When In Rome

Rhetorical Questioning

Sermon on 7 August 2016 - Romans 3.1-12, 16-31

Pastor Don Pieper

As we move into the third chapter of Paul's letter to the churches in Rome, we find Paul using a common teaching tool of his day, the asking of rhetorical questions.  A rhetorical question is one in which the answer is so obvious that the person asking isn't really looking for an answer: “I didn't feel answers were necessary.  All the questions seemed rhetorical.” ... Uh-huh...!

If you go on-line you can find numerous sites providing such examples....:

How come people tell you to stay a kid for as long as you can, yet the moment you do anything childish or immature they tell you to grow up?   Why do they call it chili if it's served spicy hot?

How can a product be new and improved?  If it's new, what's it improving on? 

If humans evolved from apes why are there still apes around today?   

And..., Why do your feet smell and your nose runs?  (That's getting a bit personal!) 

Actually, the rhetorical questions Paul asks in Romans three, also get rather personal. After asking an opening question to affirm God's plan to bring salvation to all people thru the Jews he goes on to ask a number of leading rhetorical questions in which the obvious answer is “no”.  There are a few examples of this kind of leading rhetorical question on the web site I was just quoting as well:

If you pamper a cow, do you get spoiled milk?   (No...!)   When the French swear do they say, 'pardon my English'?  (Not likely...!)    Or as young Calvin once asked, in typical, timeless fashion: “Questions I think know the answers to I don't need to ask, right?”   Uh..., wrong!  

Paul's rhetorical questions in Romans 3 address a common cause of confusion, the misunderstanding that sin is an archaic and overstated issue: “Some might say, 'our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is.  Isn't if unfair, then for him to punish us?'” (Romans 3:5).

The “it's unfair” argument persists today: How can a loving God send anyone to hell?  Wouldn't that be unfair?  The objections Paul quotes in his rhetorical questions point to a prevailing perception that Jesus and his followers focus far too much attention on the issue of human sin.  These objections can be summarized into four statements present here in Romans 3 and persist today:  

One, it's God's job to forgive so would you preachers stop going on about sin so much. 

Two, if God is so loving then he won't judge us.  God won't condemn us.   Except for a few, truly evil people, the vast majority of us are going to heaven. 

Three, sin isn't so bad – it teaches valuable lessons.  As they say, 'only the good die young'. 

Four, if we live as you suggest, we'll be out of touch with the culture around us. 

Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who served the church in Nazi German, summarized such thinking when he spoke of cheap grace.  In such thinking we minimize the danger of unrepented sin, convinced that if we do certain things, get baptized, give to a charity, to church occasionally, we'll go to heaven...  

It's the danger of discounting how sin separates us from our loving God and how we rationalize our own sin by comparing ourselves to the worst of sinners and convincing ourselves we're not so bad and thus acceptable to God.  Paul will have none of this, declaring at the end of his opening rhetorical questions: “all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9).

To drive home his point, he cites a number of Old Testament passages, beginning with a convicting quote from Psalm 14: “No one is righteous – not even one.  No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away... No one does good, not a single one!” (Rom 3:10-12;PS 14:1-3)


Paul uses Old Testament references to show that humanity, in its present sinful condition, is in big do-do and unacceptable before God.  Psalm 14 is significant as it follows a series of psalms that recall what the ungodly have achieved. Psalm 14 serves as a sharp counterpoint, exposing the cause and depth of humanity's disgrace.  In quoting it, Paul highlights this contrast, revealing that every thought, every self-serving act, every behavior that is at odds with God's good and perfect will as revealed in Scripture, puts one on the path of destruction.   “Destruction and misery always follow.  They don't know where to find (real) peace” (Romans. 3:16-17/Isaiah 59:8).

Martin Luther often taught that God's Word is articulated primarily in two ways – as law and gospel.  Romans 1-3 articulates the law.  Paul himself clearly identifies its purpose in the following verse: “The law's purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God...  It is the law that shows us how sinful we really are”  (Romans 3:19-20).

Our sin is a big deal because it alienates us from our Heavenly Father.  As creator of all that exists, of all that is good and pure, God is holy.  Sin by nature is unholy and cannot exist in God's presence.  This is why the people of old actually were afraid of seeing God's face, why Moses dropped to the ground at the sound of God's voice and why the prophet Isaiah was filled with terror when he had his vision of God.  “Oh, no!” he exclaimed, “I am not pure, and I live among people who are not pure, but I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” (Isaiah 6:5).

