Romans 2:17-24
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17 But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, 18 and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, - Romans 2:17-20


Paul, having just hammered the hedonist and the judgmentalist now focuses on the legalist. This one hits home with me, repeatedly unfortunately. However, I'm not alone. I think it hit home with Paul too. After all, Paul himself was a Jew. In all regards both as a Christian and as a Hebrew Paul had more reason to boast in his accomplishments (2 Cor. 11:21-29) or put pride in his pedigree (Phil 3:3-6). Paul, I suspect when writing this, reflected on his former ways often. Paul knew how a self-righteous Jew thought. In other letters from Paul (see verses in last sentence) he often would elaborate on his former ways but with the intention of correcting the recipients as he himself was corrected. And we know by Romans 9:1-3 Paul is addressing these Jews from a standpoint of God-filled love which may contribute (2 Pet. 1:20-21, 2 Tim. 3:16-17)  to the motivation behind establishing them (and us) in these seven pillars before he tears them down. Not in the hopes of destroying them, but in hopes of destroying their legalistic mindset which is keeping them enslaved on the path of destruction (Gal. 5:4-6). Take a look at these seven pillars.

1.) "you bear the name "Jew" (v17)

2.) "rely upon the Law" (v17)

3.) "boast in God" (v17)

4.) "know His will" (v18)

5.) "approve the things that are essential" (v18)

6.) "are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature" (v19-20)

7.) "having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth" (v20).


Question: Could these verses, these pillars, apply to Christians? In other words, could Christians succumb to having the same mindset of the Jews? Absolutely, and they do, both in Paul's day (See entire book of Galatians, even Peter faltered [vv12-14], not to mention many, many other verses addressing legalism) and today Christians are no exception. So what is legalism?


Legalism is relying on one's own efforts through a system of rules and regulations in achieving both salvation and spiritual growth (known as sanctification). The Tenth Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines legalism as "strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code." Paul was establishing the pillars, or moral codes, in which many of the Jews relied upon for their entry into God's kingdom (before he tears them down, as we'll get into). Christians easily gravitate toward the same pit. While we put our faith in Christ who by His grace accomplishes these things in our life (Gal. 2:16, Eph. 2:8-9, Phil. 1:6, Gal. 3:3) but through our natural tendency and paying attention to false teachers and doctrine (Gal. 1:6-9, 3:1) we easily succumb to the same mindset. Peter himself, the same Peter who preached against such things in Acts 15:10 also fell back into this rut (Gal. 2:11-14).


Question: What are some of the "pillars" or "religious moral codes" we as Christians live by today that perhaps subconsciously (or even consciously) cling to as our justification or way of meriting God's favor? Obviously as Christians we put our faith in Christ and declare God's favor is undeserved (grace). And as a Christian and therefore knowing this is the correct answer, you may be surprised at how sneaky legalism is and how it has crept into our church and maybe even your personal walk with God. So, here are some symptoms of the legalistic mindset.


1.) Unhealthy merit based mindset. God says in Isaiah 30:18 that He longs to be gracious to us and to have compassion on us. He is a loving Father and takes Joy in lavishing His grace on us (Heb. 12:2, Isa. 53:10). Yet many Christians who don't have or hold to a correct view of God's unconditional love feel they must earn it. Their view of God is similar to the Prodigal's, though God is hugging them and kissing them, and preparing a party in their honor, because they in no way deserve it, they in no way enjoy it. Like the Prodigal, they just want to get their penance speech out (Luke 15:21). Legalist love penance.

2.) Lack of true joy. In Romans 14:17 Paul writes "for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit". John 15:11 Jesus states He wants our joy to be made full. Paul said the letter of the law kills (2 Cor. 3:6) but the Spirit gives life. Having a performance or merit based mindset before God is only ever depressing, that is if it's seen accurately in lieu of the true requirements of the Law. Some who are misguided may feel puffed up, but such men have failed to take a serious look at what God truly required of them (Matt. 5:48, 1 Peter 1:16). As long as our Joy is tied to our merits, and not to the merits of Christ (Matt. 5:17, John 19:30) it will be just as absent as our merit based approval from God (Gal. 2:16, Rom. 3:20).

