The Fatal Flaws of Religion

Romans 2:17-29

June 25, 2006 | Brian Bill

I’ve been fascinated and frustrated about something for many years.  Have you noticed how companies are shrinking the size of their products while keeping the packaging the same?  The result is less product while the price stays the same or goes up.  Marketing experts argue that consumers are more sensitive to price changes than they are to size changes so companies can get away with less quantity.  Let me demonstrate.

  • Cans of Coffee.  Years ago, coffee was sold in 1-pound, 2-pound or 3-pound sizes.  Without making the container any smaller, now the weight of some cans is only 11 ounces.
  • Shampoo.  Do you remember when bottles were one pint, or 16 ounces?  Now, there’s less shampoo and more bottle.  Notice how the cap at the top makes it seem like the bottle is bigger than it really is.  This bottle is only 14.5 ounces.
  • Dish Detergent.  Initially the bottles shrunk because of the claim that the soap was concentrated.  I’ve noticed over time that these smaller sizes no longer are referred to as concentrate; they’ve just stayed smaller while the price has not decreased.
  • Orange Juice.  The one-gallon container has been shrunk to 96 ounces and yet the packaging makes it look like you’re still buying a whole gallon.
  • Ice Cream Containers.  Several companies have subtly changed the size of their containers from ½ gallon to 1.75 quarts.  When consumers started complaining, some of the companies explained that the smaller size fits better in the freezer!  It’s almost like they’re doing us a favor!  

Interestingly, the packaging industry has dubbed these new containers “cheater cups” because they’re designed to fool consumers.  One thing companies are counting on is that it’s easy to sneak a subtle change past people.  Like John Stossel is fond of saying, Give me a break!  While there is often backlash at the beginning, most consumers end up accepting the change.

As we finish Romans 2 this morning, we’re going to learn that many believers today are “cheater Christians,” because they’re fooling themselves and others.  Too many religious people have pretty packaging on the outside but have downsized the amount of spirituality on the inside.  Unfortunately, most people have just accepted the change.  Religion has some fatal flaws for it often focuses only on the outside, and not on the inside.  We could say it this way: Ritualistic religiosity can lead to shrinking spirituality.  Several years ago, Fritz Ridenour wrote a commentary on the book of Romans and entitled it, “How to be a Christian without Being Religious.”  He established that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion filled with rules and rituals:

  • It is possible to be a Christian without being religious.
  • It is possible to be religious without being a Christian.

Montaigne once said, “I find no quality so easy to counterfeit as religious devotion.”  Jesus cautioned against dressing up the outside in order to hide decay and death on the inside.  His words were a rebuke to the religious of His day when He declared in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.”  Graves were painted white every year so no one would accidentally touch a tomb and be declared unclean.  Those involved in ritual and religion were nicely painted on the outside but were actually dead on the inside, and in their deadness, were defiling others.

Paul has established that the immoral Gentiles are guilty before God in Romans 1:18-32.  In Romans 2:1-16, Paul busts the moralists.  Our text today in Romans 2:17-29 addresses the Jews, revealing that ritualistic religiosity can lead to shrinking spirituality.  This is the toughest group to confront because those who are religious think they have all their bases covered.  As we go through this passage remember that Paul himself was raised Jewish, a descendant of Benjamin, and a Pharisee.  This is good to keep in mind because he uses some pretty strong words against his own people.  As a sidebar, since Jewish people have suffered terrible mistreatment over the centuries, we should not participate in any derogatory remarks about them.  

But Paul is definitely not an anti-Semite even though he calls Jews out by name in verse 17: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew…”   He is not making an ethnic slur but rather is arguing that everyone, whether religious or irreligious, is a sinner in need of the Savior.  We were introduced to this theme in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”  As we study together today, keep in mind that Paul loved Jewish people, even stating in Romans 9:3 that he was willing to be cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of those who are Jewish.  We see his heart in Romans 10:1: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.”

The Jews knew that they were God’s chosen people and they were very proud of it.  When they introduced themselves in the first century, they often added the name “Jew” after their name: “Simon Bar-Joseph, Jew.”  They were also called Hebrews because of the language they spoke and Israelites because of the land they were given.  By the time of Christ, the most common name they had was that of Jew, which was derived from Judah, the name of one of the twelve tribes.  The name “Jew” denoted their own distinctiveness, as separate from those around them.  But like most of us who end up focusing on the external exhibition of religious rituals, there are some fatal flaws that we need to avoid.  In order to avoid thinking this passage is just for those who are Jewish, we could substitute the word “religious” for “Jew.”

Fatal Flaw #1: Pride (17-18). 

Proverbs 16:18 states that: “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”  The first fatal flaw is pride.  In Romans 2:17-18, we see that the Jewish people had been given four advantages that ultimately led to arrogance: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God;  if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law.”

  • A reliance on the law.
  • A relationship with the Lord.  They actually “bragged” about this.
  • A recognition of God’s will.  They knew it but didn’t do it.
  • A relish for moral standards.

