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Rescued From Religious Self-Deception

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 18, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

Religion can enable us to have a false sense of who we are. As a result of the Fall, we’re unable to see our own faults clearly—something that we all need to rectify.

In this message from Romans 2, Pastor Lutzer gives us six assumptions “religious” people tend to make—and why they’re wrong.

Until we are able to see our own hearts with clarity, we can’t truly understand God’s grace. And if you think this is for everyone else, not yourself, then you are deceived.

Lord, have mercy. Let’s pray together.

Lord, have mercy, for we have placed all of our hopes in Thee. For our sin we repent, oh Lord. We believe Your Holy Word. Have mercy, O Lord, we pray, and take all of our sins away. Amen.

We as human beings are very interesting creatures. As a result of the Fall all of us have two maladies. The first is this. We are unable to see our own faults very clearly. We are born to rationalize, to deny, and to tweak to make ourselves look so much better than we really are. You and I can’t really look into our own hearts and know what is there. We have such a filter that we put everything through. Not only is it true that we don’t see our own hearts very clearly at all, but the other malady that we have is we see other people’s faults with a great deal of clarity. And not only that, we tend to blame them for our faults if we (quote) happen to have any.

We see this most clearly in the marriage relationship. Back in the days when I did marriage counseling, I sometimes asked the partners to write out the faults of the other and they were glad to do that. They just wondered whether or not I’d have enough notepaper for them. But then when you turn it around and say, “Now what would your partner say about you and your faults?” well now they are staring at the ceiling and trying to think of something. “Well, maybe on occasion I’ve done thus and so,” and so we are.

Today we are going to take a look into the human heart, and for a while, at least, it’s not going to be a pretty picture when we open that door that many of us who are listening would rather keep closed. But the Bible invites us to look into the human heart, and it does so that we might better understand grace. That’s what the point is. You see, most people know that as Christians Jesus has rescued us, but we don’t know what we’ve been rescued from, and all of the deceptions that lie coiled within our hearts.

Somebody asked me one time, “What’s the difference between a psychoanalyst and a coal miner?” Well the answer is the psychoanalyst goes down deeper, stays down longer and comes up dirtier than the coal miner. And so it is if we are honest.

So as we take this tour of the human heart, it’s going to be uncomfortable at times but let’s accept that uncomfortableness because the intention is to lead us to grace. I’m not going to leave you in despair. The end of the message will indicate grace (the gospel), which is what the book of Romans is all about.

Take your Bibles and turn to chapter 2 of the book of Romans. If you were with us as we spoke about chapter 1, you’ll notice that the Apostle Paul was speaking primarily about the pagans and the sins that they commit. Oh, he talked about such things as homosexuality, adultery, murder, God haters, and he makes a list of 22 different sins (as he gets to the end of the chapter) in which you and I have been involved in one way or another. And now he comes to chapter 2 and he knows that the folks who were reading this were the religious people - the Jewish people of his day, but of course today we are thinking about ourselves as religious people. And so this passage applies to us. But they would say, “Preach it, Paul. We think you’ve got a great sermon. We only wish that you would preach it harder and better because those people need to hear what you’ve got to say.”

Maybe last week there was somebody here like that who said, “Well at last somebody is telling it the way it is about him or her–those people out there.” Paul knows the human heart and so he says, “Okay, what we’re going to do is to look now at the religious heart and all of its deceptions, and its deceptions are more difficult to uncover because religion enables us to have a false sense of who we are. So if you are here today and you are religious (and you wouldn’t be listening if you weren’t), listen carefully because this is about you and it’s about me.

In order to look at this passage, what I’ve done is I’ve isolated six assumptions that we as religious people tend to make, and these assumptions are hidden. It’s not as if, you know, we verbalize them or we think about them and say, “Well, I believe thus and so.” We operate on this basis, and these assumptions are very false, and yet they blind us to our own sins. Let’s go through them quickly.

First of all, there’s the idea that somehow I can condemn others without condemning myself. You see, when the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, oh man, every one of you who judges, for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things, but do you suppose, oh man, you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself that you will escape the judgment of God?”

We assume here that we can judge others and we really don’t have to judge ourselves because we’re not exactly guilty of their sins. We may be guilty of similar sins, but somehow we are exempt. It is the law of the grand exception. We see this in the life of Saul. The Bible says Saul, the Old Testament king, took all of the witches out of the land and yet when he was desperate he went to a witch.

