The squirrels had been in my attic for a while now. I could hear them overhead, running the length of the attic as they played in my insulation. It was driving me crazy. I hated those squirrels. “How are they getting into my attic?” Then one day I was standing in the front yard and saw a squirrel cross the street and head directly toward my house. It climbed up the trunk of a small tree near the house, jumped onto a branch of the tree, which bent under the weight and then sprung back up, catapulting the squirrel onto the roof of my house. “Oh ho! That’s how they are getting onto my roof and into my attic!” So, the next Saturday I was out with my tree saw and started to cut down the tree that the squirrels were using as a catapult. My neighbor wandered over to me and asked,
“Why are you doing that?”
“What do you mean, ‘Why am I doing that?’ I am cutting down this tree because I don’t want squirrels in my attic!” He shook his head and smiled and said, “Cutting down that tree won’t stop squirrels. You know, squirrels can just climb up the brick on the outside of your house and get onto your roof.”
I began to feel just a tiny bit stupid, realizing that he might be right, but I continued cutting down the tree anyway. “There,” I said, as the small tree sunk to the ground. “That will stop them!” My victory was short-lived, however. About two hours later, I felt chagrined and outmatched as I watched that same squirrel scamper up the corner of my house, using the brick as you or I would use a sidewalk, pop over onto the roof and then disappear into my attic.
What had just happened? Because of my ignorance of the real nature of the problem, I had employed a strategy that could never get me the results I wanted. I wanted to get rid of the squirrels in my attic, so I cut down the tree. No good. Waste of time. Bad idea.
Now, other than a little bit of humiliation in the eyes of my neighbor, my blunder had no real consequences. No big deal. Lost a tree and kept the squirrels. Oh, well.
For the next scene, we turn to the Bible as Paul is applying the truths of the gospel to his Jewish countrymen in Romans 10. Paul presents a troubling scenario. Paul writes, “For I testify about them (his Jewish brethren), that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge (10:2). For not knowing about God’s righteousness (that is, not knowing about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus the Messiah), and seeking to establish their own (by religious works), they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God (10:3).”
So, what I want to do is frame this scenario in terms of the incident with the squirrels in my attic, because these scenes are similar. Let’s say that an observer was talking to one of Paul’s friends, who was a Pharisee.
“I see that you are really zealous about doing religious things. You fast twice a week. You tithe from all that you get. You pray long prayers on the street corners. You always wash your hands before you eat, and you never do any work on the Sabbath. Everyone knows that you give to the poor. I’ve heard you even cast out demons and occasionally do a miracle! But . . . “
“Why are you doing that?”
The Pharisee replied, “Because I want to be righteous, of course!” The observer sadly shook his head and said, “Doing all these religious works does not make you righteous. In fact, no amount of religious works can EVER make you righteous. Do all your works, but your sin will remain.”
The Pharisee said, “That’s nonsense! Anyone can see that I am more righteous than you! I know that my religious works please God.”
Once more, the other man tried to get through. “Actually, in Isaiah 64:6 the prophet says, ‘All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.’ The only way to be righteous is to believe in Jesus the Messiah.”
For a brief moment it seemed that the Pharisee was considering what had just been said. Did Isaiah really say that thing about the filthy garment? And if he did say that what might that mean for me? Could my Rabbi be wrong? Could I be wrong? Could this guy be right? Then the mental window slammed shut. “I don’t need to be taught by you!” he said. “I will continue to work my works!”
What had just happened? Because of the Pharisee’s ignorance of the real nature of righteousness, he was employing a strategy that could never get him the results he wanted. He wanted righteousness, but he is trying to obtain his righteousness by his own works. No good. Waste of time. Bad idea.
But it is right at this point that things radically change. For while my blunder with the squirrels cost me a small tree and a little bit of embarrassment, the Pharisee’s error will cost him an eternity in hell. You see, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness for all who believe (Romans 10:4).” The only possible way to obtain righteousness before the Holy One, the God of heaven, is to believe in Jesus the Messiah. This is not a preference issue. This is not a question of semantics. This is not an issue where you go at your way and I go at it my way and then we will probably both get there eventually. If the Pharisee does not change his mind and repent and bow the knee to Jesus the Messiah, he will never obtain any righteousness. In fact, he will miss righteousness by an eternity.
The final scene is a lunch discussion between me and Jack. Jack is a business associate of mine. We have developed a bit of a friendship and know a little bit about each other. I know that Jack is a Catholic, and we have had a couple of discussions about each other’s religious views. On this occasion, I have steered the conversation in the religious direction again.
“So, as a Catholic, what sorts of things do you do? In other words, what religious things do Catholics do?”
“We have talked about this before, Roy, but anyway. We do confession and we do the Mass every Sunday with the Eucharist. We do some ‘our Fathers’ and some ‘hail Marys.’ Some people do the rosary. We pray to various saints. Like that.”
“Why are you doing that?”
“What do you mean, ‘Why am I doing that?’ I am doing these things because I don’t want to go to hell!”
At that moment, I felt like the neighbor who was telling me the truth about squirrels or like the “other guy” who was telling the Pharisee the truth about righteousness. Jack said that he wanted to avoid hell, but he was pursuing a strategy that guaranteed that he would arrive there. He had adopted the Catholic plan which promises that good Catholics will avoid God’s wrath by doing religious things. For Catholics, trying to do your best and obeying the Catholic Church will at least get you into Purgatory. These are the inventions of the Catholic Church that keep people from hearing the truth.
So, I tried to explain to Jack that this was not a preference issue. I tried to tell him that there was no such thing as Purgatory (“Jack, I think you have a hole in your parachute.”) I told him that Jesus died to atone for sin, so there is no longer an ongoing sacrifice needed through the Mass. The priest has no authority to forgive sins or to give you any sort of penance that you can do to remove your sin. But my words fell on hard ground and we basically left the restaurant a tiny bit incensed with one another and probably a little more polarized.
The lesson from this is that we must be clear about what is wisdom and what is absolute truth. With regard to salvation, we must insist that there is no room for compromise or personal preference. When the fireman crashes your door down with an axe, it is not so he can debate with you whether your house is on fire. For everyone of us, our house is on fire, and there is only one way to safety. His name is Jesus.
For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness for all who believe.
SDG rmb 9/4/2020