July 23, 2017
QUESTIONS, ANSWERS, AND THE REVELATION OF GOD
(9 of 44 in a series through Romans)
One of my favorite texts of Scripture is Deuteronomy 29:29 where Moses writes, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” One reason that I am drawn so fondly to this text is because as a pastor and as a dad, I often get questions that the Bible doesn’t address at all. And in those moments, I don’t have to stress or fret that I don’t have an answer. Rather, I can say, “That’s a fine question, but God hasn’t revealed anything to us about that, and the secret things belong to him, as he didn’t see fit for us to know them.” But the other reason (and the main reason) I like this text so much is because of the second part of the verse where Moses notes that what God has revealed belongs to us. That is, everything that God has shown us in his Word, he has given us so that we might study it, think about it, and come to an accurate understanding of it. And when we do, it is to provoke worship.
Let me explain to you what I mean. One night a couple of weeks back there was a thunderstorm approaching. Our dear meteorologist brother, Tom Meiners, even tweeted that Jackson was about to get a pretty heavy downpour of rain in about fifteen minutes. So, I decided that I would go out to my garage, raise the door, and watch this unfold. The dark clouds rolled in, and slowly a drop fell to the ground, and then another, and then finally millions of drops of rain were crashing into the ground so that it was hard to hear anything else, and pounds upon pounds of water were running along the ditch in my yard, running down the asphalted road in front of my house, running through the grass (that really needed this rain). And I sat there and marveled at the glory of God. How can you not worship when you see that happen?
But it’s not only creation that should cause us to marvel and worship. Understanding God’s ways and works and the glory of the logic of his plans and purposes should cause us to worship as well. And sometimes we can be a bit resistant to that. Sometimes we don’t get really excited about a text of Scripture where the application is simply to understand, to gain knowledge about what God has done and how he works, and to marvel. There can be a temptation to think that if something is valuable in the Christian life, then it must lead directly to a tangible action. If a text tells you how to parent your children better, that’s obviously valuable. If a text exhorts you to pray more faithfully so that you decide to set your alarm clock the next morning, wake up, and pray, then that is obviously value. But if a text merely provides for your understanding about why God’s plans are wise and good, it can leave us feeling like we’ve been left a bit empty-handed. We’ve simply gained understanding, and what good is that.
But here, I think is the answer. Understanding the ways, plans, purposes, and works of God should cause us to marvel and worship. Just as understanding that your dad disciplined you, even quite painfully, because he loved you and wanted to help train you for your good should cause you to love your dad more, so understanding more about the ways and works of God should cause us to marvel at him more, love him more, and worship him.
And I mention this because our text this morning is a text aimed at understanding. In Romans 3:1-8 Paul gives no instruction for how to be a better husband or wife. He gives no exhortation concerning how we can be better stewards of our resources. He simply answers questions that the unbelieving Jew Paul has been addressing may well ask in light of what Paul has argued to this point in the letter. And they’re questions we obviously need to know the answers to as well simply because God has inspired Paul to ask and answer them. And the things that God has revealed belong to us so that we might know, understand, and love God more.
So this morning what I want to do is to walk through three sets of questions (sometimes Paul asks the same question again in a different way or adds an element to the question he’s already asked through a second or third question), explain the question and why Paul is asking it, and then show and explain Paul’s answer. And my hope is that we will not only gain understanding today of the ways, works, plans, and purposes of our God, but that we will be moved to marvel at, love, and worship him more deeply.
Q. What advantage did the Jew have over a pagan Gentile?
Paul asks this question in verse 1 by asking two questions that are really the same. He writes, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?” (v. 1). Now, you can see why Paul is asking this question in light of what we saw last week in 2:25-29 where Paul argued that at judgment it’s not going to matter whether one was a Jew or circumcised externally. What matters is whether one was a Jew spiritually and had the circumcision of the heart. But that provokes us to ask a question, then, doesn’t it? I mean, does this mean that there is no advantage at all to being a descendant of Abraham, one of those among whom God had revealed himself and dwelt in their presence? Was there no advantage to following the Lord’s prescription of circumcision in light of God’s command in Genesis 17? I mean, if it means nothing at judgment whether one was externally a Jew and circumcised, does that mean that there is no advantage to the Jew over these pagan Gentiles? Does the Jew really have any advantage? And Paul answers, yes. Specifically he argues that the greatest advantage that the Jew had was that he had God’s Word.
A. He had God’s Word.
Paul writes, “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (v. 2). Now, it can feel like Paul may not be thinking clearly because he starts that second sentence with, “To begin with,” and then he only writes one thing, namely, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God, which is to say the OT Scriptures.
