking too highly of himself and too poorly of others, but relying upon works’ righteousness as a means of gaining favor with God. But this section of Romans has a broader application. Despite our society’s increasing secularism, we are an overtly religious nation. Browse any bookstore the next time you are in the mall and check out the section on Religion, as well as on New Age, Philosophy and, this may surprise you, Self-Help and even Psychology and you will find a cacophony of books that are distinctly religious in nature. “Human beings,” observed Harold O. J. Brown, “have such a strong religious impulse that it is all but impossible for most people to have no religion at all. They may not call it religion, but they have it nevertheless.”[iii] All religions have some sacred rite(s) and as is often the case, people come to believe the rite(s) have certain intrinsic or actual magical qualities.[iv] The tendency to adopt a form of religious externalism exists even within professing Evangelical circles. This particular problem is addressed by the Apostle in this final section of the second chapter of Romans.

I.          The Privileges of the Jew:  Paul will seek to convince the Jew that despite his boasting about the Law, he has really failed to keep the Law and has only incurred guilt not merited in the eyes of God. The Jews did have distinctive privileges.

A.        The Name – Jewish Honor:  They are the true descendants of Abraham and stand therefore in a privileged position (cf. Romans 3:1-2).

B.        The Law – Jewish Confidence:  The Law was given to Israel—but simple possession of the Law does not bring righteousness.

C.        God’s People – Covenant Exclusiveness:  The three privileges mentioned in this passage occur in ascending order, culminating in the boast that God was particularly their God—and this was true (cf. Romans 9:5; Ephesians 2:12).

D.        Knowing God’s Will – Scripture Insight: The Jews were not in the dark like the Gentiles. They possessed the Scriptures—but this only serves to accentuate their guilt.

E.        Instructed by the Law – Divine Guidance:  “The Jew prided himself less on his power of seeing the distinction between right and wrong than on his faculty for doing justice to superior excellence whenever he saw it. This faculty he had trained by being catechetically instructed in youth out of the Law.”[v]

II.         The Practice of the Jews:  The blessing of God does not automatically fall on God’s people simply because they possess God’s revelation—God’s truth must be appropriated! Paul’s words here apply as much to the professing Christian (Evangelical!) Church today as they did to the Jews of yesterday.[vi] The Apostle by his use of therefore (v. 21) introduces another inference from 2:17-20: With greater light comes greater responsibility. Not only did the Jews fail to live up to the privileges they were given, they actually caused the name of God to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. Paul now charges the Jew with failing to practice what he professes in three specific areas.

A.        Stealing:  The word Paul uses here is KLEPTEIS (you may recognize this as the source for our word “kleptomaniac,” a compulsive thief). The word actually refers to sneaking dishonesty. This covers a broad range of things. Listen to the words of Boice: “The idea that one should not steal is a generally accepted standard of human behavior, but it is just as generally broken. We should not think that we have kept this commandment just because we have not forced our way into another person’s home and walked off with his possessions. We steal from God when we fail to worship Him, as we ought or when we set our own concerns ahead of His. We steal from an employer when we do not give the best work of which we are capable or when we overextend our coffee breaks or leave work early. We steal if we waste company products or use company time for personal matters. We steal if we sell something for more than it is worth. We steal from our employees if the work environment for which we are responsible harms their health, or if we do not pay them enough to guarantee a healthy, adequate standard of living. We steal when we borrow something and do not return it. We steal from ourselves when we waste our talents, time or money.”[vii]

B.        Adultery:  The Jews professed to a higher moral standard than that practiced by the Gentile world. The Apostle is not leveling an inaccurate charge here. Psalm 50:8 makes the same charge.

C.        Sacrilege:  Paul is accusing the Jew of violating in practice what he says he abhors in theory. Because of this the covenant people of God have actually impugned God’s character in the eyes of the Gentiles.

III.        The Reality without the Rite is Righteousness (Romans 2:26-27):  The “therefore” introduces a rather startling inference, derived from the preceding statement. If breaking the Law makes circumcision uncircumcision before God, it follows that the keeping of the Law renders uncircumcision circumcision and constitutes the uncircumcised the judge of the circumcised. The Apostle is not equating Jew and Gentile. Except insofar as spiritual privilege is concerned (cf. Galatians 3:26-28), they are never one in the New Testament. He refers to the church in which there is a Gentile who has what the Law demanded, a right relationship to God through faith. Gold is gold, although it may not have the official stamp of authority upon it. And, on the other hand, the stamp of authority upon tin or copper will not make it gold. The label on a can is not as important as the contents of the can (unless one were an inveterate contestant interested primarily in the labels as entrance requirements!). “Moreover,” as Stott observes, “what Paul writes here about circumcision and being a Jew could also be said about baptism and being a Christian. The real Christian, like the real Jew, is one inwardly; and the true baptism, like the true circumcision, is in the heart and by the Spirit. It is not in this case that the inward and spiritual replace the outward and physical, but rather that the visible sign (baptism) derives its importance from the invisible reality (washing from sin and the gift of the Spirit), to which it bears witness. It is a grave mistake to exalt the sign at the expense of what it signifies.”[viii]

