False Claims and Empty Rituals (Part 2)

Romans 2:25-29

Tom Pennington  •  July 19, 2015
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Over the last several months I have been corresponding with, and sharing the gospel with, a man named Fernando. Fernando first connected with me through The Word Unleashed. He is a Roman Catholic. Sadly, after a couple of months, several months here, of correspondence, he remains wholeheartedly convinced that what we call the ordinance of the Lord's Table, what he calls the Eucharist, is the grounds of his righteousness before God. He believes that as he takes the Catholic Mass, in the act of eating and drinking, that the bread literally becomes the physical body of Jesus and the wine literally becomes His physical blood, and that by drinking His blood, by eating the body of Christ, in that act he receives eternal life and he receives the forgiveness of his sins. That is what the Catholic Church teaches.

In Roman Catholic doctrine the sacraments, like mass and baptism, for example, function through what Catholic theology calls ex opere operato. That's a Latin phrase that literally means, "from the working of the work." In other words, simply doing these things confers grace upon the recipient. Faith is not required. It's not required in the person administering it. It's not required in the person receiving it. In fact, the only problem, in Catholic theology, is if the recipient comes to that act with active unbelief. Think, hostile resistance of mind. Apart from that, it works simply by doing it. It bestows grace, the grace of justification, on the one who receives it.

Tragically, that is just one example of how many, who claim the true God and a connection to the true God, like the Jews in the first century, have come to put their faith in a ritual, in some activity that they perform. That's the very issue that Paul addresses at the end of Romans 2, where I invite you to turn with me again this morning as we continue our journey through this magnificent letter of the Apostle Paul.

Now, we are in a section that began in chapter 2 verse 1 and runs all the way to chapter 3 verse 8 where Paul indicts all of those who profess to know the true God, but who are lost in religion. And here's why, because they have put their confidence of heaven in something that they do or something they are and therefore they are actually lost in self-righteousness. Now, the heart of Paul's indictment here in chapter 2 is in verse 3 and it's this, the Jews had come to the conclusion that they would escape the judgment of God. Why? Well, the rest of chapter 2 tells us that they had put their confidence of heaven, their assurance of avoiding God's future wrath, in three false hopes. And in this chapter Paul confronts those false hopes and sets their thinking straight about these realities.

First of all, he tells them, listen, knowing what is sinful and condemning it in others will not allow you to escape God's wrath. That's the message of verses 1 to 16. Essentially, he's saying they put their hope in morality, basic morality. And it's easy for us to think like this. It's easy for us as humans, and frankly this is how most Americans think, because I'm not as bad as a lot of other people, then it's okay, God's okay with me, that He's going to overlook my sins because they're not as bad as those other guys and their sins. Morality, Paul says, is a false hope because whatever your goodness, it falls short of God's standard which is absolute perfection.

In verses 17 to 24 Paul confronts and corrects their second false hope, and that is, having and knowing the Scripture will not allow you to escape God's wrath. Having the Bible, even knowing the Bible, is a false hope. It's not going to help you at the judgment. But this is a very common false hope. I think this is especially a problem in a church like ours. I think it's a problem for kids who grow up in Christian homes and grow up in churches where the Bible is taught. They've heard thousands of sermons and they've memorized hundreds of verses, and they think that somehow that means they're okay, because they have this knowledge, their head is filled with knowledge. But then they grow up, they leave the home, and what begins to happen is their true heart begins to manifest itself. It's a false hope.

Last week we began to examine Paul's confrontation of a third false hope, that the Jews and all moral religious, but unconverted, people typically have. And it's this, claiming faith in God and performing religious rituals will not allow you to escape God's future judgment. This is the message of chapter 2 verses 25 to 29. Let's read it together. You follow along.

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. For if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And 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? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 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.

Now, Paul's point in this paragraph is very straightforward and that is, that religious rituals and the profession of faith that accompanies them do not mean that you truly belong to God and will therefore escape His judgment on the day of judgment. Here Paul destroys the last argument that his Jewish hearers would have. He's, sort of, painted them into a corner so far in this chapter and when he comes to this point their response might be something like this. Well, wait a minute, Paul. I am a descendant of Abraham. I have a unique relationship with God. I even have the sign of that unique relationship with God, my circumcision. It is impossible for God to condemn me. But Paul explains that the Jews had misunderstood their circumcision. They had misunderstood the purpose of it.

