March 15, 1992
It’s been a revealing week in Washington. A few days ago the House of Representatives voted 426-0 to reveal the names of all past and present members who have bounced checks at the House bank, an act that one commentator likened to committing “mass political suicide.”
They tell us that when the list is finally released, it will contain 355 names. Some of our elected officials evidently never bothered to balance their checkbooks. One wrote 972 bad checks; another wrote 716. The man who wrote 716 rubber checks is from the Chicago area. Last night he held an indignant press conference at which he loudly proclaimed that since no public money was involved, it was nobody else’s business. With an air of high dudgeon, he proclaimed, “It’s personal.”
But he wasn’t the best one. The best performer so far is a man named Charles Wilson from Texas. As I took notes, he seemed to be making five different excuses for his overdrawn checks.
“It’s not a crime like child abuse.” (Translation: “It’s not so bad.”)
“My people knew I was sloppy when they elected me.” (Translation: “They knew I was stupid when they elected me.”)
“If you’ve ever bounced a check, vote for me. If not, vote for my opponent.” (Translation: “Everybody does it.”)
“The system was all fouled up.” (Translation: “It’s not my fault.”)
“It’s no big deal.” (Translation: “It’s no big deal.”)
No wonder public confidence in government is at an all-time low. No wonder independent candidates like Ross Perot are getting a hearing. No wonder people are so angry. When you consider the kind of people we routinely elect to congress, we ought to be mad—at them and at ourselves!
It Started in the Garden
But I don’t mean to harp on the members of congress. They are really no different than we are. Who’s to say how we would fare if we were in their shoes? Would we be any more honest? Would we be any better? (Do I hear someone saying, “I know I wouldn’t be any worse?”)
The check-writing scandal is a lesson in how we react to getting caught. We all instinctively make excuses for our behavior. After all, if everyone else could only see life the way we see it, they would have done exactly what we did! Or so we think.
Making excuses has been a part of human nature ever since Adam blamed Eve in the Garden of Eden. When God said, “Who told you to eat the fruit?”, Adam said (with perfect truthfulness), “The woman you gave me,” thus managing to blame both Eve and God in one neat sentence. (God wasn’t buying the excuse, however. He never does.)
Gabriel Maurier said, “He who excuses himself accuses himself.” How true. When we make excuses, we are merely arguing to avoid having the truth hit home. As someone else has said, “An excuse is the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie.”
“I Object, Your Honor”
That thought brings us to Romans 3. The prosecuting attorney (Paul the apostle) is almost ready to rest his case. His indictment of the human race is complete. The whole race is under the wrath of God. Fact # 1: The Gentiles are sinners (1:18-32). Fact # 2: The Moral People are sinners (2:1-16). Fact # 3: The Jews are sinners (2:17-29). Thus the whole human race, considered in its various parts, stands condemned before God.
But before Paul can present his closing arguments, the defense rises to make an objection. In fact, the attorney for the other side presents three cogent objections to Paul’s basic argument. If those objections are allowed to stand, his conclusions cannot be valid. Therefore Paul turns away from the flow of his argument to answer these imaginary objections. Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “imaginary,” since we know that Paul often debated the gospel with Jewish rabbis in synagogues throughout the Roman world. The objections he brings forth here are no doubt actual objections he has heard and answered.
Although the passage itself is somewhat difficult, the flow of the argument is not hard to follow. There are three objections offered and three answers given. To understand things correctly, we should put the phrase “If I am a sinner … “ before each objection. That brings before us the force of this passage. The Jews did not object to the notion that the Gentiles were sinners; nor did they object to the theoretical notion that they were sinners. But they could not and would not accept that they were sinners before God on an equal basis with the Gentiles. Such a teaching was anathema to them.
Objection # 1: Why Be Religious?
Chuck Swindoll calls this the argument from “Racial Advantage.” The Jews were essentially objecting to Paul’s teaching about universal sinfulness because in their minds it destroyed their special standing with God. “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” The Jews felt—with some justification—that because they were God’s Chosen People, they stood in a special relationship to God. Part of that was certainly true. The Jews were and are God’s Chosen People. God still has a plan for the nation of Israel. But that fact—true as it is—does not negate the reality of their sinful condition before God.
In essence the objection goes this way, “If we’re sinners like the Gentiles, why bother being Jewish? Why keep the Law? Why follow the Ten Commandments? Why offer the sacrifices? Why not just give it all up? That’s what your argument leads to, Paul.” To say it another way, the Jews were arguing that Special Favor Means Special Privilege.
