Mr. I.M. Okay Meets His Maker
February 23, 1992
No statement is regarded as more elementary to the student of the Bible than the statement that a day of judgment is coming for the human race. Hebrews 9:27 says, “Man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment.” That statement, as elementary as it might seem, is desperately needed in our time for we live in an age when men doubt that Judgment Day is coming. Ours is an age of relativism, of pluralism, of tolerance, of diversity, an age when every man does that which is right in his own eyes. The watchword of the age is “If it’s right for you, go ahead and do it.” Without the slightest exaggeration we can say that most people today doubt that there is any such thing as absolute truth. All truth is relative, defined by the circumstances of time and place. Pilate’s question resonates through the air—”What is truth?”—and no one seems to be able to give an answer.
If you ask the average man on the street (is there really such an animal?), “Do you believe in a universal day of judgment for the human race?”, the answers you are likely to get—if you get an answer at all—will be of the “I don’t believe a God of love will judge anybody” variety or the old standby—”I’m not worried about it because I’m as good as the next fellow.” The eternal optimist says, “I’ll take my chances” while the positive thinker says, “Not to worry. I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay.”
Francis Schaeffer has some helpful words about the importance of believing in a coming day of judgment. Under the heading “The Necessity of Judgment,” he makes these comments:
But let me stress this warning. It (the message of coming judgment) is more than just. It is the only message that is able to speak into the 20th-century mentality because it is the only message which really gives an answer to the two great problems of all men—modern man and man throughout the ages. First, man needs absolutes, universals, something by which to judge.
If one has no basis on which to judge, then reality falls apart, fantasy is indistinguishable from reality, there is no value for the human individual and right and wrong have no meaning.
There are two ways to get away from God’s judgment of men. One is to say that there is no absolute. But one must be aware that if God does not judge on a 100% basis, he is indeed like an old man in the sky. And worse—not only is man left in relativism, but God himself is bound by relativism. God must be the judge whose own character is the law of the universe or we have no absolute. We do not need to be embarrassed as we speak of the individual coming to God to be judged in the full historic sense of judgment. It is quite the other way. If this is not true, then we no longer have an absolute, and we no longer have an answer for 20th-century man. (The Church at the End of the 20th Century, pp. 49-50)
If You Loved the Sermon Last Sunday …
There is enormous wisdom in those words. The message of judgment is precisely the message modern man needs to hear. It reminds him that Someone is up there listening, paying attention, taking notes if you will, on everything he says and does and thinks. As frightening as that may be (and it is truly frightening if you dwell on it), it is also tremendously reassuring because it means that God not only knows all about you, he cares about the minute details of your life. In fact, he cares so much that one day you will have to answer for the way you have lived upon this earth.
With that as introduction, we come now to Romans 2:1-16. For the last few weeks, we’ve been living in the depressing world of Romans 1. Last week we looked at Paul’s picture of the world as it progressively turns away from God. Each stage is worse than the one before, and the final stage is deeply troubling. But now we’ve turned to a new page in Paul’s argument. The subject is no longer Gentile depravity. The focus shifts to the moral man who says, “I don’t live like the Gentiles. Those words don’t apply to me.”
Moral But Lost
In this context, the “moral man” is a good person who is not a Christian. He pays his taxes, loves his wife, helps his kids, works hard, obeys the law and every year buys five boxes of Girl Scout cookies. Although he is a good neighbor, a hard worker, and an all-around nice guy, he is not a Christian. To be even more specific, he probably is a church member, but he is not saved. He is moral, but lost.
In one sense, at least, the moral man is right. Not everyone lives the way Paul described in those terrible closing verses of chapter 1. Many people had higher standards, most especially the Jews. They truly were not guilty of the gross idolatry Paul describes, nor did they outwardly descend to the depths of sin. As they read Paul’s words, they said, “Preach it, brother. Tell it like it is. Let ’em have it, Paul.” The Jews loved to criticize the Gentiles—they called them “dogs”—and it warmed their hearts to hear Paul put those dirty heathen sinners in their place.
That brings us to the main point of chapter 2. Paul’s point is that the moral man is just as guilty as the heathen who do the things he describes in chapter 1. Their sins may be different but their guilt is the same. But as everyone knows, it’s not easy to convince a moral man of his guilt, because moral men truly believe they are better than other people.
