The Way It Really is, and It Ain’t Pretty!

Title: The Way It Really is, and It Ain’t Pretty!

Text: Romans 3:9-20

Every year thousands of new military recruits head off to what is known as “boot camp” in order to be broken down and then rebuilt by the U.S. military into a lean, mean, fighting machine. Most of these new recruits head into boot camp as overconfident, arrogant, and cocky young Americans, but by the time they leave, if they make it through, they are trained warriors. The key to the whole boot camp experience is in the psychological process of first breaking each person’s natural individual self-pride and then rebuilding that self-worth in a way in which the military can use to produce a disciplined soldier. Typically, each new recruit enters the military with their own unique individualistic ego, but that ego is soon assaulted from every angle by the training process, starting first by making everyone the same and no one special. By giving everyone the same haircut and same clothes, by making everyone live the same way, do the same things, and get treated the same; the recruits are made to feel they are nothing special. For those who resist this humiliating process and still try to maintain their importance or specialness, the drill sergeant gives special attention in humiliating and degrading them until they join the others in seeing themselves as “equally worthless.” Once everyone in the group has been stripped of all self-importance, then and only then the training shifts to building up each recruit into a disciplined soldier. This is the typical training process used by all branches of the military to this day. Now what is interesting is that this is exactly the process the Apostle Paul uses in Romans 3:9-20 to prepare people to receive the gospel! He describes how we all come to God with our own over-inflated self-egos, how we all approach God as if we are pretty good people, not perfect, but acceptable. That will never do — at least if we ever have hopes of approaching and being accepted by God. So Paul then begins the “boot camp” training process by showing us our real spiritual condition before God. In some of the harshest language ever used to describe mankind, Paul utterly demolishes any human goodness in us as individuals. By the time we are done with Paul’s “tough love” evaluation of each of us, we feel totally broken and helpless before the holiness of God. Then, and only then, does Paul rebuild us through the process of faith. We are stripped of all our self-righteous pride and then equipped with the righteousness of Christ that comes through faith. I don’t know if anyone has ever likened the Apostle Paul to a boot camp drill sergeant before but the parallel is valid in this instance. If we take seriously what the Apostle is saying about our unworthiness and pitiful spiritual state, if we examine our own heart and see ourselves for what we really are — how bad we really are compared to a Holy God, then we will be broken. But that is exactly what is necessary for us to get to the point where we see our need for faith. We have to see that our own pitiful goodness counts for nothing, and that only by grace through faith can we be made righteous or acceptable before God. So let’s head into Paul’s spiritual boot camp and see where it takes us. Romans 3:9-20 (read).

First, Paul asks, “So you think you’re special?” Romans 3:9, ” What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” It’s natural for humans to compare themselves with each other. The Jews were especially good at comparing themselves to the gentiles. Why? Because it made them feel good, feel superior, because of the moral mess the Gentiles were living. When Paul described the gentiles unfavorably in the first chapter of Romans, the Jews could say “Amen” after every statement. The Jews saw themselves as superior to the pagans, especially since God had given them the law and the temple. But on the other hand, the Gentiles, especially the Romans, saw themselves as superior to the Jews. After all, the Romans were in charge of the world, including the Jews. Also, wasn’t Rome the most advanced city in the whole world? Hadn’t Roman culture borrowed from the best of Greek civilization? The Greeks also had a cultural pride about them as well. So we see all peoples of all nations carried with them a natural pride, Jews and Gentiles alike. Today, we are not that much different than these ancient peoples. We Americans see ourselves as special don’t we? But if you were to go over to China or Japan or most any nation, the people there would probably see themselves as better than others too. And it doesn’t stop at the national pride level, we all see ourselves as special as individuals too. We compare ourselves with other people, especially when it puts us in a favorable light. I’m amazed at how the language of pop psychology has taken over in our modern culture in respect to our own individual ego needs. Everyone seems to be talking about their self-esteem these days. People do things that will help their self-esteem, and avoid other things that might hurt their self-esteem. This focus on self, and personal self-esteem, and self-confidence, and ego, and self shows us that we generally think of ourselves as special, probably more so than any age ever has before us. We like to think of ourselves as righteous, we are right, while the bad people, the unrighteous – the terrorists of our day, they are the ones that deserve God’s judgment. In the United States we might even point out that we are most blessed of all nations of the world, we are the most prosperous — that must mean that we are special, or even righteous in the eyes of God. Why else are we so blessed? We can all come up with arguments to prove to ourselves that we are special, righteous, and acceptable before God. We can all compare ourselves with bad people and convince ourselves that we are good. The Jews back in Paul’s day had no problem justifying themselves before God. The only problem was that they were fooling themselves, as we fool ourselves today in trying to justify ourselves before God. Paul is about to demonstrate that everyone is in the same condition before God – guilty. We may think we are special in God’s eyes, but the truth is, all of our self-justification before God won’t work. Everyone is guilty, Jew and Gentile, you and me. Nobody is in a privileged position with God, no matter what they’ve done or what is their background. We’ve just entered boot camp and Paul is about to wipe the silly grin off our face! Next.

