Romans: The Clearest Gospel of All
by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

#3 – The Sin of Self-Righteousness
(Romans 2:1-3:8)

I want you to imagine that you are sitting in the church of Rome when the epistle to the Romans is first read.  An elder or a scribe or leader has been reading chapter one, verse 18 up to verse 32.  While this passage is being read — where Paul describes the wrath of God revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of man and the terrible things that men are doing because they have turned their backs to God — you notice that a group of Christians sitting on one side, these are Jewish Christians, are nodding their heads and whispering to one another, “This Paul surely has hit the nail on the head.  We have always known that these Gentiles are rebellious and sinful.”

Suddenly the reader turns to chapter 2 and these Jewish Christians prick up their ears, because this is what they hear in chapter 2:1-4:

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.  Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.  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? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

And the Jews began to say to themselves, “Surely he is not talking about us.  We are Jews.  How can he talk about us like that? Surely he must mean somebody else.”

And the scribe is reading on and he comes to verse 17:

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God....

Paul says, “Yes indeed, I am talking to you Jews.  Indeed you are called a Jew and you trust in the Lord and you make your boast of God...,” and he goes on and on.

You see, Paul has been describing the Gentile world in chapter 1, and he has given us a terrible picture of death.  They are ungodly, they have deliberately suppressed the truth about God, they have made their own gods, they are worshipping themselves and their ideas, and they are living in sin.  And now, suddenly, he changes from the Gentiles to the Jews.

Why does he make this distinction? It is because the Jews were in a very special position.  You see, the Gentiles did have a knowledge of God, but it was an implicit knowledge of God:  it was a knowledge of God that was revealed to them through nature and through their inner conviction.

The Jews, over and above this, had the direct revelation of God.  As Paul mentioned in chapter 3, verse 2:

...First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.

God had revealed Himself to them through His law, through Moses, and through the other prophets — revealed Himself in a very special and explicit way.

The tragedy was that the Jews were relying on this.  They felt, because God had given them this special position, that they were very special people.  They felt, because they had the law in this explicit form, that they were better off than the Gentiles.  They felt that these things, in and of themselves, made them acceptable to God.  But they were ignorant.  They were ignorant of the fact that these things did not make them special before God.

Before we discuss the Jews, I would like to say something here that is meaningful to us because you may get the impression that he is discussing the Jews.  You see, when we dealt last study with the Gentile world, we applied it to our nation because, today, America is turning her back to God and we have seen terrible things happen because of ungodliness.

But now I want to get a little bit closer.  I believe that what Paul is saying to the Jews has a tremendous application to us as a people.  I’ll tell you why, because we have a very similar position to the Jews.  To us, God has given some wonderful truths. He has restored the law to us.  We have the genuine Sabbath.  We have a clearer understanding of the cross; we understand about the state of the dead.  So, God has given us some wonderful truth.  He has given us the Spirit of Prophecy, a lesser light to lead us to the greater light.  And we are in the same danger as the Jews, of relying on these things.

We have committed the same mistake, folks.  We have looked down upon the other Christians as if they were inferior Christians.  We look upon them and say that they don’t have the Sabbath, we have it.  We have the truth; they are Philistines. They are Babylonians, they are confused.  We have the truth.  But the Jews had the same problem and we need to learn what Paul is trying to say about them.

Please remember, Paul was a Pharisee himself, once.  He knows what he is talking about and he is being honest and we need to face the issue honestly.  What was the problem of the Jews? Where did they go wrong? Can we learn lessons from their mistakes? I read in I Corinthians 10, verse 11 that:

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

What was their problem? What were they ignorant about? I would like to touch three areas.

Number one, the Jews were ignorant about the fact that the mere possession of truth, the mere knowledge of the law do not in and of themselves make them righteous and acceptable before God.  The fact that you know the law doesn’t improve your situation.  In fact, if you break the law of a country and you are brought before a judge, and you tell the judge, “Look, why are you accusing me? I knew the law.”  The judge will say, “The fact that you knew the law puts you in a worse position because you knew better!”

So the fact that the Jews knew the law did not make them better.  Please notice where Paul touches the heart of the problem.  Look at chapter 2, verse 13.  Paul says there that:

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.

If you want to be saved by the law, it is not enough to say, “I know the law.”  It is not enough to say, “I have the law in its explicit form.”  You have to perform that law.  You have to do it in every detail.  Paul repeats the same thing when he discusses the Jews in chapter 10 of Romans.  In Chapter 10, verse 5, he says:

Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law:  “The man who does these things will live by them.”