IV.       The Reality is Praised by God; The Rite by Men (Romans 2:28-29):  The Judaism that God approves is not that found only in the use of phylacteries, fringes, alms, and tithes (cf. Matthew 6:1; 23:5). It is that that has its source and motivating power in a heart in right relationship to God through the Spirit. Men may admire the outward signs; God admires the right attitude of heart. This tendency to find religious satisfaction in ceremonies is endemic in human nature. It is seen in the heathen in their sacrifices and superstitious incantations. In the Jew it broke out in the concentration upon religious dress, with its phylacteries and fringes, upon staged fastings, ostentatious public praying and tithing. In the New Testament times it is seen in the clerical garb, ritualistic pomp and ceremony, and other forms of religious hypocrisy. In the verse there is a telling play on the word “praise.” The word Jew comes from the Hebrew word meaning praise (cf. Genesis 29:35; 49:8). It is as if Paul closes the section by saying that the true Jew is the inward one, whose circumcision is also the inward one of the heart, that is, the true Jew is the Jew whose Judaism (lit., praise) is not from men, but from God. And we must not stop here. As the Old Testament teaches, circumcision of the heart is not something a man may perform on himself, or on others; it is God’s work alone. Moses’ word encloses a great theological truth, “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6). To God’s grace belongs the final praise.

Conclusion:  Note how the description of the Jew in this section of Romans is that of one who not only claims to know the truth, but professes to be a recognized teacher. He claims to really know God and to be in a position to help those who are ignorant and blind. He has at his fingertips the revelation of God’s will—the Scriptures—and yet contradicts what he teaches by what he does. Such God dishonoring inconsistency does great harm and leads people to reject and blaspheme the God of the Bible. In Matthew 23 (a chapter that has often embarrassed people because the words of Jesus strike them as out of character, since, according to them, Jesus should be so loving and accepting that He would never utter a harsh word to anyone), our Lord underscores the critical importance of substance and reality over show and pretense. Religious hypocrisy comes in many shades and colors—and each is repulsive and deserving of condemnation. Rite cannot be substituted for genuine righteousness. The inside must first be cleaned that the outside may be clean (Matthew 23:26).



[i] These denials and the individuals responsible for them are documented in a number of sources, cf. the articles in Whatever Happened to The Reformation? eds. G. L. W. Johnson and R. Fowler White (P&R, 2002) and those in Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals, eds. J. M. Boice and B. E. Sasse (Baker, 1996).


[ii] S. L. Johnson, Romans: Believers Bible Bulletin (Dallas, 1980), pp. 1, 2.


[iii] Harold O. J. Brown, The Sensate Culture: Western Civilization Between Chaos and Transformation (Word, 1996), p. 69.


[iv] This is especially true in Roman Catholicism’s understanding of the sacraments. “The Roman Church undermined the importance of God’s ordained sacraments by adding sacraments of their own. The Anabaptist enthusiasts undermined them by reducing the efficacy of the two sacraments Christ instituted. We see both extremes in our own day as well. In fact, many who would not be inclined to see baptism and the Lord’s Supper as actual ‘means of grace’ would have no difficulty applying that designation to any number of other things that are never described as such in Scripture.” Michael S. Horton, In the Face of God: The Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy (Word, 1996), p. 142.


[v] H. P. Liddon, Explanatory Analysis of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (rpt. Zondervan, 1961), p. 52.


[vi] R. Kent Hughes in his provocatively titled Are Evangelicals Born Again: The Character Traits of True Faith (Crossway, 1995) documents that “Evangelicals have drunk unconsciously from a loose set of attitudes and ideas known as modernity. Their confidence in the truth of biblical revelation has been subtly eroded by the culture’s insistence that objective truth cannot be known, and that all anyone can do is impose personal subjective categories onto reality. As a result evangelicals have increasingly privatized their faith and have become less concerned about its reasonableness. This retreat into self has become a fact of evangelical life…Self-focus diminishes God-focus, so that God is increasingly relegated to the periphera  of life, leaving evangelicals open to further invasions of worldliness. This is enhanced by modern life’s worship of technology’s brilliance, which effectively numbs moderns to the numinous and their need of God. The overall effect of modernity upon evangelicals has been to subvert their access to God and to shape them increasingly after the world. This is mirrored in the statistical evidence that there is very little difference in the television viewing habits of Christians and non-Christians, a fact that also increases self-absorption, a diminishing focus on the true God, and the descent into worldliness.” (p. 12).


