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The Vanity of Externalism

August 7, 2022 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans

Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 2:17–29




One of the great joys of studying the Bible is the joy of discovery. For example, you are reading a familiar passage, and something jumps off the page that you never saw before. Suddenly the entire passage makes so much more sense, a new truth grips your soul, or an application impacts your heart. It’s awesome when the Holy Spirit gives you one of these moments and reminds you of the power and depth of Scripture.

Studying Romans 2 the last 3 weeks has been like that for me. I’ve spent a lot of time in Romans, but, honestly, chapter 2 has never gripped me like the rest of Romans. Therefore, I didn’t exactly choose to preach through Romans because I really wanted to preach chapter 2. It was just a necessary part of the study.

But I’m so thankful for how the Holy Spirit has crystallized some ideas for me. This chapter and its role in Romans is much clearer than it was before. As well, 3 weeks ago, I was nervous about applying this very Jewish chapter to our Gentile church. But I can see now that this chapter is far more relevant than I ever realized. Praise the Lord! God’s Word is powerful, and God’s Spirit is with us.

Today, I’m planning to finish the chapter, and I believe that the Spirit has much more for us in vv. 17–29. Remember that the basic purpose of Romans 2 is to prove that the Jews need salvation just as much as the Gentiles. This was a hard sell because most Jews thought they didn’t need salvation for two reasons. First, they thought they were more righteous. Second, and more importantly as it pertains to Romans 2, they thought God would basically give the Jews a free pass at the final judgment simply because they were Jews and that he would not hold them to the same standard as the Gentiles.

The biggest “Aha” in my study the last 3 weeks has been recognizing how much of a role this assumption shapes Romans 2 and the rest of the book. We’ll see again today that this assumption of privilege provides a vital backdrop to our text. Paul begins in vv. 17–24 by confronting…

I.  The Vanity of Externalism (vv. 17–24)

Verses 17–23 consist of 15 descriptions of the Jews which neatly divide into 3 groups of 5. The first 10 are legitimate blessings of God, but the last 5 are confrontational. So, notice that vv. 17–18 describe 5 Jewish privileges.

Jewish Privilege (vv. 17–18): Again, these are all legitimate privileges. The Jews were right to celebrate them as tremendous blessings of God. They were just wrong to think that these privileges guaranteed favoritism at the final judgment.

The first privilege is they “bear the name Jew.” God chose the Jews out of every nation on the earth to be his special people. It was a great blessing to be a member of the Jewish nation.

Second, they “rely upon the Law.” The Law was wonderful blessing because it taught Israel who God is and how to have a relationship with him. As Americans, we rightly boast about the wisdom of our Constitution. The Jews had even more reason to boast because God wrote their constitution.

Third, the Jews “boast in God.” Having a relationship with God is certainly a good reason to boast. “Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me” (Jer 9:23–24a). The Jews were right to boast or to glory in their unique relationship to Almighty God, and so should we.

Fourth, the Jews “know His will.” Sometimes we view God’s Law as merely a burden. But it’s a blessing to know what God wants, how to please him, and how to live a wise and meaningful life.

Fifth, God’s Word is also a blessing because it enables people to “approve the things that are essential.” This phrase is a bit unclear, but the idea seems to be that the Law gave Israel a grid by which they could discern right from wrong and what is best from what is merely acceptable. The law gave wisdom and discernment.

So, these 5 items were all demonstrable blessings of God. As Christians we enjoy many of the same graces. We should give thanks for the privilege of knowing the Lord and of knowing his will through the Bible. These are great blessings. Then vv. 19–20 follow with 5 responsibilities God gave the Jews, which were also legitimate reasons for boasting.

Jewish Responsibility (vv. 19–20): We’ve been talking about similar concepts on Sunday nights. God didn’t set Israel apart to exclude the world from knowing God; instead, Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6) that would mediate the knowledge of God to the nations.

Verses 19–20 describe these honorable responsibilities. It was a privilege to be called of God as a “guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness.” Similarly, as Christians, we shouldn’t bemoan God’s call to take the gospel to the nations; we should feel a humble sense of honor that God has entrusted such an important stewardship to us.

Then v. 20 adds that Israel was to correct the foolish and teach the immature, both within Israel and among the nations. They were to do so because the Law is “the embodiment of knowledge and of truth.” What a beautiful description of Scripture. We don’t just have fragments of truth; we have the “embodiment of knowledge and truth” in God’s inspired Word.”

But this blessing brings great responsibility. I’m reminded of Jesus’ challenge, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:14–16). We must not keep the light to ourselves. We must let it shine.

In sum, vv. 17–20 list 10 blessings God gave to Israel. In this life at least, God had truly privileged Israel. But then Paul makes a sudden turn and points out that Israel had tragically failed to fulfill its stewardship. Verses 21–24 describe…

Jewish Failure (vv. 21–24): Paul asks 5 blistering questions of the Jews, and they are all ironic and tragic considering the privileges of vv. 17–20.