These advantages were actually good things but when they started to brag about their special position, pride set in.  They were like the puffed up Pharisee in Luke 18:11: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector.’”  Because he only prayed about himself, he thought he was better than those around him, believing that his sin didn’t smell as bad as others.  Their religious privilege had made them self-righteous, self-centered and self-deceived snobs in pretty packages.  As 1 Corinthians 8:1 says, “Knowledge puffs up.”   When you think about it, it’s really absurd for us to be prideful about receiving God’s mercy and grace, isn’t it?   If anything we should be broken and humbled.

I had an experience with pride this week when I received a phone call from a reporter with the L.A. Times.  We talked for about 10 minutes as I pontificated on the subject.  He thanked me and told me that the story would be available on Wednesday on the Times’ website.  When I got home I told Beth and the girls about it and was feeling pretty important.  I got up early and checked and sure enough, the story was there, but with none of my quotes.  Indeed, as Proverbs 29:23 says, “Pride brings a man low…”  Privilege can lead to pride which often leads to presumption.  

Fatal Flaw #2: Presumption (19-20). 

When pride captures our heart, we then feel compelled to act like presumptive prophets by focusing on others, making people know how much we know.  Again, part of this is good because God’s people had been given the responsibility to reach out to the pagans around them.  This goes all the way back to the blessing given to Abraham when he was told in Genesis 12:3 that “all peoples on earth” would be blessed through him.  Isaiah 42:6 says that they were to be: “a light for the Gentiles.”  But one of the flaws of religious people is that they get pleasure out of telling others what to do.  We read in verses 19-20: “If you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.” They saw themselves as…

  • A guide for the blind
  • A light for those in the dark
  • An instructor for the foolish
  • A teacher of infants
Their outward packaging was pretty but there’s wasn’t much happening on the inside because ritualistic religiosity leads to shrinking spirituality

Now, before we move on, let me say that these are all good things, in and of themselves.  But, because they were not living the law themselves, to use the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:24, they were “blind guides.”  Their pride filled them with presumption and so they acted like prophets to other people, but in reality they were just pretenders.  Their outward packaging was pretty but there’s wasn’t much happening on the inside because ritualistic religiosity leads to shrinking spirituality.

Fatal Flaw #3: Pretenders (21-22).

They loved to point out the problems that others had, but they were in the group Jesus warned others about in Matthew 23:3, “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”  They were quick to find fault with others while quickly forgiving their own.  Take a look at verses 21-22: “You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?  You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?  You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” These would be very shocking charges to those who boasted about their religion as this rebuke goes right to their self-perceived strengths.  They were breaking at least three, if not four of the commandments.  It’s so easy to preach it and not practice it, isn’t it?   Religious people are good at telling others what to do.  Isaiah 29:13 hits us right in the gut: “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.’”  

I read this week about brother Brighton.  He was a pompous man who was meticulous about his appearance, holding fast to many religious rules.  He was a member of the most prestigious church in town and was very bothered by the behavior of the boys in his church so he decided to become their Sunday School teacher.  On his first day of class, he decided to begin by teaching the boys the importance of living the Christian life so he asked them this question: “Why do people call me a Christian?”   After an awkward pause, one young boy piped up and said, “Maybe it’s because they don’t know you.”

Fatal Flaw #4: Profaning (23-24). 

Once pride takes root, we become filled with presumption and start blasting others, when in fact we’re just pretenders who end up profaning the holy name of God.  This can have disastrous consequences in two areas.  First, verse 23 states: “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?”  Notice the use of the word “brag” again.  Their pride led to their downfall because they were now dishonoring the very God they claimed to be serving.  Second, once we profane God, we end up pushing people away from Him and even worse; our behavior can cause others to blaspheme.  We could say it this way: When we dishonor God, those who watch us can end up despising Him.  We see this in verse 24: “As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”  This is a quote from Isaiah 52:5.   God’s people were in captivity in Babylon because of their bad behavior.  As a result, those around them thought God was unable to deliver them and so they mocked and maligned the Almighty.  

Our lives are moral megaphones to a listening world because people believe what they behold

Friends, it’s no small matter to dishonor God by our behavior.  Our lives are moral megaphones to a listening world because people believe what they behold.  When Nathan confronted David for his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:14, he made a very strong statement: “…By doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt…”  We are the only Jesus some people will ever know so when we behave badly, we can be directly responsible for others blaspheming God.

When the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Mahatma Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”  Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ.  I love your Christ.  It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  Let’s guard against the fatal flaws of pride, presumption, pretending and profaning because ritualistic religiosity leads to shrinking spirituality.

Choosing Relationship over Religion

Left to ourselves we will choose religion over relationship, form over faith, and profession in the place of possession.  Ultimately, it comes down to making one of two choices. 

Choice #1: We can try to prove our religion by outward signs (25-27). 

