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Rescued From Dangerous Rationalizations

Erwin W. Lutzer | October 9, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

There are three rationalizations that many religious people make that are wrong and that can be disastrous:
•    Because we are blessed, we’re approved by God;
•    If we’re unfaithful it nullifies God’s promises and calls into question His integrity;
•    And lastly, the grace of God nullifies the judgment of God.

Walking us through sections of Romans 2 and 3, Pastor Lutzer expounds on Paul’s response to each of these statements so that we might not live a hypocritical life.

I don’t know a diplomatic way to say it, but I need to say flat out that Jesus hated hypocrisy. If you read Matthew 23, speaking to the religious leaders, we are amazed at the words that come out of Jesus Christ’s lips. He didn’t have these words for the common person and certainly not for those who were in moral failure, but for the religious types–for the folks who were the keepers of the law for the people who should have known better.

What a stinging rebuke He gave them. For example, He said that you are like a cup that is washed on the outside but inside you are full of greed and uncleanness. You go into the cupboard and you see these beautifully washed cups and you think for sure that they are washed but then you look at them before you fill them with water and you realize that they are full of rot. Jesus also said they were like whitewashed tombs. You know, you whitewash the tomb. You paint it. It looks so good but if you go behind the tomb what do you find within it? You find nothing but dead men’s bones and he says all kinds of uncleanness. Just get behind the facade and that’s what you find. And then as if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on to say, “You generation of vipers; you generation of snakes. How do you expect to be kept from the judgment of hell?” Wow! Think of what Jesus said.

You see, the problem with the religious leaders was that they had a persona publicly but inside they didn’t love God with all of their hearts and minds and souls. They sang the right songs. Jesus said, “You honor me with your lips but your hearts are far from me.” Behind and in the inner side of their lives they were into greed and covetousness and self-aggrandizement and the problem was they were hiding all of this under the cloak of religiosity. Of course there is lots of hypocrisy in the world, but the worst kind of hypocrisy is the hypocrisy in the name of God. And that’s what they were guilty of-this outer shell of religiosity, pompous piety, but in the inner core no real commitment and humility and brokenness before God. That’s what their problem was. So today’s topic is hypocrisy, and we are continuing our series in the book of Romans. And there were certain presuppositions, certain beliefs, myths if you please, rationalizations that people of the day were into to kind of justify who they were.

And with that introduction would you take your Bibles, please, and turn to the book of Romans? And it’s very important that you follow along. I need you to see this for yourself so that you don’t only hear it from me but you see it in the text. In context in Romans 1 Paul is talking about the pagans and all of their sins. And the Jewish leaders of the time were saying, “Preach it, Paul. It’s about time somebody told it to them as it should be told.”

In chapter 2 Paul begins with the religious people and says that they are the religious ones. And now the first presupposition, the first rationalization, that I want us to look at is simply this. There were those who said that because we are blessed we, therefore, are approved by God. After all we are the chosen people. We’re the ones who have the revelation of God.

Look at what it says in Romans 2:17. “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law (and well might they because they were given the law) and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent (and they were qualified to do that), because you are instructed from the law, and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth (Wasn’t this a great advantage?)—you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing do you steal? Paul goes on to say that basically here’s the problem. You think that because you have the revelation of God that therefore you have the approval of God, and somehow you can get by without living the revelation that God gave you. Just having it is enough.

And so Paul is trying to warn them very clearly, and he’s saying, “You are a teacher of others but are you a teacher of yourself? What’s going on in the inner part of your being? Are you really living up to what you expect other people to live up to?” There’s nobody as obnoxious as a person who is religious who expects from other people what he himself doesn’t live up to. That kind of judgmentalism God hates. And then in the last part of chapter 2 what Paul is saying is simply this: “You think that because you are circumcised (that you have circumcision) that is a right that shows the fact that you are under the covenant of God. You think that that’s enough for you.”

Well if you read those verses what you’ll discover is that Paul is saying that the real circumcision is the circumcision of the heart, and then Paul has the nerve to go on to say that a person who doesn’t have the right of circumcision but has a heart toward God is better than you who have circumcision but you don’t live up to what it’s supposed to symbolize. Wow!

Let’s apply that to ourselves. You know there are people who say, well, I’m baptized and I participate in the rituals of the church. I take communion. I take mass. I volunteer for the choir. I’m involved in various aspects of Moody Church life–and somehow you think that’s a benefit to you. But God says this: “Without the right heart it isn’t enough to keep you from the fire of hell.” That’s what the Scripture says.