Second, Paul says, “Here’s the truth about you, it’s gonna hurt!” What we hear from Paul is hardly ever heard today in our day and age. We live in an arrogant, prideful, vainglorious age where the only thing you’ll ever hear is how great you are. I remember a commercial on television where the woman says about a certain shampoo, “It costs more, but I’m worth it.” That commercial tells listeners, “It’s all about you.” Marketing research shows that people want to feel good about themselves, it sells products, so we receive a steady diet of flatteries, ego-inflating messages telling us how great we are. That’s not what you hear from the Apostle Paul. He’s not selling anything; he’s trying to speak truth. Let’s listen and search our souls and examine ourselves. Romans 3:10-18:

(10) There is no one righteous, not even one. You may see yourself as a good person, but you are not righteous by the standards God measures righteousness. Very rarely do we ever examine ourselves closely. Very rarely do we check our motives very deeply; it’s just too painful, dark and scary. A few individuals have dared to do it. Martin Luther did, John Wesley did, and others have. What you find when you search your soul too closely is that you are worse than you thought inside; your sin goes deeper than you thought, and that the darkness is darker than you care to admit. The Apostle Paul certainly searched his soul and exclaimed, “Of sinners, I am the chief.” I’m amazed and surprised by my own inner sinfulness when I discover things about myself. Most of the time we see ourselves and other people superficially, but there’s a lot of stuff under the surface that scares us; that’s why we find it difficult to examine our hearts. We are afraid of what we might find there.

(11) There is no one who understands, no on who seeks God. What we calling seeking God is really like a mouse seeking a cat. We think if we show any interest in God, if we act with the slightest bit of curiosity about spiritual things, we are seeking God. Wrong. Most of the time we are running to seek our own will and way regardless of what God wants. We can’t honestly and sincerely say we seek God, when most of the time we are self-seeking.

(12) All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Isaiah the prophet puts it this way: “We all like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way.” When we measure standards of goodness, we always compare people with other people because that shows that some people are better than other people, some more good than other people. But that’s not how God sees from heaven. He measures us against His own perfect righteous standard, which is the true standard of good. Measured that way, it’s true, nobody truly does good. Against God’s standard even Mother Theresa wasn’t good, or any so-called saint. And if they aren’t truly good in the strict sense, where does that leave you or me?

(13) Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. You may not know it or think about it, but if a strict standard of honesty were used to compare all your speech all day long, you’d be found to be a liar, probably every day. Think about it. Do you always speak the truth, at all times, in every way, with perfect precision? Paul says, “Their tongues practice deceit.” He’s talking about you and me too, because he’s talking about God’s standard of honesty, not man’s. We are happy when people are more or less honest with us, and we try to be more or less honest with them. But if all our speech were measured against perfect honesty we’d be shocked to find out how big a liars we really are. Try it if you dare. Grade your statements and talk strictly and see if Paul isn’t truthful in his charge against you.

(14) Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Do you ever curse, if not out loud, under your breath? How about in your thoughts? A nasty thought is a curse of the mind.
Are you ever bitter at something, at someone?

(15) Their feet are swift to shed blood. Ever try to retaliate against someone? Oh you may not take it as far as violence, but have you ever been “out for blood” as the expression goes, that is, out to get someone, to get someone back for something they said or did? Or what about literally shedding blood? Did you know that if you are quick to vote for warfare to solve problems in our world, you are swift to shed blood? Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” There’s a time and place for war, as Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is season and a time under heaven,” but if you think the best policy is to shoot first, ask questions later, you are quick to shed blood. That’s wrong. We need to check our hearts.

