(A quick note before you begin the article: read all the way to the end, even though it’s long. This one was difficult for me to write. But the message is one that we all need to hear. And so we begin…)
“Smile. You’re beautiful.”
“You’re perfect just the way you are.”
“You are more than awesome. You’re amazing.”
That’s just a small collection of the memes, graffiti, and street-art that I have seen in the recent past. People of all sorts post these types of blanket statements on their Facebook walls or Instagram pages. Somebody in need of an ego-boost simply has to sign into their social media account, and—bam!—they’re suddenly beautiful and perfect and awesome and amazing!
Except … not.
Allow me to expand on that little statement.
If Adolf Hitler had Facebook, would you say that the message was for him, too? “Adolf, I know you’re responsible for millions of Jewish murders, but hey—you’re perfect just the way you are. Don’t let anybody judge you … ever!”
Obviously that’s an extreme example. What about the convicted pedophile? Would you want to tell him/her that they are amazing? Or the dog-fighter Michael Vick? “Attaboy, Mike! Don’t worry about everyone else! Haterz gonna hate!”
“Well, obviously it isn’t for them!” you cry. But can we really expect that a blanket-statement for anybody that reads it won’t also create a blanket-reception?
Let’s look at one more person. How about … you?
Anybody who answers that question honestly—unless they are completely self-deluded or insane—knows quite well that they are not perfect. Those who are, perhaps, outwardly beautiful do and say and think many things that we would have to admit are the opposite of beautiful. The only reason that people require this type of ego-boost to begin with is because they know the truth—that they are not awesome and not amazing.
By this point I have probably alienated any number of people who “don’t want to hear it.” That’s because this is a bitter pill to swallow. Nobody likes hearing about their imperfections. Nobody likes hearing that their activities and even lifestyles are in opposition to God’s demands. In fact, even mentioning “sin” in our society is often translated (quite unfairly) as being “judgmental” or “unloving” or “hate-talk.”
Now perhaps you’re asking yourself, “Where does this guy get off thinking he can talk that way about people? Who does he think he is!?”
All the evidence I need is right here along our Romans Road. This is where we find the conviction—not just of some, but of all people. The condemnation of Gentiles (anybody not of the nation of Israel) comes first in Romans 1:18-32. Paul highlights many of the “marquee sins”—that is to say, the sins that the Greek and Roman world was characterized by—such as their idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexuality, wickedness, envy, murder, strife, slanders, hatred of God, ruthlessness, and so on. God even says that they “invent ways of doing evil”—as if all the other ones weren’t enough!
But Paul doesn't allow his Jewish audience member to get too smug! All of those “Gentile” sins are followed by the condemnation of these Jewish people who considered themselves “Law-abiding” people. They proudly boasted about their close relationship with God. In reality? They also were thieves, adulterers, and law-breakers just the same! Although they had God’s words in the Old Testament and were a part of his chosen nation, they were also sinners.
This brings us to the all-encompassing, driving conviction of Romans 3:9-20: “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.’ ‘The poison of vipers is on their lips.’ ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (emphasis mine).
Whoa. Still sound like we’re all a bunch of “beautiful” and “perfect” and “amazing” people? If you need some help to make this a bit more personal, try inserting a first-person pronoun in front of some of these.
“My tongue practices deceit. My mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
Personal enough yet? If we’re being entirely honest with ourselves, we can continue to check off all the ways in which we are ugly, hateful, and wicked in what we say, do, and think.
“So what? I’ve been pretty good compared to most people!”
If God were in the comparison game, then I would say “good for you!” But he’s not. God has a different standard by which he judges one’s righteousness. That standard is found in Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
"But that's an impossible standard! Who can be perfect?"
Correct! The fact of the matter, though, is that messing up even once yields a person who is no longer perfect, a person characterized not as a law-keeper but a law-breaker. “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). A person who has no longer kept the law entirely is a person who falls under the judgment that pronounces death. Ezekiel 18:20 shares the sobering truth: “The soul who sins is the one who will die.”
Every last one of us is among that group that has "together become worthless." Paul included. Pastor Johnston included. You included.
“But God doesn’t make worthless people!” one argues.
That’s right! He doesn’t! We make ourselves worthless. And worthless people are a far cry from the “righteousness” of God.
You’re worthless. So am I.
But only on our own. Before we despair, all we need to do is move our eyes forward one more verse to Romans 3:21. Although we have made ourselves unrighteous, worthless individuals who are “held accountable to God” in his judgment of all things, we read this: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”
We can’t be righteous through our own power and by our own law-keeping. The only way for humankind to find this righteousness is outside of ourselves and outside of our own power. This is the righteousness that God had been revealing in the days of ancient Israel. This is the righteousness that our disobedience found in the Law has made us thirst for.
“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
You’re not worthless. I’m not worthless either.
We are righteous! But this can only come through faith in Christ Jesus. If we try to divorce our righteousness from him, we are left without it entirely.
I want everybody to know that there’s nothing wrong with posting positive memes and uplifting messages on Facebook or Twitter or wherever you want. Encouraging the down-trodden and oppressed is a wonderful and loving thing for us to do.
But let’s not leave it at a shallow message. We especially don’t want to leave it at one which might mislead people or even affirm them in sin. Let’s always point people not only to the fact that they have worth, but also to the source of that worth, our Savior Jesus.
How is it that he makes us righteous? More on that next time! For now, enjoy the fact that you have a Savior who gives you his own righteousness.
Because of that, you have all the worth you could ever want!