And so the Apostle Paul here is warning tremendously of reliance on any kind of an ordinance or a ritual or some deed that you perform. Let me give you an example–a contrast. In the New Testament you have a man like Gamaliel, and you also have a man like the person who condemned Christ, Caiaphas. Let’s take him. Caiaphas was a man who obviously was circumcised. He was a high priest but he sided with Pilate against Jesus.

And then you have a man in the book of Acts like Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile. He wasn’t circumcised, and yet there he was seeking God, humbling himself, wondering how he could be right with God. Think of the contrast of those two. And what is very clearly said here is that just because you have all the advantages of religion does not mean that you are approved by God. It’s a matter of the heart. As a matter of fact, Paul is going to argue that the fact that you have the revelation of God only puts you under more responsibility because to whom much is given much is required. What a solemn thought.

Maybe I can visualize it this way. Here you have all these people on an island and it is dark at night and they need to get off the island because judgment is coming. And most of the people have wee little pin lights, and just enough to see around themselves. There is no light that can guide them off the island even though there is a bridge that they could escape from but they can’t find it. And then you have a group of people and they have a spotlight that is powerful and it actually shines for a couple hundred yards, and they could point the way for themselves, and they could point the way for others but they don’t. They use the spotlight, and they analyze it, and they spend all of their time talking about it, and how much light and how many batteries it has. And so they miss the bridge, and they don’t give it to anyone else either. That’s the Jewish nation. Yes, they are favored. Yes, they are blessed of God. Yes, they received the revelation of God, but what they did with it was keep it to themselves. They were not a light to the Gentiles. And in their religiosity they missed a personal relationship with Him.

So the first thing that we must recognize is that there is the rationalization that having the truth means that we are approved by God. God says if you have it you have to live it.

There’s a second rationalization. Now if you followed the argument so far, and Paul here is arguing very logically, he is pretending that he is having a discussion here with a rabbi. In chapter 3 it opens with him imagining someone saying, “Well, what advantage then has the Jew? If circumcision is not automatically a proof of God’s blessing, well what’s the advantage, or what value is there in circumcision if it doesn’t save?” Paul answers and says much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. Of course there was an advantage to be the Jew. Or course the Jews received the Law. They are the people of the Covenant, but what we must recognize is that they took it for granted and they missed the heart of it. But yes, there is an advantage, Paul is saying.

And then he goes on to discuss another rationalization and it was this: Well, if some of us have been unfaithful does that reflect unfavorably on God? In other words, if we have been unfaithful in our believing God, does that nullify God’s promises and call into question His integrity? Let me put it that way, and Paul answers that objection now. He says in verse 3, and you can imagine that here’s the question, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.’”

So there’s a second rationalization. If we don’t keep the law, this really proves the unfaithfulness of God. Our unbelief nullifies the promises of God and calls into question His integrity. Paul says, “Absolutely no way!” Whether you believe or you don’t believe, God’s faithfulness and God’s covenant and God’s promises are secure and will be fulfilled.

Well, I’m going to use this opportunity to get in the middle of a controversy that obviously has taken place in Church history and is still very much alive today. And the controversy is simply this: Does God still have a place for Israel for the Jews in His program or did their unbelief and their rejection of Jesus nullify the Covenant? There are many people today who love Jesus Christ very much who say that all of the promises that God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to David now are being fulfilled to us spiritually as the Church. Here at The Moody Church we disagree with that. Let me read you a passage of Scripture from Psalm 89. Psalm 89 faces squarely the question of whether or not what God promised to David. Remember? God said, “David, I’m going to give you a kingdom and I’m going to give you a king who is going to reign over your territory forever.” The question is, is that still true today or isn’t it? Here’s what God says in Psalm 89. “Regarding David I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens. If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, I’ll punish their transgression but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness, nor will I violate my covenant or alter the Word that went forth from my lips. Once I have sworn by my holiness I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever and ever and his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon, it shall be established forever a faithful witness in the skies.”

Could God say it any more clearly? He made promises to the Jewish people and we believe that the fact that the kingdom has been delayed does not mean that the kingdom has been cancelled. It will still happen. And Jesus will still rule on the throne of David in Jerusalem and fulfill the promises that God made to David.

So the Apostle Paul says, “No, actually our unbelief does not nullify God’s promises.” In fact, if you look at the text a little more deeply, what he says actually is, in fact, when we disbelieve God we are calling God a liar, and that can be applied to all of us. If we look at one of the promises in the Bible that applies to us and we say it isn’t true, we are saying that God is a liar, and Paul says, “Rather than us saying that God is a liar, let every man be a liar and let God be truthful.” At the end of the day God’s truth and faithfulness and promises are there for us.

