EXPOSING THE DARK SIDE OF RELIGION
God’s Invitation to Grace ❧ Part 14
Romans 2:17-29 ❧ Pastor, Dr. John Denney
Open with me to Romans 2. This morning marks the fourteenth week we’ve been in the book
of Romans. Up to this point, we’ve covered a meager one-and-a-half chapters (48 verses in all). If
you’ve been with us during that time, I think you’d agree Paul’s words have been nothing short of
hard-hitting. He hasn’t pulled any punches; he hasn’t given us an inch. Paul says it like it is and his
words are jarring to the bone. First Paul spoke to the rebellious, those who in open defiance are
doing the very things they know to be wrong before God. Paul reminds them they deserve God’s
severe judgement (1:18-32). Next, he spoke to the respectable, those who believe they are obviously
better than the rebellious since they don’t openly do the same things they do (2:1-16). But Paul
doesn’t cut them any slack either. He says the respectable are just as guilty as the rebellious
because God sees the same work of rebellion in their hearts. But Paul is not finished, not yet. There
is a third person he wants to address. This is probably the most difficult person to reach for Christ –
the religious (2:17-29). These are the folks who believe they are good with God simply because they
are religious. As we’ll see, Paul doesn’t spare them any more than the others. So, in the first two
chapters Paul confronts three specific kinds of people: the rebellious, the respectable, and the
religious, which we’re going look at this morning.
We would be greatly mistaken to think in all of Paul’s blunt confrontation he is being heartless;
nothing more than a ruthless hammer in the hand of God. We’d miss Paul’s whole point if that’s all
we thought. To be sure, Paul is saying some really hard-hitting things. But they are needed things.
His words are a wake-up call intended to jar us awake to see our need for God’s forgiveness. As we’ll
soon see, Paul’s not speaking from a heart of cruelty but of compassion.
As I thought of what Paul is doing in the first two chapters of Romans, I was reminded of a
story my stepfather shared with me years ago. Shortly before WWII ended world heavyweight boxing
champion Joe Lewis, regarded as one of the world’s greatest and most influential boxers, fought
roughly a hundred exhibition matches for the military. One of those matches took place aboard a US
Navy ship with my stepfather who was at the time a golden glove boxer for the Navy. All told, he
went toe-to-toe with Lewis for three solid rounds. My father said those were the toughest rounds he’d
ever fought in his life. It was all he could do just to stay on his feet let alone survive!
As we come to the end of Romans chapter two, I get the feeling many of us feel a little like
we’ve just gone a number of toe-to-toe rounds with the all-time theological heavyweight champion of
the world – the Apostle Paul! Paul punches hard and fast and he doesn’t give an inch!
This morning we’re going to look at Romans 2:17-29. Paul is going to expose the dark side of
religion. Read 2:17-29. Paul is specifically talking about the Jewish religion. But his words apply to
anyone who thinks religion can save them. What Does Being Religious Look Like? Religion
defined: Our attempt to gain God’s acceptance without Christ. Paul is going to point out three
ways we can know we’re being religious: 1) We substitute knowledge for application, 2) We substitute
service for surrender, and 3) We substitute ritual for relationship.
I. We substitute information for transformation. But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon
the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being
instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those
who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the
embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, (Romans 2:17-20). This is the person who feels secure
with God because they know certain things. In this case, Paul says if you ask a Jew who they are,
they will say “I’m a Jew!” This was a Jew’s proud title claim to God. Being a Jew meant you were a
divinely favored decedent of the great patriarch Abraham. As a Jew they believed since God had
privileged the Jews with His Word first, they knew it better than anyone. They prided themselves in
knowing God’s morality; what is right and wrong better than anyone else. They prided themselves in
knowing God’s will where others didn’t. They saw themselves as guides for those groping in the dark.
Therefore, their knowledge of God was superior to that of others.
Paul is saying if you ask a typical Jew of his day, “Are you right with God?” They’d say, “Of
course, I’m a Jew!” The same thing is true today. You might ask someone, “Are you a Christian?”
They’d say, “Of course, I’m Baptist, or an Assembly of God, or a Lutheran, or a Congregationalist.”
Years ago when my younger sister was a little girl she attended a Baptist church. A little girl in front
of her turned around and informed my sister that if she was not a Baptist she was going to hell. That
experience left a sour taste in her mouth that is still there to this day.
The problem for many who say they are religious is they are substituting information for
transformation. There is no real life-change. There some who have a great respect for God’s Word.
They believe it is the inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. They’ll fight tooth and nail for its
veracity – it’s truthfulness. But for all their confident knowledge and all their enthusiasm, they are
living in a false security. Why? Because they believe knowing the facts about God and His Word is
Jesus spoke about this in John 5. The Jews were seeking to silence Jesus by putting Him to
death since He was calling God His Father making Himself equal to God (John 5:18). Jesus told them
because He is God, He has the right to give eternal life, to raise the dead. Final and absolute
judgement rests with Him (John 5:22). In other words, He’s saying if they really believed in God like
they say they do, they would believe in Jesus because God clearly sent Him. Jesus own works prove
it. John’s testimony proved it. God’s Word proved it. But they missed it because they put their trust in
their knowledge about God, not God Himself. One translator captures Jesus words beautifully: You
have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss
the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you,
and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want (John 5:39-40, TM). The Law can
never save anyone. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are a Christian because you know so
much about the Bible, about God, or about Jesus.
Even if you are a Christian, the danger of substituting information for transformation is very
tempting. In a day when many people know little to nothing about the Bible and yet we have five, ten,
twenty translations only an arm’s reach away in our homes, we can begin to think we’re superior
because we know so much more about God than others. After years of studying the Bible in the
original languages, multiple translations, and hundreds of commentaries ranging from the second
century to the twenty-first century and studying more hours than I care to remember, I have to admit it
can be very easy to become prideful. There is nothing wrong with knowledge. Knowledge is not the
problem. It’s what we do with it.
