But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, ‘If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’ Why not say – as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say – ‘Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is deserved.
All of us are aware of how out of great wickedness it is in God’s power to bring good. A milk-maid contracts painful cow-pox, but as a result she is not infected during a life-threatening small pox epidemic. The bombing of a city is an event of unmitigated horror, but slum buildings are cleared by it; a finer city results. A loyal employee is fired in order that a friend of the boss could have his job, but the unemployed man gets more satisfying work with a better salary. An illness results in a man being bed-ridden for months but during that time he thinks and reads and prays, and his life takes on a new and heavenly direction. Asians were driven out of Uganda, but many came to the UK and set up flourishing businesses. God can bring good out of evil.
We see in the Bible how God uses the evil actions of men for the good of his people. In the Old Testament the classic example of this is ten or so brothers selling into slavery in Egypt their kid brother Joseph. What a cruel action towards their own brother, and yet much good came from it, the deliverance of the family from death by famine, and new life in Goshen. Joseph says this to his brothers about their wicked action, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8). And again he said this to them – even more powerfully, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19&20). So God overruled the brothers’ evil for their good. Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew babies brought Moses into the monarch’s home, to wealth and security and an education that helped prepare him to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Adam’s fall made way for our sight of God in Christ, his coming, his life and teaching and our redemption. All things are of God.
In the New Testament God working the evil actions of men for our good is seen pre-eminently in the death of Christ. Acts chapter 2 and verse 23, the words of Peter at Pentecost, are the foundation of this conviction that men can do evil but God can work it for our good. Peter addresses the Jerusalem men who had cried out, “Crucify him! Release unto us Barabbas,” with these words, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.” So some of them would have been relieved thinking, “We felt that we were guilty and responsible for the death of Jesus, but now Peter tells us that we’re not. It was God who planned it and not us.” They would love to get that monkey of their responsibility for that heinous action off their backs. But Peter hasn’t finished what he’s saying to them. He carries on, “you have taken [him]and by wicked hands have crucified and slain [him]” (Acts 2:23b, A.V.). It was God’s own purpose that his Son should die on the cross, but that in no way excused them. They acted out of hatred in their hearts, and his blood was on their heads. Words cannot be clearer. The verse shows that God used wicked men to accomplish his sovereign decrees, but then he held those very men responsible for their actions. We may not understand how both actions can be 100% true but we cannot deny that in this one verse, Acts 2 and verse 23, we are told both. What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will always demand in time. But men are always responsible for their actions. There is always responsibility, even when we believe in God’s sovereignty over all our actions. You are responsible to your Sovereign, and yet men always want to slip out from under it. Think of how different men once sought to avoid their responsibility for killing Jesus of Nazareth.
i] There was Judas who finally pleaded Jesus’ innocence and sought to give the 30 pieces of silver back to the chief priests. But they turned on him and said, “What is that to us? That was your responsibility.” But it had been their responsibility too to ensure that an innocent man was not crucified.
ii] There was Pilate who knew beyond question that Jesus was innocent, and yet he deliberately distorted and destroyed law and justice in punishing him with the lash and cross. Over the protests of his wife, his conscience and both Roman and Hebrew law Pilate refused to stop the injustice. He caved in to the mob. He finally tried to deny his personal responsibility by washing his hands in front of the people. He said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.”
iii] There were the people whose response to Pilate’s hand-washing was one loud cry, gladly taking aboard their responsibility for Jesus’ death, shouting out their culpability, “Let his blood be upon us and on our children.” With their free wills they made a choice of one of the two prisoners, Jesus and Barabbas. Barabbas was the “prisoner chosen by the crowd” (Matt. 27:15), and so they freely chose to have Christ put to death. They were responsible with their wicked hands for slaying him, yet did anyone fulfil in more detail, but totally unknowingly, the secret purposes of God than Judas, Pilate and the mob?
