Monday, February 27, 2017

Two Kinds of People-Romans 2:6-11

Though we are now in March and it is no longer Black History month, I was reminded this past week of a famous quote by Martin Luther that successfully introduces the crux of today’s passage. In his famous speech entitled “I Have a Dream,” Luther dreamed of a country in which his four “little children will one day be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Whether or not this destiny has been fulfilled yet or not is still up for debate in our nation today—a nation that seems eager to distinguish between all kinds of groups and subgroups based on everything from race to gender to sexuality to age to political affiliation to church membership to generation etc. Luther’s idea—the idea in which character matters most—seems far-fetched as we look out at our world. It sure would be nice if there really was no partiality or prejudice.

However, this may not be as far off as one thinks. In fact, there is One who always deals justly and fairly with all men and women—God. The holiness of God as witnessed in his relationship to the world is the subject Romans 2:6-11. Therein, Paul provides three pairs of teachings that tell us much about God and two groups of people. As it pertains to how God relates to the people of the world, there is only one thing that matters and it has nothing to do with what the world seems so preoccupied with.

1) Two Characteristics of God-2:6 & 11

As Paul continues his analysis of the human need for salvation, he introduces a basic principle of 
divine judgment that together with verse 11, fence in the contents of verses 7-20. The principle is this: God is a God “who will render to each person according to His deeds” (2:6). This teaching is consistent with what the Bible says elsewhere.

Psalm 62:12-“And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, for You recompense a man according to his work”

Proverbs 24:12-“…will He not render to man according to his work?

Matthew 16:27 –“For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.”

One might ask, “I thought Paul, more than most, emphasized the idea that the sinner is saved by faith?” This is true and Paul will affirm this later (see Rom. 3:18). However, for now Paul is not teaching how we are made right with God, but “how God judges the reality of our faith” (Mounce, Romans, 91). In other words, faith is an amorphous and ethereal quality that, in and of itself, is difficult to pin down. However, the deeds that result from the faithful (or the lack of deeds witnessed in the faithless) betray of the reality and quality of the faith in question. Jesus seems to indicate the same when he taught the following in Matthew 25:31-46.

Matthew 25:31-40-“31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’”

Here, as in Romans 2, the deeds performed betray the faith within. A.M. Hunter writes “a man’s destiny on Judgment Day will depend not on whether he has known God’s will but on whether he has done it” (Hunter, Romans, 36). Those who “do it” (that is God’s will) reveal that they really have faith.

The first thing that the audience learns about God in this passage is that God is a God who judges the deeds of mankind. He is uniquely qualified to do this because He is the standard by which all things, people, and actions are measured.         

Acting as the other bookend of this short passages is another divine quality—impartiality—“for there is no partiality with God” (2:11). This divine quality, along with the one found in verse 6 form an inclusio that holds the remainder of the passage together. In verse 6 we learned that God casts judgment and in verse 11 we learn that He does this without partiality.

In other words, God is not a respecter of ethnicity, race, culture, geographic location, socio-economic status, family heritage, etc. God is interested most in character and how it manifests itself in performance.

This is antithetical to how many people fill quotas and assign worth today. In a world that is partial to this or that group, God shows no impartiality and allows the works of men and women to speak for themselves.

These two divine qualities—that God is a judge and that he judges without partiality—successfully establish the domain in which people are allowed to live and pursue two different destinies. EVERYONE is allowed a choice in the matter and EVERYONE will be judged accordingly—(without partiality).

2) Two Competing Lifestyles-2:7-8

The first dichotomy that exists in this domain involves lifestyle. In the grand scheme of things there are ultimately two ways to live. The first is a life of faithful perseverance in doing good—“to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life” (2:7). The verb “seek” is a present participle that describes the type of person who will stop at nothing to find/obtain a desired object of person. It invokes the idea of a consistent quality or lifestyle. 
Therefore, another translation of this might read “those who by perseverance in doing good make it their habit to strive for glory and honor and immortality.” These direct their lives toward those activities that help others (“doing good”), result in divine glory (“glory”), are honorable before God and men (“honor”), and reverberate beyond this life (“immortality”). These are those who endorse the kind of thinking that is portrayed in passages like Philippians 4.

Philippians 4:8-“Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

The people who persevere in dwelling on these things and act accordingly betray faith in God and will receive “eternal life” (2:7). This “eternal life” describes not only the longevity of existence received, but something of its spiritual and existential quality. Those who endorse lifestyle #1 demonstrate that they have faith in Jesus Christ and, as a result, have God as their Father.  

Lifestyle option #2 is quite different—“but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation…” (2:8). Instead of being guided by a desire to seek the good of others, these desire only/ultimately what is good for themselves. Instead of pursuing glory, honor and immortality, these are disobedient and unrighteousness. Such people were described in Romans 1 as suppressors of truth and those who were handed over to their own wicked desires. Others that fit this lifestyle practiced these traits behind the fa├žade of religion—just like those mentioned in Romans 2:1-5. All who endorse this lifestyle betray a lack of faith in Jesus Christ and, as a result, have Satan as their father.

John 8:42-47-“Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.’”

In both John 8 and Romans 2, one’s sonship/daughtership is dependent on what one does with the truth. God’s children embrace the truth; Satan’s children ignore and disobey the truth.