What applies to you doesn’t apply to me. It’s people who live with two different standards: one for you and one for myself. You say that we should not be immoral? Good! Hey, are you immoral? Are you totally pure in thought, word and deed? You say that you shouldn’t steal. Wonderful! Are you dishonest in your business dealings? So what Paul is saying is that if you sit in judgment on others and don’t judge yourself you are deceived. That’s the first assumption that people make.

The second is that God’s kindness and tolerance means God’s approval. God is so good to me. I have health, I have strength, and I have money. In comparison to the other people in the world this must mean that I am really pleasing to God. It may be a deception. Verse 4 says, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness (God’s kindness) is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

You are saying to yourself, “Because I am blessed, somehow I’ve got this corner on God, and so I can cut corners with God. After all, He’s tolerant.” And the Bible says in the book of Ecclesiastes that because God does not execute the sentence against sin immediately people think it’s okay to do wrong. So we think to ourselves, “It must be safe to sin because I’ve been doing it for a while and there’s been no repercussions. I’ve suffered no consequences.” And we think that the goodness and the kindness of God is granting us favor whereas the text says that it should be leading us to repentance. The very fact that you and I are alive today and got up this morning and were able to exist for a couple of hours should be reason for us to fall on our faces and say, “God, why are You so good to me? I don’t deserve this. I really do repent of my ingratitude and my hard impenitent heart that takes all of your blessings for granted as if I deserve them.” Watch that, because Paul says you are actually storing yourself up with wrath for the day of wrath. It’s just like you can make an investment hopefully that will pay dividends in the future in terms of your retirement, so you can make investments in the wrath of God and you are storing it up for a future time because the goodness of God should lead us to kindness and broken hearts, not self-satisfied impenitent hearts.

Now there’s a third assumption that people make and it becomes a little tricky, but it does help us answer questions people are always asking. The third is that God’s justice entails partiality. What’s going on there in the text is this. You see the religious Jews who were reading this were thinking, “We really have an in with God. We have special dibs with the Almighty because we have the Law and the pagans don’t, so we are superior to them. So Paul deals with that attitude, and what he does is he helps us understand the nature of God’s judgment and he says that there are two principles by which God is going to judge the world and one is works. And he’s not going to be partial toward you just because you have special privileges. As a matter of fact, special privileges mean special responsibility. Let’s look at the text.

Verse 6 says, “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” Wow! “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good; the Jew first and also the Greek. For (surprisingly) God shows no partiality.”

Paul is saying here that when it comes to the judgment of God, He will judge everyone in accordance with what they did. The judgment of God will be according to works. That’s why at the Great White Throne Judgment when the unbelievers of all ages gather there at that awesome, unbelievable event, in which there will be no exceptions, no attorney to help make themselves look better, at that moment all of their works, the Bible says, will be judged, and they will be judged in accordance with those works. Those who did well will not be saved but they’ll be much better off than those who did evil, and so works will determine the degree of their punishment.

As Christians we are going to be judged according to our works. The Bible says that at the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ we will give an account for the deeds done in the body whether good or bad. We’re all going to be judged according to our works. Now in the case of Christians, the good news is that those sins will be represented to us as forgiven because that is not a time of condemnation. “There is no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus.” But our lives will be evaluated.

Now what I need to underscore is this: When Paul writes what I just read, he is not speaking about the doctrine of salvation. Later on in chapter 3, verse 20, he’s going to say, “By the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Salvation is not a matter of works. Paul is talking about the principles of judgment. He is not talking about the way of salvation, which he is leading to and explains in chapter 3. But nonetheless we’ll be judged on the basis of our works, number one, and then number two, what about those who don’t have God’s revelation? Well, what you find is this: Paul says there’s a second way that God is going to judge people. Verse 12 says, “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

This is a very important principle. God will judge everyone on the basis of what they did with what they knew. Paul is saying that God isn’t going to say to the pagans, “Now I’m going to judge you because you didn’t have the law.” No! If they didn’t hear of God’s law, His revelation on Sinai, that will not be the standard of judgment. That would be unfair. God is never going to say to somebody, “Well, you know, you never heard about Jesus but I’m going to send you to hell because you didn’t believe on Jesus.” How could that possibly be fair? What Paul is saying is that those who have the law will be judged by it–the higher standard–but those who don’t are going to be judged by natural law by the consciences that they have. Now his or her conscience is going to be showing that everybody violates his conscience. This does not mean that anyone is innocent. It only means that God’s judgment is going to be in accordance with what people did on the basis of what they knew. Salvation will still be through Jesus Christ alone, but Paul is saying that God’s judgment is going to be fair because it will be based on what people knew and the opportunities they had to learn more. Conscience then becomes the standard of judgment.