Here are two simple questions and the clear answers that come to us from the account of the behaviour of Judas, Pilate and the crowd, all found in the 27th chapter of Matthew.
i] Exactly what did God Almighty eternally decree would happen to his Son? He was the lamb slain from the before the foundation of the world. In other words, God decreed he would be crucified. Exactly what did that crowd vehemently demand to take place? The crucifixion of Christ. What God sovereignly decrees in eternity man will freely choose in time.
ii] What is the only thing that will satisfy the character of a holy God? The shed blood of God the Son. What was the only thing that would satisfy the blood lust and hate of the crowd? The shed blood of Jesus Christ. What God sovereignly ordains in eternity man will choose by his own free will in time
So there are these parallel truths in all the Bible, the sovereign providence of God and the full responsibility of wicked men for their actions. Both are essential for us to believe, love and preach. Holding both we will never feel that we are pawns or puppets and victims in the hands of evil men while God just looks on, as much a spectator as we are. We must see the hand of our heavenly Father controlling all things. If the wicked temporarily prevail it is that God has purposed to use their actions for his own glory, but it will be for our good. And yet we may never use the purposes of God and the ability of God in bringing good out of evil to justify our evil.
That is the whole theological framework of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty in which Paul’s teaching in these verses is set. Paul has been writing of the terrible sin of David, in arranging the murder of Uriah and taking his wife Bathsheba. Paul has just said that this heinous wickedness proved that the merciful God was right when he spoke words of pardon to repentant David, and yet for the righteous God also to prevail when he brought judgment on David and his family and his nation. In other words David’s sin presented God with the opportunity demonstrating both his justice and his grace. If David had not sinned this sin we’d never have read of this example of the divine judgment and the divine forgiveness. So David’s action, and the judgment that came upon him and the mercy he received, contributed to our understanding of the character of God. So this is where the danger arises, that crafty religious sinners – and there are enough of them about – will plead that as God can bring good out of our sin then we were justified in doing the evil we did. In other words, when I sin I am also helping God out in showing his justice and mercy, and if I am helping him out how can he then condemn me for being a sinner?
A person who argues like that is simply denying his responsibility for any sin he commits. He is really accusing God of taking advantage of his sinning for God’s own purposes. So if our sin gives God the opportunity to demonstrate his righteousness in judgment and his mercy in forgiveness then may we not give our sin plenty of scope and abound in our sin so that God’s grace can forgive us more?
1. IT’S THE WICKED WHO ALWAYS SEEK TO JUSTIFY THEMSELVES.
This self-justification of the wicked is stated in three ways in our text.
i] “We’ll sin because our unrighteous actions will bring out God’s righteousness more clearly.” (v.5). Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse once lived for some months in Brussels and he came to admire greatly Belgian lace. He decided he would buy a handkerchief for his mother and so one morning he went into one of the little lace shops. It was run by two sisters who had inherited the business from their parents. At the beginning of the sale one of them spread a roll of black velvet over the counter and then placed on top of it a number of handkerchiefs of intricate Brussels rose point lace. The sisters even demonstrated with some lace-making bobbins tying some knots for him, and he finally left with expensive handkerchiefs for his mother.
My point is this that we can appreciate the glories of God’s love and goodness and patience and tenderness as they are starkly shown against the backcloth of man’s sins. You see the white weaving of grace much most clearly when you are presented with David’s black sin and then you hear with thanksgiving the pure words of God, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die” (2 Sam. 12:13). That is the gospel, but we are not to think that we are making God’s grace more glorious by our sinning. We may not say, “If our being bad makes God look good, then we’re free to be really bad so that God may look really good. Surely if we are bad like that and God gets glory then ‘God would be unjust in bringing his wrath on us’ ” (v.5). Don’t you feel Paul cringing as he brings up that argument of creepy, slimy, religious men? It is so embarrassing that a man might defend his wicked actions by calmly saying that they magnify the great mercy of God. So Paul says here in this parenthesis, “I am using a human argument” (v.5).
