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In surveying the message of Romans 2, one notes 2:28-29 in particular. Does this reference to the one who is a Jew being the one who is so inwardly, not merely outwardly, so that it is a matter of the heart, and newness of spirit,  and not the letter, mean that you can just be nice and do as you please, so long as you have a reasonable sort of intention ?

What is the meaning of "the letter" ? It is found in Romans 7:6, to the "oldness of the letter." We there learn that we are to "serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter." That "letter" is equated in practice with the crushing condemnation of the law (glorious as law, but yet deficient in this, that He who has come and done what was needed, is more glorious as in II Corinthians 3:6-10). The greater glory as in Ch. 6,4,  supra, is in the conferment by God Himself in Person, of redemption and that entirely freely, in contrast with the conferment by the law in its searching demands, of condemnation. Hence, although the Mosaic law is good and necessary teaching, the major focus of the New Covenant is not even on symbols of salvation, but on the Saviour Himself, and what HE has done, so providing the "glory which excels."

The trouble with "the letter" was not some imperfection, but as it were an immaturity; for it pointed out the glory which was to come, and why this burden of detailed law was necessary, whereas the New Covenant, is bringing as its major thrust, "Christ in you, the hope of glory," (Colossians 1:27) and free pardon and peace, with the seal and presence of the Spirit (Ephesians 1:14), so that we "sit in heavenly places" (Ephesians 2:6), in these culminating terms. The "letter kills," though this synonym for the law refers to what is "holy" just as the "commandment is "holy and just and good,"  Romans 7:12). The Mosaic legal system, it is efficient in convicting of sin, as a chief function, and exceedingly good at it. This is far from being ALL it does, but this it does in an unforgettable intensity! It is like a mushroom cloud associated with the atomic bomb. It is not the whole, but it makes an unforgettable and singular impact.

So Paul declares the law holy and good. Indeed, ALL scripture is inspired by God and worthy for learning and rebuke as needed (II Timothy 3:16),  and its result is precise to the most minimal point (Matthew 5:17-20). The former part in its covenantal impact however did not have the liberty and the boundless fruition available in the New Covenant, even though it wisely prepared for it; nor is it that it had no mention of the Gospel, for it is plentiful both in reference to the wonders of the Lord and the coming of the Gospel in prophecy. Paul is simply contrasting by this metaphor, the letter, the exposure of sin in its multiplied shames, with the spiritual expansiveness in the New Covenant provisions, where neither priest not sacrifice is needed, the one to be used, the other provided; for Christ HAS provided once and for all (Hebrews 9:12-28).

Having found therefore the emptiness of any attempt to turn the metaphorical phrase, "the letter" into something foreign to the contexts in which the same approach is shown, and at the same time, the mordant feeling associated with this harassing reminder of sin, and seen the effectiveness of the same: we return to the fact that Paul in Romans 2:28-29 is telling us to serve in the newness of the spirit not the oldness of the letter. The meaning ? the entire picturesque scenario of the Old Testament sacrificial system, and symbolic depictions is past; it is old. It is not the criterion of service; that comes now through the newness of direct spiritual relationship with Jesus the Christ, raised from the dead as attested by the spirit of holiness (Romans 1:4). We merely trespass if we insist on the obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).

Indeed, the type of thing now past is itemised not a little in Hebrews 7:23-8:6, not least 8:28 with the contrasting 8:26. That phase if persisted in now, would become a 'dead letter' as we now idiomatically term it. It is in a way, almost like the placenta in a birth. You need to have had it, but you do not linger in it, once born! or in the specifics of "the law"  of Moses, when born again. Nor do we, on the other hand, being born, imagine that now life has no form or confines, or neither rule nor moral, need nor deliverance from any other hypocrisy, as if attempts at happiness for oneself, were some all-sufficient god!

Far from it. This new liberty has its own place in the life which God made, and when redeemed, it is not a new libertine concoction, or free-wheeling indifference. Indeed, it is not, as first noted, that this means to breach the commandments of moral and generic kind, outside the specialised covenant; for that is what is brought to light, the necessity of reality and the requireme to jettison two-faced, double-tongued substitutes for eminently clear spiritual reality.

 It is not being said, Do as it seems good to you in your new highly spiritual state! but something entirely different. It is this. Many who love the law of God by profession are more like hypocrites in confession, in the testimony of their lives; and tend to live in phrases as if these were all, and not pointers to reality, and foundations for action. Even Gentiles who have no instruction in this special set of laws, "the letter", may do better in some cases seeking "by patient continuance in well-doing" as they "seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life," Romans 2:7. To the extent that any "Gentile," that is in the contrast being made, if in fact anyone does these things, then that is no mean fact. To the extent, on the other hand, that any informed Jew (the affair not racial but covenantal, and many Gentiles in fact joined with them as fully received) does not so behave and seek and desire and long, then that is no negligible fact either. Nowhere is it good to defy, deny, disobey God, and nowhere is fulfilment and maturation of long predicted liberties, mean autonomy or a self-legislating parliament, where one authorises what seems good in plenary session!

