Wrath, Judgment, anguish, distress, evil, injustice, condemnation. All words from our passage today.
That sounds very grim doesn’t it? Despite the fact that it is quite difficult to read, we can’t just skip it. The Bible isn’t some sort of pik’n’mix where we can choose just the bits we like.
We need help to grapple with this today – it is tough stuff. Keep your pew bibles open at Romans 2 so you can read the verses as we go and lets pray together as we start.
You will see that the chapter heading is “The Righteous Judgement of God”. What do we understand this judgement to be?
Verses 5-10 mention a Day of Wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed and he will repay everyone according to their deeds, leading to eternal life for some and wrath and fury for others.
Verse 16 says that the Judge will be Jesus Christ and he won’t just judge our deeds but also our secret thoughts.
In verse 19 we see that the whole world will be held accountable to God
And verse 20 says that no human being will be justified by their own deeds.
We might therefore summarise Paul’s main point as being:
That there is a day coming when every one, all of us, will have to account to God for how we have lived our lives and none of us will be found to have been “good enough”.
This dreadful day is mentioned in several other places in the Bible too. We don’t know when it will happen but we do know that it will happen. What do we think “good enough” might look like? Verse 13 talks about being “righteous” in God’s sight and “justified”, both words we don’t use very much. Righteousness is basically about being in a “right” relationship to God; living up to the perfect standards he created us to live.
In the books of Isaiah, Amos and Zechariah, God talks about using a plumb line to judge us – an object suspended from a cord, which shows the true vertical. Any deviation means we are out of plumb, or out of alignment, with Gods perfect will and the biblical term for that is sin. Whether a little out of plumb or a lot, being out of plumb at all means we are not righteous, not good enough.
Our brick and flint wall in Church Lane, Martyr Worthy has been having lots of work done to it because it was leaning and in danger of collapse. Now that it is at last upright it has made it obvious that the church’s wall is leaning too, especially when compared to our very upright wall. It is all too easy to miss the deviation if we don’t know what plumb vertical looks like.
Only one person has ever lived a life that was good enough, and that was Jesus Christ. He lived a life of perfect obedience as a man, despite being tempted in every way just as we are. His righteous life shows up just how crooked and out of plumb mine is.
Lets just pause and think about this. Deep down inside, do we still feel that if we try hard enough we can be good enough to please God and live without marring his perfect creation? We may be people who try very hard to do the right thing, we have been baptised, and we go to church, we pray and read our bibles – isn’t that enough?
The Jews mentioned in this passage thought the fact that they were God’s special race, had his Law and had been circumcised was enough. Paul says no. He points out in verses 12-29 that it is not hearing the Law that counts, it is obeying it, not an external mark such as baptism or circumcision but an internal heart attitude, not being a leader and teacher but practicing what you preach and teach.
Imagine if your obituary was written not just about what you had achieved in life but also about all the secret motives and attitudes of your heart. What if that obituary was published now, before your death not after, as has happened to several people, including George Bush and Steve Jobs. Would you feel a happy glow or a horrible sense of shame and embarrassment?
I wonder if anyone here has ever done that dreaded thing of saying something derogatory about someone else in a group email and then inadvertently pressing “reply to all” and sending it. Most of us have things we hope will never be published for all to see.
Scarily though, every one of us, is going to have to face God and account for every bit of our lives, that done in the open and that hidden inside. Verses 1-3 say that we will have no excuse. It won’t help trying to point out that others are worse than us, passing judgement on them. Judging others just brings more judgement on our heads, because it exposes the pride and self-righteousness in our own hearts.
The words used in this passage are meant to bring to mind a court of law and each of us will have to stand in the dock. Its not a question of am I very guilty or just a bit guilty, a Hitler type or a Mother Teresa. The charge against us, in chapter 3 verse 9, is that every one of us is “under the power of sin”. Its not about doing a few wrong things, it is about having a deadly terminal virus living deep within us which corrupts us and causes us to lean away from God. A bit like having something wrong with the steering on your car and finding it is constantly trying to veer over to the left or the right of the road.
From our position in the dock, how do we feel about our Judge? All this talk of judgement, wrath and fury. Maybe some of us are imagining a stern father figure, or a headmaster, wanting to punish us. Is that the Judge Paul is writing about? Verse 4 talks about the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience, in verse 11 he is fair, he shows no partiality.
It is helpful at this point to remember the wider context; the verses before and after this passage, which act a bit like bookends.
In chapter 1 verse 16 and from verse 21 in chapter 3, Paul explains how God manages to hold together the tension of being both righteous and just and also loving and merciful.