Now, I laid a lot of foundation last week on this issue. If you weren't here I encourage you to go on-line and, sort of, catch up. But let me just remind you, in summary, of the purpose of circumcision. Circumcision served two essential purposes, a physical purpose and a spiritual purpose. The physical purpose was to mark the physical descendants of Abraham. Only the Jews in the ancient world were circumcised on the eighth day, as they were. It marked them as the lineage of Abraham, the physical descendants of Abraham. It may also, on the physical side, have served a hygienic purpose, some argue that, we can't be sure. But regardless, God meant circumcision primarily to serve not a physical purpose but a spiritual purpose. And the spiritual purpose of circumcision was to serve as a picture, a picture of the need for spiritual cleansing and renewal.

Circumcision was supposed to be an outward sign of an inward heart change, a change that only God could produce. One of the most important texts we looked at last week was Deuteronomy 30:6, where God said this, "'the Lord your God,'" this is through the mouth of Moses to the Israelites, "'the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may truly live.'" You see what circumcision was, it was a picture of God effecting a radical change to the human heart, of God cleansing the heart and making it possible for a person who grew up loving himself to love God and to love other people. That's what circumcision was to picture. It symbolized, on the one hand, their depravity and their need for cleansing, and on the other hand, it was supposed to picture the fact that they had actually experienced that cleansing. It pictured a heart that God had changed, a heart that was now tuned to love God and serve God and worship God. It was a sign that, like Abraham, they had placed their faith in Yahweh. That's what circumcision was supposed to be.

Sadly, by the first century the outward sign had completely erased the inward reality and the Jews put their confidence of heaven, their hope of eternal life, not in the spiritual change of the heart that circumcision was opposed to picture, but in the act itself. And so, when Paul proclaimed the gospel to the Jews he had to first disabuse them of this idea that they could have confidence in their circumcision. He had to confront their false hope that they had in their circumcision. And that is exactly what Paul does here in Romans 2 and the paragraph we read together. Paul explains why putting your hope of heaven either in your profession of faith or in the external sign of that profession, is a false and damning hope.

Now, he mentions here in this paragraph, two reasons for us, two reasons that religion and rituals cannot save. Today, as we prepare for communion I just want us to consider the first one. You have no hope of a right standing before God through ritual, because if you want ritual to contribute to your salvation you will need also perfect obedience to God's law. That's the message of verses 25 to 27. Let's look at them together.

For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law. [Notice how often he speaks about keeping the Law here.] Circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And 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?

Now, if you found it hard to follow Paul's train of thought there, you're not alone. Stay with me. Hopefully by the time we're done you'll get it. You see, what Paul does here is, and this is not uncommon for him, is he truncates his argument. He condenses his argument so that not all of the elements of his argument are even immediately visible, they are elsewhere, but not here. So I want us to unpack the flow of Paul's argument so we can understand his meaning here. I'm going to unfold a series of chains of thought that reflect what Paul is doing here. The first two of them are not directly stated in our text, but are simply understood. However, they are foundational elements of Paul's theology and are therefore stated often in other places. And I think by the time I'm done you'll see, sort of, the chain of Paul's thought. So let's look at it together.

Here's the flow of his argument. First of all, and this is understood, sort of, as the foundation of what he's saying here, there are only two potential paths to being right with God. There are only two potential paths man can choose to try to be right with God. Path number one is justification by works, by your own efforts, by something you do. And path number two is justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Understand that these are the only two choices a person can make. They can either try to be right with God through their own personal righteousness or through Christ's righteousness. They can either see that accomplished by their own merit and their own work, or by the merit and work of Jesus Christ. There are only two paths that any person can choose from to try to be right with God. And every person chooses one of those paths. Sadly, the religions of our world are all about the first path.

Paul contrasts these two approaches often in his letters. Let me show this to you. Turn over to Romans 3:19 and I want you to note how often he talks about justification by works versus justification by faith in Christ. Watch this, verse 19, "Now we know that whatever the Law says, it's speaks to those who are under the Law." By the way, that's everyone. We've already learned that the Jews are under the Law because they have the written Law. The Gentiles are under the Law because they have the work of the Law written on their hearts. And the result is, "every mouth is closed and all the world will become accountable to God." Now watch this, verse 20, here's path one, "because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight." Justification by works, there's path one, and notice what he says. You may be on path one, but you'll never arrive at the destination. You'll never actually be declared right with God by your works, "for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin."

Now, verse 21, we get to path two,

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, [this is something the Old Testament talked about] witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.

Verse 24, "being justified," declared right with God, "as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus." There's path two. Look down in verse 28. Here it's in one verse. "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith," there's the second path, "apart from the works of the Law," there's the first path, justification by works, and only by faith can you truly be declared right with God.

