Scripture Reading: Romans 2:17-29, Deuteronomy 7:25-26, Psalm 51:1-12
In one of my seminary classes, we were to read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, as well as— according to the syllabus—the book’s preface written by C.S. Lewis. Paying close attention to the syllabus (thought not that close), I read both the preface and the introduction.
A few weeks later, during his lecture, the professor pointed out that we technically didn’t have to read the book’s introduction, but he said if we’d been smart, we would have. He explained this had been his intention—even if the syllabus hadn’t spelled it out explicitly.
Was he assuming we were mind readers? Not really. He just had expectations.
At some point, we all give instructions—to colleagues, to children, to friends, to husbands—that may not be perfect or exact, but we hope the recipient will pick up on our intent, on the spirit of what we’re asking them to do. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Paul is giving a similar instruction here to the Jewish Christians in Rome. He is echoing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, asking Jesus’ followers to read deeper into the Law. Paul tells them it’s not about following the letter of the law. It’s about following the heart of the One who wrote it.
Paul’s laundry list of law-breaking activities in verses 21-23, reads similarly to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
- Matthew 5:21-22
Jesus preached these words to some who knew the Law backwards and forwards, but He was holding up a magnifying glass to their hearts. They weren’t out murdering people—they were law-following Jews, after all—but what was going on in their hearts? Were they angry with their brother? Jesus said then they, too, are deserving of punishment. The spirit of the Law was broken, even if the exact rule was not.
Paul does the same for his readers. He questions their obedience to the Law, but then he reminds them it’s the posture of their hearts that matters most. These proud Jewish Christians came from a long heritage of trying to earn righteousness by following the Law. They too easily forgot that Jesus came to fulfill the Law for them, to make them righteous by simply believing in Him.
It’s not hard to see myself in the Jewish Christians of Rome, slipping back into trying to follow the rules rather than the One who wrote them. It’s easy to think my righteousness comes from acting the right way, rather than from “the Way” Himself (John 14:6). But as the psalmist tells us, “would God not discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart” (Psalm 44:21).
If I’m honest, what’s going on inside my heart is usually much uglier than how I act on the outside. Thankfully, Jesus came to wash me clean from the inside out. This is the beauty of the cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit: to compel me to seek God’s heart first, and obey His law by the help of His Spirit.
Melanie Rainer is the director of content for JellyTelly, where she writes and edits family spiritual formation resources. She is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, a passionate home baker, and makes her always-messy home with her husband, Price, and their delightful daughter, Ellie, near historic downtown Franklin, Tennessee.