The Pagan, the Pious, and those Perishing
by Joseph Franks
Paul was loving and humiliating his readers. It mattered not whether they were Jewish or Gentile. He cared not whether they were rank Romans or holy Hebrews. Whether irreligious or religious, whether immoral or moral, whether church abstainers or church attenders, Paul sought to help all his friends by forcing them to bow their knees before the Holy Judge.
He began by humbling the pagan:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth … Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves … God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless … They not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:18-32)
All men had some knowledge of God and his ethical standard. Even if they had never been to church, God gave them an internal sense of right and wrong. And as men added years to their lives, they added sin to their personal accounts. All men progressively violated the ethical demands of the holy God and encouraged their neighbors to follow their lead.
He continued by humbling the pious:
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? (Romans 2:12-26)
Paul humbled those who were biblical monotheists. They “boasted in God,” but there were still at enmity with the one Creator.
Likewise, Paul condemned the individual who took pride in “calling himself a Jew.” Some of his readers made much about being a part of God’s elect assembly, but according to Paul, if left in their current condition, they would soon be cast out of God’s eternal church.
Paul called out those who were experts in the sacred text. Sure, they were “hearers of the Law” who were “instructed in the Law.” They “knew God’s will and approved what was excellent.” They were somewhat serious about acquiring God’s “knowledge and truth.” However, because they were not perfect doers of the Law, they too would perish. Their theological acumen would only fan the flames of God’s judgmental fire.
In addition, Paul brought low those who zealously practiced evangelism and catechesis. Some of those reading Paul’s letter sought to be “guides to the blind” and “lights to those in darkness.” It was good and commendable that they labored to be “teachers of children.” However despite their work, they were wicked.
Paul then brought low those who boasted in their regulated worship. These Jews understood the required ceremonies of God. They had been taught to disdain golden calves and strange fire, and they had learned to “abhor idols.” This too was commendable, but despite their correct external worship, they were blasphemous in the eyes of God.
Finally, Paul condemned some who placed too much confidence in their covenantal sacramentalism. Many of them were rightly circumcised. They had made a big deal of that which God had required. Yes, they had performed on their bodies that which was right, but they were still not right.
He concluded by humbling all:
Both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:9-12)
According to Paul, for those who denied God, no hope remained. All irreligious men would perish in their sin.
Ironically, for those who declared allegiance to God, but trusted in their religiosity, church membership, biblical doctrine, zealous work, regulated ritual, or holy sacraments, no hope remained for them either. They too would perish in their sin.
Some were pagan. Some were pious. All were perishing.
However, for all who placed their trust in the “righteousness of God” — a righteousness not found by man keeping God’s Law — salvation was available.
He then presented the Good News:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith …. (Romans 3:21-25)
Friends, let us all fall on our knees and receive the free gift of God. Oh readers, whether we are immoral or moral; though we be a church-abstainer or church-attender; whether irreligious or religious; despite being hellish looking or a holy roller; all who place our faith in Christ can find ourselves “justified by his grace as a gift.” All who abandoned trust in our own religious performance can be “redeemed” due to the blood of Jesus. He is the friend of sinners; come to him right now.
Let us make sure our religious ritual is responsive. It is good to believe in the one true God. It is good to know God’s Word, seek to do God’s Word, seek to evangelize, teach, and catechize our children. God’s worship is not to be treated lightly, and this includes his sacraments of baptism and communion. However, let us not think these rites have anything to do with our being right with God. We are reconciled to him by grace alone through faith alone in the work of Christ Jesus alone. Never put the cart before the horse. We love him because he first loved us. We work to pleasure him because it was his pleasure to work for us.
Then, let us enjoy and glorify Him! It is time for us to commune with God, in his Word and in his worship. It is time for us to be moral and pious. It is good for us to evangelize and teach others. Let us learn his Law and seek to practice it. Let us forsake our former pagan manners and be devoutly religious. Let us enjoy his rituals. Let us utilize his sacraments. For we, who once were perishing in our sin, are now identified with Jesus Christ, and we should be excited about growing in piety.