It is just another of those ploys that people employ to justify their sinning. You hear it all the time. I mean statements like this, “I believe that it was a good thing that I got divorced because now I’m able to minister to people I could never minister to before.” Or again, “I’m pleased that that preacher fell because he won’t be sending me unsolicited mail any more asking for my money.” Or again, “I’m glad I lost my temper with those men and cursed them out because it’s really helped me to deal with my anger.” Or again, “Sure I had a few drinks with the guys, but now they know that I’m just like them. It’ll be easier for me to witness to them in the future.” We may not argue in those ways. Sin is always enmity against God. There is no such thing as beneficial sin. The guilt of those sins was imputed to the Saviour and he bore their shame and blame when he hung on the accursed tree. For those sins he cried, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” For those reasons Paul says, “God forbid!” “Certainly not!” We may not justify our unrighteousness by claiming that it has magnified God’s righteousness. Then there is a second similar argument justifying our sin.
ii] We’ll tell lies because that will magnify God’s truthfulness and enhance his glory (v.7). Think of the lies that were told at Jesus’ trial. Men were paid to lie saying they’d heard Christ blaspheming, and so our Lord was condemned to death. All over the Muslim world you hear reports men claiming to have heard Christians blaspheming the name of Allah and so they are killed or condemned to death. What way is it possible for evil deceit to enhance the glory of God? How can a God who is indifferent to false witness be a righteous judge? Paul asks, “How could [such a] God judge the world?” (v.6). We expect in the Day of Judgment that the Judge of all the earth will do right and justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. We saw a London judge being herself sentenced to prison on Friday because of the lies she’d told. A liar, who’d learned that God the righteous judge actually condoned lying, could protest when he appeared before God, “Why am I still condemned as a sinner?” (v.7).
Think of the lies told in the pulpits of our land, that there is no hell, no virgin birth, no substitutionary atonement, the Bible is full of error, there is no physical resurrection, no second coming, that the unborn child is not a person. Do any of those lies magnify God’s truthfulness? No they undermine and oppose God’s truthfulness. Do they enhance God’s glory? No, they detract from it and exalt and glorify modern man. Of course, God is able to bring about good things from the mistakes we preachers make in the pulpit. That is what the grace of God is all about. Congregations are very forgiving if they believe that their preacher is basically sound, and sincere, but still learning. But the fact that God is quite able to bring good things out of bad choices doesn’t turn error into truth, or stupidity into wisdom, or pride into humility! No way does it justify falsehood in the name of the one who said, “I am the truth.”
iii] “Let us do evil that good may come” (v.8). That is the third justification for doing evil. The worse we are the better, because the more wicked we are, the more conspicuous will be God’s mercy in our pardon. That is how they argued. Didn’t good come from the brothers selling Joseph into slavery, and from Jerusalem sinners crucifying the Lord Jesus? It did, yes, but not one of them did either of those things in order that God would be glorified and that their good would be stronger and deeper. They did what they did out of hatred for Joseph and hatred for Jesus. Who will claim that they are sinning simply in order to bring some good out of it? Only liars and hypocrites will claim that. Who will pray for sickness so that doctors can have more opportunity to heal people? Who will pray for house fires so that firemen can show their stuff? Who will pray for more car crashes that paramedics will be able to have something to do? Who will pray for more rapes that judges can put more rapists in prison? None of us will think, let alone say, “Let us do evil that good may come.”
