Whether we like it or not, there is no way to read the Gospel which can exempt us from the requirement to do good. Whether we like it or not, there is no way to read the letters of Paul to reach the conclusion that doing good works is not a requirement of our salvation.
I was careful how I worded that. I did not say that doing good works is a requirement for our salvation. But as that quote from James that we ended with last time says, if I claim to be a believer and yet I can see no proof of that in my life in terms of fruit… I should wonder; and that, sooner than later.
As Jesus told His disciples:
John 15:16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and have set you that ye should go and [that] ye should bear fruit, and [that] your fruit should abide, that whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name he may give you.
We are to bear fruit. And we have known since the Sermon on the Mount what kind of fruit Jesus was talking about. After leaving no doubt about the way God requires us to live, loving our neighbors as ourselves, forgiving, not condemning but restoring, Jesus starts wrapping that Sermon up:
Matthew 7:13-23 Enter in through the narrow gate, for wide the gate and broad the way that leads to destruction, and many are they who enter in through it. For narrow the gate and straitened the way that leads to life, and they are few who find it.
But beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but within are ravening wolves. By their fruits ye shall know them. Do [men] gather a bunch of grapes from thorns, or from thistles figs? So every good tree produces good fruits, but the worthless tree produces bad fruits. A good tree cannot produce bad fruits, nor a worthless tree produce good fruits. Every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. By their fruits then surely ye shall know them.
Not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but he that does the will of my Father who is in the heavens. Many shall say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied through *thy* name, and through *thy* name cast out demons, and through *thy* name done many works of power? and then will I avow unto them, I never knew you. Depart from me, workers of lawlessness.
The main theme of the Sermon on the Mount is that there is a way in which the children of God are called to live, and it is not by the “letter of the Law”, rather it is by its Spirit. This is why Jesus early on tells his listeners:
Matthew 5:20 For I say unto you, that unless your righteousness surpass [that] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of the heavens.
This implies that the Pharisees, who claimed to keep all of the requirements of the Law were not making it in. Why? Because as Paul is going to say over and over again, The Law was a compass, and a compass can’t save you. Why can’t it save you? Because if I am honest and I look at the direction the compass has been pointing and then I look at the path I actually followed on the map of my life, the only conclusion I can reach is that I have failed utterly.
The Sermon on the Mount was meant to open our eyes to the spiritual reality. What matters is the Spirit of the law, not all the little checklists I added, not all the objective rites I performed. What matters, Jesus always taught, is what path did my heart take?
This is why Jesus repeatedly emphasized the state of our heart.
Luke 6:45 The good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth good; and the wicked [man] out of the wicked, brings forth what is wicked: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
And why he told the Pharisees;
Matthew 23:23-25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin, and ye have left aside the weightier matters of the law, judgment and mercy and faith: these ye ought to have done and not have left those aside.
Blind guides, who strain out the gnat, but drink down the camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but within they are full of rapine and intemperance. Blind Pharisee, make clean first the inside of the cup and of the dish, that their outside also may become clean.
This is also why, when we read the Sermon on the Mount honestly, we should be shaking our heads by the end. Because if this is what is required to make it into the Kingdom of Heaven, I’m lost!
And that’s the way we should react. Because the Sermon on the Mount is the exposition of the Spirit of the Law and therefore it cannot disagree with the Law. What the Sermon does is make it absolutely clear where that compass has been pointing all along. At every point on the road, it has been telling us, ‘this is the right choice to make’. We can’t deny it. There is no excuse. And the reaction can only be: “Help me! I’m not going to make it.”
God judges the works of all men
There is no other way to interpret the way Paul starts off in Chapter 2. In verse 2, he tells them that they know God must judge in truth. Therefore, he asks by verse 5 the pointed question: do you think you can do wrong and escape? Just because you haven’t reaped what you sow yet, doesn’t mean anything. Don’t you think that instead you are storing up wrath for when the day of judgment comes? Because in that day it is God…
Romans 2:6-10 who shall render to each according to his works: to them who, in patient continuance of good works, seek for glory and honour and incorruptibility, life eternal. But to those that are contentious, and are disobedient to the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [there shall be] wrath and indignation, tribulation and distress, on every soul of man that works evil, both of Jew first, and of Greek; but glory and honour and peace to every one that works good, both to Jew first and to Greek:
Paul has just made clear that the compass that you hold doesn’t do you any good if you are not doing the good that it requires. But this holds for all compasses, not just The Law.
Romans 2:12 For as many as have sinned without law shall perish also without law; and as many as have sinned under law shall be judged by law,
The argument he is developing is that sin is sin, regardless of what compass you are using. And the essential question is – regardless of which compass you are using – Did you do what it requires?
(If you remember my Introduction to this series, you can see why Paul has to keep putting both Jews and Gentiles on the witness stand of the courtroom.)
Romans 2:13-15 (for not the hearers of the law [are] just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when [those of the] nations, which have no law, practise by nature the things of the law, these, having no law, are a law to themselves; who shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts accusing or else excusing themselves between themselves;)
Paul has built up to this point slowly. He had to. Because, although he is addressing all the believers in the Church of Rome, the believers who ought to have been the strongest, the believers that were best equipped to grasp the power of the Gospel and move it forwards, were the Jewish ones. They had The Law in written form. They ought to have been the ones well versed on the character of God, on the nature of His plan, on his promises, and all the proofs that those promises rendered of His power and righteousness.
And yet, apparently, (and this becomes evident from the lengths to which Paul has to go to make this argument) they were getting stuck on their compass. They were at risk of thinking that having The Law was what made them righteous. So, here he has pushed a little harder. In Chapter 1, he talked about God’s revelation to all humanity (Gentiles) as being in the form of wrath. Nevertheless, it was a revelation. It was a compass. And now, he states what should be obvious, that that compass had to have been pointing out the way of righteousness also. Why? Because the Gentile’s compass had to have also been made by God (written on their hearts).
From which it follows that all people of the world, not just the Jews, are, in principle, capable of choosing to do the good works that God requires. And if God must judge in Truth, then he must judge all humanity by the same standards of good and evil. And if God must condemn sinners, then simply being a Jew cannot exempt you from that judgment.
Romans 2: 23-29 thou who boastest in law, dost thou by transgression of the law dishonour God? For the name of God is blasphemed on your account among the nations, according as it is written.
For circumcision indeed profits if thou keep [the] law; but if thou be a law-transgressor, thy circumcision is become uncircumcision. If therefore the uncircumcision keep the requirements of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision, and uncircumcision by nature, fulfilling the law, judge thee, who, with letter and circumcision, [art] a law-transgressor?
For he is not a Jew who [is] one outwardly, neither that circumcision which is outward in flesh; but he [is] a Jew [who is so] inwardly; and circumcision, of the heart, in spirit, not in letter; whose praise [is] not of men, but of God.
Paul has not said anything here that differs from what Jesus taught. What matters to God is the heart and how it overflows into action. In fact, the way Paul ends this section is reminding his Jewish brothers that they knew this from the Law: It is one of the most important promises that heralds the coming salvation:
Deuteronomy 30:6 And Jehovah thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
That Paul has to harp on this point makes it clear that the Jewish believers in Rome were indeed at risk of lapsing back into thinking that what made God pleased with them was their heritage: that they were God’s chosen people.
We have to read the next major sections of this letter with this understanding in mind. Paul has to get his Jewish brothers to see that that is not how God’s promised salvation works.