Now go to Romans 10, you see this same contrast. Verse 5, "For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is," literally, "out of Law," the right standing before God based on your Law keeping, "shall live by that righteous." In other words, you've got to measure up to a perfect obedience to finish that path. "But the righteousness based on faith," here's the other path, "speaks as follows," you don't have to do something great, verse 8, "'The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,'" the word, the message of faith we're preaching. All you need to do, verse 9, is "confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead, and you will be saved." You see the contrast of these two paths to being right with God.

Turn over to Galatians 2, because in one verse Paul places these two contrasting approaches to being right with God. Verse 16, Galatians 2:16, he says, "we know that a man is not justified by the works of the Law." There's path one and he says, path one will never get you there. You will never be declared right with God by your own efforts. "But rather, we are justified through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus." Now, in case you didn't get it, here in the same verse he says it again, "so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified." No one receives a right standing before God based on their own work and effort. And yet, that's the path most of humanity is on.

One other passage, turn over to Philippians 3. I love this passage. We'll come back here a number of times, because this is Paul's dealing with justification with the Philippian church. That's the theme of this passage. But I want you to just go to verse 9, Philippians 3:9. He says, "I want to gain Christ," verse 8, and what I mean by that is, I want to "be found in Him." Now, what does he mean? He means, when the day of judgment comes I want to "be found in Christ," and here's again the contrast, "not having a righteousness of my own derived from keeping the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith."

So understand then, there are only these two paths to being right with God. There's the path of justification by your own effort, your own work, your own keeping of God's Law, and Paul says, it never delivers what it promises. No one will be justified by that path. And then there's justification by faith in Christ. This foundational contrast lies behind Paul's teaching in Romans 2; you have to keep this in mind.

Now, a second part of Paul's argument in Romans 2 is also understood, but crucial to understanding his meaning. Number two, the second chain in his argument, trusting in a ritual for your salvation, either in whole or in part, means that you are on path one, that you are pursuing justification by works. So whether you know it or not, if you have any of your confidence, your hope of heaven, in your ritual, in something you've done, then you have chosen path one; you are trying to be justified by your own work and effort.

Turn to Galatians 5. Paul couldn't make it any clearer than he makes it here. Galatians 5:2, he's dealing with the Judaizers. We talked about them last week. They were those Jewish people who claimed to believe in Jesus as Messiah, but who said, in order to be saved by Jesus you have to be circumcised and you have to keep the Law. Paul says, that's a false gospel and here, notice what he says, "Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision," in other words, if you get circumcised in order to contribute to your salvation, "Christ will be of no benefit to you." He says, you're not on path two. If you think some ritual is going to contribute to your salvation, you're not on path two, you're on path one. Notice verse 3, "I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law." He says listen, if you choose to have ritual be a part of your salvation, something you do, then you have chosen path one. You're trying to be justified by works. And you can't stop with that ritual, you've got to go all the way.

And that brings us to the third part of Paul's argument and what is clearly stated back in Romans 2. Turn there with me. The third chain in his argument is this, if you want to be justified by works, you must keep all of God's Law perfectly. You see the chain of argument? There are two paths and if you trust a ritual, you've chosen path one, justification by works. And if that's the path you're on then here's the standard, perfect obedience. Look at verse 25, "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."

Now, what's going on here is Paul anticipates a Jewish objection to what he has said so far. He has said, your Jewishness isn't going to protect you from the judgment. And, I'm sure he encountered this response many times, so he's well equipped to respond to it. The response would go something like this. Wait a minute Paul, I'm a child of Abraham. I'm part of God's chosen people. I have circumcision, which is a sign of my privileged position, and that guarantees my future salvation.

I noted for you last week that this was commonly taught around the time of the Apostle Paul. I noted several sources; let me just remind you of two. Rabbi Levi wrote, "In the Hereafter Abraham will sit at the entrance to hell, and permit no circumcised Israelite to descend therein." No circumcised Israelite is going to go to hell. Abraham's going to make sure of it. Rabbi Menachem writes this, "Our Rabbis have said that no circumcised man will see Hell." You see, they're arguing with Paul. Paul, how can God treat me the same way as a Gentile when my circumcision shows that I belong to God's chosen people? I'm an heir of the promises made to Abraham.

