It may seem strange to us that Paul would devote several chapters to demonstrating the sinfulness of all people. We might think that he should get to the good news and camp there and help people see the good news as really good. That would feel more positive than lingering as long as he does over the sinfulness of Gentiles and Jews, that is, all of us.
Why Dwell on Sinfulness?
But there are probably some very profound reasons for this lingering over the sinfulness of Gentiles and Jews. I think of two at least. One is that the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone simply does not land on us as overwhelmingly good news until we have some deeper sense of our sinfulness and hopelessness before God. The other reason Paul may draw out his demonstration of our sinfulness is that we are so resistant to seeing it and feeling it.
I think we can sense this behind today’s text. Let me illustrate the point from an article I just read this week about the careless intermingling of a therapeutic worldview with a biblical worldview. One difference between these worldviews is that one assumes that our problems should be framed mainly in terms of mental health and therapeutic treatment, while the other assumes that our problems should be framed mainly in terms of sin and righteousness and redemption through faith in Christ and his word. The name of the article is “Faith and Therapy” and it is by William Kilpatrick, a professor in the Education Department at Boston College. He wrote:
One of the most destructive consequences of carelessly mixing therapy with faith is a diminished sense of sin. The best evidence that this has already happened in the Catholic Church is the tremendous drop-off in the practice of confession of the last thirty years. When we couple this with the nearly 100 percent communion turnout in most parishes, we have to conclude that most parishioners don’t have a strong consciousness of sin. They seem to have been so schooled in the gospel of self-acceptance that they can’t think of any sins they need to confess.
“Brokenness and humility are the gateway to paradise.”
A colleague at Boston College told me a story that reinforces the point. He once asked members of his philosophy class to write an anonymous essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil. Most of the students, however, were unable to complete the assignment. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” they said — and apparently this was said without irony — “We haven’t done anything wrong.” We can see a lot of self-esteem here, but little self-awareness — the absence of a sense of sin seems strange when one considers that most of these students have had years of Catholic schooling.
Don’t jump to the conclusion that this is an isolated Catholic phenomenon. The article documents the kinds of teaching in both Catholic and Protestant evangelical children’s and youth curricula that lead to this kind of thing.
We Are Resistant to Recognizing Our Sin
My point is simply this: one of the reasons Paul dwells on the demonstration of sinfulness in Romans 1–3 is that we are so resistant to seeing it and feeling it. We find ways of avoiding the issue and softening the indictments and escaping the evidences of our sinfulness. And there are endless ways, it seems, to admit to a little bit of it, while not being broken and humbled by it. But brokenness and humility are the gateway to paradise, and indeed they are the road to paradise. In this life, we never outgrow our need for ever-new experiences of brokenness and humility because of our sinfulness.
Now, Paul realizes the resistance and obstacles that he is up against in Romans as he tries to help his readers see the depth and universality of sin. Remember, he is aiming at Romans 3:9: “What then? Are we [Jews] better than they [Gentiles]? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”
This has been his aim in chapters 1 and 2 — to show that both Jews and Gentiles are “under sin.” That is, under the dominion of sin, in the grip and power of sin, apart from the gospel of Christ. His aim in all this painful diagnosis of the disease of sin is to make the world aware of its need for the gospel of justification by grace through faith, and the wonderful way it fits our condition and meets our need for forgiveness and righteousness.
In today’s text, Paul deals with a form of resistance that is common among those of us who are religious and who believe in the Bible as God’s word and who even have responsibilities to preach or teach. The resistance is the assumption that, having so much revelation and so much knowledge and so much truth, our business is to set each other right rather than to repent ourselves. This is a huge danger.
Correcting Others or Repenting?
Let’s set it before ourselves the way Paul does. In Romans 2:17–24, he paints a remarkable picture of privileges of the Jewish nation in having the law of God in their Scriptures. I don’t think he is entirely negative here. He is a Jew and counts this a tremendous privilege. You can see this in Romans 3:1–2: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
This is a great advantage if the Jews understand these oracles and apply them to their lives and trust in the God they reveal and do them the way God intended. So when we read Romans 2:17, we must not think that these are all bad distinctives here.
Notice that after saying that they bear the name “Jew,” he gives two lists of four claims that Jewish people were making, and shows after each of these that they are both rooted in the law. Here’s the first list of four: verses 17b–18, (1) “[you] rely upon the law and  boast in God, and  know his will and  approve the things that are essential.” Then Paul gives the basis of these four claims that they made (verse 18b): “being instructed out of the law.” In other words, since you are instructed out of the law, therefore you do these four things: “ rely on the law,  boast in God,  know his will, and  approve the things that are essential.” All these are traced back to the privilege of “being instructed in the law.”
These Jews are people of the book. And Paul agrees with that. But there is clearly something wrong. And we, who are Christian people of the book, should be all ears and on the edge of our seats to find out what went wrong, lest we make the same mistake. There is nothing wrong, in themselves, with relying on the trustworthiness of God’s law or boasting in God or knowing his will or approving things essential. But evidently, there is a way that all that can go wrong. All of that good use of the law can be a part of what shows a person to be a sinner.
“If you have light, you ought to shine the light.”
Take the next unit of four claims. Verses 19–20: (1) “[You] are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, (2) a light to those who are in darkness, (3) a corrector of the foolish, (4) a teacher of the immature.”