Such a lifestyle does end in any quality of life whatsoever. Instead, according to Romans 2:8, “wrath and indignation” await those who entertain this option.

3) Two Contrasting Destinies-2:9-10

Corresponding to each of these lifestyles are two distinct destinies. First, Paul says that the evil will find tribulation--“there will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek” (2:9). “Does” as it is used in this verse describes a person who habitually seeks to accomplish evil with thoroughness.” This is not someone who periodically gives into temptation. This is someone who consistently does evil—someone “who [is] selfishly ambitious and do[es] not obey the truth, but obey[s] unrighteousness” (2:8). At present, these endorse sin and experience the tribulation and distress that comes with it. Evidence of this can be seen in the prescription drug crisis, rise in divorce rate, alarming credit card debt figures, and new industries that have been invented to relieve stress—yoga, sleeping pills, vacations, mindfulness, etc. Though these and other methods of finding respite from distress might bring temporary relief, ultimately, these are unable to quell the very real tribulation that awaits those who “do evil.”

Notice to that such tribulation, like God’s judgment is not a respecter of persons. Paul continues and says “of the Jew first and also to the Greek” (2:9). In other words, ANYONE who endorses the lifestyle described in verse 8 will receive, both presently and eschatologically, distress and tribulation. Jews receive it “first” in the sense that, having been given the Law of God, they should have known better. Though without the formal Law of God, the Gentiles are still guilty and receive the same as the Jews with the Law.

Unlike those who disobey the truth and, in so doing, know a life of distress and tribulation, Paul finally highlights the destiny of the faithful—“but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jews first and also to the Greek” (2:10). Those who prove themselves to be children of God through their good works will receive glory and honor and peace from the Lord.  Glory ultimately comes at the end when the believer will be made like Christ. Honor is known presently as the believer stands for God in a corrupt world. The promise of peace provides the believer with hope for what is to come and relief from what is faced today. “Those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality,” (2:7) will know all of these wonderful blessings.

Such blessings are not exclusive to any nation, people group, or social class. Just like the potential wrath experienced by the evil doer, these blessings are available “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (2:10). The Jew first because God first revealed himself to the Jewish people, rendering salvation available to them before anyone else. To the Greek because salvation has been made available to everyone in the world following the ministry of Christ.

The whole passage is one cohesive whole that works in a sophisticated way to tell us something about God and two categories of people alive in the world today:

                2:6-God judges all according to deeds
                                2:7-The faithful persevere in doing good
    2:8-The selfish obey unrighteousness
    2:9-The evil will find tribulation
2:10-The faithful will attain honor and peace
2:11-God is impartial

This structure is known as a chiasm. In this particular example of a chiasm, Paul means to accentuate what comes in the middle and what is found at the beginning and the end. First, as it pertains to the context of Romans 2, Paul is hoping that the reader remembers that the selfish and evil (of any kind) will be found guilty and judged if they remain without Christ. This continues the theme that is introduced in 1:18--all are guilty and in need of the salvation that only Jesus can provide. Second, Paul is hoping to teach the church that God has the same scale for all people—He judges deeds and, by proxy, the heart of a person. Those who do good prove to be men and women of faith and have God as their father. Those who do evil prove to be men and women of unrighteousness and have Satan as their father.

So What?

The one thing that matters to an impartial judging God is faith. Those who have it do good deeds and persevere toward honor and glory. Those who do not have it obey unrighteousness and will ultimately find distress and tribulation. God does not care where you are from, how much you have to offer by way of money or talent, who your family is, your ethnicity, etc. He cares about your character and my character and whether or not it is a character of faith in Jesus Christ.

Concerned that such a character is not found in you? Look at your deeds. Is your life a life lived in perseverance, for God’s glory, honorable, and focused on what is eternal? Or, is it a life that is characterized by selfish ambition, unrighteousness, distress, and deserved tribulation?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Condemnation of those who Condemn-Romans 2:1-5

So far in our study of Romans we have been introduced to the theme of the letter—that God’s power is realized in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only that, but we have begun to examine what the gospel looks like. A couple of weeks ago, we recognized, via Romans 1, that an individual cannot be saved until he/she recognizes his/her need for salvation. This is why Paul goes to great lengths to describe how the pagans of this world are guilty before God and in very real need of the salvation that only Jesus Christ can provide.

Image result for Condemnation

So far, so good right? People who live like the world because they reject the revelation of God are going to hell. This is something that many “God-fearing” churchgoers will readily say “amen” to. In fact, I received several compliments after last Sunday’s sermon. Some even thanked me for speaking frankly about what the Bible says concerning more obvious sins. However, Paul doesn’t stop with the pagan. In chapter 2, he moves on to identify the guilt of the religious before God—specifically, the religious Jew.

