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Sometimes you walk into a conversation where it seems like everyone else understands what’s going on but you. They know the context, but you don’t. That’s what we step into in this part of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. Paul knows the context and so does everyone else there, but we don’t.

However, once we do, we’ll find ourselves.

Romans 2
12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. 
17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark,20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”[b]
25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. 
Romans 3
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” 
But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just! What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless: there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”  18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

As we read through that, it’s easy to think, “What just happened?” To catch us up, here’s the backstory.

Paul is writing to a mixed audience in a mixed environment:

  • Jewish Christians in Rome and an increasing number of Gentiles (non-Jews) were putting their faith in Jesus. This made things complicated.
  • When the Jews became followers of Jesus, they didn’t stop being Jewish. They retained their Jewish cultural and religious identity.
  • Being in Rome, the Christians are surrounded by a culture that is powerfully dominating in every sphere – religion, economics, military might, culturally, socially – and largely counter to the Gospel.

There are two different types of Us and Them. First, the Christians and the world around them, but then the Jewish Christians and the increasing number of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians.

This is a recurring issue in the early church that we see in several places in the New Testament. The Jewish Christians would use their keeping of the Old Testament Law and the symbol of the Old Testament covenant with God as evidence of God’s favoritism toward them – their moral superiority.

Rule Keepers vs. Rule Breakers

The Jews saw themselves as the rule-keepers, and they saw the Gentiles as the rule-breakers. They saw the other people in Rome as a complete lost cause. Their idea was that these people needed to start keeping all the rules if they wanted to be “in,” beginning with a simple surgical procedure for the guys (circumcision).

This is the reason Paul starts by saying, “For God does not show favoritism” and he ends by literally quoting to the Jews from their own songbook that they haven’t earned any brownie points with God.

There’s this thing we do when we’re feeling uncertain of our position in some area of life, we create a pecking order.

  • Who’s better than us that feels like a threat?
  • Who are we better than so we can feel better about ourselves?

But the question we need to ask ourselves is who do you think is really beneath you?

 This doesn’t mean someone you hate, but someone you know you’re a little better than. And be honest. Which person? Which group of people? It might be based on financial prominence, intelligence, talent, social behavior, morals, or spirituality.

What if God doesn’t see them the way you see them? And what if God doesn’t see you as you want Him to?

On the other hand, the Gentiles didn’t see any point in trying to keep the law. They believed that since they were saved and free in Christ, they could live it up because they were covered by grace. This is one of the main reasons Paul warned everyone about being “given over” to the rule and the effects of sin in Romans 1.

Jesus also dispels this idea when He says in Matthew 5, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” The law still matters because it does something, even if it’s not what we think.

So, in the passage, the two groups are primarily defined by their relationship to the rules. Rule Keepers and Rule Breakers.

We all fall into one of these two categories in our everyday lives. Some of us naturally try to figure out where the boundaries are in life, and as we get close to them, we bend them or go around them. Those are the rule breakers. The line is more of a suggestion.

And then there’s the rule keepers. We try to figure out the rules so that we stay inside the lines. It’s nerve-wracking for us when we don’t know what the rules are or when we break one.

Rule keepers elevate themselves at the expense of rule breakers. And if the rule breakers aren’t getting what they deserve, it really bothers the rule keepers. Think about the person who speeds ahead of you to merge into your lane at the last second.

And what’s really interesting…. The act of rule-breaking and rule-keeping are not opposites. Instead, they’re different versions of the same thing. Both are attempts to justify ourselves, by the law (rules) or apart from the law.

Many people who become Christians are saved from rule-breaking, but to rule-keeping. We need to be saved from both to the Gospel – the love of God through Jesus. And the truth is that we can never keep all the rules. So, we pretend like we can.

We sometimes fixate on how people should act and can’t even keep our own rules. Sometimes, we change the rules to fit us better or highlight the ones that affect us the least and others the most.

And sometimes we point out the rule-breaking of others, the people who sin differently than we do, so that ours won’t be noticed. 

 And that’s exhausting.

When it comes to our relationship with God, we don’t so much have a relationship with God as we do a relationship with the rules. We value the Bible, but that’s not the relationship.

The longer you’re at this, the fewer rule breakers and the more rule keepers there are. We presume our position before God by our perception of our goodness, not by the saving work of Jesus Christ.

It’s a relationship, but the wrong relationship with the wrong thing.

  1. Rule breakers usually know they are; however, rule keepers often don’t know that they’ve left the love of their father.
  2. They’re relying on the illusion of their morality to carry them on.
  3. It’s driving you away from His love, from being His child.
  4. It drives you toward entitlement and resentment.
  5. It drives you away from the right relationship with others – seeing the other people around you on level ground before the foot of the cross. You see them as less deserving.

That’s what the world experiences from us too often. Ask a non-religious person to tell you stories about “angry, judgmental, hypocritical Christians,” and it’ll be easy for them. Verse 24 says, “God’s name is blasphemed among Gentiles because of you.”

This means God gets a terrible rap with outsiders because of this game you’re playing that you think you’re good at but really bad at.

It’s because we’ve missed what our relationship with our heavenly father is actually about. And we’re effectively inviting others to rule-keeping. Not to Jesus.

There IS something the law does if we let it – it reminds us of our inability to justify ourselves by our performance.

Romans 3
20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

That shouldn’t drive us to condemnation, but it should drive us to the foot of the cross. Our offense hadn’t been ignored, but we got what we didn’t deserve. We didn’t stay because we did all the work. But we were happy to do it because we could stay.

But when it comes to God, we must ask ourselves, are we a rule breaker or a rule keeper? Which identity have we been holding onto that we feel bolsters our credibility? What makes us more acceptable, valuable, or lovable?

Wrestle with this. What if you laid that relationship with the rules down to receive the relationship Jesus offers you?

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