But there were opponents of Paul who were telling people, “Are you a fan of Paul of Tarsus? Let me tell you what he teaches” and then they were twisting all Paul’s teaching about grace and God being able to work all things together for our good, even our sins. You see that in verse 8? Paul says, “We are being slanderously reported as saying, and as some claim that we say – ‘Let us do evil that good may result.’” For Paul it was so self-evidently wrong that his enemies would tar his reputation by telling people that that was Pauline theology. The apostle just has one sober word about such liars, “Their condemnation is deserved.” Do you understand? If you are caricaturing the teaching of Paul, twisting his words and opposing him and lying about him then be very, very aware of what you are doing! You are facing condemnation from the living God. My father’s twin brother was a Congregationalist minister and he went to their theological college in Brecon in the early 30s of the last century, and during his time there he with hundreds of others picked up strong opposition to the teaching of the apostle Paul. So he did not preach on Paul for most of his ministry. Can you appreciate how grieving to the Spirit of truth that would be? Can you appreciate the danger of a ministry that defies apostolic teaching? Doesn’t it mean you are also opposing much of what Jesus Christ taught because there is no difference whatsoever between the two in what they taught? What a sober phrase this is, “Their condemnation is deserved.” Doesn’t it stop us short, that there have been preachers all over Wales throughout the last century who thought that they knew better than the apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul? That is perverse. That is Christianity destroyed in the house of its friends. No wonder churches are empty in Wales. Their condemnation is deserved.
2. THERE IS NO EXCUSE THAT CAN COVER YOUR SIN.
So think of the bigger picture we have here, that Paul is dealing here with excuses for sinning. You may well be a more compassionate and patient and understanding person since your divorce. You may be able to reach people in a way you couldn’t reach them before you were divorced, but you did not divorce your spouse for that purpose, and if you cheated on your wife or husband then your divorce was still wrong. Maybe it is good that that preacher is not sending you begging letters any longer and that you can give your money to more worthy Christian causes, but that does not justify his immorality or lessen the hurt that was done to the body of Christ. And cursing someone in an explosion of anger hardly justifies your claim that now you’ve learned how to handle your temper. And drinking too much with the other students can hardly be excused because of your intention of now giving each of them a copy of Ultimate Questions. If you broke a girl’s heart you wouldn’t argue, “Well, it gave her a chance to show how much she loved me.” When we sin then we don’t go looking for some fabulous unanswerable excuse that justifies our sinning. We weep with our pastor and we confess to God with penitence and shame what we have done. Then your pastor will love you and help you to put your life back together again. Remember the great prayer of the psalmist, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins” (Ps. 19:13).
But see what we are meeting in our text no less than three times – so it couldn’t have been a rare folly by some cranky religious reprobate. If these self-justifying excuses were genuine and widespread or not still Paul took them seriously and he responded vigorously to them. Paul saw that not only was the Christian life at stake, but the character of God himself. So in the words of our text he is telling us very clearly that God’s glory can only be advanced by doing good, never by doing evil. Here the apostle has opened a window on the inveterate tendency of a depraved heart to do anything rather than to confess its sins. The unbelieving heart will grasp anything so long as it doesn’t have to repent. It will call into question doctrine; it will abuse God’s sovereignty; it will become fatalistic; it will challenge God’s fairness; it will even call into question God’s existence; anything, as long it doesn’t have to confess its sins and repent. Imagine a man suggesting that he does evil in order to give the grace of God a further chance of doing its work. Paul considers that very suggestion to be blasphemous; as he announces here, “Their condemnation is deserved” (v.8).
Jesus ran into this kind of thing in Samaria with the woman at the well didn’t he? He’s talking with her and refers to a sin that is very, very close to the centre of her heart. He says to her, “Woman, go and bring your husband to meet me.” “Well, I don’t have a husband.” “You’re right. The man that you’re living with now isn’t your husband, but you’ve had five before him.” And immediately that women expresses her fascination with the subject of religious worship and goes off on that tangent, starting a theological discussion about worship. “Are you for conservative traditional worship, or do you like contemporary worship? Don’t you think there are good modern hymns written, and don’t you think some of the old hymns have archaic language, and that we won’t attract young people unless we keep up with the times, and anyway an organ is just like an orchestra in the corner of a chapel, and I personally like more reverence in worship, but some of the modern writers are doing a good job. I have a friend and she is in a big congregation with a band and OHP and it’s full of teenagers . . .” rattling on and on and on, all in response to an invitation to bring your man to have a talk with Jesus. It’s a cover up. She wants to change the subject immediately and talk about theories of appropriate worship. Is it here in Samaria or is it in Jerusalem? “Let’s get away from the mess of my tangled life and talk about worship.”
