If you sin without knowing what you're doing, God takes that into account. But if you sin knowing full well what you're doing, that's a different story entirely. Merely hearing God's law is a waste of your time if you don't do what he commands. Doing, not hearing, is what makes the difference with God.
When outsiders who have never heard of God's law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God's law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God's yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God's yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ takes into account all these differences.
If you're brought up Jewish, don't assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you're an insider to God's revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines! I have a special word of caution for you who are sure that you have it all together yourselves and, because you know God's revealed Word inside and out, feel qualified to guide others through their blind alleys and dark nights and confused emotions to God. While you are guiding others, who is going to guide you? I'm quite serious. While preaching "Don't steal!" are you going to rob people blind? Who would suspect you? The same with adultery. The same with idolatry. You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law. The line from Scripture, "It's because of you Jews that the outsiders are down on God," shows it's an old problem that isn't going to go away.
Every time I read this part of Romans I can’t help but think that what Paul writes to his fellow Jews here, he would write to those of us who have been Christians for a long time today. It feels very much like we could direct this to ourselves.
Particularly this, “If you're brought up Jewish, don't assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you're an insider to God's revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines!”
Is that not a description of so much of Western Christianity and evangelicalism in particular?
Or this line, “You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law.”
How much of our lives and engagement with the world do we “God-wash” so that we can feel good about doing things or thinking things that we know are at best sub-Christian or at worst anti-Christian?
This morning I was reading about the role of emperor worship in Roman society. Most of the emperors officially stated that they should not be venerated until after they died. But, in much of the empire outside of Rome they were deified during their reigns and this was not discouraged. Why? Because the social pressure of god-washing the Empire was useful to keep the average person in line.
So too today (and I am often guilty of this) we hear people say, “If you’re a Christian then…” This social pressure in the Christian world is useful for keeping people in line without them having to consider or think deeply about things. It is also useful for the average person to not have to expend energy on thinking deeply about many things.
Derek Webb, one of my favorite songwriters, wrote this in his song, New Law:
Don't teach me about politics and government
Just tell me who to vote for
Don't teach me about truth and beauty
Just label my music
Don't teach me how to live like a free man
Just give me a new law
I don't wanna know if the answers aren't easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me
I want a new law
To live with the mind of Christ means that we must not settle into God-washing things. No, we must wrestle through life as people seeking to love well. The struggle of working out our salvation is to try and understand how to engage with the world through the lens of loving God and loving people. How do we apply love, grace, truth, mercy, compassion, and empathy toward a world that is sin-sick?
Christ is altogether beautiful. Yet, many see Christ as altogether disgusting. Why? Because of the way that we, the followers of Christ, live out our faith in the world. There is too much hypocrisy, too much abuse, too much corruption, and it is rampant. For those of us that claim to follow Christ we must take a long look in the mirror and ask if we are living lives that honor Christ or are we simply seeking to honor ourselves? Do we truly understand that we are in need of love, grace, truth, mercy, compassion, and empathy? Are we living lives that display love well?