Paul doesn’t deny that the Jews stand in a special relationship with God. After all, they’ve been given the Word of God! The implication is striking: Special Favor Means Special Responsibility. God expects more, not less from the Jews because they were given so many favors by God. “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Paul is saying, “It’s still better to serve God and keep the Law, but that doesn’t give you any special favors from God. Your privileges don’t get you off the hook; they get you on the hook!”
Needles in a Haystack
Ray Stedman (From Guilt to Glory, vol 1, p. 58) offers a helpful illustration. Let’s imagine a remote island permanently shrouded in darkness. There is only one way off the island of darkness—by means of a narrow footbridge that stretches across a deep chasm. Let us further suppose that everyone on the island is given a tiny penlight, so small that it can only illuminate the darkness for one foot in any direction. But one group of people are given a powerful searchlight, with a beam so strong it can cut through the darkness for miles and miles. Although the searchlight was given to this group in order to help them find the bridge and so that they might help others find the bridge, they use it instead to search for needles in haystacks.
What would the judgment be on the people with the searchlight? That they wasted the light they were given. That’s what the Jews were doing. The Law was like a searchlight to help people find God. But the Jews, instead of lighting the way to God, were using it to argue over trivialities. They argued about how far you could walk on the Sabbath. They argued about whether it was a sin to spit on the Sabbath. They even discussed whether it was sin to spit on mud or on rock on the Sabbath. One was a sin, they said, and the other wasn’t. That’s what they used the Law for.
The Jews were doubly guilty. They didn’t obey the Law themselves, and they didn’t use it to help other people. So the objection falls to the ground because the Jews weren’t meeting the responsibilities that came with their special favor from God.
Objection # 2: Why Not Give Up On God Since He Has Given Up On Us?
This objection follows directly from the first one. “Paul, suppose for a moment we grant your argument that we Jews are sinners. If that’s true, then we might as well forget about the promises of God to Israel. He made a deal with us and according to you, we didn’t keep our part of the bargain. Therefore, God won’t keep his part either.” Again, there is a grain of truth in the objection. It’s perfectly true that the Jews didn’t keep their part of the bargain. They sinned repeatedly, turning away from God to run after heathen idols. So if God’s promises are conditional, then this objection has some weight.
But God’s basic promise to bless Israel as a nation—that promise was not conditional. That promise went all the way back to Abraham in Genesis 12 and rested on nothing but the faithfulness of God alone. Here’s the objection and Paul’s answer: “What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written, ’So that you may be proved right when you speak, and prevail when you judge.’”
In simple terms, the objection says, “God gives up on people when they sin.” To be truthful, many people feel that way. When they look at the evil they have done, they sincerely feel like they are too wicked to be forgiven. When they ponder the sordid records of their past misdeeds, they conclude that their sin disqualifies them from God’s grace.
Listen to Paul’s concise answer: Let God be true and every man a liar. God never gives up on anyone. Never! Under any circumstances! There is nothing you can do that will cause God to give up on you. If there is, then your sin is greater than God’s grace. This doesn’t make sin any less sinful, nor does it excuse your disobedience, but it does mean that no matter what you’ve done, you can be forgiven.
In order to prove his point, Paul includes a quotation from Psalm 51, the great Psalm of confession composed by David after his terrible sin with Bathsheba. The verse Paul quotes is one where David is proclaiming that what happened to him demonstrated God’s justice. David sinned, God judged him, thus proving that God is righteous in everything he does. After God judged him, he also forgave him, proving that God’s grace is greater than man’s sin. The point is clear: God is always willing to forgive! The application is also clear: Not all the sins of the Jewish race could cause God to break his promises. If every man in the world turns out to be a liar, God will be true to his Word!
David is a particularly good illustration of this point. After all, David was an adulterer, a liar, and ultimately a murderer. And God forgave him. If God can forgive David, he can forgive anybody!
Objection # 3: Why Bother Being Good?
On a quick reading of these verses, it may not be immediately apparent precisely what Objection # 3 is all about. The argument goes like this. “Well now, Paul, you’ve played right into my hands. You got through saying that David’s sin gave God a chance to demonstrate both his justice and his grace. If David hadn’t sinned, God would never have had a chance to judge him or forgive him. So in a sense, David was helping God out by sinning. If that’s the case, then whenever I sin, I’m also helping God out. But if my sin helps God out, how can he judge me for being a sinner?”
It’s a slick argument. It’s also a sick argument, because the person who talks like this is really accusing God of using sin to his own advantage. That line of thinking leads to an absurd conclusion: “If our sin gives God a chance to demonstrate his faithfulness in judgment and his grace in forgiveness, why not sin more so God can forgive more?”
Does My Sin Glorify God?