[vii] J. M. Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary I (Baker, 1991), p. 253.


[viii] J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994), p. 94. Representatives of the Federal Vision in their efforts to establish what they call “the objectivity of The Covenant” end up equating Baptism with salvation. Cf. John Barach’s comments, “But who shares in those blessings?…who is in Christ? The answer that the Bible gives is that those people are in Christ who have been baptized into Christ…there is an objective covenant made with believers and their children. Every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union then with Christ and with the Triune God. The Bible doesn’t know about a distinction between being internally in the covenant, really in the covenant, and being only externally in the covenant…Every baptized person is truly a member of God’s covenant…every baptized person is in Christ and therefore shares in his new life…and still receives, not only the covenant promises, but also the covenant’s demands and the covenant warnings.” The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros & Cons: Debating The Federal Vision ed. C. Beisner (Knox Seminary, 2004), p. 304. Doug Wilson, another spokesman for the Federal Vision, claims that the Westminster Confession supports this view of baptism but fails to substantiate this claim cf. his Reformed is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of The Covenant (Canon Press, 2004), p. 103. I am personally amazed at this claim. It is simply astounding when you consider the individual writings of the Westminster divines that not a single one of them can be appealed to for support. Add to that the fact that not a single Reformed theologian since then (Owen, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, Dabney, Shedd, right down to our day) ever read the Confession in that light. Wilson actually cites Warfield in order to disagree with him! (p. 91) But it is Wilson and not Warfield that is out of the mainstream of Reformed thought. Contrary to the Federal Visionists, the classical Reformed position is as Shedd states “While symbolical only of regeneration, it yet has a connection with sanctification. Being a divinely appointed sign, seal, and pledge of the new birth, it promotes the believer’s growth in holiness by encouragement and stimulus. It is like the official seal on a legal document. The presence of the seal inspires confidence in the genuineness of the title deed; the absence of the seal awakens doubts and fears. Nevertheless, it is the title deed, not the seal, that conveys the title.” W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology ed. A. W. Gomes (P&R, 2003), p. 817.

Eyewitnesses of His Majesty

A First Century Account of the Christ and His Apostles

Also available on Kindle!

“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

The work that you hold in your hands is of inestimable value. Within its pages is the astonishing story of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Christian Church—an historical account which has changed millions of lives for two millennia. Though scores of books have been written about Jesus and the Christian Church, here in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts we are led ad fontes, that is, back to the first-century source concerning the ministry of Christ and His early followers.

Composed sometime between 60-62 AD, this two-volume work was written by a man named Luke (Greek: Loukas). In addition to being a devoted follower of Christ, Luke was a missionary, a physician, and a historian. As a Greek from Antioch in Syria, Luke may or may not have been raised with the knowledge of God’s Word. What we can be sure of, however, is that at some point in his life he was exposed to the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, and by grace he believed it. As a “far off” Gentile, Luke was mercifully, through God-given faith, “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13).

Whether you are a professing believer or simply investigating the Christian faith, I encourage you to read this book with the author’s original intent in mind: that you “may have certainty” concerning the truth about Jesus (Luke 1:4).
–from the Foreword

In this modernized reading of Luke and Acts from the 1599 Geneva Bible, you will experience the life of Jesus Christ and the early history of the Christian Church as never before. With chapter and verse divisions removed and formatted for easier reading, Luke’s studious 2-volume historical work comes alive. As the lone Gentile author of any of the 66 books of the Bible, Luke provides a unique perspective on Christ and the early church. He understood well that Jesus came, not only as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, but also to give light to everyone who sat in darkness (Luke 1:79). As one of the apostle Paul’s traveling companions, Luke was instrumental in taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the uttermost parts of the Roman empire, even to the city of Rome itself, where he alone remained by the apostle’s side as he awaited execution under the emperor Nero (2 Timothy 4:11). Luke’s faithful reporting of these first century events—both the ones he carefully researched and the ones he witnessed firsthand—are a much needed reminder to our modern age that even though nearly two thousand years have come and gone, Jesus Christ is still the most important, and controversial, figure to have ever walked the face of this earth; and his question to the disciples is still the most important question that each one of us must answer: “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20)


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