The False Assurances Defined (vv. 17-20)
Of all the possible false assurances we could receive, the greatest would be thinking we possessed salvation when we didn’t or discovering what we depended on had no value to affect it. Many Jews found themselves in this very position, and Paul warns them about trusting in uncertain things. But his warning to them has far-reaching applications for all individuals. The Jewish people assumed they were Paul’s best friends, but he now turns the tables and will demonstrate they are as equally wicked as the pagan Gentiles.
Early Christians had some of the same misunderstandings. Many clung to the philosophy that a person must convert to Judaism in order to become a Christian. The first church-wide council dealt with this matter (Acts 15:1-35). Whether Jewish laws were incumbent on Gentiles was the matter under consideration.
The series of phrases Paul uses helped the Jews know he was referring to them, but at the same time they were designed to make them contemplate why they were not living up to their name. Paul was not denigrating the race. He and Jesus belonged to it.
What were some of the false assurances they clung to? Obedience to God’s law, their heritage as God’s chosen people, and a special knowledge of God’s law and truth were the main considerations.
The first problem was their inability to perfectly obey God’s law, a necessity if it were going to affect salvation.
The rich young religious leader who approached Jesus asking about the necessary requirements for inheriting eternal life reflected a similar misunderstanding (Luke 18:15-30). When Jesus rattled off half the Ten Commandments, the young man proudly—and probably sincerely–proclaimed he had obeyed them all. What he failed to realize was the spirit of the law was at stake in addition to the letter. Though he may have outwardly obeyed, which is doubtful, he certainly had missed the mark inwardly. Jesus’ instruction for him to sell all he possessed and follow him produced an inner spirit of disobedience to the law. One command stated a person was to have no other gods before God, but this young man, based on his resulting actions, had placed riches before God. His leaving proved he had an inner conflict with God’s law.
Jesus also dealt with the spirit of the law in his “You have heard it said, but I say” proclamations. According to the religious leaders’ interpretation of the law, avoiding adultery simply meant avoiding the actual act. Jesus, however, included looking at a woman with lust as involved in breaking the command (Matthew 5:28). Paul destroys the Jewish dependence on God’s law for salvation and eternal security.
Another point of contention was reliance on their heritage as God’s chosen people. As such, they saw themselves as guides to the blind and a light for those walking in spiritual darkness. Interestingly, this was God’s plan for them. God called Abram from a pagan culture and led him to a foreign land. God didn’t put Abram in the Promised Land so he would be surrounded by godly people. Canaan was filled with a hodgepodge of pagan people who worshipped their gods in a variety of ways—the sexual aspect having a great influence on the worship. Through intercourse with temple prostitutes, they believed crops would produce. Baal, the chief deity, was a fertility god as was his female counterpart.
God’s intent for Abraham and his descendants was for them to influence the pagans rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, many of Abraham’s heirs committed the same mistake many believers do: they compartmentalized their faith. They worshipped the one true God but also the pagan deities, believing the latter was necessary for crops and herds to flourish. They also believed this practice had no bearing on their loyalty to God.
Believers are endowed with the same responsibility given to Abraham. Jesus taught we are the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:14). If we permit practices in our life that dim the light of our witness or affect the saltiness of our testimony, we too fail in our endeavor even as many of the Jewish people did. Jesus rebuked the religious leaders for traveling far and wide to gain one convert but then turning them into a son of hell (Matthew 23:15). Rather than guides to the blind, Jesus called them “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16). There is an enormous difference between a seeing-eye dog and a blind dog.
A third mistake was believing they had perfect knowledge of God’s law which enabled them to instruct the ignorant and teach spiritual babes the ways of God. The fact that they often missed the spirit of God’s law proves they had not mastered what they assumed.
Modern-day Christians can make these same errors. Paul could say to us, “If you claim to be a Christian, why aren’t you living up to the name?” We can depend on heritage matters that provide false assurances of salvation.
As it relates to believing we have a privileged religious heritage, we must avoid several mistakes. God doesn’t accept us on a good-deeds outweighs a bad-deeds basis. If we are overly sensitive in some areas of spirituality, this doesn’t mean he will overlook other areas of sin. Nor is God obligated to help us or even save us because we have a laundry list of good works in our repertoire. Spiritual heritage will not gain us acceptance either. Being raised in church or coming from a spiritual line of Christian relatives that extends far back into the distant past are only matters to be thankful for.
Paul’s hearers—and any like them—can be termed religionists. People who trust in religion rather than a relationship with God, and as such make some detrimental mistakes. Equating having and honoring God’s Word with honoring God with their life. Thinking it is sufficient to profess belief in God. Assuming God approves of them because they know the difference between right and wrong. Supposing they have God’s approval because they support the better things in life. Or, imagining God accepts them simply because they are familiar with his teachings.
Because of the above beliefs, the religionist presumes he is light to the blind, but religion is not the light of the world. Jesus claimed that position, and we reflect it only through a relationship, not religion. Because of the above, the religionist supposes he is a guide to the foolish and that he can teach those who are immature with the presumption he is mature in the faith.
The True Believer’s Responsibility (vv. 21-24)
The goal of the Jewish people should have been to effectively realize who they thought they were, for their actions were not corresponding to their teachings. If they actually knew so much, Paul says they should be able to teach others, but at the moment their example would get in the way. Paul mentions the specific sins of theft, adultery, idolatry, and pride in possessing God’s law. Their actions were causing others to blaspheme the name of God.
Our actions are very delicate. We can bring shame on the name of God through them. We can also discourage other believers as well as cause unbelievers to sneer at God. Just because pre-Christians don’t have a relationship with Christ doesn’t mean they can’t describe how a Christian should behave. Often their description is accurate.
Before we judge the sinful actions of others, we must take a careful look inwardly. As God’s grace leads the unsaved person to desire forgiveness instead of condemnation, so ours must look for the good instead of focusing on the unpleasant.
Jesus taught this same principle in the story about the speck and beam. In addressing self-righteous and unfair judgments, he said we should not try to remove the speck from another person’s eye when we have a log in ours (Matthew 7:1-5). A self-righteous judgmental attitude that leads us to believe we are better than someone else because of our religious heritage only leads to tearing others down in an effort to build ourselves up. Obeying God’s will is more than strict obedience to a set of rules. Rote obedience usually misses the true spirit of God’s law.
Those Paul addresses had somehow learned to excuse their own sinful actions while condemning the very same things in others, especially Gentiles. These verses—while dealing with the mistakes of God’s chosen people—are actually a rebuke of hypocrisy or pretending to be something we aren’t even if because we are deceived. It is similar to using Scripture to advise someone to do something we would not be willing to do ourselves. It is always easier to say the right words than to live them and to give good advice than take it ourselves.
Salvation is more than obedience to a set of rules. It involves a grace relationship with Jesus Christ. And there are never any false assurances in God’s promises.