In other words, the law comes to you and says, “If you want to live, you must obey me.”  A knowledge of the truth, a knowledge of the law, does not save anybody.

But the Jews had this tragedy.  The tragedy was they thought that because they possessed this law that they were better than the Gentiles.  They would look at the Gentiles and they would say, “Well, these Gentiles, they do not know the law of God.  They don’t even know the true God.  We have that truth.  They are outside the covenant of God; they are dogs.  They are hopelessly lost.  We have the truth.”  This is how they boasted.  Look at verse 17-20:

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law [that is, your knowledge of 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; 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, becaue you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth....

But Paul says in verses 21-23:

...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? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?

He ends up by saying in verse 24 a quotation from Ezekiel 36:22:

As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

It is not enough to say that we have the truth.  The question is, has the truth set you free? It is no use boasting about your knowledge of the truth of the law of God because Paul is saying that, while you are boasting, you are doing the same thing as the Gentiles.

Now, they may not be doing things openly.  You know, a legalist tends to do things underhandedly.  I want to tell you a little experience.  The other day I was at the supermarket and I said to myself, “Thanksgiving is approaching and it’s about time I bought my dog a nice, juicy bone.”  So I went to the meat section and I looked around to see if there were any Adventists.  I got a nice, juicy bone and I held it under my arm and I went to the counter and a few days later one of the members of the church came up to me and said, “What were you doing with that bone under your arm?”

We human beings are, by nature, legalists.  We want to hide.  These Jews openly they were not doing things.  They were very holy people, because I read Matthew 23:5:

Everything they do is done for men to see.

But all the things they did were to show other people how good they were, but inside they were full of rotten bones, and I don’t mean dog bones either.  Matthew 23:27-28:

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.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

It is simply not enough to know the truth.  The fact that God has given us extra light doesn’t make us better.

Problem #2: The Jews felt that keeping the law to the best of their ability or keeping the majority of the law was sufficient.  They failed to see what James says in chapter 2, verse 10:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.

The law is a unit and, if you fail on one point only, you have come under the condemnation of the law.

I remember an elder in Africa who told me, “You know, Pastor, I have overcome most sins and I am living a good life but I have one or two problems that I am still struggling with.  But surely God cannot bring that against me when he compares it to all the good things I am doing.”

I said, “Brother, if you are depending on the law, even if you break on one small point, you are finished.”  I gave him the illustration of Matthew 19:16-22:

A young man comes to Jesus and says, “What good thing must I do to earn eternal life?”

And Jesus said, “If you want to go to heaven by your deeds, there is the law that is the definition of righteousness.”

And he said, “Well, Jesus, I want you to know that, ever since I was in primary sabbath school, I have been keeping that law.”

And Jesus said, “Really? Let me test you.” And, when he failed, he had to go home sorrowfully.

If you break the law on one point, that’s all, you are finished if you are depending on the law for your salvation. The law is rigid.  It demands perfect obedience on every point. Galatians 3, verse 10:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written:  “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

So, #2, the Jews went wrong, they were ignorant of the fact that they had to keep the law in every detail if they were to be saved by the law.

But point #3, which is an extremely important point:  the Jews were correct, the Jews were experts, only in the letter of the law.  They had failed to see that the law demands obedience in the heart, in the spirit.  The Jew, the Pharisee would stand up and say to the people, “I have never murdered anybody.”

Jesus, in Matthew 5, verse 21 onward, says:  “One moment, if you hate somebody in your heart without a cause, you have committed murder in the eyes of the law.”  And remember, when Jesus spoke that sermon on the mount, the Jews were already planning to murder the Son of God.  It is not a question of simply regarding the letter.  Paul himself was a victim to Judaism.  But in Romans 7:7 he says:

...Indeed, I would not have know what sin was except through the law.  For I would not have know what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”

Please notice this:  it has nothing to do with an act.  We tend to define sin as an act but God doesn’t look only at the act, He looks at our motives.  And I will say right now, here, folks, that anyone who plans to go Ingathering that they may have a star in their crown, are sinning because the motive is wrong even though acts are wonderful.  Look at verse 2:16:

This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

In the day of judgment, says Paul, God will judge the secrets of men.  It is not enough to obey the law outwardly.  I’ll tell you what the Jews did.  God gave them the law.  Now, what is the law? The law is a revelation of His character.  Therefore, for you to produce the character of God, you have to be God yourself.  That is why it was always God’s purpose to dwell in people and to reflect His character through us.