Notice Paul's response in verse 25, "For indeed circumcision is of value if," note that word, "if you practice the Law." Paul here begins by weighing the value of circumcision and by value, here he means specifically the value in protecting you from God's wrath. That's the flow of the argument. You think your circumcision is going to protect you from God's wrath on the day of judgment? Okay, I agree, it'll be "of value if," and only if, "you practice the Law." Paul's point is to remove circumcision from the list of those things that the Jews thought would, sort of, automatically bring them pardon from God's wrath.

Paul says, if you want circumcision to contribute to your salvation then, oh listen, that's not enough. You're also going to need to keep the whole Law. You're going to need to do everything God demands. You're going to need to keep it perfectly. This is the same point Paul has already made in chapter 2. Go back to verse 6. He gives us God's standard of judgment. He says, "God will render to each person according to his deeds." God doesn't miss anything. He's going to treat each person as their deeds deserve. And he says, oh, okay, so you want to be justified by your works? Here's the standard, verse 7, "if you persevere in doing good." You can't just do good some points in your life, you can't just occasionally do good, you can't be a basically good person. You have to persevere your whole life in doing what God demands. You must seek God's glory and honor and not your own glory and honor. You must live for the life to come, for immortality, and not for this life, and you must seek eternal life. In other words, you've got to live for what matters your whole life.

That's not all. Verse 10, "glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good." That has the idea of consistently, day after day, practicing what's good. You want to get to heaven by your own works? There's the standard. And it is an impossible standard. That's Paul's point. No one practices God's Law in that sense. That's a standard no one can meet. So Paul's point is that means ritual has no value in contributing to your salvation because you don't keep the Law like that.

Verse 25, "but if you are a transgressor of the Law." By the way, the word transgressor doesn't mean you're this wicked evil person. It's not a generic term. It's a very specific term for somebody who breaks a law. For example, if you, hypothetically speaking, if on the way to church this morning you broke the speed limit, hypothetically, you are a transgressor. It doesn't mean you're like this hardened criminal. It means you're a transgressor. You broke a law. That's what the word transgressor means. So let's paraphrase it this way, "if you've ever broken God's Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision." It has no value. It's like you're a Gentile and have never been circumcised at all.

You say, well, wait a minute. That doesn't seem fair. You mean like one offense does this to me? Yes. Remember what James says in James 2:10. He says, "whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all." Now how can that be? Well, remember what the Law is; the Law summarized is a command to love God perfectly with your whole heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you ever break the Law then you haven't done that. The whole thing crumbles into a heap.

The rabbis taught that you could only invalidate your circumcision if you intentionally renounced your Jewishness. If you stood up and said, I'm done with the covenant with Abraham; I'm out of here. Then you invalidated your circumcision. Paul says, not true. All you need to do is simply sin. And if you sin, you've invalidated it.

Now, in verse 26 Paul takes his argument a step further, "So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded by God as circumcision?" Paul saying, listen, if there's a Gentile who had never been circumcised and if he were able to keep God's Law, again an impossibility, he would be saved without being circumcised. Now understand, Paul is not saying that there is such a person, that there is a Gentile who actually meets the requirements of God's Law. We just saw, chapter 3 (we're going to get there), "There is none righteous, no not one." They're all under sin. Jews and Greeks are all under sin. Every mouth is stopped, all the world accountable to God. So he's not saying anybody actually does this.

So what is Paul saying in verse 26? I like the way Douglas Moo paraphrases it, "If it should be that there were an uncircumcised person who perfectly kept the Law, that person would be considered a full member of the people of God." That's the point. So see where Paul is going. He says, listen, if you want a ritual to contribute to your salvation then you're pursuing justification by works, you're on path one, and that means that you're going to have to keep all of God's Law and you're going to have to keep it perfectly.

Now, that brings us to the fourth chain in his argument. If you fail to keep God's Law perfectly you are guilty of breaking it all and you will therefore face God's wrath at the judgment. Look at verse 27, "And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you?" Paul is fast forwarding here to the day of judgment. And he's saying, listen, uncircumcised people are going to judge you, potentially, if they were able to keep the Law. Now, this was in the face of Jewish thinking, because the Jews believed that the righteous would sit in judgment over the unrighteous and, of course, in Jewish tradition the Jews were the righteous and the Gentiles were the unrighteous. And Paul turns that on its head. Literally, he says, "The one who is by nature uncircumcised," that is, a Gentile, "if he keeps," or obeys, "God's Law then he would sit in judgment on you." In other words, his obedience would serve as part of the condemning evidence that God would present to damn you.

Verse 27, notice how he describes the Jews, "you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law." If an uncircumcised Gentile were to keep God's Law, his life would condemn you at the judgment even though you have the Scripture written in letters, that's the letter of the Law, and even though you have been circumcised, and broken God's Law.

