This is such a vital passage to this letter to the Church which is in Rome. Bearing in mind that Paul has been addressing the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of those who are called Jew, he here goes through a list of Old Testament indictments against Israel, quoting from Psalms, from Ecclesiastes, from Isaiah. In so doing, he removes from the Jews the very grounds of the self-righteousness that they had trumpeted and instead rightfully places the emphasis on the righteous that is of the Lord.
This passage,. with it’s many Old Testament indictments against a particular nation, in no way claims that our very nature is wicked, as so many teach that it does. In a bitter twist of irony, many who interpret away so many other passages, when they arrive to this, take it completely literally, and use it as the grounds to display the depravity of all of mankind. Whence we read passages like “deny yourselves, pick up your cross and follow Me,” or a passage like “whatever you have done to the least of these, so you do to Me,” or “you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” we tend to interpret these very meanings to mean something completely different than what was stated, but when we read Paul’s quotes here, we take it to mean literally that “no one is good,” and that “no one seeks after God,” rather than recognizing in their context what these quotes would mean to the Jews that he is confronting through his epistle. God Himself creates nothing which is not inherently good, and since it is He who forms us in the womb, then we, by nature, must also be inherently good. We are merely born into a world which influences us to wickedness, and, in our own weakness, we can oftentimes surrender to this wickedness and seek to “gratify the pleasures of the flesh.” See, as Paul taught, while it is possible to attain to the “righteousness of God,” it is possible to do so only through the power of God, through His mercy and grace.
The Jews, however, claimed that through the Law and through their sheer physical lineage, they were made righteous. Paul however, evoking David, Solomon, and Isaiah as his witnesses, displays instead where the Jews had fallen short, not only in contemporary times, but all throughout history. In doing so, he displays to the Jews that they are no more righteous than the Gentiles, in fact, to the opposite, they are even more guilty because of their knowledge of the Law.
He goes on to explain that, through the Law, which is now given to all men (written on the hearts of all men), sin is revealed, and that because of this fact, all of the world is now accountable for their sin; not merely Jews, neither Gentiles, but rather, all are equally accountable. However, it is not merely for the sake of accusing that he does this, but rather, to pave the way for any to come to the faith. Both Jews and Gentiles are equally accountable, and both are equally able to be saved. There is no one elect group that the Lord favors over any other, but rather, any and all who are obedient to Him and have faith in Him. See, he recognized that not only would the Jews actually drive away others who may otherwise come to faith in our beloved Lord, but that they themselves would drink condemnation on themselves, regardless of any other sins that they had committed or not committed, because of the very pride and arrogance that they were guilty of. He will reiterate this fact later when he states that the Jews, “being arrogant of God’s righteousness and seeking their own righteousness, [they] have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:3).
Thus here, he uses the very foundation of this self-righteousness, the prophets and the Law, to display to them that in trusting in the flesh (the Law), they could never attain to the righteousness that they boasted in. His desire was obviously to break them of their prideful self-righteousness that they might instead seek after the righteousness of God.
He ends this passage by stating that “by deeds of the law, no flesh will ever be justified in His sight.” See, the Law, rooted in the flesh, can never bring anyone into full communion with the Lord. The purpose of the Law was never to do this, neither did it have the power to do so. Rather, the purpose of the Law was to reveal to us the knowledge of sin, that we would flee from it in repentance. So many look upon the Holy Scripture as this rule book, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” and yet, the Bible is not the foundation of our faith. The foundation of our faith is the Lord Jesus. We see this displayed all throughout Church history. The purpose for which the Law was given to us was that our offenses would be revealed to us that we might turn to Him in repentance, to draw us closer to the Lord Himself. So many treat the Scriptures as though they are our faith, as though the Holy Trinity were “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” And yet, the purpose for which the Bible was given to us was to draw us closer to the Lord, to give us His words that we might test that which we are taught to see if it is of God or not. To “test every spirit.” It was given to us that we might turn away from our ways and turn unto the Lord, seeking His continued guidance and the conviction of the Holy Spirit to turn fully away from the desires of the flesh, and through His wisdom and guidance, through His grace, to attain to the righteousness of God. To be “holy, as He is holy.” To be “perfect, as Your heavenly Father is perfect,” and to truly be “partakers of the divine nature.” Ultimately, the goal is to become through His grace what He is through His essence, through His divine nature. While we can never share in His nature through our essence, we, through His grace, are adopted to become sons and daughters of God.
My brothers and sisters, we must always be diligent to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” The call to be His disciples requires strict obedience to His law, but it is only through our faith in His grace and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we will ever experience this obedience. Only through His grace will we ever be able to obtain the righteousness that He promises, the freedom that He describes. Obedience to the Law in absentia of faith in Jesus breeds human legalism, with checklists to follow and rules to obey, but no spiritual growth. To mistake knowledge for maturity is such a common error in our way of thinking, I can know all of Scripture, but that knowledge means nothing without the experience of communion with the Lord. And that knowledge alone will never have the power unto salvation. Likewise, however, belief without obedience will also never lead to the kingdom. Numerous times throughout Scripture we are admonished to evaluate ourselves, to see that we are in the faith. How can we ever do that if we know not what the Scriptures do reveal, and how can we hope to attain to the kingdom if we are disobedient to the Master of the kingdom? The Lord, it is written, will “by no means clear the guilty.”
True faith, the faith whose cost we are admonished to count, is faith that is all encompassing, it is the faith that requires that we literally (not metaphorically) die to this image of who we consider ourselves to be and are reborn in the Spirit, the image of Christ within us. Through the sacrament of baptism we are buried with Christ in the tomb, and are reborn in His image when we emerge from the waters, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the faith that causes us to choose to do the work of Christ, to choose obedience to Christ, to choose that it no longer be “I who live, but Christ who lives through me.” To become “co-workers with God;” through His grace. It is the faith that says, “your body is no longer yours, for you were bought with a price.”
There are two powers alone at work in the world, my beloved brothers and sisters. There is the power of Christ, and the power of Satan. And we, my dear family, must choose to which of the two we shall swear our allegiance. To obey the one is to deny the other, as Jesus told us, “you can not serve two masters, for you will love the one and hate the other.” To obey Christ is to stand in direct opposition to Satan, and to obey Satan is to directly oppose Christ. Whom shall we obey?
My brothers and sisters, I pray that each of us will receive the wisdom to discern this truth from the Holy Scripture. That each of us would fully turn away from the world and instead embrace the One who is truly able to heal us, to save us; to rescue us from the temptation of the flesh to attempt to distill the Holy Scriptures down to merely a “spiritual rule book,” and instead understand that the purpose for which we received the Scripture was to better understand what the Lord requires of us when we commit our lives fully unto Christ our Lord. Our calling is not “obey and you can be saved,” but rather, “be saved, and you can obey.” Our obedience is not the means to salvation, but rather the path that salvation leads us to. And my prayer is that each of us will follow that path, the “hard and narrow” path, unto the salvation that the Lord has prepared for us; the healing that He has promised, not only in the life to come, but the freedom from the bondage of this current life as well.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family…Christ has risen!