First, Paul just talked about how the Jews were proud of the incredible knowledge God had entrusted to them through the Scriptures; therefore, they prided themselves in being the spiritual teachers of the world. In light of this, v. 21a is very sharp (read).

For all their talk, the Jews didn’t live what they taught. They had a “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. But Paul is saying, “Practice what you preach.”

This is a good challenge for many people today also. Everyone wants to feel superior in some way. If you live in a religious context, but you aren’t truly religious, people still want to find a way to feel superior. As a result, it’s amazing how many ungodly people love to debate theology or want to prop themselves up as a “teacher of the immature,” but it’s all just a distraction from the ungodliness of their own hearts. God says, “Teach yourself before teaching others.”

The next 3 questions confront more specific and serious violations of the Law. The point is not that all Jews or even most Jews commit these sins. Instead, Paul is giving examples which demonstrate that merely possessing the Law hadn’t made Israel truly spiritual. You must obey it, which, Israel had generally not done.

For example, having the Ten Commandments and even preaching the Ten Commandments did not keep Israelites from stealing and adultery. That hasn’t changed. Many people today boast in their Christianity while blatantly disobeying God’s Word.

It’s unclear what exactly Paul is confronting with the next question, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” Paul could be talking about anything from irreverence toward Israel’s temple to robbing pagan temples. We don’t know for certain. Regardless, Paul’s main point is clear. Knowing what is righteous doesn’t make one righteous.

As a result, v. 23 asks a climactic question (read). Verse 17 said that Israel “boast(ed) in God.” God called them to glorify him in the earth. But all too often instead of glorifying God, Israel “dishonor(ed) God.” That was a tough pill to swallow; therefore, v. 24 cites Isaiah 52:5 in support (read).

When Isaiah wrote this verse, Israel had rebelled against God, and they were enduring his judgment through foreign oppression. As a result, the nations did not must mock Israel; they mocked the God whom they claimed to serve. As such, Israel did not make the nations glad by drawing them to God; they drove them away.

This completes Paul’s first major argument. Possessing the Law does not make one righteous. Knowing the truth does not guarantee obedience to the truth. Before we move on, I’d like to make 3 important applications.

God’s blessings do not guarantee God’s favor. We’ve talked about this one a lot the last 3 weeks. The fact that your life is blessed and comfortable does not mean God is pleased with you, and just because your life is hard, it does not mean God is angry at you. The only thing that matters is that you are saved in Christ and walking according to his will. Don’t misinterpret the blessings of God the way Israel did.

Pursue genuine godliness, not mere externalism. It is generally true that where true religion declines it is often covered with the shroud of formalism and externalism. We find ways to look spiritual and talk spiritual that distract from the emptiness of our souls. Do not let that happen to you. Make sure that you are truly born again and then strives by God’s grace to obey his will from the heart. This is vital because…

Hypocrisy dishonors God and damns sinners. Dr. Ollila used to say that the hardest children to reach for Christ are the children of hypocrites who are one thing at church and entirely different at home. So, putting on a religious show might make you feel good about yourself, but it blasphemes God’s name and potentially embitters those around you to the truth claims you preach but don’t practice. If the Spirit is convicting you of hypocrisy, please repent and pursue genuine godliness.

In sum, vv. 17–24 expose the vanity of externalism. Merely possessing the law will not earn the Jews favor with God and neither will any other form of externalism. Then vv. 25–29 confront a second source of pride that the Jews thought guarantee God’s favor—the rite of circumcision. Paul drives home…

II.  The Value of Sincerity (vv. 25–29)

Genesis 17:11 states that God instituted circumcision as a “sign of the covenant” that he made with Abraham. It was the physical expression of the fact that Abraham and his descendants belonged to God and God to them.

It may sound strange to us, but the Jews took tremendous pride in their circumcision. Some Jews even taught that no circumcised individual would be cast into hell. They thought it practically guaranteed salvation. So, circumcision was the ultimate sacred cow among the Jews. But vv. 25 –27 argue that…

Obedience trumps circumcision (vv. 25–27). I don’t want us to miss the fact that Paul doesn’t say the Jews’ circumcision was worthless. Rather, he begins, “For indeed circumcision…” There was real value for the Jews in being members of God’s covenant people and in having access to the Law and to Israel’s sacrificial system.

But this value went poof if you did “practice the Law.” Therefore, Paul adds a statement that would have been absolutely devastating to a Jew, “But if you are a transgressor…” That’s devastating because circumcision was a mark of national pride. The Jews thought it marked them off as better than all those dirty, uncircumcised Gentiles. So, for Paul to call them uncircumcised was terribly offensive. It would be sort of like someone calling you a communist traitor. It won’t go over well.

So, why does Paul say this and what exactly does he mean? Paul’s point is fairly simple. Physical, outward symbols cannot replace genuine obedience. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself or what you look like, God will not accept the “transgressor of the Law.”