The religious Jew of Paul’s day might be compared to the legalistic Christian today—those who were raised in the church and taught not to drink, smoke, play cards, or run with girls who do. These are those who congregate in their holy huddles only the bicker and complain about the very world they are called to engage, clinging to tradition more than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. These have a pretty face, but, as Jesus describes are dead on the inside—“whitewashed tombs.” When I consider the archetypal legalist, I think of John Lithgow’s character as the fundamentalist Baptist preacher in the original Footloose. He believed that as long as he could keep his daughter and the community from dancing and listening to secular music, he had succeeded as a father and pastor.  This is the type of person that Paul addresses in chapter 2 of Romans as he continues to identify the need of gospel in the world. Three comments that Paul makes in Romans 2:1-5 indicate that it is not just the obviously “lost” who need a savior. The resoundingly religious do as well.

1) Statement of Culpability-2:1-2

Chapter 2 begins with clear transitional marker—“therefore”—“Therefore, you have no excuse, every one of you who passes judgment” (2:1a).  Such a transition demonstrates that Paul is now moving from explaining the guilt of the pagan population to another group entirely. Having condemned the Gentiles from suppressing the truth and falling victim to all kinds of evil after being handed over to their sinful ways, Paul now intends to castigate Jews for their own brand of failure.

However, the “you” here is singular. So just whom is Paul addressing? The answer is found in verse 17. There it is clear that Paul means to address the Jews in this chapter. So then, why does he single out one Jew for the purposes of this discussion? The answer lies in a particular literary device known as a diatribe that was commonly employed in Paul’s day. A diatribe establishes a singular hypothetical individual that engages or is addressed by an author for the benefit of those reading the exchange. Once established, the readers are allowed to “listen in” to the discussion taking place and learn from what is communicated therein. Here, Paul creates a hypothetical Jewish individual that he can engage in an effort to teach a lesson to the Roman church about the religiously minded (particularly, religious Jews).

Paul says that such a Jew (one “who passes judgment”) is without excuse. Here, it is important to delineate exactly what is meant by passing judgment. There are at least two different connotations associated with judgment that are found in the New Testament. These two connotations might be illustrated in the following two verses.

Matthew 7:1-5-“’Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.’”

John 7:24-“Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.

In the first passage (Matt. 7), it appears that to “judge” involves “condemnation.” Such a view is supported by the idea that people need to take care of their own faults before seeking to condemn others around them for their issues. Inasmuch as God alone is perfect, he is the only one that does not have to check himself before condemning those around him for wrongdoing.

However, in the second passage (John 7:24), disciples are called to “judge with righteous judgment.” Here, the term means to discern between what is good and evil. Such discernment is not based, as the verse suggests, on mere appearance, but the character of a thing, act, or person. Therefore, at least two ideas can be represented in the verb for judge (krinw)—condemn and discern.

Of these two choices, the former (a condemning kind of judgment) appears to be what Paul is taking to task. This is supported by what he will eventually say in the remainder of the verse (see katakrinw in 2:1b) and is in sympathetic to the character of the religious of his day. Many who would consider themselves “religious” were quick to judge/condemn those around them—especially the pagan population of Rome. Paul is calling out these in verse 1. These are without excuse.
Without excuse for what? For being just as guilty as the very people they seek to condemn. Why?—“for in that which you judge another, you condemn (katakrinw) yourself; for you who judge practice the same things” (2:1b). In chapter 1 (especially verse 20) the reader learned that Gentiles who rejected and suppressed the revelation of God were without excuse and guilty. Here, one learns that the religious (particularly religious Jews) who condemned those around them are also without excuse (2:1). Those who judge are guilty of practicing the same things—more literally rendered “habitually practicing”—that they condemn in others.    

It is both anecdotally true and psychologically verified that people tend to criticize those negative traits of which they themselves are guilty. Psychologists call this projection. “Nothing blinds a person more than the certainty that only others are guilty of moral faults” (Mounce, 88). Martin Luther even noted “the unrighteous look for good in themselves and for evil in others” (Romans, 36).

However, are the religious condemners really guilty of the very same things the pagans are? Perhaps not on the surface, but certainly in principle this is true. Though a religious bigot may not endorse homosexuality, these understand what it is like to yearn for/desire that which is forbidden. Though one might not murder someone, all know what it is like to harbor anger against a neighbor (See Sermon on the Mount). Etc. Etc. Etc. Truly, in every way a pagan is drawn to sin, so is the one who is righteous in his/her own eyes. After all, every act of willful sin is rooted in idolatry and pride—“I know better,” or “this means more to me than God does” in any given moment. Therefore, when the nature of sin is exposed, both the pagan and religious are guilty.

This is why Paul is able to say in verse 2 “and we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things” (2:2). Here, those who are quick to condemn become the condemned before God.

One example of this is found in 2 Sam. 12:1-4. After committing adultery with Bathsheba and covering up his failure by seeing to it that her husband Uriah was killed in the line of duty, David is approached by the prophet Nathan. The story reads as follows:

2 Sam. 12:1-14-“Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And he came to him and said, ‘There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, And he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.’  Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.’ Nathan then said to David, ‘You are the man!’”

In the same way David was guilty—so too are the purely religious who seek to condemn those around them.

2) Questions for Consideration-2:3-4

As Paul drives this point home, he asks his hypothetical sparring partner a couple of rhetorical questions worthy of consideration. The first of these is found in verse 3—“But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?” (2:3). The clear answer to this is “no!” It does not matter who one is before God, those who sin are deserving of judgment.