But the moment that you try to keep the law of God in your own strength, you have to do what the Jews did.  They took the holy law of God, as holy as God himself, and they brought it down to the level of men by rules, by do’s and dont’s, and by keeping those rules they thought they were keeping the law.

We do the same thing, folks.  The only difference is that in each country the Adventists have their own rules.  In America we have our rules, in Scandinavia we have our rules, in Africa we have our rules, and, when we meet together, that’s when the problem comes because the rules don’t agree.

My dear people, if you are thinking of how much you will sell your car for tomorrow, someone is coming to see it to buy your car, and if you are thinking right now, “How much am I going to sell the car for?” even though you are physically in the church right now, you are breaking the Sabbath.

And, young boys, if you are thinking about why your girlfriend hasn’t written to you, you are breaking the Sabbath.  Because the law doesn’t demand only perfect acts but perfect motives.  This was the greatest mistake of the Jews.  Romans chapter 2, verses 28 and 29:

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 [in the spirit, not in the letter].  Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

The Jews were doing all kinds of wonderful, good things that they may be praised of men.  But the true Christian is one whose praise is not of men but of God, who is keeping the law, not in the letter, but in the spirit.

I want to make it clear that it is impossible for you and me to keep the law in the spirit without first accepting the Gospel. Let me give you a text.  Since we are in Romans, Romans chapter 7 and verse 6.  Listen to what Paul is saying here:

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we [that is, the believers] have been released from the law [from legalism, from under the jurisdiction of the law] so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

You see, legalism and self-righteousness are an outward religion and Paul demolishes the platform on which the Jews, who were depending on law-keeping, stand.

There was something else that the Jews were depending on.  They were depending also on circumcision.  Paul says in verse 25 of chapter 2:

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.

In other words, if you have turned to circumcision as a means of salvation, you must keep all of the law and please remember that, to the Jew, there was not that much of a distinction between ceremonial and moral law.  We make that distinction; the Jews did not.  To them the Torah — all of the five books and the requirements in the five books of Moses — were part of the law and they believed that they must keep that in every detail.

But Paul says, if you are depending on circumcision for your ticket to heaven, for your acceptance before God, may I warn you that you are under obligation to keep every other law to be saved.

Paul demolishes the same thing today, if you are depending on certain things that you have done.  If you are depending on the fact that you were baptized by immersion, please don’t look down upon those Christians who were baptized by sprinkling and say, “They know nothing about baptism, I am the one who was baptized by immersion.”  Folks, that won’t help you.

These things are good if you have a right relationship with Christ, but without that, they are useless.  Don’t think that because your name is in the books of the Adventist Church that it qualifies you for heaven.  Don’t think that because your parents or your great grandparents were pillars of the church, maybe even having been pioneers [of the Adventist faith], that it will save you.

I remember one day when I was in the New Gallery Centre in London, a young man came up and he wanted somebody in our group to show him around.  He said, “By the way, I want you to know that I am from the General Conference” [the World Headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church].

I said to him, “So what? Does that give you any special privilege?” And he was taken back.  I wasn’t working there; my wife was.  She was the bible instructor.  I was having a little bit of fun and later on I discovered that he was a janitor in the General Conference.  I would have given him a special privilege, but I thought that he was demanding attention because he was from the G.C.

I don’t care where you come from — your father, your parents may have been pioneers — that doesn’t give you a special place in God’s kingdom.  God is no respecter of persons and that is what Paul is explaining to the Jews in verse 5 onwards.  Look at Romans 2:14-15 for example:

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 that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

In other words, “there are Gentiles there who are closer to God than you Jews are,” and that was devastating.

I suppose, by the time the reader was reading chapter 2, verse 14 onward, if Paul was there, they would have lynched him because they did it in the books of Acts.  They grabbed him. “This is the man who is against our people!”

No, what Paul is doing is destroying every confidence that men have, Jew or Gentile, in themselves.  Because he cannot give the gospel unless he has destroyed that confidence.  I remember preaching at a series of meetings at a Pentecostal church in Addis Abbaba [Ethiopia] and one day the pastor said to me, “Why don’t you preach on the Sabbath?”

So I gave them full studies, and do you know, the whole church turned to Sabbath-keeping.  They call themselves Seventh-day Pentecostals.  One day, the pastor came to our church in Addis Abbaba to hear me preach and the sabbath school secretary of our union turned to him and said, “I hear you people are keeping the Sabbath.”  They had 800 members in their church.

The pastor said, “Yes.”

The secretary said, “Why did you change your name? All you had to do was join our church.  We keep the Sabbath.”

The pastor replied, “I hate to say this, but I am going to be honest.  When you Adventists learn how to love and be warm to other Christians, we will join you.”

So, that was a slap in the face.

But folks, we boast that we keep the law of God because we love Jesus.  Are we really loving Jesus? For if we love Jesus we will love our neighbors.  Are we making the same mistake as the Jews?  Are we blaspheming the name of God?  Look at Romans 2:26:

If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?

See, God is looking at the heart of people.  Are we right inside? As long as we have outward conformity, that means nothing to God.

Now what is Paul trying to say here? Can you imagine what the Jews were thinking by the time that chapter 2 was read? Does Paul mean that there was no advantage to being a Jew? Is there no advantage in being a Seventh-day Adventist? The answer is in verse 1 of chapter 3 of Romans:

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.

God gave the Jews the truth as it is in Christ.  He gave them the truth to lead them to Christ.  What was wrong with the Jews? They took the truth and they perverted it.  They made the law the means of salvation.  Instead of the law showing them their total depravity so that they may go to Christ for salvation, they made the law their salvation.  My dear people, we have the truth, but has the truth led us to a closer walk with Jesus Christ? That’s the question.

I want to remind you in closing that Paul has a purpose in dealing with the sin problem, both with the Gentiles and with the Jews.  The purpose of this passage, up to chapter 3, verse 20, is to destroy in every human being, confidence in yourself, in your ability, in your origin, in everything that you rely on, that you may accept nothing else but Jesus Christ as your hope and as your righteousness.  In other words, Paul is saying, “I don’t care if you are Jew or if you are a Gentile.  The whole world is under sin.  The whole world is a slave to sin.  The whole world is controlled by sin and, therefore, by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”

Let me put it this way, the formula of the gospel, as I have mentioned before and I repeat again today, is:  “Not I, but Christ.” The hardest part of the formula is the first part, “Not I.”  That is the purpose of this first section of Romans.  Paul paints a gloomy, dismal picture of not only the Gentile world, but of his own people, the Jews.  It doesn’t matter if you are in the church or you are out of the church, we are 100 percent sinners and, once we are convinced of that, we will stop pointing fingers at each other.  You see, if I think of myself as 80 percent a sinner and you are 100 percent a sinner, I can point my finger at you because I am 20 percent better than you.  But if we all are 100 percent sinners, we all belong to the same camp and together we will turn to Jesus Christ and his gospel as our only hope.

In concluding, I want to give you a text which is Paul’s burden in this passage.  Philippians 3:3, and this is the purpose of this passage, so please don’t get discouraged.  As I mentioned last Sabbath, Paul has to destroy your confidence in yourself before he can say, “But now I have good news.”  You see, Christ did not come to save good people, he didn’t even come to save 99 percent sinners, but he came to save only 100 percent sinners and we must reach that point before the gospel can become fully effective in our lives.  Here is Paul’s true application of circumcision, here is what it means to worship God in the spirit (Philippians 3:3):

For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus...

To worship God in the spirit means to rejoice in Christ Jesus.  That’s not difficult if the other half is already reached.  And here it is:

...and who put no confidence in the flesh....

Please notice that “Not I, but Christ.”  When you have no confidence in the flesh, then you and I are ready for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now there is one more study — Romans 3:9-20 — where Paul summarizes and concludes the universal sin problem.  I realize it’s a dark, dismal, hopeless picture, but there is good news ahead and Paul is simply preparing us for that good news.  I pray that you will not be among those who will feel insulted by what Paul is writing about the human race — about you and me — but that you will agree with Paul:  “Paul, you are dead right, we are sinners.  Our hope is in Jesus Christ and His righteousness alone.”

May God help us to realize our total depravity, that in and apart from the grace of God we are incapable of doing one bit of righteousness in the spirit.  We may be doing it in the letter, but not in the spirit.

May God help us to take what Paul is saying about the Jews and apply to us, and say, “Paul, thank you for opening our eyes.  We recognize that there is nothing good in us.  Thank you, so that we may accept the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

May God help us that we shall know this truth and the truth will make us free.  Amen.

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