But what’s going on is that Paul has a really long answer to the advantages experienced by one who was physically a Jew. In fact, he’ll begin chapter 9 talking about a number of these, noting, for example, that the Jews were given the covenants, the law, promises, prescribed appropriate worship, etc. So, Paul really does mean “to begin with.” He knows many advantages. But it’s as if he introduces this category and then pauses, knowing he’ll get to more to come in a bit, while not getting off topic. That is, he’s saying to the reader, “I want you to know there’s more than I’m listing here, but I’m just going to list this one and stay on this present topic of answering these questions the unbelieving Jew might have in light of what I’ve stated. But don’t worry, I’m letting you know that I know of many other advantages the Jew has, and I’ll get there.”
But the main advantage the Jew has over pagan Gentiles is that he’s exposed to the thirty-nine books that make up our Old Testament. And throughout the OT the gospel is preached. We see, for example, that Abraham believed God and he was counted righteous in Genesis 15:6 so that justification by faith alone is preached in the OT. We see all kinds of types and shadows of Christ’s sacrifice in the sacrificial system. In other words, when all kinds of people all around them didn’t have any Word of God written down in front of them, the Jews had the OT Scriptures, preaching to them their need for Christ and his coming provision again and again and again. They had a tremendous advantage. The problem is that if that Word isn’t met with repentance and faith, then that is a wasted advantage.
And this has a particular application to us, doesn’t it? I’ve mentioned over these past few weeks that children of believing parents in our congregation don’t need to deceive themselves into thinking that they’ll escape God’s judgment just because their parents are believers. It won’t matter one bit on the day of judgment if your parents were the godliest or most godless of people. All that will matter is if your heart was circumcised by the Holy Spirit so that you repented and believed.
But I want to speak to the other side of that now, to both parents and children. Parents, don’t deprive your children of the advantages that are right at their fingertips. Build into their lives a pattern and habit of gathering with the saints with a local congregation with whom you’re in covenant week after week. Allow them to hear the Word of God preached faithfully. One of the reasons that I sat out to make sure that we preached through the whole canon of Scripture in fifteen years (which was really my only goal when I started pastoring) was because I’d been in church my whole life and had heard very little of the Bible taught.
But even if you’ve only been here faithfully for the last 3 years (since July of 2014), you’d have heard exposited 1 Corinthians, Genesis, Haggai, Daniel, Matthew, Isaiah, and the beginning of Romans and Amos. If you expand that back simply three more years, to 2011, you can add to that list Colossians, Proverbs, Titus, Hosea, Lamentations, Mark, Esther, Numbers, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Revelation, Song of Solomon, 2 Peter, Deuteronomy, 1-2 Chronicles, 2 Thessalonians, and a number of Psalms. If you’d just been faithful on Sunday mornings for the last six years, you would have heard these books preached. I want my children to leave my house saying that they have heard the proclamation of the whole counsel of God.
We also offer Sunday school classes each fall and spring at 9:00 AM on Sundays. And our Sunday school curriculum was formed basically by answering the question, “If we only had a few years with someone, what would we want them to know?” Now, I know that 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning is hard. But, brothers and sisters, don’t deprive your children of the advantage that is at their fingertips. Most other things we could be doing on Sunday mornings cannot hold a candle to the benefit of being taught the Word of God. And I am incredibly grateful that my children know far more about the Bible and application of it than I’ve taught them. You all have made an investment in my children that I can never adequately thank you for.
And then, let me address the children as well. Kids, the Lord has been extremely gracious to you all. We don’t get to choose the situation in which we’re born into, but the Lord has shown you great grace in having you as part of a church that is committed to teaching the Scripture and rejoicing in the gospel. We’re not perfect. You know that. Your pastors are as flawed as anyone else, and perhaps more flawed. But God has blessed you to put you among a people who want you to know and love and obey God, understanding that nothing is more important for you than treasuring Jesus Christ, so take full advantage of soaking as much as you can in. Don’t arrive at a point later in life where you feel like you squandered some of the advantages offered you in this community of believers.
The unbelieving Jew has many advantages over the unbelieving pagan, but none are more important than having been exposed to God’s Word. What a blessing that is. Paul then asks and answers more questions, the next is:
Q. If Jews end up being condemned, doesn’t that call into question God’s faithfulness?
Paul writes, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? (v. 3). Let me explain this question a bit. If the unbelieving Jew were to say, “Paul, you bring up a good point. The Jew has been given a number of advantages. God made promises to bless Abraham’s descendants, we had the Scriptures, we had the temple, and on and on. So, if we Jews end up being judged by God as being unfaithful (or faithless—i.e., without faith), then doesn’t that really fall at God’s feet, showing that he’s been unfaithful?” We might imagine, a parent saying, “I want to bless you all as my children,” then the children end up disobeying and getting punished. Doesn’t that call into question the parent’s faithfulness to bless his children? Well, Paul answers:
A. God is always true, and even his judgments are righteous and examples of his faithfulness.
Paul writes, “By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged’” (v. 4).
Paul’s answer is to say the fact that some Jews are unfaithful does not nullify God’s faithfulness. In fact, if everyone is unfaithful, God is still faithful. If everyone is a liar, God is still true. Quoting from Psalm 51, Paul reminds us that God is always justified in his words, and his judgments are always righteous.