So remember Paul’s point. Just because you receive the law, just because you have the privilege of knowing that your grandparents were at Mt. Sinai does not give you somehow some special relationship with God where you can avoid the issues of sin and the need of salvation. God’s judgment is impartial in that sense. You can’t look back and say, “Well, look at my pedigree. Look who I am connected with.” That’s not going to work with God.

I remember a man saying, “You know, when I stand before God I’ll have no trouble,” and I said, “Why?” He said, “My brother is a priest, and my sister is a nun.” Well, I’m sorry but that’s not the basis of judgment.

So there’s another assumption that people make that the Apostle Paul gives here, and I’ll go over it quickly, and that is that hearing the law is somehow doing it. You’ll notice is says in verse 13, “For it is not the hearers of the law but the doers who are righteous before God.” Just because you know a lot, just because you’ve studied the Bible, just because you hear, hear, hear, that will not help you. I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you stand before God someday, He will not say, “All right, I’ll welcome you into heaven. Well done, thou good and faithful servant for thou hast listened to 3,214 messages.” That is not the way it’s going to be. It is the doers of the law that are justified.

But now we come to the biggie. All this is prologue. There’s another assumption that people make, and that is that God’s judgment is basically going to be external because after all the text does say that we are going to be judged according to our works. But now are you ready for this? The assumption is that it’s only external but did you notice what I read a moment ago perhaps too quickly and we didn’t get it? You’ll notice that it says in the last part of verse 16, “On that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ,” and I want to say, “Wow!” The secrets of men by Jesus Christ!

All of us to some extent have a false self that we put on in society, in our families, and in our relationships. On the one hand this false self makes us friendly and kind and thoughtful and generous, and we get along well with others. But then, like the moon that has a dark side, there’s another part of us over here and that’s the dark side. That’s the secrets. That’s the place where we put our garbage. That’s the place where we think about such things as deceit and envy and strife. It’s the place where we have judgmental thoughts. Somehow we look down on others. That’s the place where we have thoughts about racism or thoughts about how we are so much better than the people beneath us, and we become so critical of everybody else around us, and we don’t know that the problem is ourselves. That’s the place, you see, where we put all of our shame, and all the things that all of us have done that we don’t want anyone to ever, ever know about. And we guard that place with all that we are worth. And the moment somebody wants to pry into it we are there with a hundred different arguments as to why we did what we did and there it is. Now can you even imagine this-standing say at the Great White Throne judgment and God now takes all of the secrets and finally whom you and I really are is revealed because you are not what you think you are, but what you think–you are. Unbelievable!

A year or two ago I was at a convention where James Woolsey was speaking. James Woolsey at one time was the director of our Central Intelligence Agency, and he was giving an interesting lecture that I may tell you about sometime. But he told this story. He said that when he was the head of the CIA he wanted to attend a football game in California because I think his son was involved. And so his secret service detail told him that he and his wife had to fly on separate planes, etc. and then they put him on a plane in Washington, and of course he had two body guards. And these bodyguards had to declare their weapons, and evidently the stewardesses knew that there were these two officers on board and so they sat at the back of the plane. He sat in the middle with one on one side and the one on the other. He said the one along the aisle was a big African American who sat there with his arms crossed who they called “Rock.” And he said that Rock never laughed at anything, but as the plane was nearing California a flight attendant came and whispered something into his ear, and Rock broke out in convulsive laughter. What she said was, “After 22 years of flying I think you’ve got the best behaved prisoner I’ve ever seen.” (laughter)

Listen, you don’t know who in the world is flying next to you, do you? You really don’t know. Some of you don’t even know whom you married. You married one person and then somebody else showed up. We all look alike.