However, I’m sure there were those who were tempted to say “yes” to this question, believing that they, in spite of their own sin, are somehow not at risk of divine judgment. Perhaps these thought that their ethnicity (being Jewish), or outward appearance before men kept them from incurring God’s wrath. Paul says that this could not be further from the truth.

Unfortunately, many believe that they are somehow exempt from God’s judgment today on the same grounds. “My parents went to church,” “I give such and such to this or that,” “Everyone around me thinks I’m doing all right.” Those with enough spiritual knowledge to render themselves dangerous have always pretended that they are not the one with the problem. In fact, this is addressed in Paul’s next question.

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?...” (2:4). “With this question, Paul gets to the heart of the issue. Because of their covenant relationship with God, Jews frequently fell into the habit of thinking that they were immune from the judgment of God” (Moo, Zondervan Illustrated, 15). Unfortunately, Paul’s hypothetical conversation partner, many religious Jews of his day, and the spiritually-minded/religious of our own world are prone to misinterpret the common grace and delay of wrath that God extends to everyone. These believe that if things are going well, that must mean they themselves are doing morally well also. However, with this haunting question, Paul calls this view out as utter rubbish. These would do well not to interpret God's grace in their lives as license. Instead, God’s kindness ought to lead one to repentance, not licentiousness. After all, God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).

When people recognize all that God has allowed to transpire in their lives, “the sun and the rain” if you will, then they should respond by turning from their wicked ways, accepting what he has revealed, and glorifying him in all that they do. Unfortunately, this does not always happen, especially for the religious who believe that they have it all going on already!

This is why Paul is forced to explain their guilt in verse 5.

3) Explanation of Guilt-2:5

Instead of being gently persuaded by God’s kindness to recognize their sin and accept God’s gift of salvation, these are “stubborn and unrepentant” (2:5a). What the reader has come to expect of the pagan is true of the religious—a heart hardened against God! In chapter 1, this hardened heart came by way of suppressing the truth and being handed over to sinfulness (after these were given exactly what was asked for along with all of its implications). In chapter 2, the hardened heart of the religious in general and the religious Jew in particular came by way of misunderstanding the purpose of God’s grace, and persistent condemnation of others.

 “This truth has serious implications. The person who knows but resists truth does not go away from the encounter morally neutral. Truth resisted hardens the heart. It makes it all the more difficult to recognize truth the next time around. Life is not a game without consequences. By our response to God’s revelation we are determining our own destiny.” (Mounce, 90).

As a result, these “are storing up wrath for [themselves] in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5b). Though the Lord tarries in executing his judgment against the guilty, one day such judgment will came. Ironically, the delay of divine retribution gives the religious individual (that is one who is purely religious and devoid of any relationship with God), more time to accumulate more wrath. Though many might think their “goodness” and “many works” will impress God, those who misunderstand God’s grace and are quick to condemn—proving that they are unrighteous—will themselves receive condemnation at the appointed time (see Psalm 110 and Revelation).

So What?

As Paul continues his letter, he is hoping that all recognize their need for what only Jesus Christ can give. In chapter 1, he explains the guilt and need of the pagan. In chapter 2, he explains the guilt and need of the religious. This latter group is just as “lost” as the very people these tend to condemn. In their condemnation of others, they condemn themselves. While they have been shown great grace, they are not humbled toward repentance. Instead, these believe they have some kind of claim on righteousness. Do not be fooled, God grace is intended to lead the sinner to repentance, not self-righteousness.

Paul presents these comments in Romans 2:1-5 so that those attending the church understand that religiosity and legalism is not enough. In fact, those who are merely religious are just as far gone as the pagans. How might we tell if Paul is describing us in this passage? Ask yourself, am I quick to condemn others in an effort to make myself look/feel better? Am I quietly entertaining and endorsing what others do out in the open? Do I believe that I’m free to do as I please? If your answer is “yes,” consider the very real possibility that you might need to trade your religion for a real relationship with Jesus Christ.

May it not be said of any of us—that we were merely religious, devoid of any real relationship with Lord.  

Monday, February 13, 2017

You Don't Always Want what you Want-Rom. 1:24-32

When it comes time for disciplining children there are all kinds of tactics that parents choose. Spankings, timeouts, groundings, withholding privileges, etc. All of these exist in an effort to change bad behaviors and point the way toward obedience. This is done out of love and for the best interests of the son or daughter. However, there is another option that is fairly radical that might be likened to a last resort—give the child exactly what they want. Rather than adopt the lyrics of the famous rock anthem “you can’t always get what you want,” some decide to go ahead and grant  what is being requested in a last-stitch effort to teach a hard lesson. This is not done  to appease the child. It is done to show him/her the natural consequences of whatever it is that they are asking. They want nothing but candy, give them nothing but candy, and let them experience the stomach ache that follows. They want to stay up all night, see how much they like it the next day when they are struggling to stay awake. They want to spend their money on silly things, let them see what it's like when they can’t afford something they really want or need, but didn’t have the patience to wait for. Ultimately, this is one poignant way to demonstrate once and for all that what they want is not always best.

