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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Romans Series 5: God's Impartial Judgment, Rm 2:1-16

Romans 2:1-16 (Given here is an even more formally equivalent translation than the NASB or NRSV, also with a non-traditional syntactic choice made on v.7 that is not decisive for any central doctrine or the main point of this passage, as well as a preference for 'condemned' rather than 'judged' as the translation of krith─ôsontai in v.12. See endnote for references to precedents for these choices).

Let's heed the Word of God as it comes to us through the word of man, namely, the inspired apostle Paul. The text is longer this time, but necessarily so because it is truly one unified sub-argument of a larger unit:

"1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O every man of you who judges, for in what you judge the other, you condemn yourself, for you, the one judging, practice the same things. 2 And we know the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things. 3 But do you reckon this, O man who judges the ones practicing such things and yet doing the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you scorn the riches of His kindness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not realizing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart, you store up wrath for yourself on a day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who will recompense each man according to his works. 7 To some, on one hand, according to endurance of working of good, glory and honor and incorruptibility, as seeking life eternal. 8 To those, on the other hand, being selfishly ambitious and disobeying the truth, but obeying unrighteousness, wrath and anger. 9 There will be affliction and distress on every soul of man working evil, of Jew first and of Greek; 10 but glory and honor and peace to everyone working good, to Jew first and to Greek. 11 For there is no respecting-of-persons with God. 12 For as many as sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and as many as sinned under the Law will be condemned by the Law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles not having the Law by nature practice the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a Law to themselves--15 they demonstrate the work of the Law written in their hearts, bearing joint witness with their conscience; and their thoughts will be accusing them or even defending them between one another, 16 on a day when God judges the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus."


What we have before us once again, in this larger section on the wrath of God against sinful men, is a sobering section focused on the weighty reality and certain of God's judgment. From 1:18 onward so far, Paul has been explaining God's wrath against ungodliness and idolatry, especially as expressed in His handing sinners over to their own lusts for their further dishonor.

In this new section we shift our temporal focus from how God is revealing His wrath in history, to a much more climactic scene. We will now stand and look on at a greater scene at the end of history, before the great white throne of the heavenly Judge, and we will learn about the proceedings that will take place there.

Sixteen verses is a lot to handle at once, and this section is especially jam-packed with content that has caused even the most highly trained faithful biblical scholars to disagree with one another on this point or that point concerning its interpretation. However, I think that it is important for us to keep the section together, reading it as a whole, in order to keep ourselves focused on Paul's overall direction of thought, and in order to keep the smaller verses and sentences under consideration within their larger context.

I will ask and answer several poignant questions about the text, but only once I have given a very brief overview kind of exposition of it--paying attention to the most important aspects of its structure and content.

Ok.

Verse 1 contains Paul's direct answer to an anticipated attitude his audience may have in response to what he has just been saying at the end of chapter 1. What was he saying? He was listing off a host of different kinds of sin which ensnare ungodly people who reject God. What is the attitude Paul is countering here? Evidently it is one of judgmental self-righteousness. It is coming from the kind of person who says, "I am or did such-and-such because I am good, unlike those wretched people you were talking about in chatper 1. I'm glad they'll get the due penalty of death for their sin! Serves them right! I'm safe from that kind of judgment."

Pauls response: "You have no excuse, because you do the same things! When you judge others for these sins, you condemn yourself because you yourself are also guilty of sin."

Verse 2 sets the theme for the rest of the section: "...the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things."

Verses 3 through 5 then speak to the absurdity of the self-righteous sinner's attitude. In essence, Paul says, "Do you really think that you, abusing the kindness of God meant to lead you to repentance, and practicing the very same sins for which you are judging others, are going to escape the judgment of God? No way! Your hardness of heart, and stubbornness, and lack of repentance, are only storing up wrath for you."

Verse 6 is in a sense the thesis of the rest of vv. 7-16, and echoes Psalm 62:12: "God will recompense each man according to his works."

Verses 7 through 10 serve to explain verse 6 more fully, and they constitute a structure known in literature as a "chiasmus." That's where a series of ideas are presented in a certain order, and then presented once again in reverse order usually with slightly different language. In other words, it would go something like 'ABBA' or 'ABCCBA' or 'ABCDDCBA', etc.

Here, the outer verses of v.7 and v.10 describe positive situations of God's recompensing man for his works: v.7 glory and honor and peace (or simply eternal life) for those who endure and persevere in doing good works, seeking these things; v.10 glory and honor and peace to everyone working good, to Jew first and also to Greek.