The basic objection is stated three different times in the text: “But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say?” (5) “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” (7) “Let us do evil that good may result.” (8)
The fatal flaw is easy to spot: When I sin, I’m doing God a favor! This of course is an old lie of Satan—the oldest really, that the end justifies the means. “If being bad makes God look good, then I’ll be really bad so God can look really good.” Or to say it in another way, according to this objection, “My sin glorifies God.”
Paul’s answer is succinct: That’s stupid! (The Greek has “May it never be!, but the force means something like “God forbid!” or “That’s stupid!” It’s the strongest possible rejection of such teaching.) Charles Kettering put the matter succinctly: “You can be sincere, and still be stupid.”
Such teaching cannot be right for two reasons: 1. If sin somehow glorifies God, then how can God judge the world? (verse 6) Such thinking turns morality on its head. Suddenly there is no difference between right and wrong, good and evil, black and white, day and night. The result is moral chaos and anarchy. If God will not someday judge the world, then we are plunged into an abyss of immorality, a sea of relativism and a bottomless pit of evil. 2. If sin glorifies God, how can he judge the people who say such things? (verse 8) Paul dismisses them with these words: “Whose condemnation is just.” There is a big difference between a sincere seeker and someone who is just making excuses. Someday the excuse-makers will stand before God. When they do, they will discover to their chargrin that their excuses will not be accepted.
No Such Thing As “Good” Sin
Before we go on, we’d better think carefully about this objection because we in the church use it more often than we think.
“It was a good thing I got divorced because now I am able to minister to people I could never minister to before.”
“It’s a good thing that preacher fell because now he won’t be on TV begging for money all the time.”
“I’m glad I lost my temper and cussed those two guys out because it really helped me deal with my anger.”
“Sure I had a few drinks with the guys, but now that they know I’m just like them it’ll be easier for me to witness to them.”
This is so tricky. Let’s keep two things separate in our minds. 1. Sin is always sinful. There is no such thing as “good” sin. Sin is the reason Jesus came to the earth. Sin is the reason he suffered on Calvary. There is nothing good about it. It’s evil through and through. 2. God is able to bring about good things from our dumb mistakes. That’s what the grace of God is all about. But please understand. The fact that God can bring good things out of bad choices doesn’t turn stupidity into wisdom! And it doesn’t justify sin! Sin is always sinful!
It’s true that as a result of your personal pain, you may now be able to touch people you could never touch before, but if your divorce was obtained on unbiblical grounds, it’s still sinful. Maybe it’s good that the TV evangelist won’t be begging for money, but that doesn’t justify his immorality or lessen the hurt to the body of Christ. Cussing someone out is hardly justified by the lame excuse that you now have learned how to handle your anger. And drinking with the guys can hardly be excused because you’re hoping to share the Four Spiritual Laws someday.
William Barclay has some helpful words at this point:
One might as well argue—it would, in fact, be the same argument—that it is a good thing to break a person’s heart, because it gives him a chance to show how much he loves you. When a man sins, the need is not for ingenuity to justify his sin, but for humility to confess it in penitence and shame. (Romans, p. 54)
It’s like saying, “Pray for sickness so doctors will have a chance to heal people.”
“Pray for more fires so firemen can show their stuff.”
“Pray for more disasters so ambulance drivers will have something to do.”
“Pray for more rapes so judges can put more rapists in prison.”
It is an evil suggestion which springs only from an evil mind. But it comes closer to home than we would like to admit.
Two Facts to Keep in Mind
1. Once a man has sinned, he displays an amazing ability to justify his sin.
That brings us back to those poor congressmen up in Washington, who’ve been caught this week with their collective hand in the cookie jar. Oh, the excuses we’ve heard. Oh, the righteous indignation. Oh, the running for cover, the search for scapegoats, the finger pointing. It’s funny and it’s sad because we all do the same things. We talk about “white lies” and “pious frauds.” When will we learn that if it’s a lie, it isn’t white and if it’s white, it’s not a lie? By the same token, if it’s a fraud, it’s not pious and if it’s pious, it’s not a fraud.
Excuse-making started with Adam but it didn’t end with him.
2. Once a man turns from his sin, God displays an amazing ability to forgive his sin.
This is where the gospel message becomes so wonderfully relevant. David found out both sides of this truth. He was judged … and then he was forgiven. “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” Thank God it is true. Those who make excuses fool no one but themselves. Those who dare to tell the painful truth about themselves find that after the pain there is pardon. After the humiliation there is healing.
You can discover the truth but first you must tell the truth. If you’re willing to do that, you can be forgiven.
Lord Jesus, teach us the value of honesty and the beauty of integrity. Save us from the necessity of always having to make excuses for our sin. Implant within us a new desire to walk before you in truth. Grant a new understanding of your grace that we might not be afraid to ask for your forgiveness. Amen.