In Romans 2:1-16, Paul shows why the moral man is just as guilty as the most depraved sinner. He does it by laying out the principles by which God will one day judge the human race. There are three principles—each one of which convicts the moral man of his sin.
My sermon this morning is for all of you who loved the sermon last Sunday. It’s especially for all of you who loved it a little bit too much. It’s always nice to come to church and hear the preacher condemn someone else’s sin. You leave feeling better about yourself than you did when you came in because you know the words weren’t aimed at you. What a difference a week makes! This sermon is for all the Amen Brothers and the Hallelujah Sisters who enjoyed themselves last Sunday.
What happens when Mr. I.M. Okay meets his Maker? He is judged by God, and this passage tells the principles by which that judgment takes place.
Principle # 1: God Judges According to Truth
Let’s begin by looking at verse 2: “God’s judgment … is based on truth.” Truth here refers, not to the gospel, but to reality, to life as it actually is. God judges people according to reality, according to the way things are, not the way we would like them to be. That’s not good news for the moralist, because he thinks (hopes? prays?) that God’s judgment will be like those Funny House mirrors that make a short person look tall and a fat person look thin. Not so. When God judges, he judges according to reality.
1. Hypocrites do the very thing they condemn in others 1-2
The basic problem with moralists is that they are hypocrites. At the moment they are looking down at others, they secretly are doing the very thing they condemn. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” The great philosopher, Al Capone, once put it this way, “When I sell whiskey, they call it bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, they call it hospitality.” How true. It all depends on who’s doing the buying and the selling and the serving. We’re all quick to condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves.
This reveals a key principle of God’s judgment. When the Day of Judgment finally rolls around, God will not be fooled by our pious pretenses. He’ll look beyond our outer facade to see how we have lived when no one else was looking. In particular, he will notice our many moral judgments of other people. Francis Schaeffer gave a telling illustration of this point.
The Invisible Tape Recorder
Let us suppose that every time a baby is born, an invisible tape recorder is hung around its neck. As that baby grows up, the tape recorder faithfully records all the moral judgments that person makes about another person: “She’s so catty,” “He can’t be trusted,” “Only a fool would do a thing like that,” “I’d die before I would say something like that,” “He doesn’t deserve a second chance.” Think of all the thousands and thousands of moral judgments we make every year. And the invisible recorder catches them all. Finally, the day comes when the man stands before the Almighty. He protests that he doesn’t deserve to be there, that God has nothing on him, that he’s been a very good person. From nowhere, a finger appears and presses a button on the tape recorder around the man’s neck. Out comes the sound of all the moral judgments that man made over 75 years. When it is over, God says, “Now I will judge you by the same standards you used in judging others.” Who could survive that judgement?
But that’s exactly what Paul is saying. The moral man is condemned by his own words. Why? Because he does the very thing he condemns in others.
“I’m Really Sick”
The tendency toward hypocrisy shows itself in many subtle ways. Have you ever noticed how we like to “rename” our sins? We do that by ascribing the worst motives to others, while using other phrases to let ourselves off the hook. If you do it, you’re a liar; I merely “stretch the truth.” If you do it, you’re cheating; I am “bending the rules.”
You lose your temper; I have righteous anger.
You’re a jerk; I’m having a bad day.
You have a critical spirit; I bluntly tell the truth.
You gossip; I share prayer requests.
You curse and swear; I let off steam.
You’re pushy; I’m intensely goal-oriented.
You’re greedy; I’m simply taking care of business.
You’re a hypochondriac; but I’m really sick.
You stink; I merely have an “earthy aroma.”
And so it goes. We all have a thousand ways to excuse our own behavior while at the same time criticizing others for doing the same things. No wonder Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” If we all followed that standard, the volume of criticism in the world would rapidly fall to zero.
Some time ago I talked with a good friend who is having trouble in his marriage. When I asked him what was his main problem and what was her main problem, my friend smiled ruefully and said with total honesty, “I see her problems much better than I see my own.” I laughed and admitted that I’m the same way. I always look pretty good to myself! That’s human nature, isn’t it? All of us, even the best of us, are prone to hypocrisy because we all by nature let ourselves off the hook too easily.