Paul knocks down all their props and now goes after the one sign in which the Jew prided himself as a member of the covenant – circumcision.  Since this subject will appear again in Romans 4, I’ll let Pastor Jeff explain it to you in greater detail when he preaches five weeks from today.  Have you noticed a theme here?  Pastor Jeff always “volunteers” to preach on the tough topics; two of his previous messages have been on tithing and homosexuality so as I see it he might as well handle circumcision as well.

For the Jew, circumcision was a holy mark on the body, a physical reminder that he belonged exclusively to God.  Unfortunately, this rite had become the supreme symbol for Jewish superiority.  Suffice it to say that while circumcision was an important sign for the Jew, it was not a ticket to heaven.  We fall into the same trap when we think that an outward sign like baptism or communion or church membership somehow saves us.  Remember this: The rite without the reality is empty because to God, heart matters are the heart of the matter.  Charles Hodge writes: “Whenever true religion declines, the disposition to lay undo stress on external rites is stressed.  The Jews when they lost their spirituality supposed that circumcision had the power to save them.”   Have you been trusting in a rite or do you have a relationship with Christ?  

Choice #2: Praise our Redeemer through inward spirituality (28-29). 

The key is to focus on relationship.  God is always more interested in what’s on the inside than He is on the outside as 1 Samuel 16:7 says: “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  Paul wraps up his argument in Romans 2:28-29 by trying to get religious people to take their focus off what is external: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.  Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”  Notice the four contrasts in these two verses:

  • Outward vs. Inward
  • Physical vs. Heart
  • Written Code vs. The Spirit
  • Men vs. God

The only way you and I can experience renewal is by allowing the Redeemer to change us.  We need inner transformation that can only come from the purifying presence of the Holy Spirit, which results in a burning desire to please and praise God.  If we please God, it doesn’t matter whom we displease.  But if we displease God, it doesn’t matter whom we please.  I love this statement from John Piper: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”  Look with me at the last sentence in Romans 2: “Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”  Paul is actually using a pun here.  The word “Jew” comes from Judah and means “praise.”  One who is only religious will focus on external things so that others will praise him.  The true believer is one who has an inner relationship with Christ, resulting in praise from God.


Let’s look at five ways we can put this passage into practice so that we avoid the fatal flaws of pride, presumption, pretending and profaning.

1. Live what you say you believe – no matter what.

I’ll never forget an experience I had on my first trip to Trinity Bible Church in Biloxi.  After visiting what remained of an 85-year-old widow’s home that has since been demolished, we went to the prayer meeting that Pastor Gerry led.  He had us go around the room and give our names.  We all did but when we got to her she said, “My name’s not important” and then quoted Isaiah 26:3: “He will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in Him.”  In the midst of all their loss, believers are living out their love for Jesus.  I wonder if we would be the same way.  There’s one thing that almost everyone from our four teams commented on after they returned from Biloxi.  They would say something like this: “Wow, I can’t believe they are so joyful and peaceful in the midst of all their problems!”  The only way that is possible is by focusing on our inner relationship, not outward rituals.

2. Practice what you preach – and make it right when you don’t. 

I read a story this week about a mayor in Ohio who realized that he had violated a city policy that he had helped write.  Calculating his own fine, he paid $368 for his infraction.  During a news conference he made this refreshing statement: “How can I say to a city employee, ‘Don’t do that,’ if I do it?”  Is there anything you need to make right?  Are you living what you say you believe at work?  When you’re at school?  When you’re at home?  If not, own up for it and make sure your walking reflects your talking. 

3. It’s time to become completely committed – not half hearted. 

As I look ahead to this next year I believe that God wants us as a church to focus in two main areas: 

  • Growing in Depth
  • Getting out of Debt

In his book called “Early Christians of the 21st Century, Chad Walsh writes: “Millions of Christians live in a sentimental haze of vague piety… demanding little more than lip service to a few harmless platitudes… It is much safer from Satan’s point of view to vaccinate a man with a case of mild Christianity so as to protect him from the real thing.”  Do you have the real thing?  If not, it could be that your religion is keeping you from growing.

4. Make sure you have a relationship – not just religious rituals. 

Are you just going through the motions?  It’s time to make sure you are really in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

The way to begin is by personally receiving what Jesus has done for you on the cross as John 1:12 says: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

5. Grow on the inside – so it shows on the outside. 

Most of us look pretty good on the outside.  Let’s stop trying to make our product look pretty while our insides are shriveling away.  Since it’s true that ritualistic religiosity leads to shrinking spirituality, it’s also true that a relationship with the Redeemer leads to sweet spirituality.  Then what’s on the inside will become visible as 2 Corinthians 4:7 states: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  In one of the interviews with the Pantagraph or the Daily Leader on Friday, Pastor Gerry gave all the credit to God when he said, “It’s not about Pastor Gerry.  God uses simple people so all the glory goes to Him.”  Amen.

We are just clay pots, designed to be filled by Jesus.  Don’t be a “cheater Christian.”  Let the all-surpassing power of God flow from the inside to the outside.  When people look at your packaging, what do they see?  How much product is in your package?  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?