Once again, be warned if you are banking on making it to heaven based on an outward symbol. Your family name, your history in the church, a “God experience,” calling yourself a Christian, calling yourself an American, or whatever else you cling to won’t cut it.

These things cannot come remotely close to atoning for all the ways you disobey God’s Law. Yeah, you might be better than the guy next door, but you know you disobey God, and you do so quite a bit. Do not stake your eternity on some exterior symbol that God clearly says will not save.

But if circumcision doesn’t save, what does? Verses 26–27 give a partial answer (read). First of all, you can imagine how Paul’s Jewish opponent’s head is about to explode when Paul says this. He would be furious at the thought that a dirty Gentile could jump him in the line of God’s acceptance. But Paul’s going to say what needs to be said.

And how can the uncircumcised man gain God’s acceptance? Paul says he “keeps the requirements of the Law.” Like a few other statements in this chapter, this one seems to contradict what Paul says later in the book because Paul will be adamant that salvation is not be works but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (3:28).

Therefore, the best way to understand the uncircumcised man who keeps the law, is to assume he is a Gentile Christian who obeys the Law by the power of the Spirit. Verse 29 makes this clear when it talks about the Holy Spirit transforming the heart of those who are truly saved.

So, vv. 26–27 are not saying that a Gentile can merely decide to obey the law in his own strength and earn salvation. No, 3:28 says he is justified by faith. And then notice what 8:3–4 say about those who are in Christ (read). Through the Spirit, we fulfill “the requirements of the Law.”

The gospel doesn’t just get us a ticket to heaven; it changes who we are and this change produces genuine obedience. It’s not perfect obedience, but it is very different from the externalism that Paul confronted in vv. 21–24.

And it truly pleases the Lord. BTW, it always has. The OT consistently teaches that God cares about obedience far more than external symbols. “Samuel said, ‘Has the Lordas much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams’” (1 Sam 15:22). We saw the same heart over and over last year from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

So, what defines your faith? Why do you believe you are going to heaven? Romans will be clear that if you answer is anything other than faith in the finished work of Christ, you are trusting the wrong thing. If you are trusting in Christ, then what do you really value in your Christianity? Are you sort of just playing the game and keeping up appearances or by God’s grace are striving for genuine holiness and obedience? Don’t be content with the former; instead, realize that God delights in obedience. Obey God from the heart because obedience trumps circumcision. Finally, vv. 28–29 teach…

A circumcised heart trumps circumcised flesh (vv. 28–29). Again, try to imagine how this statement would sting Paul’s opponent or even Paul’s former self before he got saved. Paul says that circumcision does not make someone a Jew.

Of course, we must understand Jew in context. Paul is not denying the reality of the Jewish nation or even their future role in God’s purpose. Paul will be abundantly clear about this fact in Romans 11. Rather, he is using Jew as a synonym for the true children of Abraham who are recipients of the blessing of Messiah or Jesus.

Therefore, Paul is saying that the true mark of God’s acceptance is not an outward mark like circumcision or anything else in your body like your ethnicity or your physical appearance, style of clothing, or anything else.

Instead, the true mark of God’s acceptance is inward. More specifically, it is circumcision of the heart. This evening we are going to take a tour through the Bible and see that the concept of heart circumcision comes up repeatedly in the OT. God has always prioritized a transformed heart over a physical act.

As Samuel told Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” This is so important because I’ve heard many people justify disobedience over here, because of all that I’m doing for God over here. Many pastors have justified alcohol abuse, pornography, or even adultery because of all they are doing for God.

Other Christians know how to show up on Sunday wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and doing all the stuff, but their lives at home don’t show any evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. Their angry, nasty, and deceitful. Do not tolerate that shadow of godliness. Pursue a godly heart that drives an increasingly godly life.

Of course, we must emphasize that a circumcised heart is not ultimately a human achievement; rather, it is a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. As we’ve said, when someone is truly born again, the Holy Spirit indwells him, and he changes his heart (8:5–10).

So, if you have a wicked heart, God is not commanding you to fix yourself. No, you need to be born again by God’s Spirit. You can receive this miracle today if you will simply repent of your sins and trust in Christ alone for your salvation. If you’ve never done that, please do so today. Jesus told Nicodemus, one of the most religious Jews of his day, “You must be born again.” Jesus is making the same appeal to you.

And if you are saved, lean into the grace that God has provided in the gospel and the work of the Spirit through his Word and his church. You can’t produce spiritual fruit on your own; you need God to do it. And he will if you lean on the disciplines of grace he has provided.


Don’t be content with external formalism or any other fake spiritual identity. Pursue genuine spiritual commitment that grows out of the miraculous work of the Spirit.

More in Romans

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Don’t Graduate from the Gospel

May 12, 2024

Separatism Serves Unity

April 28, 2024

Friends and Teammates