Now, don't miss the big point Paul is making here. Okay? Listen carefully, here's the big point. Circumcision will not save you at the judgment. Ritual will not save you at the judgment. And, being without circumcision at the judgment will not damn you. Not having performed a ritual is not going to be the reason for your damnation. In other words, ritual doesn't contribute to your salvation at all. If you want to be right with God by your own efforts, if you want a ritual to contribute in any way to your salvation, you are pursuing salvation by works. And if you're pursuing justification by works then you must do nothing less than perfect obedience to God's Law. You must keep the whole Law perfectly to be saved. And if you fail, in spite of your rituals, you will receive God's condemnation at the judgment.

You see what Paul is doing here? He is removing every prop. He is saying, listen, you must abandon everything on which you have placed your hope. You must abandon every human merit. You must abandon every human work. You must abandon every human effort. You must abandon every sense of human goodness. And you must put your hope in Jesus Christ alone. That's the only hope you and I have. It's like the hymn writer says, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling." That's the message. Abandon everything else.

Sadly, this damning idea of putting one's confidence in religious ritual is as common today as it was in the first century. I started my message with a couple of examples from the Roman Catholic Church. Tragically, there are Protestant examples of this putting your confidence in heaven in ritual. Let me give you some examples, and these are ones I have faced in my own ministry. Having church membership. There are a lot of people who think, you know, well, I belong to Countryside. I'm a member in good standing. And like, somehow that's going to impress God. Like that's going to be impressive at the day of judgment. Listen, that means nothing to God. Yes, as believers we're commanded not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but that isn't going to contribute to your salvation one bit.

Saying the sinner's prayer is another Protestant ritual. You know, when I was six I repeated after my mom, or I repeated after my dad, or I repeated after somebody else. I've lived like a pagan ever since, I've not lived in obedience to Jesus Christ, but I'm going back to that ritual; that's my hope. Having some spiritual experience. You know, I talk to people often who will go back as, sort of, the turning point in their life, to some mystical experience they had. They saw Jesus or Jesus spoke to them or something happened. Walking an aisle during an emotional invitation. Throwing a stick on the fire at Christian camp. Getting baptized. A lot of people put their confidence, even Protestants, put their confidence in their baptism as though somehow that means that God's going to accept them.

Let me put it as plainly to you as I can. If your confidence of heaven rests on anything you are or anything you have done, then your faith is in the wrong place. It's in a damning place. Rituals cannot save you. Religion cannot save you. Nothing you do can save you. Jesus saves and Him alone. Justification doesn't come through a ritual. It comes through faith in Christ. Look at chapter 3 verse 30, "God will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith." The ritual doesn't matter. It's your faith in Jesus Christ. And here's what's amazing. The spiritual cleansing that circumcision pictured, Christ actually accomplished for us.

Turn the Colossians 2. I love this. Colossians 2 and notice verse 10. Paul has just talked about the fullness of Christ in His person, "the fullness of deity dwells in Him in bodily form," verse 10, "and in Christ you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority." Now notice verse 11, "and in Christ you were also circumcised." You were circumcised if you belong to Christ. In what sense? He says, "with a circumcision made without hands." In other words, it wasn't physical, it wasn't something done to your body. Rather, it was the spiritual reality. It was "the removal of the body of flesh done by Christ Himself." This is the moment of salvation. God gave you a new heart. Christ cleansed you. He gave you a heart to love Him and obey Him and follow Him. That was Christ's doing. Everything that circumcision pictured is a reality in Jesus Christ. That's part of what we celebrate when we celebrate the Lord's Table together.

O Father, we confess to You that we have no hope in ourselves. Lord, our confidence, for most of us in this room, our confidence is not in something we are or in something we have done, but it is completely and totally in Jesus Christ. In His perfect life lived in our place. In His death for us. And in His resurrection which proved Your acceptance of His work. Lord, we are amazed at such grace. Thank You that He gave His life for ours.

Lord, thank You, that You credited our sins to Him. And for those dark hours You treated Him as if He had lived that life of sin that we had lived. Father, we thank You that You have then credited to us who are in Christ, His perfection. That You treat us now and forever as if we had lived those 33 perfect years of obedience to You. What an exchange. Father, we love You and we thank You for Your grace in Christ.

We pray for those who may be here this morning who have never experienced that. Lord, may this be the day when they abandon their hope in anything but Christ and find Him to be enough. We pray in Jesus's name, amen.