Well, let’s look at another rationalization, and this one, I think, brings it home to all of us. The rationalization is simply this, that the grace of God somehow nullifies the judgment of God. This isn’t even very subtle. It’s here in the text and it is being lived out in our society every day. Look at what it says in Romans 3:5: “If our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? I am speaking in a human way, but by no means, for then how could God judge the world? But if by my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come, as some people slanderously charge us as saying?” Paul doesn’t even answer and he says their condemnation is just.

What’s going on here in the text is this: There are those who say, “Look, if I am unfaithful it only in contrast magnifies the faithfulness of God, so because God is magnified through my unfaithfulness, why should He judge me for my unfaithfulness? And if my sin somehow contributes to his glory and demonstrates his grace, why should I be condemned for my sin?” Paul answers the argument very logically and says, “If your reasoning were correct how then would God judge the world? If the sin of a Jewish person contributes to the glory of God because it demonstrates God’s grace and in contrast shows God’s righteousness – if that happens, Paul says, then that would be true for the Gentiles too. They could argue and the could say, ‘You know my sin only magnifies God’s grace so why should God judge us?’” Paul just says, “God forbid. May it never be that you reason that way.”

You see, we reason that way, don’t we? A college student said to me one time, “Well, if I sin in a big way I can be forgiven in a big way, and I can therefore magnify God’s grace in a big way.” And I said to that, “You do that and God will discipline you in a big way.” That was my answer.

Of course you can’t reason that way. It’s like saying, “Oh, you know John Newton was a sailor and he committed all these sins and actually asked people to think of some sin that he had not committed.” He was afraid that he had missed out on one and in the midst of being part of the slave trade and all of the evil, he gets converted and writes Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound. And how would you like it if a father were to say to your son, “Why don’t you go and commit a lot of evil and then you can be forgiven and you can talk about God’s grace and maybe you’ll even be a hymn writer and write a very famous hymn about grace?” Paul says, “God forbid.”

We do that in human reasoning. We also do that as a society, don’t we? As I was coming into the church this morning I heard on the radio talk about the need for gambling because after all, what we need to do is to raise money for education. And so what we are willing to do is to play to people’s base greed, oftentimes to people who can’t afford it, but in the end we benefit because we need the money for education. Notice what the text says. “Why not do evil that good may come, as some people slanderously charge us with saying,” and Paul says, “Their condemnation is just.”

Oh by the way, politicians sometimes during their campaigns make promises that they know they could never possibly keep. They know it, but they promise it anyway because they think to themselves, “I’m the best candidate to win this election. I’ll do best for the greatest number, and therefore my lie is justified if that’s what it takes to get elected.” God looks down from heaven and says, “Their condemnation is just,” and isn’t it?

The bottom line is this: Sin never, never, never is a good idea. Sin always attracts the attention and the anger of God. God hates sin. Therefore, you can never justify sin for some greater purpose. God may indeed forgive you. He may extend his grace. He might even use that sin, but it can never, never make the sin right. You never make something that is wrong right because God happens to use it for His glory.

Now the bottom line is we’re talking today about hypocrisy, and the whole idea that somehow we can use religion to justify who we are without really being just or right inside. So the question is how do we overcome that hypocrisy? How do we become real people? How do we take off our masks so that the reality of what’s in the cup is somehow demonstrated with the polish that is outside the cup? How do we become authentic in our relationship with God so that we don’t incur the judgment that Jesus talked about when He spoke about hypocrisy?

Well, first of all, I think very obviously, you and I need to face honestly the truth of who we are in God’s presence at the very core of our being. We need to do that. This past week we had a conference here entitled, “To Heal the Heart,” and it had to do with brokenness in our society, helping people overcome their past, trying to figure out who they are in light of abuse and other things that have happened to them, and one of the speakers pointed out very correctly that what we need to do is to take a key and then with the help of Jesus go in and open up all of the doors of our lives, all of the closets that have been sealed shut. We need to be willing to open them.