You see, God did make promises to Abraham, but those promises also were promises of judgment if Israel was faithless and disobedient. So, when a whole generation of Israelites were being judged in the wilderness, God was showing that he was faithful to his word. And if unbelieving Jews are condemned on the day of judgment, God will simply be shown to be faithful to his Word. That is, God’s judgments, far from questioning his righteousness, actually show us that he is righteous and true to his word.
But there is one more question Paul asks and answers, namely:
Q. But if God’s judgments show he is righteous, then isn’t it wrong for God to judge someone whose sin provided an opportunity for God to show his righteousness?
In other words, if my lie shows God’s truthfulness, then how can I be condemned as a sinner? Let me read it to you exactly as Paul asks it on their behalf: “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way)” (v. 5)? And again in verse 7: “But if through my life God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?”
So, here’s the question. If our sin shows God’s righteousness in judging us, then why would he condemn us for doing something that brings about God showing his righteousness? Or, if by lying, God judges me in showing his glory, then why should I be judged in doing something that causes him to reveal his glory? Now, this of course is stretching things, which is why eventually Paul stops trying to answer all these objections and simply concludes, “Their condemnation is just,” showing us, I think that it’s okay to not answer every question and objection to the faith. But he does gives us some answers, specifically three I want to note:
A. Three answers:
1) That question is nonsensical when speaking about God
Did you notice at the end of asking the question in verse 5, Paul added the parenthetical note, “I speak in a human way”? Why did Paul say that? I think because the question itself can’t really ever be asked of God. For example, if I were to say, “What if a circle had four sides or a bachelor were married?” You would be right to say, “You’re asking questions that are logically senseless.” I think that’s why Paul says that he’s speaking in a human way. After all, it is sensible to ask of any human if he has acted righteously or unrighteously.
But with regard to God it’s like asking, “What if a circle had four sides?” The reason it’s a nonsensical question is because God himself is the standard of righteousness. That is to say, something is right as long as it is in accord with God’s character. Conversely, something is unrighteous or wrong if it is not in accord with God’s character. He is righteousness, and everything we know to be right is right because it is in accord with God’s righteous character. So, to ask if God is unrighteous to do something is itself nonsensical. God cannot but be righteous in all that he does because he himself is righteousness. But that’s not Paul’s only answer. He also notes:
2) If your logic held, then God couldn’t judge the world
Again, as a reminder, the unbelieving Jew’s objection to God judging him is that God can’t condemn him in his sin if his sin shows that God’s judgment is righteous. But Paul answers in verse 6, “By no means! For then how could God judge the world?”
That is, if God couldn’t condemn any sinners because by condemning them he would show that he is righteous, in the very act of condemning them, then that would make it impossible for God to judge the world. But God is going to judge the world, and when he does it, he’ll be righteous doing it. But that doesn’t mean that those whom he is judging will get excused. I am faithful and righteous if I tell my kids that I’ll discipline then if they disobey and then I discipline them. But the fact that their discipline gives an opportunity for me to display that I’m true to my word doesn’t mean that they’ve done something virtuous that excuses them from judgment. Then, I’d never be able to discipline. This is what Paul shows in regards to the Lord. Again, this is a foolish argument, for this logic would mean that God couldn’t judge the world, something that every Jew knows he’s going to do.
Finally, Paul answers,
3) That argument would simply lead to more sin – which is absurd.
Paul writes, “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying? Their condemnation is just.” Again, if it were the case that it was somehow virtuous to provoke God to judgment, then the logic would lead to us doing evil again and again since it would show God’s righteous judgment. But any logic that leads you to do something the Bible condemns is flawed.
This is a good reminder for us in doing theology all together. Brothers and sisters, it is not only important that we learn the theological truths of the Scripture but that we apply them in biblical ways. So, it may well be that you’re understanding a theological truth correctly, but if you’re applying it in such a way as to excuse your sin, you’re not honoring the Lord.
For example, Paul is later going to say that God’s grace abounds to cover our sins. That’s theologically true. But if we use that theological truth to think that we should just sin more and more, then we’re misunderstanding the Scripture. It would be like trying to justify our lack of evangelism by pointing to the truth of election in the Bible. Election is true, but pointing to election to excuse a sin of not evangelizing dishonors the Lord (and misunderstands election!).
So, this morning, we’ve seen Paul answer question after question that the unbelieving Jew might throw at him to push back. And time after time, Paul has answered, ultimately, saying, “Enough is enough. Their condemnation is just.”
What then do we do? Well, we can learn the goodness of answering unbelievers questions if possible? That is good. We can see the need at times of saying, “I’m not going to answer all of your questions.” That will be necessary at times. But ultimately I think we just have another opportunity to know that our God is righteous, true, glorious, and has revealed to us in his Word what we need to know. And it is a glorious privilege to study , think over and understand what God has spoken to us. So, let’s give him thanks now as we come to the table, remembering the one who lived, died, and was raised for us. Amen.