Image result for Kid with chocolate all over his face

God does the same thing with the stubborn sinner. In light of the sinner’s customary rejection of God, Romans 1:24-32 reveals that God endorses this harsh form of punishment and wrath—He gives the sinner exactly what they want and all of the implications that come with it. Unfortunately, many, even in spite of this tactic, remain hardened against God. However, those who learn the hard way that what God offers is best will receive grace and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ

1) Their Bodies are Dishonored-1:24-25

One result of a life lived in opposition to God is a dishonored body—“Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them,…”(1:24). What does it mean for God to “give them over” to these things? A note in the NIVSB says “God allowed sin to run its course as an act of judgment.” This helps inform what Paul meant earlier when he said “the wrath of God is being revealed” (1:18). Here, the wrath is made manifest in people receiving the just fruits of their rebellion. In other words, God allows these to receive exactly what they are looking for and, as a result, they are carried to the natural consequences associated.

One commentator puts it this way: God “ceased to hold the boat as it was dragged by the current of the river” (Godet, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 1:177). In the river of iniquity, people are naturally drawn downstream. Instead of asking for help out of the river and grabbing hold of the lifeline that is Christ, those described in Romans 1:18-23 are actively paddling downstream yelling, “let me go, I want to go downstream!” At a certain point, the anchor of God’s common grace is detached from their life’s vessel, and people are allowed to gleefully canoe away from the shore, completely unaware that around the corner is a waterfall leading to certain death. 

As verse 24 admits, one of the things that these run into as a result of “the lusts of their hearts“ (at the base of the waterfall) is “impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them” (1:24).  Notice, it is their own desire that is bringing this all about. The verb “desire” (epiqumia) describes a yearning that, if its object is good, is well placed (see Phil. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:17). However, if the object is ungodly, it is a burning lust that leads to all kinds of wickedness. This appears to be the case here. Taken in this way, sinful desire is a pathogen that afflicts the body, the symptoms of which include a predisposition to all kinds of unrighteousness.

Here, this results in the body being dishonored. To be sure, what will soon be described in 1:26-27 is capable of throwing one’s physical body into very real jeopardy. However, on an even more profound level, sinful desires land the body (spiritually, emotionally, physically, relationally, etc.) in a desperate situation. What God intended people to use for good—their bodies—is dishonored by sin and used a vehicle of iniquity. The word used (“atimazw”) means to lower the status of something or disrespect. Part of the reason God hands people over to their sins is to cause them to see how these inferior authorities ultimately bring them down.

Ultimately, this takes place because “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, Amen” (1:25). In other words, idolatry is to blame for this program of sin. Truly, ever act of willful sin is in some ways idolatrous for, in the moments that these trespasses are committed, God and his corresponding will/design is replaced with something else –one’s personal preferences, a high of some kind, another proposed deity, or an another guiding principle. In the moment of willful sin, something/someone else is feared more than the one true God and whatever that is becomes in a functional sense, the god of that moment. Anyone who replaces God with these inferior things worships the creature rather than the Creator and exchanges the truth for a lie.

The first result of the sinner getting what he or she wants is a dishonored body. However, this is not the only thing that suffers as a direct result of the unrepentant sinner getting exactly what he/she asks for.

2) Their Passions are Perverted-1:26-27

Paul continues and says “for this reason God gave them over to degrading passions” (1:26a). The repetition of “gave them over” reiterates the idea that God withdraws from the sinner who willfully continues in wickedness. In these cases, “The penalty of sin is sin itself with all its inevitable consequences” (Mounce, 82). Not only do these consequences result in a dishonored body, but it perverts people’s passions.

One manifestation of this perversion—perhaps the most acute expression of it—is illustrated in verses 26b-27—“for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error,…” (1:26b-27). According to many commentators, this passages contains the clearest teaching on homosexuality found in the New Testament. Here, Paul describes the practice as “shameful,” “unnatural,” “indecent,” and as a “perversion.”

This clear biblical teaching on homosexuality has become more and more marginalized in our brave new world today. In fact, multiple surveys and polls suggest that accepting homosexuality and homosexual marriage is considered normal, appropriate, and on par with accepting hetero-sexual relationships. Homosexuality has become mainstream according to majority opinion. This has rendered many in the church unwilling to address this issue or fearful of advocating for biblical teachings on the subject.

Paul experienced the same pressure in his day. The Greco-Roman society of Paul’s day not only tolerated homosexuality, some even argued that it was superior to heterosexuality. In fact, Barclay notes that “fourteen out of the first fifteen Roman Emperors were homosexuals.” Imagine how mainstream, commonplace, sought after, and revered this lifestyle must have been. Imagine how unpopular Paul’s teaching on this subject must have been for the popular culture.

However, Paul’s teaching was in keeping with what the Scriptures have always said on the subject. Leviticus 18:22 prohibits homosexuality and calls it detestable. In fact, one commentator says that “no feature of pagan society filled the Jew with greater loathing than the toleration, or rather admiration, of homosexual practices” (Barrett, Romans, 39).

Such a lifestyle is one abhorrent consequence of people being given license to run with their perverted passions all the way to their natural end. However, homosexuality as it is a perversion of God’s intended relationship between man and woman and as it promotes a gross misrepresentation of Christ and His church, carries its own destructive penalties. This is what Paul means when he says “receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (1:27).