Haven’t you had that experience? Have you been in a conversation with an unbeliever about a spiritual issue, and suddenly they want to talk with you about angels or women bishops or the violence of Muslims or a revival in south Wales or anything else except their need of a personal Saviour. But Jesus wouldn’t let the woman off the hook. He told her he knew all about her and about her relationships, and he also knew all about the Samaritan heresy. He didn’t shrug and tell her that there are many ways up the mountain but that they all reach the same place in the end. No, he said that salvation was of the Jews not the Samaritans. He wouldn’t be distracted by her desire for a discussion because there’s no excuse for sinning, and he had forgiveness to offer her, but first she had to see she needed pardon for sins of deepest dye.
The most stupendous blunder a man can ever make is to think that he can gain anything by sinning. And, in fact, sin’s guilt is doubled when we attempt to find an excuse for it. The apostle Paul is reminding us here of God’s grace, and his promises, and his faithfulness, and his ability to overrule our sin in mercy and in judgment and to his glory, but that none of that can excuse sin. And when the sinner tries to run anywhere else other than to the inviting Saviour to find relief from sin – “Come unto me and I will give you rest” – then he’s running in the wrong direction.
So the apostle Paul in our text has at every point cut off false assurance and fake saviours from the whole congregation in Rome, and so also from you and me because Paul loved the church which his Saviour had purchased with his own blood. He didn’t want to hear in the Roman church excuses like these pathetic excuses, “Our unrighteousness can bring about God’s righteousness . . . our falsehood can enhance God’s truthfulness . . . let us do evil that good may result.” And we don’t want to hear variations on that theme here. The publican in the temple made no excuse. He hung his head and beat his breast and prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” If you were running to a place that you thought was a refuge, but in fact it will end up being your destruction, your most faithful friends will tell you, “Don’t go there.” That’s exactly what Paul is doing. As hard as Paul’s words may seem to us, as hard hitting as they may feel to us, these are the wounds of a friend. He’s telling us don’t run anywhere else for safety, for refuge, for salvation except the gospel, because you’re under sin, you’re under judgment. The only way you’ll experience blessing is embracing Jesus Christ as he is presented in my gospel.
You can do what many politicians have been doing in the last years over the expenses scandals. They have been caught with their fingers in the cookie jar and we have heard their righteous indignation, and the running for cover, and the search for scapegoats, and the finger pointing, and the ‘if’ apologies, “if I have offended anyone I am sorry.” It is so familiar because we all do the same things. We talk about ‘white lies’ and that we did it for the greater good. When will we learn that if it’s a lie, it isn’t white, and if it’s white then it’s not a lie? By the same token if it’s not an expense incurred in doing our duty then it is theft. Blame shifting started with Adam, but it didn’t end there.
Once a man turns from his sin, God displays an amazing ability to forgive his sin, but we have to say, “Sorry . . . I am so sorry God . . . what I did was inexcusable . . . I don’t blame anyone else, and I don’t blame you. I did it and I am ashamed of myself.” Then the gospel comes to us so relevantly and comforting. David found out both sides of God’s character. God is light and God is love. David was judged, and repentant David was forgiven. “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son cleanses us from all sin.” Thank God for those words. Thank God for them for this reason. They are true! Those who take their guilt to their excuses find no comfort. They deceive no one but themselves, but those who tell God the painful truth about themselves find that the pain of confession is followed by the privilege of pardon. After the humiliation there is healing. Tell the truth. First tell the truth, tell it to God, and then you can put your life back together in the sight of a God who is abundant in mercy the God who said to David, “The Lord has taken away your sin; you are not going to die.”
3rd May 2014 GEOFF THOMAS