3.) No real victory over sin. All Christians have the flesh and it's accompanying fleshly desires (Rom. 7:14-25, Eph. 4:22) but a person who has difficulty receiving God's grace is having difficulty receiving the only solution to their problem. Such a person, instead of walking in the Spirit (which is only by way of grace) continues to do so in the flesh and never has a real victory. Of such a method in Col. 2:23 Paul writes "These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

4.) A critical, unloving attitude toward others. People who's tank is not filled up by God's grace cannot in turn give grace to others. The man who hid the talent given him from the master did so because he viewed the Master "to be a hard man..." (Matt. 25:24). Jesus made it clear him who is forgiven much loves much. Let me say this, nobody is forgiven little (Luke 7:40-43, spec. 47, cf James 2:10). As we come to understand and lay hold of how much we are loved by God and how marvelously we've been forgiven we respond in loving much (John 14:15). This was the contrast between Peter the legalist who in his flesh did not act with love toward Christ (Luke 7:44-46) and the woman who embraced the grace of God who was even delighted to clean the feet of Jesus with her hair (Luke 7:44-50). Because legalist have not let God's forgiveness have it's work in their heart, but rather harbor merit based living, they in turn are critical toward others in this same legalistic spirit. When you see a Christian being hateful toward Muslims, atheists, liberals, or homosexuals, you have just identified a legalistic spirit.

5.) A sectarian attitude toward other Christians. People who don't understand God's grace believe they have a corner on truth and therefore they cannot accept the fact that the Holy Spirit might be moving in others who don't conform to their standards. They are quick to argue biblical matters. Remember the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for healing on the Sabbath? (Mark. 3:1-6).

6.) Obsessive, excessive focus on outward standards. Some Christians and churches, much like the Pharisees (who in Matt. 23:24 Jesus said would strain a gnat and swallow a camel) make a big todo about trivial matters and neglect the more important things. Martha and Mary are a great example of this. Both loved by God, Martha would be distracted by her sense of duty (Luke 10:40) and miss "the good part" as Jesus put it in Luke 10:42. Martha even lashed out at Mary for not also worrying about the same things she was. Jesus declared to Martha (and us) that Mary, who was simply sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to all that He had to say "has chosen the good part" (v42) which He declared "shall not be taken away from her". Doing nothing and enjoying Jesus... that's a legalist dream but not reality. That is however the reality of a grace-filled Christian.

7.) Little or no assurance of salvation. People with a legalistic mindset often doubt their salvation because they tie it in with their own obedience rather than Christ's obedience (Phil. 2:8). When you receive the grace of God and the spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, the Bible says your heart will cry out, "Abba! Father!" (Rom. 8:15). Because the legalist filters everything through that which is merit based, he concludes that statements of Christ such as "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Heb. 13:5) must have a merit based clause to them somewhere. Therefore they don't cling to such verses or they cling to them with great reservation.

8.) Bondage to religious tradition. Jesus made it clear He came to put new wine in new wineskins. In otherwords, He was not bringing a new way to fix the old system but rather a new Way (John 14:6) and a new system (Eph. 2:8-9). Many Christians unfortunately use the new testament to reinvent the old religious system. Sure they don't use the Mosaic Law, but they invent in their minds, or in their churches, new laws according to new testament verses. Completely missing the grace filled references they latch on to verses like Matthew 5:48 which says "Therefore you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" and therefore they try harder, not realizing this was intended to make known to them they can never try hard enough, as many verse point out (Jam. 2:10, Gal 5:3). This was the very purpose of the old law, and I'm convinced the purpose behind Jesus saying this in Matthew 5:48. So that those things will act as a tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24, Rom. 8:3). Not to change out one burdensome yoke for another burdensome yoke but to change out the old burdensome yoke for the one Jesus is offering which gives rest to our souls! (Matt. 11:28-30). 2 Cor. 3:17 says "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty!"


