What Are You Saying Paul?

Title: What Are You Saying Paul?

Text: Romans 3:1-8

Time: August 22, 2006

I remember way back in my early days of college, I remember taking a writing class and the teacher saying, “Don’t write just to be understood, write to not be misunderstood.” I’ve always tried to remember that, although I haven’t always been able to speak and write so as to not be misunderstood. The Apostle Paul was someone who has been greatly misunderstood; he was during his lifetime, and he has in history, and he is today. Maybe because he’s trying to communicate spiritual truths — the hardest kind of truth to get across. Or maybe it’s because he’s trying to say a lot of things in just a little space in his letters to the different first century churches. Or maybe because he knew things, God revealed things to him, that he had difficulty communicating or even putting into words. Or maybe because he was trying to talk to many different people all at the same time: the pagan gentiles and the pious Jews of the first century. But whatever the reasons, the Apostle Paul was and still is greatly misunderstood. Another Apostle, Peter, even remarks that he even had difficulty understanding everything Paul was saying. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, he says, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” So even the great disciple Peter admits that Paul sometimes is difficult even for him to understand! If that is true, how much more must we pay close attention in order to understand what Paul is saying. I’ve been teaching out of the early chapters of the Book of Romans, and we now come to the third chapter. It is as if Paul himself wanted to stop and clear up some misunderstandings that might have come up in the first and second chapters of his letter, so he begins chapter three with a series of questions and answers in order to make himself clearly understood – or more precisely, not misunderstood. Looking back on the first two chapters of the Book of Romans, Bible commentators all agree that there probably isn’t a more densely packed section of theology anywhere in all the Bible. Almost every sentence, or even parts of sentences could be preached as an entire sermon. I’ve been teaching through Romans for months, and I’m only on the third chapter, and I could have stopped even more along the way and stretched out the first two chapters not by months but by years! But so as not to lose the forest for the tress, I’ve had to touch on the major themes. It is as if Paul realized that he had covered a lot of ground, so he slows us down in chapter three in order to answer some questions that people might have about what he has just said. I’d like to cover these questions today. There are three main questions Paul raises and then answers, in order to help us understand him better, to understand truth better, to live our lives in the truth of God. Romans 3:1-8 (read). Three things Paul says in order to not be misunderstood.

First, Question: Paul, are you saying that a spiritual background doesn’t count for anything? Answer: No! Romans 3:1-4, “What advantage then is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. So it is written: so that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” In chapter one and two, Paul basically says that simply being a Jew doesn’t give anyone any special spiritual privileges with God as far as salvation goes, because everyone, Jew and Gentile, is a sinner, is headed for judgment, and will be condemned to eternal punishment unless they repent and believe in Jesus Christ. A Jew’s spiritual background will not save him. A Jew’s spiritual history, the law of Moses, the temple, the sacrifices won’t save him. A Jew must come to God on the basis of faith just like the Gentile must come to God on the basis of faith. Nobody keeps the whole law of God. The Jews possess the law of God, but they don’t keep the law of God. The Jews know about the holiness of God, and they know that they are supposed to be holy too, but they fail to live holy lives, so in this sense they are in the same condition as the Gentiles who don’t have the law, don’t know God, and don’t live holy lives either. Now after Paul explains all this, some Jews might be wondering, “Paul, if everything you say is true, are you saying that there is no benefit in coming from a good, spiritual background?” It seemed like Paul was belittling God’s chosen people. It seems like Paul might be belittling any and all spiritual background, or today, a Christian or church background. But that is not what Paul is saying. He then goes on to explain that it’s better to have knowledge than to be ignorant, it’s better to have lots of spiritual opportunities than to be underprivileged. It’s been said today, “It’s better to have something to fall back on, than nothing at all.” Everyone in the United States, in Europe, in Latin America, and other places where Christianity has been established are fortunate if they have had the opportunity to be raised in a church or Christian family or be a part of a Christian culture as a child. Why? Because they have something to fall back on later in life. All they have to do is decide to return to what they already know. People without a spiritual heritage can’t fall back on anything, they have to learn everything from scratch before they can believe. If you were raised with a Christian background, you should thank God because it gives you all the puzzle pieces that can be put together as you get older. Others without such a spiritual heritage must work harder to get the truth. Then another thing Paul says is that even if people with a spiritual heritage aren’t living the faith, that doesn’t mean the faith isn’t true; it’s still truth. What that means is that God can still use unfaithful messengers to pass along a faithful message. I think of many of the liberal mainline denominational churches where pastors don’t even believe much of the historic Christian faith anymore, yet by their reading the Bible and singing the old hymns Christian truth still gets through to people, even if the leaders don’t believe it themselves! That’s what Paul is saying. We can appreciate our Western cultural Christian heritage, our American Christian heritage, our local church and family Christian heritage, even if the messengers are flawed, the message can still get through! So Paul isn’t belittling a spiritual background, he’s just saying that the background alone doesn’t save anyone. Salvation comes through faith alone.

