Praise from people or praise from God?

933791_92731093How secure are you right now? It’s not an easy question to answer, is it? No matter how confident we might look on the outside, we all have big or little insecurities niggling away on the inside.

We might be concerned by issues of national security: Can we be safe from terrorists in Syria and madmen in Sydney cafés? We might be concerned about questions of individual security: Can I be safe from unemployment, anxiety, sickness, or the ups and downs of property prices and pensions? Often our deepest security issues concern our very identities. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Am I secure in my relationships? Am I secure in my place in the world, now and in the future? Naturally enough, then, we often look for acceptance and approval from other people. However, our quest to find security through the approval of other people can lead us into big trouble. Let me explain what I mean.

In the Bible, in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, at the end of chapter 2, Paul touches on this question of security and approval. Paul describes the true Jewish person

… whose praise is not from people, but from God (Romans 2:29).

This little saying presents a choice about where to find security; who to look for to find approval. Is true security found in the approval (the “praise”) of people, or in the approval (the “praise”) of God?

In fact, the issue of security comes up in various places in Romans chapters 1-3. These chapters are about two great truths: judgement and salvation. The first truth—God’s judgement against our sin—threatens our security at the deepest level. But the second truth—salvation—is a source of astounding security and comfort. Jesus Christ has died as a sacrifice for our sin, so that everyone who trusts in that sacrifice is completely forgiven, justified, right with God, now and forever.

In Romans 2, Paul describes various people who look for security in places other than in Jesus’ death for them. Some people feel secure because they think they are morally superior (Romans 2:1-11). Other people feel secure because they have God’s law (Romans 2:12-16). Still others feel secure because they teachGod’s law to other people (Romans 2:17-29). These law-teachers “boast” in the law (2:23). The word “boast” doesn’t just mean bragging or posing; it’s about having confidence and feeling secure. The people Paul is talking about here know God’s law and even teach God’s law to others. This is where their confidence and security lies.

At the time Paul was writing, it was the Jewish people, more than anyone, who had God’s law and knew God’s law (i.e. the first 5 books of the Bible) more than anyone. And because they had God’s law, many Jewish people were motivated to teach and promote God’s law to others. They wanted to show that God’s law gave the world the best blueprint for all human wisdom and flourishing.1

In fact, many Jewish people in Paul’s day believed that Israel and her teachers deserved special recognition for their possession of the law. The idea of law-teachers being “praised by people” was a ‘meme’ (a repeated idea) that had already been going around for a century or so when Paul wrote Romans. The meme appears, for example, in a writing called the Letter of Aristeas. It tells the story (probably legendary) of seventy Jewish law-teachers asked to translate the Jewish law for the Greek king Ptolemy II. The king invites the law-teachers to a huge dinner party, and then asks them all for advice about how to run his kingdom. The law-teachers repeatedly amaze the king and his guests with their superior eloquence and wisdom, which comes from God’s law. Again and again, the law-teachers are praised by the king: “The king praised him … the king praised him … the king praised him …”. The dinner party ends with “loud applause” for the law-teachers; the king raises a toast in their honour and tells them how much he has gained from their superior wisdom. This is a powerful vision for many Jewish people in Paul’s time—a vision for how they thought the law was supposed to work. Teach God’s law, the world will flourish, and you’ll be praised. This is where true security lies.

In effect, then, when Paul describes the true Jewish person “whose praise is not from people” (Romans 2:29), he’s trashing this meme. He’s saying that actually, there’s no ultimate security to be found just in knowing the law, teaching the law, and being praised by people. The problem is not that God’s law is bad or wrong. In fact, as Paul says later, the law is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12). The law truly reveals God and his will. However, the law by itself is powerless. That’s because everyone—Jew and Gentile—is under the power of sin. The law by itself just makes this problem worse; it shows up our sin and holds us accountable (Romans 3:9-20). Our ultimate confidence, our security, our “boast” can only be found in Jesus’ death for our sins. It can’t be found in our Bible knowledge, it can’t be found in our Bible teaching, and it certainly can’t be found in the approval of others.

Our security is, instead, in the person and work of Jesus. We’re freely forgiven, we have peace with God, and we have that sure hope of being saved (Romans 5:1-11). We’re safe. Our security can never be taken away by terrorists or madmen, by poverty or sickness, or by the disapproval others. It’s safe in Jesus. That security makes us free to love, free to do what is right in God’s eyes, free to speak the truth in love even when the truth (and the love) is rejected. It also makes us free to suffer for Jesus’ sake—even if that suffering involves being disapproved of or slandered by others. We live for God’s praise, not for the praise of people.

So this little saying, “whose praise is not from people, but from God”, raises a big question for all of us. Where do we look for our security, first and foremost? Do we look for security in the praise and approval that comes from people, or do we look for security in the praise and approval that comes from God?

This is really about our motivations. It won’t always be obvious from our actions. That’s because praise from people is not always in conflict with praise from God. God wants us to speak graciously, to love our neighbours, to help those in need. When we do these things, it’s likely we will also be praised by people.

However, this isn’t always true. No matter how gracious or loving we might try to be, we can’t please everyone all the time. Family members or fellow Christians might be upset at us for not meeting their expectations; friends or colleagues might disapprove of us just for being Christian. As many are experiencing now, friends or colleagues might cut us off or slander us for holding unpopular yet biblical views on sexuality.

When things like this happen, how should we respond? It’s right for us to ask whether we have been truly loving and truly done what is right, and repent if needs be. But there’s another, even deeper, question we need to ask: Where is our security? What is our core, driving motivation in responding to people? Is our driving motivation to do what looks good in the eyes of others; to protect ourselves, our reputation and our good name? Or is our core, driving motivation to please God—even if that means giving up praise from people?

These questions are particularly relevant for those who regularly preach, teach and lead God’s people. Those who are engaged in gospel ministry constantly face the temptation to be driven by the approval of others over and above the approval of God. They can too easily crave praise from outsiders, praise from congregation members, praise from colleagues. So please pray for your leaders. Pray that they will keep seeking their security in the praise that comes from God. Pray that they will be willing to endure suffering, loss of reputation or even more, for the sake of lovingly speaking the truth of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, pray that all of us will be given the strength in Jesus to be able to say, along with the apostle Paul:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. There is reserved for me in the future the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

  1. We can see this in a number of Jewish documents from around that time. See e.g. The Wisdom of Ben Sira, especially chapter 24; Philo of Alexandria, On the Life of Moses 2.
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