Truth be told, there are some of you here today, and maybe your wife or maybe your husband doesn’t even really know who you are at the very core of your being because you are unauthentic. You come to church and you sing the songs and you say the prayers and you go through the ritual but basically you are unmoved because you don’t really care whether or not you love God with your heart, mind and soul. Could I encourage you today to let God into all of the closets of your life and finally admit to the bitterness that you won’t give up and to finally admit to the sense of jealousy and anger that you have toward other people? How about walking into that closet and opening it and saying, “Jesus, here it is. I don’t have the power to do anything about it but I am letting you open that part of my life.” How about that part of your life which may be an addiction, something that you are hiding from everyone, and you are hoping also that you are hiding it from God? How about opening that part of your life and saying, “God, I want you to walk into that closet as well?” Become authentic. Become real.

What about that judgmental spirit that you have because you are a religious person and you know an awful lot about religion and therefore you look down on others and you expect higher things of them? You expect higher things of your children than you yourself have lived up to, and yet you do it with such a sense of self-righteousness. My experience is this, that when I deal seriously with the sin in my heart, I find nothing but crushing humility in my soul, and it makes me very careful about judging other people, because after all, we are fellow sinners en route to the heavenly city. Would you do that? Would you simply open your life to Christ and give up the façade and drop the mask?

And then there’s something else you and I need to do and that is to receive God’s grace, but without excuses. By that I mean an excuse means that I accept grace but I say, “Yeah, I plan to commit this sin again but I’ll receive some grace, and again, if I rationalize it and say if I sin in a big way I can be forgiven in a big way, or possibly blaming God for my sin. God, you know how weak I am and therefore it is your fault that I fall into this sin.” Give up all excuses, and you’ll discover that grace is available for the greatest of sinners who opens his or her heart to God’s mercy and God’s love. Grace is there but it does not enter closed doors. You and I must open our lives to receive God’s grace.

In the New Testament there’s an interesting story about a man who was a ruler of the Jews-a Pharisee. His name was Nicodemus, and I suppose in some respects the things that Jesus said about his class probably applied to him. But there was something within him that told him that his heart wasn’t right. So he came to Jesus at a time when it was night because he didn’t want other people to see him, and he said, “You know, we know that you are a teacher come from God,” and Jesus cut right to the quick and said, “Unless you are born again you’ll never enter the kingdom of God.” And so Jesus even said to Nicodemus, “You ought to know this based on the Old Testament.” For example, in places like Ezekiel, God said, “I’m going to give you a new heart, with new aspirations. I’m going to transform the deepest core of your being.” “You should have known that,” Jesus said. But then Jesus said, “Unless you are born of water and of the spirit you can’t enter into the kingdom of God.” The word spirit really is wind. It has nothing to do with baptism. In the Old Testament water and wind were both symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus said, “Unless you are born from above, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And that’s the problem. There were people in that day just as there are people in our day who have never been born from above, and therefore, they use their religion and they have false confidence in that religion, and they forget the fact that unless we have a new heart we can’t enter into the kingdom of God. And only God can create that within us. “And if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation” with new aspirations, new desires and new love for God and new humility that makes you and I, despite our struggles with sin (and we all have them) authentic in our faith–the real deal.

You know that twenty dollars can do all kinds of things. It used to do a lot more than it does today I might say, but it can buy some medicine; it can buy some groceries; it can maybe pay for a parking spot for half an hour if you are in Chicago. Twenty dollars can do an awful lot, but you know that a twenty-dollar bill that does this and this, when it gets to the bank and they hold it to the light, they may discover that it is counterfeit, despite the fact that it has done all that good.

I guess I am ending here with a very pointed question. If God were to hold you to the light, would you be the real deal or counterfeit-the right words, the right church, the right religion, but unauthentic because you were never converted by God? That’s where we are leading to in the book of Romans, and by the way, in the next message, which I sure hope you come to, we are going to finally talk about man’s need and we’re going to expound on what grace means. It’ll boggle your mind. It’s got to come from God. Nobody could make this up.

Would you join me as we pray? And even as we pray would you ask the Holy Spirit to follow through with whatever step of obedience God requests from you? What is it that you need today? What type of honesty do you need so that you are brought into God’s presence? You talk to God right now. Would you please?

Father, I believe that there are some people whom You have prepared for this moment. Some of them are here. Some of them are listening by radio or by the Internet, but You brought them to this moment to show them something, and that is that they have never been born of the Spirit. They have the shell but not the kernel. Would you help them to deal with issues in their lives in honesty in Your presence, in the face of Jesus to receive His grace and His mercy and His forgiveness? I pray that no one someday will stand before you and be found to be counterfeit.

Again I ask all those who are listening to just talk to God if God has talked to you.

Father, fulfill Your will in our lives, we ask, and especially those who have been prepared for this moment. May they respond to you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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