2. Hypocrites think they will escape God’s judgment 3
But that’s not the whole story. Moralists are in deep trouble with God, not only for their hypocrisy but also for their pride. People who think they are better than others naturally tend to think that they will never face God’s judgment. “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” The answer of course is Yes, that’s exactly what Mr. I.M. Okay thinks, but he is sadly mistaken.
This week when the verdict came down in the Jeffrey Dahmer case, many people breathed a sigh of relief. That cannibal will never get out of jail. And if we are honest, many of us rejoiced that such a man finally “got his.” We look at Jeffrey Dahmer and say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” But how many of us also said, “There but for the grace of God go I?” Most of us resist any comparison between ourselves and such a man. Our sins are different, we say. True, but only in degree, not in kind. Left to ourselves, any of us could have committed sins as bad or even worse.
Give the man his due. Before he was sentenced, he said, “I should have stayed with God. I didn’t and I created a holocaust. I deserve whatever I get.” Every word of that statement is true. But we should say, “He was punished today. Tomorrow it may be my turn.”
3. Hypocrites misuse the mercy of God 4-5
Paul’s final indictment of the moral hypocrite is found in this: He misused the mercy of God. “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” The question is rhetorical, implying a yes answer. Yes, the moral man takes God’s mercy for granted. He thinks that because God hasn’t punished him yet, he must be a good man. After all (he thinks), if he were a bad man, God wouldn’t let him get away with it. By thus reasoning backward from effect to cause, he uses God’s patience with him as an excuse to continue his hypocrisy.
But he misses the point. God’s patience doesn’t mean he is pleased. To the contrary, God’s patience with mankind means that he is willing to give man extra time to come to his senses. Sometimes we look at the Saddam Husseins of the world and say, “Why doesn’t God put an end to the evil we see all around us?” As if evil were somewhere “out there” and not inside us. Why didn’t he stop Jeffrey Dahmer? Why doesn’t he put an end to all the killing? There are many answers to that question, but perhaps it is best answered with another question. Why didn’t God strike you dead when you shouted “I hate you” at your husband? Why didn’t God punish you for cheating on your income tax? Why didn’t God lower the boom when you spread a rumor about a co-worker? God sees it all. He sees Saddam Hussein and he sees you. His mercy causes him not to judge quickly. God waits because he knows how blind we are, how obstinate, how foolish, how prone to evil we are. God waits because he knows we need more time. God waits because he wants us to repent and turn to him.
William Barclay said it this way:
The mercy and love of God are not meant to make us feel that we can sin and get away with it; they are meant to break our hearts that we will seek never to sin again. (Romans, p. 43)
Principle # 2: God Judges According to Works
Verse 6 reveals the second principle of judgment: “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” Not only is God’s judgment according to reality; it is also according to works. To say it another way: God looks not only at what you say; he also looks at what you do.
Some have wondered if Paul, in these verses, is contradicting his teaching in chapters 4-5 that justification before God comes only by faith. The answer of course is no. The issue is not works versus faith. The real issue in these verses is truth versus hypocrisy. Hypocrites talk a good game but their life doesn’t back up their pious words. The moral man likes to boast about his seeking after glory and immortality but upon closer examination, he proves to be a selfish pig. For that man there is only tribulation and suffering ahead. (This is a rough paraphrase of what Paul says in verses 7-10.)
Why are your works so important? Simply because your works reveal what is in your heart. Whatever is inside must eventually come out. This is a great principle that reveals itself in many ways. If you are angry inside, that anger must eventually reveal itself. If you are bitter, that bitterness will bubble to the surface. If you are a greedy person, your greed will show itself in your actions. If you are a bigot, you can’t hide your bigotry forever. If you are a chattering fool, soon enough you’ll open your mouth and prove it to the world. Likewise, if you are merciful, mercy will come forth. If you are gentle, the world will soon see your gentleness. If you are thrifty or wise or trustworthy or loving or a peacemaker … whatever you are on the inside will be seen in the way you live.
That’s why God judges by works. Not to establish the way of salvation but the basis of judgment. You are saved by faith and judged by works. Is there a contradiction? Not at all. Your works ultimately reveal what is in your heart—either faith leading to life or unbelief leading to judgment.
By the way, these verses reinforce the first principle—God judges not what you intend to do; God judges what you actually do. That’s not good news for Mr. I.M. Okay because he’s not as good as he thinks he is.
