On Human Willpower

Romans 3:21-22

Here we find the beloved apostle making a powerful statement; for if they who had received the Law were unable to attain to the righteousness of God, not only were they unable to attain it, but they were more heavily burdened by the knowledge of the Law; then how would those who were not given the Law ever to be able to attain to, not only a similar, but greater righteousness? Not only to escape punishment, but to actually attain to the degree that Paul had declare the Jews unfit for? See, we have to remember all of the indictments that Paul had already leveled against the Jews at this point, because it was the Jews who were declaring that only they, the elect of the Lord, were fit for salvation, that only they could ever attain to the righteousness of God, because only this elect group were in the favor of the Lord.

We must also remember that the Jews to whom he is speaking at this point know nothing of the close of what we know as the “Old Testament.” Rather, to them, the Law and the Prophets spoke of a Messiah who had not yet come, they had no faith in Jesus as our Lord. Based on the teachings of Leviticus, they conceived that righteousness could be obtained through the Law, and that the Law could be kept through obedience (Leviticus 18:5). In their belief, it was enough to “will” themselves into obedience to the Law, and thus they could obtain righteousness in absentia of faith. They believed, as many do even today, that they can be “good enough people” to obtain to the kingdom, regardless of their faith in the Lord. Yet, obedience without faith can never lead unto the righteousness of God, particularly considering the Lord’s command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” No, attempted obedience in absentia of faith is the equivalent of spiritual bribery, it’s a mystical “quid pro quo,” the equivalent of the prayer that each of us has prayed at least once in our lives, “God, please________ and I will ______.”

Yet, the biggest problem with that prayer is this; it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because God doesn’t work that way. It’s not a form of barter with the Lord. Will He reward us for the good things that we have done? Sure He will. Will He punish us for the wickedness that we commit? Of course He will. Yet, it will all be done on the basis of our obedience to Him based on our faith, not based on our heart’s desire to gain favor with Him. See, the biggest problem with that prayer, with that entire mindset, is that it creates a very “me” centered theology. It creates a theology where we attempt to seek divine favor using human willpower as collateral. And how reliable is human willpower? Go to a gym on January 3rd, and then return to that same gym on March 31st. You will see how reliable willpower is. Further, when we circumvent the necessity for faith in our faith, our prayer becomes very much centered on what I want, what I need, when I want what I want. Our prayers become, “Lord, please give me this, help me with this, help my brother with that, make the pain go away.” It becomes very pridefully us telling God how things need to be, or it becomes a very empty “Lord, please let Your will be done,” as though if we didn’t pray that, His will wouldn’t be done. When faith is present in our lives, true faith, then our prayers become worship, they become praying for the entire world, for the government (even if it isn’t the person we would’ve elected), they become praying for the poor and the homeless, for the needy, for the sick and suffering servants of the Lord. We become the last people that we pray for, and that usually for the wisdom and guidance to live a life that would glorify Him. It is no longer, “Lord, please heal my best friend’s cousin of his cancer,” but instead, “Lord, give me the wisdom to learn from these circumstances.”

See, Paul’s lesson here is that the Law will never be able to bring a man to righteousness in absentia of true faith. We can never “will” ourselves to righteousness. But, the inverse is possible. It is possible for those who have never received the Law to obtain to this righteousness through faith, because the Lord has written the Law on the hearts of all men (Hebrews 10:16), and those who have faith in Him will choose to obey that Law, not through their own willpower, but through seeking after the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Those who turn to Jesus in true faith are able to achieve this righteousness because Jesus Himself supercedes the Law, and the Holy Spirit will guide us to obedience to His Law.

And notice what Paul writes, not merely righteousness, but the “righteousness of God,” and not that it is given, but that it is revealed, that it is made manifest. The word here in the Greek is the word “phaneroo,” which literally translates “to make manifest or visible what is hidden.” This is of such importance to us considering the topic of this letter, because the Jews had taught that they alone were able to attain to righteousness and that the rest of mankind was wicked, and yet, Paul’s very wording here teaches us that this righteousness is not “given to us” through our faith, but rather that it is revealed to us through it. He is saying that this righteousness already exists within us all, but it is through our faith in Jesus that it is revealed to us, that our true nature is brought to light. We are not innately wicked, but rather we are innately good and righteous and have merely been led astray, led on the wrong path, by a world which stands opposed to all things righteous and holy. The world doesn’t hate Jesus because they don’t believe in Him, the world hates Jesus because He displays what they were created to be but choose not to be. And we, being born into the world and exposed to the world, adopt this “when in Rome” mentality and begin to slowly become more and more corrupted; so much so that it requires dying to ourselves to be freed from the bondage to sin that the world creates within us. The glory of God is eternal righteousness and eternal life. Our salvation is not merely entrance to the kingdom, it is also our ability to live while we are still here on the earth, free from bondage to sin. Our salvation, our Christian walk, is the ability to walk in this world free from the sickness of sin that plagues the world.

Our world is a sick world, and our Lord is the great Physician. Our sickness is not merely physical, but also spiritual. Our sickness is manifested in the temper that we can’t control, the lustful thoughts which haunt us, the greed which causes us to cheat and lie, the self-love that causes us to place our own comfort over someone else’s survival. And the Lord’s offer of salvation isn’t that we can continue to suffer through those ailments until the day that we fall asleep and then enter the kingdom, it is instead the offer of curing us of those sicknesses while we are still here. It is the cure to the sickness of sin. The Lord is the great Physician, and the Church, the one Church, is His hospital wherein He is able to heal us. Too many Sundays are spent in theaters, in lecture halls, in theology classrooms, in courtrooms; and not nearly enough are spent in the great halls of healing. Far too few believers on far too few Sundays spend their time in corporate prayer, in worshiping the One who alone is worthy; seeking after and praising the Physician who alone can heal our souls and bring us back into communion with Him.

My brothers and sisters, I ask you to consider this. Consider your Sunday services and ask this one question; what is the focal point of the service that you are in? Is it Jesus Christ glorified? Is the focal point a lecture? Is it a band playing? Is the focal point a lesson in theology and doctrine? Or is the focal point communion with the Lord? Each of those things is great, but if the focal point of Sunday worship isn’t worship, then is it truly the Church that we read about in the Book of Acts? We can listen to a band on our own, we can have small study groups for Bible studies. Outside of our service though, we can’t come together as one body in communion with the Lord. We can’t be involved in corporate prayer and worship alone. We can’t celebrate the Eucharist alone. Those other things are great, but those other things can be done outside of the Liturgy. When we look to Scripture, we see that even the Cherubim in the heavens fall down in corporate worship, singing the angelic hymn, “Holy holy holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His Glory.” (Isaiah 6:3). If the angelic hosts fall down and worship in this fashion, shouldn’t we honor Him in the same manner?

May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family. Christ is risen!

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