Second, Question: Paul, if what you are saying is true, then isn’t God unjust? Answer: No! Not only was Paul misunderstood as saying that a spiritual background counted for nothing; he was also misunderstood as making God out to be unfair. Both charges are wrong, but that’s what he was accused of saying. Romans 3:5-7, “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 faithfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’” What this misunderstanding says is that according to Paul, God is not fair. Or, if we followed Paul’s teachings we’d have to conclude that God wasn’t being fair. Why did people say that? Because Paul spends a lot of time making people out to be terrible sinners (he’ll do that again in the next section of chapter three) and it bothered people, especially the Jews. So they say to Paul, “Ok, if I’m such a sinner, so bad, so evil, then doesn’t that make God look that much more holy and good? Don’t I make God look good because I’m so bad? If so, if I’m used to make God look good, why would He punish me, as you teach Paul?” And then they state it another way, “Paul, if my lies make God’s truthfulness stand out in contrast, again, isn’t it unfair that God would punish me? Since I’m making God’s truth shine even brighter in contrast to my falsehood, isn’t it wrong for God to condemn me?” Again, the objection is against Paul’s teaching that everyone, Jew and Gentile, is a sinner, is lost, is headed for judgment and condemnation. This made people upset, so they wanted to make Paul’s teaching sound ridiculous. Today, we still have people trying to make Christian truth sound stupid to avoid living it. Some people might say today, “Ok, if God made all things, then he made me. If he made me, then he made me to sin. If he made me to sin, then it’s not fair for him to judge me or condemn me for sin.” It’s the same kind of argument. Another charge against God, that He is unfair, is in respect to pain and suffering in the world. People say, “Why does God make some people suffer, while other people live a good life. He must not be fair.” Or, “if God is God is just, why do babies suffer and die? Why does He let injustices happen in the world? Why did he let 6 millions Jews die in WWII? Where’s the justice in that? It’s not fair that good people often suffer and bad people often get away? God must not be fair.” Now Paul’s answer is interesting because he doesn’t try to defend God; he only says that Judgment Day is coming, and God will judge, and so He has to be fair, or else how could He judge? Now at first when I understood Paul’s answer I thought it wasn’t very good, but the more I think about it, it makes good sense. If you are God and have all power and can do anything, why have a Judgment Day and judge people if you aren’t going to be fair and follow the rules of justice? If you aren’t going to be fair, don’t even have a Judgment Day, don’t even bother judging, just condemn people any way you please. But because God is bothering to have a Judgment Day, that means He’s going by the book, He’s going to be fair, He’ll judge right and just. Or else why have it? That’s Paul’s argument, and it makes great sense. I’ve never heard anyone ever give it before. Today, nations might hold mock trials when they already have the outcome rigged, but that’s only because they want to satisfy public opinion. If they could, they wouldn’t even bother with a trial. But God doesn’t need to satisfy public opinion, and he wouldn’t need to hold a trial for any reason if he were rigging the outcome. The only reason for holding a trial is to show everyone He is fair. Some day we’ll all see how fair and just God is. That’s how Paul answers. But there is one more question people ask.