The inner verses of v.8 and v.9 contrast that with negative situations of God's recompense: v.8 wrath and anger for those who selfishly disobey the truth but obey unrighteousness; v.9 affliction and distress for those working evil, for Jew first and also for Greek.

Verse 11 asserts God's impartiality: "...there is no respecting-of-persons with God." Because God's judgment accords with works, there is no favoritism in God on people of certain color, age, gender, or--as we will see--people with certain amounts of revelation or common covenantal privileges like the Jews had. In fact, all of chapter 2 of Romans here probably has first century Jews in mind who were boasting in their external covenant privileges, possession of special revelation (like the Law), and bloodline relationship to the Jewish fathers of old.

Verses 12 through 16 form another small sub-section, and the main point is to prove what Paul said in verse 11 about God's impartiality. He does this by reference to the case of the Gentiles. Paul says that sinning apart from the Law (like Gentiles do) results in death, just like sinning under the Law results in being judged by that very Law and therefore also results in death. Verse 13 declares, "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." So Paul has countered the argument that possessing the special revelation of the Law as a Jew in the first century gives you a free pass out of judgment by God. Not so. It is not hearing the Law, but doing that matters.

The appeal to the death of Gentiles who sin apart from the Law raises a question, namely, 'How can they be held accountable for a standard about which they did not know?' Paul's answer is found in verses 14 and 15. He says, in essence, that when Gentiles occasionally live by the moral norms of the Law, they demonstrate that they have an internal awareness of those norms, written on their heart, as a conscience suitable to render them accountable to God for transgressions of that Law. That this is the thrust of verses 14 and 15 is not only shown by their connection to verse 13--namely, "for" or gar at the beginning of verse 14--but also by the end of verse 14. It says basically that their conflicting thoughts--that is, their self-condemning or self-approving thoughts about their moral behavior and how it squares with God's laws--will be accusing or defending them on the Last Day.

From there he moves smoothly on into what we know as verse 16: "on a day when God judges the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus." This finalizes the section of vv.1-16 and repeats the assertion that God will, in fact, judge all men at the end of history. And most astonishingly, He will conduct this judgment according to works by the agency of His Son, Jesus. And, perhaps surprisingly to us, this notion, according to Paul, accords with the gospel.

So there is a brief run-through of the section, with only the major points observed.

Many questions have been raised, but we will now deal with the most poignant and immediately relevant.

This scene of "judgment according to works," especially expressed in the language of verse 13 ("For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified"), seems at first glance to be in strong tension with other teachings of Scripture. Not only that, but it seems to be in tension with other teachings of Paul himself! And not only that; it seems to be in tension with some things Paul will teach about justification in the very next three chapters of Romans!

In chapters 3 through 5 of Romans, as we will see, Paul defends the notion of justification (that is, being declared righteous before God) by faith apart from works. And he does so not as a side note, but zealously, as one of his main points!

So what do we have here? A contradiction in God's holy, inspired Word? For the faithful, this is of course not an option.

But even for the skeptic, can we really readily admit that the apostle Paul--the highly-intelligent theologian and writer--changes his mind or forgets something within the space of a couple of chapters? Surely not.

We must look more closely at the text, therefore, and learn what exactly it is saying.

Let this be our default mode of operation when we come to difficult parts of the Scriptures! When we don't see how two verses or passages line up with each other, let us not throw up our hands and reject the inerrancy of Scripture; nor let us too quickly assign everything to indiscoverable divine mystery. To be sure, there are some things that are secrets which belong to the Lord until the Last Day or even after that. But let us not draw that line too quickly, and let us dig ever more deeply into the Word, meditating on it day and night for months and even years!--so that we can learn about the layers and deep riches of the wisdom of God that He has revealed in His inexhaustible Word.

Two basic, over-arching approaches have been taken by orthodox, evangelical interpreters with regard to this passage and its relationship to justification by faith alone. I have examined these two basic positions in detail, and have more than once over the past few years changed my mind on which one is a more accurate understanding of Paul's intentions here in this text. For this reason, even though I think I know which one is more accurate--and will give some reasons for that position--I will not be overly dogmatic about it.

