Dan Popp
First, the bad news
Romans: The most important book ever written
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By Dan Popp
October 16, 2010

Marley was dead: to begin with.

So opens Charles Dickens' beloved A Christmas Carol. It reminds me of the beginning of another great story — the greatest story — explained in what I'm calling the most important book; the biblical book of Romans.

God is going to tell us in the first chapter of Paul's letter that the Gentiles are utterly lost. In Chapter 2 we'll learn that the Jews are no better off, despite their advantages. And just to eliminate any weasel room whatsoever, in Chapter 3 the gavel will come down on all of humanity. All have commited crimes against goodness, reason and truth. All have fallen short. You are dead: to begin with.

We found last time that the main theme of the most important book is righteousness — moral and spiritual rightness. Reopening our discussion in Chapter 1, verse 16:

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith — the Jew first, but the Greek also. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "The just shall live by faith." For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. [NEB, NKJV]

Notice the contrast between God's rightness and man's un-rightness. Then, as you re-read, focus on the phrases, "the righteousness of God is revealed" and "the wrath of God is revealed." No one can understand the good news of the gospel until he's fully convinced of the bad news: we ain't right. To satirize an old book title, I'm not OK and you're not OK. Unless we understand why we need the message of the cross, it's not all that good, and it's certainly not news. To the self-satisfied religious person the gospel sounds like a dull theological formula; "the answer to a sum," as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it. To the drowning man it sounds like the voice of the lifeguard saying, "I've got you."

God states His case against mankind:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. [RSV]

Here are more "revealed" things.

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. [NIV] ...altogether without any defense or justification. [Amp]

Apparently, God doesn't believe in atheists. Paul names two things that no one has any excuse to deny:

    1) God is eternally powerful.

    2) God is not like us.

But there is something more here. Humans originally knew (the Greek word means "to know by experience") that there is one, and only one, God.

Because when they knew and recognized Him as the God, they refused to honour him as God, or to render him thanks. Hence all their thinking has ended in futility, and their misguided minds are plunged in darkness. Professing to be wise, they were made fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of fowls, and of quadrupeds, and of reptiles. (emphasis added) [Amp, NEB, YLT]

It seems that when humans reject the most obvious and fundamental truth, they fall into a kind of madness. When Nebuchadnezzar became proud, God took away his reason (see Daniel, Chapter 4). He was an example of the pride, denial and consequent insanity that now infect the entire world.

The first manifestation is idolatry. God made man in His image, and ever since then we've been making gods in our image. No one, evidently, is immune to this sickness: not the Israelites who had walked on the bed of the Red Sea as God held the waters back on both sides; not even Christians. We, too, are shamefully eager to bow down to "the works of our hands," as the Bible refers to them, and to call on our own devices to save us. John's first letter to believers ends with the exhortation, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."

The bad news gets worse. Disbelievers regress from their thinly veiled self-worship, to self-degradation.

For this reason God has given them up to the vileness of their own desires, and the consequent degradation of their bodies, because they have bartered away the true God for a false one, and have offered reverence and worship to created things instead of to the Creator, who is blessed for ever; amen. [NEB]

When people deliberately threw away knowledge of God, they lost their understanding of human beings.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way men also abandoned the natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. [NIV]

The New Testament, like the Old, consistently condemns homosexual practices.

What's more noteworthy in this passage is that these sins are also punishments. According to these verses, rampant sexual perversion in a culture is a sign that God has removed the curbs and roadblocks that come under what we call "ordinary grace." As C.S. Lewis wrote, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'"

Perhaps Jesus' greatest torment on the cross was the sense that the Father had forsaken Him (Matt. 27:46). Yet the people described in Romans 1 have demanded this very thing: that God leave them alone.

He complies.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness; they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. [RSV]

Do you notice what's missing from this horror show? The devil. This is just human beings being human. "The heart is deceitful above all things," Jeremiah cried (17:9, RSV), "and desperately wicked. Who can know it?"

More than this — being well aware of God's pronouncement that all who do these things deserve to die, they not only continued their own practices, but did not hesitate to give their thorough approval to others who did the same. [Phillips]

The cherry on this poisonous sundae is the charge that we, the accused, have "encouraged others to do them, too." [Taylor] People in our culture know how to make their toleration of sin sound noble, even holy. But God says that to condone sin is a sin.

And a judgment.

The first point of Paul's argument is complete: the Gentiles have abandoned God, and God has abandoned them. They are spiritually dead in their trespasses and sins, children of wrath, outside the circle of God's promises, without hope and without God. (See Ephesians 2:1,3,12) As Jesus said, "He that believeth not is condemned already." (John 3:18b KJV)

You are dead: to begin with. But a corpse is just what's needed for a resurrection.

© Dan Popp

 

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