When God lets stubborn sinners loose—giving them exactly what they want—their bodies are dishonored and their passions are perverted. Respectively, those who endorse a life of sin are made lower than God intended and in very real danger of allowing their passions to drive them in all kinds of nefarious directions.

3) Their Minds are Misguided-1:28-32

When sinners are let loose and given the freedom to do, be, explore whatever they please, their bodies are dishonored, their passions are perverted, and finally, their minds are misguided. This happens as a direct result of people not seeing fit to acknowledge God any longer—“And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (1:28). Again “gave them over” is repeated to accentuate the fact that God is not beyond allowing people to experiences the consequences of their own actions. In this particular instance, when God and his truth is rejected, it leaves the individual’s ability to think clearly about moral issues totally undermined (Mounce, 84).

On example of this disjunction between God and knowledge is witnessed in today’s academic climate. Secular education, bereft of any theological core, has contributed to the cultural regression, skepticism, and pervasive relativism of our society. Because any mention of God and His Word has been divorced from science, literature, math, etc. youth are being taught incomplete systems. Though secular education provides students with abilities to observe and superficial deal with facts, it is incapable of explaining what these ultimately mean, what they add up to, and/or why they are there in the first place.

This is just one modern manifestation of the phenomenon described in 1:28—“ God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,…”. It is almost as though God says, “ok, you don’t want to give me any credit for anything or acknowledge/praise my Name? Lets see how much sense you can make of this world without me!”

Unfortunately, not much sense will/can be made in this world without God. This is what Paul observed in his brave new world and it is what we observe all around us today! Listen to the compendium of social/relational/political/economic ills that Paul provides in verses 29-31 and tell me this is not the kind of world we are living in today: “being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; that are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (1:29-31). Don’t believe we live in an unrighteous, wicked, or evil world? Have you watched the news lately? Don’t believe we are in a greedy world that is full of envy? Take a look at the pervasive commercialism and materialism that runs the lives of so many who are just trying to keep up with the Jones’ next door? Don’t believe that murder, strife, deceit, malice are a big deal? 1000s are murdered in our urban areas every year, fake news runs rampant, protestors and agitators are stopping at nothing to incite violence everywhere we look. Don’t believe that people endorse gossip? You can’t miss it as you check out of the grocery store on the front pages of magazines and journals—gossip is for sale and it runs a multi-billion dollar printing industry! Don’t believe that people hate God or are insolent? Then why is “new atheism” on the rise and Christianity becoming more marginalized? Don’t think people are all that boastful or arrogant? Then why do so many post every minor detail of their lives on Facebook or speak as experts on twitter, foolishly equating “followers” and “likes” with prestige and self-worth? Don’t believe that some are inventors of evil? Then why are abortion techniques becoming more barbaric and weapons of mass destruction becoming more “dirty”? Don’t believe that children are disobedient to their parents? “Catch me outside, how ‘bout that!” Don’t think that the majority of people are without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful? Then why are more confused now than ever before about their gender? Why are more skeptical of the government than ever before? Why are so many depressed and feel unloved/unwanted? Why can’t people with differences of opinion have an honest conversation anymore without it ending in a broken relationship?

My friends we are living in the same world that Paul lived in—a world in which the majority of people have been handed over to a depraved mind because they would not honor God.

In fact, it gets even worse—“although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (1:32). In other words, people in Paul’s day knew things were wrong, joined the behavior anyway, and gave hearty approval to those who practice such behavior. This seems no different than people taking up popular offensive memes on facebook and sharing them with their friends! People today and in Paul’s day, as a result of being handed over to their depraved mind by God, don’t just tolerate sin, they endorse it and celebrate it!

So What?

When God hands stubborn sinners over to their iniquity there are several potentialities that may result: the human body can be dishonored, passions can be horribly perverted, and minds are misguided in a myriad of ways. When God pulls up the anchor holding these back from sheer destruction, unfortunately many gleefully paddle away to their own demise at the base of the waterfall of judgment that awaits them (unbeknownst to them). However, those who recognize the error of their ways step off their vessel of unrighteousness and onto the shore of God’s grace by accepting forgiveness for wrongdoing and endorsing a new way of life that promises a glorified body, satisfied passions, and a transformed mind.

Are you still on the boat today? Has God pulled up your anchor? There is a waterfall around the corner that the current can’t resist.

You can’t always get what you want, and maybe that is a good thing. What really matters is that we have what we need—Jesus Christ! 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Diagnosis of the Lost-Rom. 1:18-23

As we consider how we as a church are to take the gospel message to our brave new world, many forget the necessary and often difficult “pre-step” that is paramount in the process of evangelism. One cannot help someone be saved until he/she first helps someone understand that he/she is lost. This is becoming increasingly difficult in our relativistic world. So much has become culturally accepted and legal in our surrounding context that many believe that they are doing alright, especially compared to others that they observe around them. I’m convinced that so many in our city and our neighborhood either consciously or subconsciously believe something akin to this statement: “as long as I’m not as bad as so and so, I’m doing fine and don’t really need anything in my life. In fact, by all appearances, I’m doing pretty good!” This could not be further from the truth. Understanding the desperate plight of man because of sin is something that everyone must acknowledge before they are able to accept the gift of grace that Jesus has purchased on the cross. Thankfully, Paul provides some helpful comments on this matter in Romans 1:18-23 and helps elucidate the guilt experienced by the lost in an effort to point them to salvation.