Principle # 3: God Judges According to Light
Paul’s final principle is brought on by his comments in verse 11: “For God does not show favoritism.” This was not good news for the Jews because they deeply believed in the favoritism of God. They wanted—and expected—special treatment from the Almighty. Many of them truly believed that because God had chosen them, he would give them a special deal when Judgment Day finally rolled around. Paul tells them, “You’ll get a special deal, all right, but you won’t be happy about it.”
In verses 12-16 Paul explains that God judges the Jews and Gentiles by two different standards. Since the Jews were given the Law, they would be judged by the law. But the Gentiles (who didn’t have the law) would receive a different judgment. Here we return to the question Paul discusses earlier—what about the man who has never heard the gospel? In 1:18-20 Paul showed how such a man is truly guilty before God; in these verses he shows exactly how God will judge that man—wholly apart from the Bible, the gospel, the church, or any knowledge of Jesus Christ.
1. The Jews are judged according to the Law 12b
But first he disposes of the Jews. “All who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” When he says “law,” just think of the Ten Commandments. The Jews had known for 1500 years exactly what God had wanted from them. Those divine principles were engraved on tablets of stone. But that knowledge only makes the guilt greater! Why? Because knowledge always demands a response. That’s what Paul means when he says, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” God doesn’t want big talkers; he wants big doers. Anybody can say, “Look at me. I keep the law.” What God wants is people who actually live by his divine commandments. That’s where Jews fell short. They didn’t understand that it is not the possession of the law but the practice of the law that matters with God. That’s not good news for the Jews or for 20th-century moralists. We’re in big trouble if we think God is impressed because we go to church, pay our taxes, dress nicely, live in a big house, and stay out of trouble. We may think we’re better than others, but God judges us more strictly because we know so much more than the “sinners” of the world.
2. Everyone else is judged according to their conscience 14-15
We need to pay careful attention to Paul’s argument in these verses: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” Five times in two verses Paul mentions the word “law.” First, he says that the Gentiles do not have the law (He means the Law of Moses was not given to them. Historically that is quite correct.) Second, he says that the Gentiles “by nature” do some things the law requires. He means that there is something inside the heart of man which compels him to keep the moral standards that God laid down in the Ten Commandments. Third, he says that the Gentiles are a law for themselves. That means that when they obey the moral standards of the law—even though they know nothing about the law—they are truly fulfilling God’s law, about which they know nothing. Fourth, he says that this “unwritten moral code” in the heart of every man shows that the basic moral requirements have been revealed to every person who ever lived. Fifth, the truth of all this is shown by the fact that every man has a conscience which either condemns him or sometimes even vindicates him.
Let me explain. Paul is simply saying that God has written on the heart of every man a basic moral code. That code is similar to the things contained in the Ten Commandments. This universal moral code consists of things like “Do not steal,” “Do not cheat,” “Tell the truth,” “Honor your parents,” “Keep your word,” “Help the poor,” “Do not kill,” and so on. It would be hard to find a culture anywhere in the world where those moral values are not honored.
This was not a new idea. The Greek poet Sophocles spoke of “the unwritten and indelible laws of the gods.” The Platonic philosopher Plutarch called it “a law which is not written in books, but implanted in the heart of man.” In fact, this concept of a universal moral code was widely discussed by the Greeks and Romans. Paul simply picks up that concept and applies it to the Gentiles.
How can God judge a man who has never known the law? It’s easy. That man has the universal moral code written in his heart. And he also has a conscience. That’s the other crucial part of Paul’s argument. Since every man has a conscience, and every man has some sense of right and wrong, God judges that man according to how well he lived up to his own moral standards.
The Magic Ring
This week I read an ancient tale about a court magician who wanted to give his king a very special gift. After much work, he designed a magic ring which had a very special property. Every time the king had an evil thought or an unworthy ambition, the ring began to shrink tightly around his finger, thus warning him of impending danger.
The human conscience is like that. It is a ring around the heart, which tightens every time we begin to violate our own standards. It warns of impending danger. We disregard our conscience at our own peril. And, Paul says, every man has a conscience, a “ring around the heart.” No one can say, “I’ve never done wrong,” because every man has violated his conscience at least once, and most of us many times. That’s why God can fairly judge the Gentiles. The law “written in their hearts” will be the standard by which they will be judged. Their guilty consciences will one day rise up to condemn them.