There were many people who wanted to keep Hitler’s videos with Eva Braun and so forth. They didn’t want them public. It’s because there you see a very human Hitler. I mean, you know, he’s tussling the hair of a child. He’s playing with his dog, Blondie, and they said, “We don’t want people to see him as a human being. We want to keep him as this super evil person.” Well, Solzhenitsyn was right, wasn’t he? He said, “The line between good and evil does not go through the human race. If it did, then we could put all the evil people on one side and all the good people on the other.” He said, “The line between good and evil goes right through every human heart.” Never underestimate your ability to do very terrible things.

And so the Bible says that our secrets will be revealed. Who we are will be exposed in that day. It’s chilling but thankfully there is hope. Stay with me.

And then there is another assumption that people make. It’s that we can teach others but we don’t have to teach ourselves. I won’t go into this in detail, but Paul says for example, “You put yourself up as a teacher.” He says in verse 21, “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that we must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”
There were those, you see, who robbed temples and then they took the idols and they sold them. They said, “Oh, we’d never worship these but we can steal them.” Paul said, “Are you involved in this kind of sin, this kind of deception?”

And so what happens when we live this way? By the way, speaking of this kind of deception, did you see the headline in the Chicago Tribune just a couple of months ago? It said, “Massage Parlor Trial Ends When Masseuse Recognizes Attorney as a Former Client.” Thou sayest that one should not attend these massage parlors that give extra benefits. Do you do it? Oh, the deceit of the human heart! And let’s not point fingers, but realize that we are all this way. We are self-absorbed, filled with self-justification. Self, self, self! And we just don’t see it.

What’s the result of this? Well, the Apostle Paul says a couple of things. Number one, our witness is lost. I am now in verse 24: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Somebody did a survey on why people leave the Church and they discovered that in most instances they left because of some hypocrite in the Church, somebody who offended them, somebody who claimed to be a Christian and did A, B, C, D, E. Well, I have to tell you that for the many people who use that excuse it is an illegitimate excuse, because it’s true that we are still sinners, and it’s true that Christians can do awful things, but if I might humbly confess, the world is certainly no better than we are. There’s a lot of deceit and deception and betrayal out there, but still there are times when God is blasphemed. People say, “Well, they are Christians and look at what they do. Look at the way in which they act. Look at their attitude.” It affects the way in which we witness to the world.

And then Paul says something else. He says, “Your duplicity, your hypocrisy cancels the ordinances, and their value.” You read the next verses and Paul is talking about circumcision because, you see, some of the Jewish people at that time said, “Look, we’re circumcised and therefore there are exceptions for us. We’ve got this covenant with God that we’re depending upon,” and then they lived that way and Paul is saying, “Look, the ordinance itself doesn’t mean anything. It’s the heart that matters.” And so today there are those who say, “Well, you know I’ve been baptized,” or perhaps they think to themselves, “I have had communion,” or the mass or some other ceremony that somehow is going to do it. No, no, no, it won’t do it! God looks at the heart. That’s what’s important.

And then, of course, you also have a very wrong focus, and now I’m at the end of the chapter where it says that the Jew is one who is one inwardly, and he says, “Not by the letter, but his praise is not from man but from God.” How differently we would live if we were less concerned about what people thought about us, less concerned about this false self that all of us live with, and more concerned about reality.

I wish I had brought it with me. I was going to but I forgot it on my desk. Last week in this service there was a person who wrote us a note that was very encouraging. He said that he’s a grad student (he may be here today), and he said that he left and he had to come to grad school here to be at Moody Church, and then he said after being in our Crossroads class I believe, and among us here, “I was blown away by how real Christians could be.” I thought that’s the best compliment we could ever have here at the Moody Church–to be blown away by how real we really are.

None of us is perfect. Don’t do it now, but maybe later look at the person who is sitting next to you and say, “You know that you are imperfect.” (laughter) That’s fine to say that if they say back, “Yes, and you are also very imperfect.”

How do we understand all of this? The book of Romans was written for two purposes really. Number one, it was written to help us understand the depth of our sin, and if you think to yourself that today was a difficult day in terms of exposing our sin, wait till we get to chapter 3. That is going to be something like open-heart surgery without anesthetic. Paul is going to just rip us apart and say, “This is how bad and deceitful you really are.” And he’s not doing it so that we grovel in the dust. He’s doing it so that we understand the Gospel and that we understand the wonder and the beauty of God’s grace.

