On Being “Hearers” vs “Doers”

Romans 2:17-24

Here again we see the beloved apostle calling the Jews out for their hypocrisy, for their lack of practice of the faith, and this with such a scathing indictment. It’s important to notice first what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “you who are Jews,” but rather, “you who are called a Jew.” It’s important to note that because it isn’t the nationality of a person that either adds nor subtracts to their favor with the Lord. Had he said, “you who are Jews…” then this indictment would be against the entire nationality of the Jews, instead it is against these who are “called” Jews, who are such in name only. See, the name of Jew was a name much to be revered, the entire Old Testament referred to the nation of Israel, and thus to Jews, as God’s chosen people. Thus, to be called a Jew was a matter of prestige, much as being called Christian has become. He states, “you who are called a Jew…and boast in God;” that is to say that their boast was that they were Jews, and being Jews, they were the most beloved of the Lord, greater than other men and as such worthy of higher praise. Paul here says this very mockingly, since they used this position not to further their own salvation, but rather to look down upon and judge others who were not Jews. Paul’s tone here reminds me of the same tone that he used in his letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote, “You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us…we have been made a spectacle to the world…we are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise…we are weak, but you are strong…you are distinguished, but we are dishonored.” (1 Corinthians 4:8-10). It’s this whole idea that Paul is sarcastically stating that the Corinthians believers know better the teachings of the apostles than the apostles themselves; that they have discovered some formula in the Scripture that ascribes to this heaven on earth state that the Lord has determined, meanwhile the apostles suffer needlessly through persecution and asceticism because they don’t understand the teachings of the Lord.

All of this makes me contemplate things that I’ve heard in our church culture in this generation. I’ve heard, in deference to the former, someone, in response to a pop culture reference, make the statement, “well, I don’t watch that show, because I’m a Christian.” Similarly, Paul is chastising the Jews for making a very similar statement here, “well, I don’t walk more than 300 feet on the Sabbath, because I am of God.” They make these public showings of their piety and self-righteousness, boasting that because they are of God, that they have more right, more blessing, than those who aren’t Jews. To the latter, I’ve heard so many of those same self-righteous ones proclaim that we are supposed to live happy lives here on earth, awash in the blessings and abundance of the Lord, a showering of gifts to make our lives easy and comfortable while we are here. To be ascetic, they claim, is to deny our Lord the opportunity to spoil us while we are here. To be ascetic is to “add works to faith” and thereby detract from the grace of the very Lord who stated that any man who would come after Him must “deny themselves” and warns us not to “store up treasures for ourselves here on earth.” Their very arguments collapse upon themselves when held to the weight of Scripture.

“And know His will.” See, the Jews claimed that because they had received and understood the Law, they were more blessed than any other. And yet, we who have received the Law do have an advantage, but only inasmuch as we obey it, for “it is not hearers of the Law who are just in the Lord but doers of the Law.” See, it is to our advantage to know the Law because through receiving and knowing it, we learn the will of our beloved Lord and know the ways to walk with Him and to please Him. However, it is to our detriment to have received and understood the Law and still choose not to obey it. “And are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those trapped in darkness.” Again, notice his wording here. Not that they are a guide to the blind, but that they are confident that they are such. And because of this unjust confidence, they again boast. They boast that because they are God’s people and have received His Law, that they are able to become these teachers and guides. They elevated themselves, through their own self-righteousness, to this position of being above everyone else, looking down upon the other men. And any who disagreed with them, they considered them to be wrong, to be heretics. Again, I think of our culture here, where we are so confident that we have everything all figured out that anyone who disagrees with us must be wrong. Surely, we have found in Scripture all of these hidden teachings that for thousands of years was missed, and only in the last couple of centuries have we found them. I’ve had someone tell me that “the problem with reading the Church fathers is that their theology was still pretty naive.” Have we grown so wise as to know better how the Church should be than the very men who established it? Have we, two thousand years removed from the advent of our Lord come to understand His teachings better than those who were taught by the very apostles themselves? I believe that there is great wisdom to be gleaned from reading modern theologians, but I would never be so arrogant as to claim that they are more wise than Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, or Timothy, the disciple of the apostle Paul. I find it ironic and sad all at once that so many who will quickly cling to the principles and doctrines given us by Augustine have never yet heard of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine’s teacher.

Paul then goes on to bring to light the very hypocrisy which impedes the teachings of the Jews. During His earthly ministry, our Lord taught us, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what manner you judge, you will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1-2). Similarly, Paul here begins to list the things of the Law that these Jews are boasting in, and pointing out that they themselves are guilty of infractions against this law. “When you teach others, do you not teach yourselves,” he asks of them. Implying that they who claim to know the law, and teach this knowledge of the Law, themselves do not heed the very things that they are teaching.

And, all too often, so many of us allow this same hypocrisy to invade our own ideology. Far too often the one who screams profane and slanderous insults at others in work traffic will sit in self-appointed judgment of the one who views licentiousness on the television. So frequently, the man who is captivated by the physical attractiveness of a waitress at a restaurant will turn around and condemn a man for giving into drug addiction. How many times have we witnessed a poor, hungry, homeless man and forsaken the giving of alms, piously proclaiming that our job is to feed their soul and not body, and then unabashedly condemn a homosexual for their refusal to adhere to God’s Law?