You know what I've never found? A person who relies on moral code meeting their own moral code. In other words, a person who holds himself and others to strict standards who also meets those standards; which by failing to do so is by biblical definition, hypocrisy (see Matthew 7:1-5 which is very applicable here). Often, I've observed the best thing for a legalist is to be caught according to their legalism which is why I'm thankful that Paul and God is not pulling any punches. Pushing them to the full extent of legalism yields better success than trying to pull them out of it. It actually becomes more valuable to them to be obviously ensnared by their own vices. So that the tutor of the law can have is effect (Gal. 3:24). When someone is preaching moral code rather than Christ I like to ask them how they are doing with that in their own life. I don't do this to frustrate them but with the hopes it will help them see the futility of it. Unfortunately heavy doses is usually required in order to brake the bondage of legalism, or in keeping with our analogy, to tear down it's pillars. Now listen as Paul destroys his chance of getting the "Rabbi of the year" award (see also Gal. 1:10).


21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 24 For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.- Romans 2:21-24


Legalist like to polish a turd. Paul here is exposing the stench underneath. Jesus did in like fashion when He called the Pharisees "whitewashed tombs" who "on the outside appear beautiful, but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matt. 23:27). Jesus then and Paul now are both speaking from love (Mark 3:5,  Luke 13:34, Rom. 9:2-3) when they expose the true state of these men. If we don't first learn we are sick, then we don't seek out the Physician (Mark. 2:17).


"You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?" Paul, and God, is appealing on all fronts. This is a very ingenious way to address those in violation here, to lovingly and therefore soberingly expose them. I'm quite impressed. Paul here didn't follow suit and say something like "you who teach not to worship idols do you worship idols," which they being Jews would easily deny as they did not directly. However Paul ties in the first two commandments in the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20:3-6 which state "You shall have no other gods before Me" and "You shall not make for yourself an idol...You shall not worship or serve them". In just a few words Paul points out how they were holding back that which belonged to God. In doing so, they were essentially robbing the temple and therefore putting themselves before God. They made themselves an idol. They put themselves before God. As Philippians 3:19 states, they were making appetite their God.


23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 24 For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written. - Romans 2:23-24


Christians, specifically legalists, are guilty of the same. We teach others what is wrong and right, then we ourselves violate those standards we impose on others. When we do that, we essentially give non-believers cause to discredit Christians which be definition is "a follower of Christ" and by association we give them cause to discredit Christ. The Jews here were doing likewise. Don't let this combo escape your notice in verse 23. They were boasting in the Law and at the same time breaking the Law they boasted in. Tell me, as a Christian, have you ever held a "Christian" standard among people that you yourself also broke? I've often heard Christians introduce themselves to another with a disclaimer that they are "a poor example of a Christian". So apparently I'm not the only one. You see, it's not merely breaking the law that dishonors God, it's boasting in it combined with breaking it. If we only were breaking the law we would dishonor ourselves. So careful when you boast.


Question: Is it possible to be a sinner and still honor God? If so, then how? Well lets look at what Paul says in regards to boasting.


30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. - 2 Corinthians 11:30


And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. - 2 Corinthians 12:9


Tell me this. Is Christ more attractive to a non-believer when we boast about what is right and wrong and ourselves are found in violation, or if we boast about our weaknesses, that is, our failure to do what is right, and then Christ Himself is seen doing in us what we ourselves cannot and could not accomplish? Which of those glorifies God? When we boast about our weaknesses and make known to the world our shortcomings weak as we are in the flesh (Rom. 8:3), we are only telling them what they already know (people are observant) and have experienced in their own life. But when we are willing to acknowledge our shortcomings before one another then God is glorified by His work in us in His changing, fixing, repairing, and making new and making right that which we could not. This is why Paul wants to tear down legalism, in order to bring about in the legalist's life what God and only God can do. It's only when we acknowledge our weaknesses and therefore our debt, that people get to see our Redeemer.


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