There is reality in view in life, as well as in mind.

One might then be excused for wondering about actual outcomes. What if some nice Gentile is longing for the light and pursuing it, even if still in the darkness of ignorance, being moved from within. What indeed if such a person is urging on as if one were urging a steed to gallop, in this matter ?  Will he then be accepted ? Let the issues be and remain distinct. Clearly, that the vexatious Jew is not saved by forms is made horrifically apparent in such sites as Matthew 23, and Isaiah 1, as in Jeremiah 7! Indeed, this selectivity goes right back to Deuteronomy 29:18-30. The heart in both testaments is unquestionably the central point, and if there is faith, then works follow, but these, they are not themselves faith, nor do they save (Romans 10).  But does the failure of the hypocrite provide the entrance, by mere contrast, for the seeker ?

The answer to such a question as just raised in magnificently provided in Romans 2. The matter is summed up in Romans 2:11-15. Ceremonies and sacrifices do not dazzle God; nor for that matter are they useless. It is a matter of the divine focus, and not the intermediary locus; for though the latter weigh, its chief weight is to FOLLOW the features to Him whom they feature, and to rely, trust on and obey Him (Acts 5:30-31). ANY thought of NON-OBEDIENCE as anything short of utter folly is far from the text. It is not liberty from the laws of God, as teachers and instructors, disciplinarians and job-description items that is in view; it is hypocrisy so that what seems so, is not. If some seek in ignorance, then is this not precisely what God wants, till knowledge comes. But where is the line drawn ? Perfunctory seeking (as in Hosea 7:14-16) can be especially futile; and zeal can be without knowledge (Romans 10:2). Alas, such cases still fill Paul with grave sadness and lament.

How much or what kind of seeking is in view, which in itself might finally pass muster at judgment ?

NONE! This is all contained in a COMPARISON of the RELATIVE good of such seeking, however dysfunctional it may turn out to be, missing the saving provisions of the Lord, on the one hand, and relative evil of those as if pampered with the truth, on the other. Their problem was misusing it as exhibited so dramatically in Matthew 23, so aborting its whole point as in traditions which harry and invade (Mark 7:7). These, said Christ, make void the word of God.

However, there is a very clear conclusion to these questions. There is to be a DAY when this is the spectacle and the provision, that God "judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel."

First, judgment is non-annullable as a basic. If born by Christ (John 5:24), it is cancelled, but that merely removes its impact, does not delete its propriety. If someone else pays your court fine, this does not mean that you did not break the law, or were not guilty, or did not, apart from this gift, earn your way to judgment, to exclusion from the purity of the God so holy that in the end, sin is prohibited from the blessedness of the resurrection (Revelation 21:8,27, 22:14-15, I Cor. 15).

Second, judgment will come and be executed, at a given time as things wind up in the trial period of human history, which is also a regeneration region of time in emphasis.

Thirdly, this judgment  is to be carried out by Jesus Christ (as in John 5:27), to whom the Father has committed it.

Fourthly, the principles are those in the Gospel, and in its application; the very secrets of the heart will be in view, not some pernicious twisting of truth. God is undeceivable, intractable in truth, just as He is passionate in mercy. Hence those foreknown to belong to the Lord (so clear as in II Timothy 2:19), have the same Gospel applied as, before time was, these had its outcome held fast in the wisdom of God. No striving even for good will CONSTITUTE salvation, but only free grace in Christ through redemption and regeneration and repentance as modes of access (Galatians 1). Believing in Him is the criterion, in the biblically definitive fashion, so that you trust in Him, and rely on Him in His word, which is His. He knows the very depths and no sinner could possibly do this work! for He is "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens," as in the context of Hebrews 7:23-28.

In God ONLY, there rests creation at His will, all things not God being created things, as we review in the next Chapter. In God ONLY, there is wrought salvation, obtainable ONLY from Him (Acts 4:11-12); in the Lord ONLY there is judgment, and that for good reason, even including the fact that we are all, who have been in the lists of those made in His image, actually  MADE by Him. NO ONE else will deliver any of us. HE will know the secrets, even when some have managed to rationalise themselves far from the truth concerning themselves: HE knows it all and ONLY He is omniscient. The omniscient judge with illimitable mercy to those repenting and receiving Him in the single, singular Saviour provided, with the New Covenant of boundless applicability for those who receive the Christ whose it is, these are things leaving nothing to be desired, just as in Christ Himself are unsearchable riches (Ephesians 3:8).

Receiving them by faith is a joy in the abundance of giving, receiving not Christmas presents, but Christ Himself! (John 1:12-14, I Thessalonians 5:16, Philippians 4:4).