Image result for Suppressing the truth

1) The Infraction is Identified-1:18

After introducing the theme of his letter in 1:16-17—that in the gospel, God moves mightily to put people in right relationship with himself—Paul postpones further explanation of this good news until 3:21 and begins the bulk of his argument on a relatively low but absolutely necessary note.  While in 1:17, Paul revealed that the righteousness of God is being revealed, he immediately reminds those reading that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). The “wrath of God” was a common theme Greco-Roman literature present. Most pagans in Rome believed that when the gods were offended, they exercised wrath upon the earth. Here, Paul reveals that the one true God is enraged by the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. As a result, His wrath is made manifest. Though not all sin goes punished in observable ways now, and most of God’s wrath will be realized at the end of time (when Jesus returns to judge the world), the present-tense verb “is revealed” makes clear that in some ways His wrath is being executed today (see 1:24-32).

Unfortunately, I see this all too often in my line of work at the hospital. So many, following a life of ungodliness and unrighteousness are dealing with the long-term present effects of certain patterns of sinfulness—drug-dependence, physical maladies, mental illness, etc. Others that I know, including myself, experience relational strife, anxieties, fear, and the like as a result of other choices made and sins endorsed.  These are just a few examples of the possible consequences of certain ungodly habits. To be sure, ultimate judgment does await for those who do not have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. However, many will tell you in candid moments that some consequences of sin are already very real.

According to Paul, the wrath of God is being exercised against “all ungodliness and the unrighteousness of men” (1:18). Charles Hodge believes that “ungodliness” refers to impiety toward God and “unrighteousness” applies to unjustness toward humanity. Such a view suggests that a lack of respect for God and His Word leads to a lack of justice for people and a degradation of relationships.

When Jesus was asked “what is the greatest commandment?” He responded with “love God with all of yourself” and then added “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37ff). Here, Paul suggests that doing the opposite of these—acting in an ungodly and unrighteous way toward God and others—incurs divine wrath. 

What kind of person behaves in this way and receives such wrath? Those “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18b). Here, Paul describes the kind of person that makes it his/her habit to hold down the truth or prevent it from surfacing. To put it more concretely, these are those who attempt to drown the truth by holding it under the water of personal preference and/worldly relativism.

These are those who understand something about the truth, but do not want to accept it. These are those who aren’t just uncomfortable with the truth, they don’t want anyone else to be comfortable with it either. These are those who desire to advance their own truth rather than the absolute truth of God. These are those who, as Jack Nicholson exclaimed in A Few Good Men, “can’t handle the truth” and, by proxy, prove that they have no relationship with the Way, the Truth, and the Life—Jesus. 
So how does this happen? How do people move from lost and in need of a Savior to antagonistic of any truth whatsoever and hateful of those who claim it?

Because let’s face it. In our current context, there is nothing congenial or sanguine about many in the atheist/postmodern ranks. Some will stop at nothing to suppress and silencing any claim of absolute truth in general and biblical truth in particular. Leaders of this march—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Richard Carrier, etc. treat Christianity and the absolute truth it claims not as a worldview worthy of serious consideration, but as radical, dangerous, and in need of extinction. In so doing these become what they claim of their opposing interlocutors—intolerant, oppositional, narrow, and bigoted.

2) The Infraction is Delineated-1:19-23

Paul goes on to describe exactly how this infraction takes plan in the human person in verses 19-20. First, God has supplied evidence of himself in the human person--“because that which is known about God is evident within them” (1:19). In other words, there is ample evidence to suggest that human beings are made in the image of God.

 (1) Psychologists and anthropologists from every walk of life recognize that humans possess a unique openness to the world around them and to their own future. This is witnessed in the goals that are set, hopes that are formalized, imagination, creativity, and exploration. (2) These same scientists recognize the incredible tension that there is within the human person that comes as a result of wanting to be something that they are not yet or desiring to achieve something that is not yet realized. Many recognize that many believe the present isn’t satisfactory as it exists now and most maintain hope for something more. (3) This has led to an identity crisis and (4) a pervasive search for a perfect community in which this tension can be satisfied. (5) Pervasive religion (a.k.a. “Sacred Play”), is one practice that many around the world have given themselves to in an effort to participate in something more than themselves—something sacred or divine. All of these, and many more considerations, suggest that there is something about the human person that resembles something more than what limited to this world—something beyond this world or divine.

Ecclesiastes 3:11-“He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”

Paul suggests that “God made it evident to them” (1:19b). In other words—people who are honest enough to recognize what the Bible, Anthropologists, Psychologists, etc. are all saying will, in a moment of honest reflection come to terms with the fact that there is something knowable about God in the human person. When the human person is appreciated for all of his/her sophistication, potential, intelligence, etc. it becomes clear that God’s fingerprints are all over each of us.

Not only is there evidence of the divine in the human person, but evidence of God is pervasive throughout creation. Paul says, “for since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (1:20a). This statement confirms what the psalmist celebrates in Psalm 8 when he says “when I gaze into the night sky and see the works of your fingers” and what is exclaimed in Psalm 19—“the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” It is obvious in these passages that the cosmos most impressed ancient writers. When the ancients looked to the skies, even without the technology available today to help them appreciate all that there is in the vast universe, they couldn’t help but acknowledge the God who created them.