(16) Ruin and misery mark their ways. That’s a description of human history. Think about the expansion of civilization. Think about when the New World was discovered. Think about the Conquistadors in Latin America. Ever seen the movie The Mission? The Indians in Latin America didn’t stand a chance. “Ruin and misery mark their ways” is a good description of human progress. But you may say, “That’s not me.” What about our own country? Look at all the wars that have been fought just on this land. We fought the Indians. Then we fought the British. Then we fought each other in the Civil War. Think about it from the animals’ perspectives that were here on the continent when they saw the first explorers’ boats landing on the shores of America. They must have thought, “There goes the neighborhood.” It’s true. We are part of it; we are part of the human race with its original sin from our original parents Adam and Eve. Everywhere we go we bring ruin. It’s sad but we know it’s true.

(17) And the way of peace they do not know. Wherever civilization has gone it has brought fighting and wars. But it’s not just between nations, it’s between people. Why are there so many divorces? People can’t get along, can’t live in peace with each other. Why do churches split apart? People aren’t willing to live in peace. Are you easy to get along with? Do you cause problems for yourself and others? Are you irritable? Do you walk around with an attitude? Do you have your moods? We all struggle with being peaceful because we all have it within ourselves to be selfish, prideful, greedy, etc. We don’t like to see these things in other people, but we must admit they are in us too.

(18) There is no fear of God before their eyes. How much are we conscious of pleasing God today? Generally speaking, our society has all but lost any awareness of God; there is no fear of God among people today. But what about ourselves? Are we consciously aware of the “there-ness” of God in everyday life? Do we have great respect and reverence for God? Or do we exhibit great disrespect for Him? God’s Word the Bible is available to read, do we read it, do we take it seriously out of respect for God? What about prayer? Do we show God reverence by daily prayer, respect with daily praise? Or do we disrespect God by going days without consciously acknowledging Him in these ways? Are we obedient to God, not just outwardly but inwardly, not just publicly but privately? There are many subtle ways to disrespect God. Do we? If we examine our hearts closely we probably find we disrespect God more than we show respect for Him. Paul mercifully only quotes these few verses because the charges against us could go on and on. Are you by now feeling bad? If so, that’s exactly where Paul wants us. It’s all part of his boot camp.

Third, Paul says, “Now how’s your self-esteem?” Romans 3:19-20, “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. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” The key phrase in this verse is: “so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” That’s the whole point: everybody is a sinner, everybody deserves condemnation before God. Nobody is righteous; nobody will escape judgment. Left to ourselves, we are all ruined. Nobody can boast, nobody can brag. In fact, nobody can feel good about themselves. People today have this idea that they have a right to feel good about themselves all the time. That’s totally false. If we see ourselves the way God sees us we will feel bad; we are supposed to feel bad. That bad feeling is supposed to humble us, actually humiliate us before God. Try as hard as we can, we will fail to live up to God’s law. Although the Jews had the laws of God, no Jew ever fully kept the laws of God. Anybody who has ever seriously tried to keep the law of God will experience utter failure and frustration, and humility. That’s part of boot camp, feeling like a failure, that’s the purpose of the law, to make us feel like failures and to humble us of all self-pride. Romans 3:20 says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law, rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” The law doesn’t help us succeed, it helps us fail, or helps us to see our failure. It crushes our natural human self-pride, it strips us of all self-confidence, it humiliates us before God. Have you been humiliated by the law of God? Has your self-pride ever been crushed by your own failure to perform even the basic, general commands of God? Have you ever admitted to yourself, God and others, that according to the law of God you are guilty and deserving of eternal condemnation? Have you confessed that by God’s standards you are a moral failure? Paul is trying to get Jews, Gentiles, you and me, to a place where we are stripped of all self-confidence, all self-sufficiency, all self-assurance. Are you there yet? It’s part of Paul’s boot camp. We have to hit the wall of self-sufficiency before we can go any further toward God. Once we realize that we can’t go forward by our own self-effort, we can turn to God with the empty arms of faith and cry out, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” That’s what saves us, raw faith, nothing else. But we don’t get to the point of faith unless we’ve exhausted all self-effort, and recognize that left to ourselves we aren’t going anywhere but down, eternally down. “Lord Jesus, save me a sinner from the judgment due me, and save me from the condemnation due me for my sins. Your death on the cross, your blood sacrificed for me in my place, let it wash my sins away. Forgive me my sins, I confess them all to you, and repent of them all. Save me to eternal life. Restore favor towards me. Guide and direct my life every day, and when I die take me into heaven with you. Amen.”

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