Then, again Paul names the basis of these four claims, namely, “having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth.” In other words, “Because you have in the law the form or the embodiment of knowledge and truth (which I think Paul would agree with), therefore you claim to be (1) a guide to the blind, (2) a light in the darkness, (3) a corrector the foolish, (4) a teacher of the immature.” All this is possible, Paul says, because “you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.”
Notice the difference between these two groups of four claims. The first group in verses 17–18 simply describes the Jews’ own experience with the law, not how it affects the way they relate to others. They rest in it and boast in God and know his will and recognize excellent things. But in the second group (verses 19–20), the entire focus is on what the Jews do with all this in relation to others: they guide and shine and correct and teach. So the second group goes beyond the first: the first says we have the light; the second says we shine the light.
Don’t You Teach Yourselves?
Now that is not bad in itself. If you have light, you ought to shine the light. And the law was a precious gift from God to Israel and she should have shone the light of it to the nations. If Paul were criticizing that, someone could say, “Well, Paul, you are doing the same thing. You are claiming to know God and have his word and preach it for others to see and believe.” It’s not a sinful thing to have the word of God and be enlightened by the word of God and teach the word of God.
So what’s the problem? The problem is seen in verse 21a: “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” The “therefore” means, I think, “Now it seems that, given all these amazing advantages you have within the law of God — it seems that therefore you would teach yourselves. But you don’t.” His question expects a negative answer. We know that from verses 23 and 24. You have all this revelation and all this light and all this knowledge and all this truth and you don’t get it. You teach a form of it to others but you don’t go to the heart of it and the root of it. You just don’t get what the law is really about.
I think that’s what Paul means in verse 21a: “You, therefore, who teach others, you just don’t teach yourselves.” And the upshot of this is that the law itself becomes a means of boasting, not a means of love. Love uses truth to bless others, but sin uses truth to exalt self. Both use truth, both can use the Bible. But only one is really taught by the truth and taught by the Bible.
Now Paul illustrates this failure to really be taught by the law. In verses 21b–22, he gives three examples of how their failure to teach themselves expresses itself: “You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” Now, what would Paul respond if his non-Christian Jewish readers were to say, “No, we don’t steal and commit adultery and rob temples. Never have, never will”?
What If We Don’t Commit Such Sins?
I think Paul would — or could — answer at three levels. First, I think he could say, “I know that not every Jewish person does these very acts externally. But some do, even though they have the law and all the advantages listed. So what I am saying is that merely having the law and being an instructor of others does not, in itself, spare you from God’s judgment if you don’t live up to it. Your boast of having the law and teaching the law is not enough. There must be a doing of the law.”
Second, I think he could say, “Yes, I know that not all Jewish people do these acts externally, but do you do anything like them? These are illustrative of all that the law demands. Do you keep the whole law? Are you without sin? Does not your sin, even if different from these, put you in need of a Savior? Are you not under the power of sin, even though you have the law and teach others?”
Third, and most importantly, I think Paul could say, “Yes, you really do steal and commit adultery and rob temples. ‘How so?’ you ask. Because you do not understand what the law most essentially demands, namely, faith. Faith in God for his gracious gift of forgiveness, and a right standing with him, and the enablement to obey his commandments. But instead, you use the law to establish your own righteousness and thus rob God of the most basic thing he demands from you, humble trust in him for his mercy. And what is this but adultery as you give your heart and trust — that belong only to God — to another? And what is this spiritual adultery except the taking of the very idols of the world and making them your own — as if to rob their temples because God himself is not good enough for you. And do not the nations then blaspheme God, if you take their values, but call yourselves the people of God?”
Where does this interpretation come from? First, from Romans 9:30–32: “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.”
“Love uses truth to bless others, but sin uses truth to exalt self.”
What does this teach? It teaches that Israel, while having the form or embodiment of the law, and while teaching others, did not teach herself what the law really meant. They did not get to the heart and essence of the law. The law taught faith and a life of faith — deeds done by faith. But Israel did not teach themselves these things. They stayed at the level of external righteousness and did not understand that all the commandments were a call to live by faith in the all-supplying grace of God.
So they robbed God of the one main thing that the law demanded, faith. The one thing that honors and glorifies God (Romans 4:20), they kept for themselves. They seemed to have knowledge of the law at one level, but they did not have knowledge of the law at the essential level. You see this again in Romans 10:1–3:
Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.
So they knew the law of righteousness at one level, but not at another. They took the commandments and made them into a means of self-righteousness, instead of seeing them as the description of the life of faith. So they robbed God of the faith and trust that he demands; and in robbing God, they committed adultery by giving their hearts and their faith to another (to themselves or religious ritual or moral striving or the praise of men). And in doing that, they embraced the same idols that the world embraces, and thus plundered the temples of the world.
Now here is the warning and the gospel invitation — mainly for me, but also for you. Let us be careful — oh so watchful and careful — all of us lovers of the Bible. Beware lest we rest in the word and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent and guide the blind and correct the foolish and teach the immature, but do not teach ourselves. Beware lest the word become a formal thing — an external thing.
If it does not break us, if it does not humble us, if it does not lead us to a sweet, childlike trust in free grace — in other words, if it does not lead us to the gospel of justification by grace, through faith in Christ — then we are not yet taught by the word of God, and are not fit to teach others. Woe to me and other teachers and preachers — lovers of the book — who have in the word of God the embodiment of knowledge and truth, but only know the letter of the law and not the Spirit — who only know the form of righteousness and not the righteousness that comes by faith.
Oh, that everyone in this room would be taught, even now, by the Spirit, the difference between establishing our own righteousness and receiving the righteousness as a gift through faith in Christ!