His justice cannot just ignore sin. That would mean blocking his ears to those who cry out for justice from oppression, condoning the terrible things that we humans do to each other and to his creation. But his love holds him back from destroying sin, because when he does so, all those who are under the power of sin, will also be eternally separated from God.
If we take a very quick peak at chapter 3 v.21 and following, God’s amazing answer to the conundrum of holding together his justice and his mercy is revealed. Jesus, the perfect righteous man, steps into the dock in my place, he bears the brunt of God’s wrath against sin on my behalf and in return I receive his righteous status in God’s sight. The verdict is “acquitted” not “condemned”. Justice and mercy are both satisfied.
When I was preparing this and reading the passage, I was very conscious of all the things I have done, said and thought which have been offensive to God and was apologising to him again for my sin. The answer I sensed from him was very simple. “What sin? I see no sin”. I have sinned, lots, but in God’s eyes the blood of Jesus now covers those sins and he remembers them no more (as verses such as Hebrews 10 verse 17 reassure us).
If there is any lurking sense of guilt, or shame, any dark memories, which you can’t wipe clean, don’t leave here carrying them today. Talk to someone here; pray about it with someone you trust, ask God to show you what he has done with your sin.
Many of us, I hope, will at this point be sitting here secure in the knowledge that our sins have been dealt with and we have received eternal life from God. We have tasted the huge relief that brings.
There is still a day coming, for us too, when every one, all of us, will have to account to God for how we have lived our lives.
It may be we think this doesn’t apply to us once we have received God’s salvation, but that’s not what the Bible says.
According to Revelation 20, if we have believed God’s gospel of righteousness by faith in Jesus, our names are already written in his Book of Life, we have been justified, we have received eternal life and we will not be punished. Nothing in earth or heaven can steal that away.
But, we will still have to account for how we have lived and depending on what is revealed we will either suffer loss or be rewarded. In 1 Corinthians 3 verses 13-15, Paul, speaking to believers, says that on that Day our work will be judged by fire and much of it may be burnt up. We will still be saved, but only “as through fire”.
What sort of an engraving on a tombstone would that be? “Nicky was saved but she then invested very little time or energy in God’s kingdom.” What a waste of a redeemed life. What a waste of the pain Jesus endured on my behalf.
Accepting God’s free gift of salvation isn’t therefore just a question of head knowledge. It is a total change of relationship to God, of status, of focus, of priorities, what John 3 describes as being like a new birth.
If our behaviour and heart attitudes don’t change as a result, then we have to question to what extent we really do believe that we have been saved from a terrible judgement. Verses 5-7 of chapter 2, talk about God’s kindness and patience leading us to repentance, a genuine change of heart.
Are we continuing to persevere in our faith? When we fall down, when sin trips us up again, do we get up and keep going? Is living in a right relationship to God the highest priority in our lives? What might that look like for each of us?
To whom or to what will I give the best of my time, my energy, and my passion this week and will it stand the test of fire on that Day? If it won’t, why waste my time?
The other way Paul’s main point here should affect us, is in how we see other people. When I come across people who seem oblivious to the fact that one day they will have to face God themselves, is there anything more I could do to help them to discover how desperate a situation they may be in?
What would it feel like on that day to have our friends turn to us and ask why we didn’t let them know?
Will we be brave enough now to raise this very uncomfortable and counter cultural topic while there is still time?
I mentioned earlier that teachers and preachers have to practice what they preach or they will be guilty of hypocrisy. When did I last talk to someone about God’s wrath against sin and the reality of Judgment Day? Not for ages. Why not? Either I haven’t really believed it is true or I haven’t wanted to risk rejection and embarrassment. Imagine if Jesus had decided the humiliation and shame of the cross was too unbearable? We would still be in the dock with no defence. This is not a game we are playing, it is real.
Think about storm Ciara last weekend and storm Dennis this weekend. That awful weather which has been sweeping through this country and how dark and depressing it has felt. Even our dogs were miserable when John dragged them out for their walks, (where unusually for this valley he didn’t come across any other walkers at all.)
The doctrine of God’s righteous judgement and his wrath against sin is pretty dark and grim too and we may be tempted to do all we can to avoid thinking or speaking about it.
But when we look at it together with the doctrine of God’s gift of salvation by faith, it is as if the sun bursts out from behind the clouds again, as it did early last week, and we realise that all along, even when it felt dark and oppressive, the light of the sun was still there. The blue sky may have been hidden for a while but it never actually ceased to exist. God’s loving grace and mercy are there all the time, and even when we tremble before his judgement seat, we can trust that he will be true to his word and to his character.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ro 2:1–4:13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.