The Acid of God’s Judgment
In one of the museums in the Vatican there is a very old manuscript written on pages of papyrus. Sometime after the pages were first inscribed, someone took the sheets, turned them perpendicular, and wrote at a 90 degree angle to the original writing. The later writing is darker, in some places almost effacing the original writing. But if you look carefully, you can still discern the original words.
Such is the heart and conscience of mankind. In the early days of the human race, God wrote the truth about himself on the heart of every man. That truth included the reality of his existence, his justice, his majesty, his greatness and the universal moral code of the conscience. Man turned the page sideways and wrote in dark letters the dark record of his dark doings. In some places the writing is so dark that the original truth about God is nearly obscured. But the day is coming when the acid of God’s judgment will wipe away the dark record of the evil deeds of the human race. In that day the X-Ray of God will bring to light the original writing by which man will be judged. (Story taken from Let Me Illustrate, by Donald Grey Barnhouse, p. 188)
In that day there will be no excuses—not for the heathen, not for the Jew, not for the moral man, not for you, not for me. No one will be treated unfairly. No one will be cheated. Every man will receive exactly what he deserves. Men will be judged by the light they have received, and no one will be found innocent. In a nutshell, that’s Paul’s argument. God sees all, he knows all, he judges according to reality, according to works and according to light. The message is clear: The whole world is guilty before God. The heathen is guilty. The Jew is guilty. The moral man is guilty.
What happens when Mr. I.M. Okay meets his Maker? In the Judgment Day, he will find out that he’s not okay!
God sees all the actions that we have conveniently forgotten. When we cut people down, or speak with spite and sharpness, and deliberately try to hurt them, he sees it. He sees it when we are unfair in our business tactics, when we are arrogant toward someone we think is on a lower social level than ourselves. When we are stubborn and uncooperative in trying to work out a tense situation, he sees that, too. All these things God notices. (Ray Stedman, From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1, p. 38)
The day is coming when all the things God sees are finally made public. “This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (2:16)
Three Facts We Must Face
In light of everything this passage teaches us, there are three facts we must face.
We must all face Jesus Christ sooner or later.
Either we face him as Savior now, or we must face him as Judge later.
Those who prefer to face him as Judge will live to eternally regret their decision.
Here is the final piece of bad news for Mr. I.M. Okay. He thinks he doesn’t need Jesus Christ because he thinks he is better than those “sinners” he sees all around him. But he’s wrong. In many ways, he’s worse off than they are, because at least they know they are sinners. The problem with Mr. I.M. Okay is his name—he truly thinks he’s okay. And God says—You’re not okay!!!!!
I close this message with a simple word of warning. Do not think that because you come to church that you are okay! Coming to church does not make you okay. Do not think that because you don’t do what the “sinners” do, that you are okay! Do not think that because God hasn’t punished you lately, that that means he is pleased with you! Do not think that you are going to heaven just because you live a moral life. Hell is filled with men and women who lived moral lives.
Let me put it plainly. Since judgment is according to light, religious people have the most to fear. We who know so much stand in much greater danger than the heathen who know so little. Forget about the heathen! What about you? If you are trusting in your good works and your basic nice-guy morality to get you to heaven, you will be sadly disappointed. You’re not as good as you think you are. You’re not as nice as you pretend to be. You don’t live up to your own standards. The day is coming when you will be condemned by your own words.
Your alternatives are very simple. Either face Jesus Christ now … or face him later. Today he is your Savior; tomorrow he will be your Judge. Today you can be forgiven; tomorrow you will only be condemned. Today your record can be wiped clean; tomorrow your record will be used against you.
Run to the cross! Run and do not walk. Run, make haste to the bleeding cross of Jesus Christ.
Don’t just stand there looking religious. Religion can only damn you!
If you are Mr. I.M. Okay, then drop everything and run to Jesus. Drop your morality, drop your pretense, drop your hypocrisy, drop your excuses, drop it all and run to the Son of God. The good news is this: Jesus is ready to meet you. When Mr. I.M. Okay finally comes to the cross, there he encounters the power that will transform him into Mr. I.M. Forgiven.