Third, Question: Paul, if you are right, then it really doesn’t matter how people live does it? Answer: No! Romans 3:8, “Why not say, as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say, ‘Let us do evil that good may result?’ Their condemnation is deserved.” This is probably the biggest accusation against Paul back then, throughout history, and even today. Lots of people misunderstand Paul as to say that because of faith it doesn’t matter how we live our lives. Because we are saved by faith, we can go out and sin and do evil and live bad and break all the laws and commands of God, and since we are saved by faith, it doesn’t matter. The Book of James is included in the Bible probably because it balances Paul’s teaching on faith, so that people don’t get the wrong idea that he teaches that works don’t matter. It is possible to read parts of Paul’s teachings on faith and draw the false conclusion that good works really don’t matter. As a pastor, I’ve actually heard people make the excuse that since it’s by faith we are saved, how we live isn’t important. They usually say this to excuse some sin they are doing, as an excuse. This misunderstanding was a big problem in the early church, so much so that for many years Paul’s teaching on faith was not fully taught because some church leaders thought that people would misunderstand it to mean it didn’t matter how one lived, good or bad. Until the time of the Reformation, both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches downplayed Paul’s teachings on faith out of fear people might misunderstand it to teach lawlessness. But what Paul is saying is that salvation is first about faith, not morality or ethics. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to give us an ethical system to live by; He died to save our souls from our sins, for salvation. The gospel or good news is about salvation primarily, not how to live right. We do live right or better because of salvation, but that’s not the primary point of salvation. The primary point of the gospel is to save me from my sins, to save me from God’s judgment and eternal condemnation, and to make my peace with God. Being a good person is a result of true saving faith, but it isn’t the primary purpose. Now this makes some church people, especially church leaders uneasy because it might give people the impression that once you are saved you can go out and sin and live any old way. But Paul makes it clear that he’s not saying that. In fact, he says that people who think they can disregard morality deserve condemnation, Romans 3:8, “Their condemnation is deserved.” There are always going to be people who twist and distort the truth, but that shouldn’t keep us from teaching the truth. There will always be people who use salvation by faith as an excuse to sin, but that shouldn’t keep us from teaching it, but we should make sure not only that people understand it, but that they also don’t misunderstand it.

Even today, most of what the Apostle Paul teaches about salvation by faith is misunderstood — by church leaders and church people. Billy Graham made his entire career preaching Paul’s message, salvation by faith, to mostly church people who attended his evangelistic crusades. They hadn’t heard the message of salvation by faith before! Or if they had, they really hadn’t HEARD it before. For most of the 1500 years between the life of Paul and the start of the Reformation, the Christian church had misunderstood the teaching of salvation by faith. Huge branches of the Christian church today still misunderstand Paul’s teachings on salvation by faith. Why? Because it comes so close to sounding like once you are saved you can go out and sin and do anything you want because it doesn’t matter; you are saved by faith not works. The truth is, and Paul teaches this later in the Book of Romans, if you are truly saved by faith, you will not take the attitude that now you can go out and sin and live any old way. If you are truly saved by faith your heart is changed to love God; and love doesn’t go out and act in such an irresponsible way. The motivation is different. A new convert doesn’t follow God in order to be saved, he follows God because he is saved. Love for God motivates a new convert or a long-time Christian to follow God’s will. The law and the threat of judgment and the terror of condemnation doesn’t motivate Christian obedience, but love for God does motivate the truly saved Christian. Jesus summed up all the laws with two things: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. He taught, if you do that, you will be obeying every law as a result. So the Christian concentrates on loving God and loving people, instead of focusing on all the many individual laws found in the Bible because he knows that if he is motivated by love for God and his fellow man he will be obeying all the detailed laws as a result. So the Christian ethical system is very simple: love God, love people. Still, people might wonder if it’s that simple, if it really works. The amazing thing is that it works better than anything else in making people good. Can love really take the place of law in making people good in this life? Yes, because the early Christian church proved it. The growing Christian community matched or exceeded the moral standards of the existing Jewish community by following love rather than law, thus proving Paul’s point. Christian morality spread throughout the Roman Empire, raising the moral standards of the known world, not primarily through law but through love, something the dispersed Jewish community could never have done. Yet throughout church history and even today, Paul is still misunderstood, still misinterpreted to say things he never said. But now we know what Paul said and we don’t have to be confused any more. We can see the wisdom of the gospel he preached, we can live out that gospel and spread it far and wide so that others might understand it too.

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