“You have make your claim in the Law, do you dishonor God by breaking the Law?” asks the apostle. This is a twofold indictment against this horrible hypocrisy that the Jews, and so often, we, are guilty of. They who had boasted in their righteousness because of the Law, when they break the Law, dishonor both themselves, through their dishonor of the very Law that they boast in; and dishonor the giver of the Law. See, when we live hypocritically, it is not we ourselves whom we dishonor, it is the name of the Lord Himself. When I accuse someone of going against the words of Holy Scripture by cheating on their spouse, and then I break the very words of Scripture by which I condemn them, I display both my knowledge of the Scripture and my lack of regard for it. And, usually, it is under justification of statements such as, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” That one statement has lead to more hypocrisy and judgment than any other statement that Satan ever managed to sneak into our Church. We feel justified in our judgment of others because we know the Scripture, and thus stand on high gazing down upon these “lowly unbelievers” throwing stone after stone at them, meanwhile ignoring our own shortcomings in the name of grace. And yet, I ask you this; when we judge, based on God’s Law, those who are not of God, and yet we, being children of God, break the same Law, who are we truly dishonoring? Which is more dishonoring? The man having sex with a woman whom he doesn’t know is married, or the man who is married having sex with someone who is not his wife? While they may both be in the wrong, the greater dishonor lies on the man who knows his infidelity and still proceeds.

And the end result of this? Not of discernment, mind you, but of the hypocrisy? Paul sums it up in the most scathing of exhortations against the Jews. Allowing the prophets to bear witness against the Jews, considering their “strict adherence” to the words of the prophets, “The name of the Lord is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Paul quoting from Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:22). He points out to them that through their hypocrisy, they have become the very ones that the prophets warn so strongly against. That, not because of the Gentiles ignorance of the Law, but the Jews refusal to obey it, the name of the Lord Himself is become blasphemed. And how often do we see this in our life? If you ask two hundred non-believers what they think of the Church, one hundred and ninety of them will probably attack the hypocrisy that they see in the Church. They will mention that they constantly see the Church stand in judgment of the world and overlook the sins in the Church. Which is the exact opposite of what the apostle Paul teaches us in his letter to the Corinthians. To the contrary, he teaches us, “what have I to do with judging the world, the Lord will do that. Are we not to judge those in the Church?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And again, “don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). When we allow sin within the Church in the name of grace, but judge the world for it, we show the world that we don’t even believe the Holy Scripture, while demanding that they accept it. We display to them that our laws, given by God, apply to everyone but us, and then wonder why they won’t come to us.

We need to be very careful, my brothers and sisters. When we assume the name of Christian; when we are baptized into the family of Christ, we become “little Christ’s,” Christ formed in us. And thus, every action that we perform is done in His holy name. We love in His name, we help in His name, we give in His name. All that we do is to His glory and honor. Likewise, however, when we sin and perform wickedness, we do that also in His name, and in attaching His name to our sinful deeds, we blaspheme the name of the Lord ourselves. The apostle teaches us that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. Well did he speak when he tells us that we are “Christ’s ambassadors,” His “letter to the world.” While it is of the utmost importance that we be discerning, it is not we who are to judge, but He alone. Should we turn a blind eye to a brother or sister in sin? By no means. However, we must kindly and lovingly rebuke them, for we too may fall into sin, and “with what measure we judge, we too shall be judged.” Our “job” (if you will) is to nurture, to care for, to display the love, grace, and compassion of the Lord for all the world to see; allowing neither judgment nor partiality to interfere with obedience to our Lord’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And, we must be fully vigilant to stray away from the wisdom of the world and the age; the wisdom which is not wisdom, but is rather the spirit of hypocrisy. The spirit which ranks sin as one worse than the other, which if you pay close attention, you will usually find that the ranking system there usually lines up pretty perfectly with your own personal preference. In our own wisdom, we may find that homosexuality is the worst sin, being an “abomination” before the Lord, but infidelity is a moderate sin, flirting a lighter sin, and divorce not a sin at all; and yet each is considered a great sin when we look to Scripture. We must be guarded against this self-righteous self-deceit which tells us that we are more righteous than another because we can say, “I don’t do (insert random sin), I’m a Christian.” This is the exact mindset that Paul is warning us against here with the Jews, the one that states, “I am a Jew, the Lord gave us the Law.”

Lastly, we must be very cautious over something that happens far too often. We must be extremely cautious of this mentality that knowing the commands of the Lord alone is sufficient. This mentality that learning all of the Laws and studying them is substitutionary for actually obeying them. As Paul has warned us, it is not those who know the Law who are made righteous, but those who obey it. Soteriology aside, Teresa of Calcutta knew the Lord’s commands, and spent her entire life obeying them. She spent her entire life dedicated to doing the will of God, to loving her neighbor, and to actively seeking those who needed help. Doubtless, there is in the world a theologian who has a better understanding of the Law of God, who knows more languages, who is more well versed in his understanding of the Law than she could ever have been. Now, I want you to strongly consider this question, meditate on it. In the Gospel account, we learn the story of the good Samaritan. “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:30-37). Now, consider again, Teresa of Calcutta, who spent the majority of her life in the slums feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, providing for the needy. Then, consider our advanced theologian, sitting in a room contriving formulae and cross references to figure out the meaning of Scripture. Which of these two are living the Gospel and obeying the words of Jesus? Which of the two of them is “loving their neighbor as themselves?” To whom is Jesus more likely to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant?” She who spent her life living the Gospel, or he who has studied the law, but never actually put it into practice? The “hearer of the Law” or the “doer of the Law?”

May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.

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