A closer look at the skies today betrays the same sentiment. According to Gribbin and Rees, "The conditions in our Universe really do seem to be uniquely suitable for life forms like ourselves, and perhaps even for any form of organic complexity.” Such conditions necessary for life include the proximity of the earth to the sun, the arrangement of the planets and the stars, etc. It is almost as though a grand designer precarious measured these things exactly for his purposes.

However, whether you are looking in a telescope at the stars or in a microscope at bacteria, the story is the same. A lot has been learned about certain biological machines including the tail that propels bacteria cells. This sophisticated piece of equipment contains multiple parts, including a rotor that by itself can operate at 6,000 to 17,000rpm. With the tail/flagellar filament attached, the apparatus spins at speeds up to 1000 rpm. The direction of rotation can be switched almost instantaneously, caused by a slight change in the position of a protein in the rotor. Even environmentalists marvel at this complex machine as it is highly efficient and uses very little energy. The bacteria flagellum is one example of an irreducibly complex naturally-existing mechanism found in one of the simplest organisms in the world. This glorious complexity witnessed in the petri dish is more evidence of divine design.
One even smaller example is worth mentioning—junk DNA. For years scientists believed that the majority of our DNA was not used and highly irrelevant. Only 2% of our entire DNA makeup is responsible for what is present physically in who we are. The other 98 percent or so was believed to be discarded left-overs from a long evolutionary process and no longer viable. However, new breakthroughs in genome research has concluded that these DNA units called “junk” are actually very important as they act as chemical switches that turn genes on and off. In other words, this junk DNA actually controls everything from our eye color to what kind of diseases one might develop in our lifespan.  

Therefore, whether the person looks toward the heavens, under a microscope, or even at what is nearly invisible, divine design and sovereign sophistication can be witnessed. Though this revelation of God (called general revelation) is not able to save the sinner by itself, when it is recognized and appropriated rightly, it is capable of ushering the lost closer toward the revelation of Jesus Christ.  
Paul concludes that those who suppress the truth, in spite of all of the evidence of God in the human person and in creation “are without excuse” (1:20b). God has provided ample evidence of His goodness and creative power. However, instead of embracing this and following these evidences as they lead to the greatest revelation of all—Jesus—many explain it away, ignore it altogether, or seek to drown it in relativism. These are without excuse and will incur the wrath of God both now and later.   

Not only do the lost incur the wrath of God, the Bible says that they prove to be foolish—“for even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools…”(1:21-22). In other words, though many can appreciate the beauty and design they witness within the human person and in creation and marvel at the sophistication that characterizes the universe, they do not give God credit, thanks, or praise. Instead, they provide inferior explanations for the extraordinary. However, these ultimately prove incomplete, inconsistent, or inadequate.

One glaring example of this is found in the inadequate explanations for morality that are endorsed by naturalists/humanists/atheists. While Christians recognize morality—right/wrong, good/evil—as rooted in a good God who is the ultimate standard of goodness by which everything else is judged, atheists tend to believe that morality is rooted in one of the following: what is expedient, what is necessary for survival, or what I choose. However, just because something works or is efficient doesn’t mean that it is morally good in every sense. Pragmatists have often walked over people or shrugged off ethics in the name of efficiency and expedience. Not only that, but survival, especially of the fittest, in some ways guided Hitler’s campaign against what he believed were inferior races during WWII. Also, who/what has decided that it is a good idea to survive/thrive in the first place? Who gets to make the decision as to what constitutes necessary? Finally, moral relativism that believes anything goes lead to anarchy and chaos as opposing convictions on moral norms are ultimately not sustainable. In the end, only God can adequately explain moral phenomena. However, in spite of the futility of these naturalistic explanations, the atheist/humanist/naturalist digs in his/her heels. As a result, their hearts are hardened against God and robust explanations that include the divine are exchanged for incomplete ideas—“professing to be wise, they become fools.”

In their unbelief, these betray the fact that they have “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (1:23). Scientists have replaced Jesus as the ultimate authority, The Origin of the Species is revered over the Bible, the Church is less frequented than the museum, prayer has been replaced with mindfulness, and the Gospel message has been traded for the news cycle. Paul compares the reverence for these inferior things to worshipping birds, four-footed animals, and crawling creatures. While many pagans did worship such idols literally in Paul’s day, today these silly gods have been replaced with the academy, government, philosophy, and the influential voices therein.

So What?

Everyone who has ever walked this planet is guilty of the infraction highlighted in Romans 1:18. We all have proven ourselves ungodly and unrighteous and as a result have failed to honor the Lord and love our neighbor. In so doing, we suppress the truth of the Lord as found in His word and, have chosen other things to believe in instead of the ultimate truth who is Christ. All of us either idolized ourselves over Jesus, adopted some alternative worldview over the Christian faith, or followed an inferior program over what is found in the Canon of Scripture. Consequently, all are lost and in desperate need of what only Jesus can give.

Is this something that you have recognized and taken care of in your life? Are you ready to trade was is futile and inferior for what is truthful and perfect?