You see, that’s why Luther said that one must first of all descend into hell before one can get to heaven. If you don’t understand what God saved you out of and how bad off you were without grace, you will never, never understand grace and appreciate grace, and the fact that God rescued us from ourselves and our willing self-deceptions. Now I can’t wait until chapter 3 to give you the Gospel because I can’t leave you where I brought you so I must help you to understand.

How is God’s rescue program working? What is the bottom line here in terms of saving us so that we don’t have to be at the Great White Throne Judgment and have all of our secrets exposed, so that we can be free from condemnation, so that our consciences can be cleansed, so that we can look in the mirror and thank God that we’re not what we used to be, and we aren’t but we’re going to be, but thank God we’re on the way? How does that work? What is God’s redemption program?

Well, to illustrate it I’ll tell you a story. Possibly it is a legend that comes to us from Russia. Here’s the story. Back in those days when there were nomads who were roaming the land there was one chief who was a very kind man, a very just man, and a very strong man, and known for his lack of partiality when it came to justice. The problem was that among the tribe there were thieves. Apparently they thought there was a thief, because there were so many things that were missing. First of all, there was petty theft, and then there was greater theft. So he issued an edict that whoever was doing it would be beaten with ten lashes. And interestingly, even after that warning the thievery continued, and then he said, “Whoever is doing this will be beaten with forty lashes” which was another way of saying, “They will be beaten possibly to death,” because few people could endure forty lashes. And then to the shock of everyone it was determined that the culprit was the chief’s own mother. So now the tribe said, “How’s the chief going to handle this one? Is he going to go with love and exonerate her and forget justice and the edict of forty lashes?” That would have been one possibility. The other possibility was, “Is he really going to sentence his mother to forty lashes so that she (this frail woman) undoubtedly will be killed? Is that what he’s going to do?”

Well, the wise chief decided first of all that he would go with justice and ordered that forty lashes be given to his mother, and then what he did is before the lashes and blows came, he went and he hugged his mother and shielded her and took all forty lashes in her place. That is the Gospel. It is this. God had an attribute of love and God had an attribute of justice, neither of which could be compromised. So the question was in the rescue program how do we do this? Do we go with love or do we go with justice? And the answer was, as the cross showed, God went with both. Justice demanded that we should be lost forever because of our sins, which are much greater than we realize, because God is much holier than we realize. And that’s what justice demanded. But love said, “I want to redeem. I don’t want to have people stand before me and have to give an account and have all of their secrets exposed and then, as a result of that, judgment to be eternally separated from me, so I will take the blow so that I am free to forgive, to redeem, to cleanse.” That is the good news of the book of Romans that God came on a rescue mission to save us from our sins.

I warn you today. Don’t depend on your religiosity. (applause) Yeah! Don’t be judgmental. Don’t think of yourself as superior to anybody. Maybe you haven’t committed the same sins that they have, thanks to God’s grace, but all those seeds are in your heart too, and that’s why the goodness of God and the grace of God should lead all of us, even as believers, to repentance because we realize that, at the end of the day, we are really sinners in need of divine intervention and grace. And God comes in the person of Jesus to redeem us from our sins. He envelops us in His love so that the blows of God’s justice fell on Him, and we are preserved. And that’s why I stand here today and tell you there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. That’s good news for sinners but it’s not automatic. You are not born into it. You must receive Christ as Savior, and as many as those who received Him to those He gives the authority to become God’s children, even to those who believe on His name. We have a great Savior for great sinners, and for that we can rejoice.

Let’s bow together in prayer, and before I actually pray I have to ask you today, do you know for sure that you have trusted Christ as Savior? Have you received Him as your substitute, as your sin bearer, as the one who envelops you and took the blows of God’s judgment on your behalf? Do you have that deep sense of assurance? If not, you’ve probably not believed in Him in a saving way. You are religious obviously, but you are not saved. Why don’t you cry out to the Lord right where you are even as I pray? Say “Lord Jesus, please save me from my sins, and I receive Christ as the one who bore my penalty.”

Father, as we look into our hearts all of us stand condemned. We’re all on equal ground. Forgive us for being blind to our own faults and seeing the faults of others with such clarity. Forgive us, Father, for forgetting that Your standard is inflexible because your holiness is impartial, and help us to rejoice in the rescue mission of Jesus, and to share that Good News with others who need to know that there is a Savior who came on a mission to save us from ourselves. We love Him. Help us to serve Him, we ask. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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