Why was this man of God so terrified? Why was he so afraid of being in God's presence?  Because he was wax before the sun; a candle in a hurricane; a minnow at Niagara. God's holiness made Isaiah's sin-ridden impurity a lethal discrepancy. The holiness of God illuminates the sinfulness of man. 

Imagine you walk into a bathroom illuminated by a single window.  You look in the mirror and see your face as you are accustomed to seeing it – no big deal.  But when you flip on the light switch the light bulbs framing the mirror light up your face.  Suddenly you see what you had not seen.  Lines, blemishes, freckles, wrinkles, chocolate frosting.  Every mole and imperfection is illuminated. 

That's what happened to Isaiah.  When he came into God's presence he drew back in horror, crying, “I am unclean and my people are unclean!”  That's what the law does.  That's its divine purpose.  It points to our flaws while flashing a floodlight on God's character and the contrast between the two reveals something we are in danger of missing: our sin puts us in mortal danger! 

The author of Hebrews points to this same truth when he writes, “Anyone whose life is not holy will never see the Lord!” (Hebrews 12:14)  So where do we turn?  We can't turn off the light.  We can't flip the switch. What can we do? Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard!” (Romans 3:23).

Such is the law.  We need it or we're inclined to muddle through life, fatally disillusioned.  But Paul's not finished.  No sooner has he articulated the law and our terminal condition then he points beyond ourselves to our source of hope: “Yet even so, we are justified by God's grace, making us right in his sight.  He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins” (Romans 3:24).

Here, Paul borrows language from a Roman court of law.  The term, 'justified', means to be declared 'not guilty'.  Sin brings the sentence of death because it separates us from God, both in this life and in the life to come.  Jesus, by way of his death on the cross, has paid the penalty for us all.  His death cancels out our debt to our holy and living God.  Our soiled record is wiped clean. 

It brings to mind a scene from the musical, Scrooge, in which a man, deeply in debt to Scrooge, stands before a crowd, also seriously in debt, and sings a song of gratitude, dripping with irony, as they collectively thank Ebeneezer for dying and wiping clean their debt to him...

            [DVD clip from the film, Scrooge; 1:21:52 – 1:25:18] 

Our response to Jesus should be no less enthusiastic.  We also have had our debts wiped clean, and given a chance to start anew.  As the song goes, “I feel as if another life's begun for me!  I feel as though a losing war's been won for me!”  We join in worship and serve others, not out of duty, but gratitude..., for it's a rare and beautiful thing Christ has done for us today!  Thank you very much!

This is the gospel which Luther was referring to. This is good news. Though we are in a pitiful state – a condition that God can not tolerate, he has taken the initiative to draw us to himself thru the sacrificial blood of his son, Jesus.   As Paul put it: “For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin.  People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life (on their behalf) (Romans 3:25).

This is why Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, and now here Paul after him, repeatedly call for those seeking to get right with God to repent, to turn away from the sins which imprison them. 

As Paul has already expressed it: “Don't you see how wonderfully kind and patient God is with you? Can't you see how his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  (Romans 2:4)  Or as another translation puts it, “God's kindness is intended to lead you toward repentance” (NIV).

I just started a book in which a pastor shares about a church out east that experienced a powerful outpouring of God's Spirit, a communal sense of coming into the presence of God, that was initiated by their getting real with God. Convicted of their junk they began to pour out their hearts to God.

“Even though the music was quiet and subdued, worship was rampant and uninhibited.  People were on their faces, on their feet, on their knees, but mostly in His presence.  There was so much of His power present that people began to feel an urgent need be baptized.  I watched people walk through the doors of repentance, and one after another experienced the glory and the presence of God” (from Tommy Tenney's God Chasers).

Among his concluding rhetorical questions, Paul asks: “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to merit God's acceptance?” (Romans 3:27). In a word, no, but all the same, as we look in the proverbial mirror, recognize our need, and our hearts cry out for help, Jesus is there, tearing to shreds our notice of debt and welcoming us home into the very presence of God....  What might that look like if we were to experience that here today?  As we come clean we give him an opening.  “We are made right with God through faith...”  (Romans 3:28).