What does God want our knowledge of Him to look like in our lives? Like Jesus. Genuine
application of God’s Word changes us to become more like Christ. God changes us from the inside
out. If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a
noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret
plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t
love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I
could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3,
NLT). Let’s face it, sometimes the most unloving and prideful people are those who claim to be
Christ-followers. The first way Paul exposes the dark side of religion in our lives is we substitute
information for transformation.
II. We substitute service for surrender. you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach
yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not
commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast
in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “the name of God is
blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written (Romans 2:21-24). Paul asks
five convicting questions here. With each question he strips away the outward veneer of their religion
exposing their insincerity toward God. Paul is saying they don’t practice what they preach. They do a
lot of talking. Paul says they teach, they preach, they boast. In other words, Paul says religious
people are full of a lot of hot air! In their mind they are serving God by telling others what He says,
but they’ve not really surrendered their lives to Him. They give lip service, but there is no life service.
Paul notes three specific areas where the Jews were committing spiritual and moral hypocrisy:
stealing, adultery, and robbing temples. All through the Bible you see God calling His people out for
their blatant hypocrisy in these areas. Even though God’s Law clearly taught stealing was wrong,
many were guilty of taking what was not theirs by justifying it through “legal loopholes.” God was
clear as well about adultery, but that didn’t stop many Jewish men from trying to rewrite God’s law.
How do you justify adultery under God’s Law? You rewrite the reasons for divorce so you can get rid
of your wife and marry the woman you want. In Jesus day, the Jews had twisted God’s Word so that
even burning your husband’s toast was grounds for a divorce! They robbed God by withholding part
of their tithes and offerings. They abhorred idols but when it came to stealing them for financial gain
from temples this was okay. God said in Isaiah, These people say they are mine. They honor Me
with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. And their worship of Me is nothing but man-made rules
learned by rote (Isaiah 29:13, NLT).
One of the greatest temptations people give into when it comes to ignoring or twisting God’s
Word is thinking, “Well, it must not be that bad since it seems like everyone is doing it.” Our example
of knowing God goes far deeper than what we say we believe. People are watching how we behave
more than they are listening to what we believe. People know the difference between a life that looks
like it is serving God and one that is truly surrendered to Him.
When I started Bible college years ago, I had just gotten off of active duty and was just starting
to really learn walk with the Lord. Shortly into my first semester or so, I was asked along with another
student to give a brief interview on the radio for the college. One of the instructors had offered to give
us a ride there since he needed to be there as well. By the time we left the college we were running
late. Caught in up in the sense of urgency, the instructor ignored the speed limit. He wasn’t thinking
about being a bad example. He probably thought any dummy knows he shouldn’t do what I’m doing.
But I was watching. Not a word was spoken, but I took it all in. We arrived safely with no sirens or
red and blue lights trailing us. Several months later I was in a hurry, and I remembered how speeding
worked for my instructor. If it worked for him, why not me? Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I saw
red and blue lights flashing behind me. I’d been caught! It’s easy to allow ourselves to believe doing
what we know is wrong because everyone else is doing it – and seem to be getting away with it.
In doing these things, Paul quotes Isaiah saying “the name of God is blasphemed among the
Gentiles because of you,” (Isaiah 52:5). Blasphemy means to bring shame to God’s name. Paul says
because of the way you act, unbelievers are not impressed with your faith. You say you’re serving
God by doing good things. You say you know the Bible. You tell others they shouldn’t steal, commit
adultery. You shouldn’t be stingy with God. But the fact is the way you’re living is turning people
away from God rather than to Him. How many times have you met someone who said, “If being a
Christian means being like that person, forget it!” The second way Paul exposes the dark side of
religion in our lives is we substitute service for surrender.
III. We substitute ritual for relationship. 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. 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? 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 (Romans 2:25-29). The Jews thought they were salvation was
secure through the ritual of circumcision; it would exempt them from God’s wrath. Like service, ritual
emphasizes the physical over the spiritual. There is no real relationship with God. It’s all for looks.
God intended circumcision to be an outward expression of an inward faith. Baptism is a symbol in the
same way. It is an outward ceremony of an inward commitment. Both are like a wedding ring
between God and His people. Paul’s point is that as well-meaning as ritual may be, circumcision nor
baptism, nor any other ritual can take the place of a real relationship with God.
When you think about it, there could not have been anyone more qualified to say this than the
Apostle Paul. If anyone knew how to be religious, it was Paul. Listen to what he says in Philippians 3:
Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be
circumcised to be saved. For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly
circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort,
though I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for
confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am
a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever
was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I
was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law
without fault. I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because
of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of
knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:2-8, NLT).
Probably no one worked harder to impress others by being religious than Paul. But in the end
it only got him empty pride. “Religion,” Paul says, “never saved anyone. It can’t. Religion is a bunch
of empty promises that end in bitter disappointment.” All his life-long efforts to gain God’s acceptance
he saw as worthless, garbage, a waste of time. What is important, what really matters now and for
eternity is our personal faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t until God shattered Paul’s world bringing Paul
to his knees that he finally understood this.
When we understand where Paul came from, who he was, we begin to see why he hits us so
hard with his words. What he tells us may not be easy to hear, but he is saying it in love. He
understands until we are brought to our knees seeing just how bad our sin is we’ll never really
understand God’s forgiving grace.
What Does Being Religious Look Like: 1) We substitute knowledge for application, 2) We
substitute service for surrender, and 3) We substitute ritual for relationship. Religion can’t save you,
only Jesus Christ can. I want to invite you today to give up your religion and accept God’s invitation to
a real relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ.