Romans 1-3 shows us that we are all equal under sin. Paul begins with Gentiles who are guilty of blatant disobedience (1:18-32). He then pronounces those guilty of counterfeit obedience (2:1-16). Then in Romans 2:17-29, Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews, goes after his own people the Jews. He tells them that what they (and we) would consider strengths – are not what make us approved before God.
17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth….” Romans 2:17-20 NIV
The structure of Rom 2:17-20 consists of six main verbs: (1) call, (2) rely, (3) boast, (4) know, (5) approve, and (6) are convinced. This six-fold framework details a proud self-righteousness that we can all be guilty of, not just the Jews.
Strengths That Are Not Strong Enough….
What We Call Ourselves. We cannot assume if people wear a certain label, that label is informative or proof of anything. Calling ourselves "Christians" does not make us righteous.
What We Rely On. We can believe that putting our confidence in the writings in the New Testament will make us righteous before God. Having no creed other than the Bible or saying that we “speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent” does not create within us a new life.
Who We Boast About. …even if who we are boasting about is God. We can declare all day the power and existence of God and be no closer to salvation than the demons referenced by James.
What We Know. Knowing God’s will does not save us. This sounds counterintuitive, but it is true. Being able to recite the entire Bible by memory does not and cannot save us.
What We Approve. We may agree to things that are right; we may approve of things that, in reality, are excellent. We can claim and approve all sorts of excellent things, search out scriptural validation for our every practice, and yet still be sinners and apostates.
What We Are Convinced Of (and Teach). We may know the truth and we may teach the truth, but still end as condemned as those who did great works in His name whom Christ never knew (cf. Matt 7:21)
I may call myself a Christian. I may brag about or claim all kinds of things. I may be proud of what I approve, what I've learned and what I teach. These matters, however, do not constitute the main issue between us and God.
The Issue Is How We Live…
Continuing in Romans 2, we read: 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Romans 2:21-24 NIV
And the Content of Our Hearts…
29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. Rom 2:29 NIV
Notice the last phrase in verse 29: "whose praise is not from men but from God." What we should seek is God's approval!
I may call myself a Christian, be a teacher of good things, serve my congregation, and receive the approval of the members - but the issue is my actions and the content of my heart! The issue is living the truth outwardly and inwardly.
Because of Jesus Christ, we can have God's approval. Left to our own power to reform and live right - God's approval would escape our grasp. But the good news is, because Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead…we can be brought out of sin, into righteousness, where we enjoy God's approval. Not by our strengths, but by Christ’s.