Whichever position you take, it does not do final damage to the overall thrust of Paul's argument here. Also, the two teachings which are the focus of each respective position on this text are both taught not only elsewhere in the Bible, not only elsewhere in the New Testament, but even elsewhere in Paul. Therefore, no central Christian doctrine hangs on the correct interpretation of this particular passage, although I believe the correct interpretation should make more sense out of chapter 2 of Romans as a whole.

Ok, here's what I'm talking about:

When Paul talks here about the "doers of the Law" being the ones who "will be justified," and how judgment accords strictly with works and not anything else, he could be describing one of two situations:

1) A hypothetical situation where perfect obedience on the part of human beings serves as the ground or merit of justification. Or, in "covenant theology" terms, this is a perfect fulfillment of the stipulations of the covenant of works. Unfortunately, no sinful human being can manage to meet this standard, and therefore all Paul is doing in this section, as a wider part of the section 1:18-3:20 is setting the divine standard of perfect Law-keeping, so that he can demonstrate every person's inability to justify his or her self by works, and thus everyone needs the gospel in which Christ fulfills the Law on their behalf and dies for their sins. This position has been embraced and taught by John Calvin, Geerhardus Vos, John Murray, F.F. Bruce, Charles Hodge, and others.

OR

2) A "reified," or "real" description of how the final judgment "really will" be carried out according to works, for both believers in Christ and non-believers. The obedience and Law-keeping here described, however, is not perfect, but enduring and observable. So good works are here described as necessary evidence at the last judgment of a person's identity as a faithful covenant member of God's people, united to Christ by vital faith, and dressed in Christ's perfect righteousness. This position has been embraced and taught by St. Augustine, Thomas Schreiner, John Piper, and R. C. H. Lenski, among others.

Again, both of these ideas are biblical ideas taught in the rest of the New Testament, even by Paul himself. The question is simply a matter of which idea this particular passage is meant to teach us.

Decent arguments can be made for each position, but I do lean toward the second one, and will give several reasons for that.

I want to say as a preface, though, that the single strongest argument for position 1, in my opinion, is that v.13 must be understood as a part of the broader context of 1:18-3:20, where Paul's chief burden is not to teach us how to be saved at the last judgment, but to render us hopeless with regard to the sufficiency of our own good works to commend us to God. Therefore, it may seem very strange for Paul to insert in the middle of that argument a verse or small section that views our good works as positive instruments of final vindication at the last judgment!

Nevertheless, I want to point out a few things that lead me to think that is precisely what Paul has done.

1. Though part of a larger context meant to drive us away from hope in our own good works and toward receiving Christ and His work by faith, this section has a more specific aim, namely, that of silencing the first century Law-breaking Jew who thinks they are exempt from God's judgment because of their covenantal privileges like circumcision and having the revelation of the Law on stone tablets. Therefore, even if this section is about imperfect Law-obedience as a real necessity and guarantee of final justification (which I take to mean "vindication"), it serves to silence illegitimate Jewish boasting, thus promoting the end of getting people to turn to Christ as their hope instead of themselves. This is being done after chapter 1 has put a stop to all men's excuses but especially Gentiles who before Christ did not have special revelation but nevertheless had the revelation of God's power and divinity in the created order.

2. The language Paul uses in this section sounds very far from being merely hypothetical, and actually in my opinion sounds very close to being imperfect obedience!

a. Notice Paul's use of the idea of "repentance" in verses 4 and 5. Paul accuses the Jews not of imperfection of Law-keeping but of hardness, stubbornness, and unrepentance.

b. Notice in verse 7 "according to endurance of working of good;" Endurance is often connected with ideas of overcoming obstacles, and perhaps growth. More importantly, although it is a genitive in the Greek here, we can still see that the very notion of endurance speaks of ongoing or habitual activity, not necessarily all-encompassing, never-failing activity.

c. Notice in verse 8 the idea of "not obeying the truth." It reminds us of the phrase Paul uses in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 and Peter uses in 1 Peter 4:17 "obey the gospel." It may also remind us of Paul's terminology "obedience of faith" from back in chapter 1 of Romans. It seems the contrast made in the chiasmus of verses 7-10 is not between perfect Law-keepers and sinners in general, but between the unrepentant and those who do "obey the truth" in repentance and faith in the gospel and so get a new direction for their lives of growing Law-keeping and obedience.

d. Notice that in verse 16 that this judgment is "according to [Paul's] gospel." It would surely have been more difficult for Paul to talk about a hypothetical judgment according to perfected works which is "in accord with the gospel" than it would have been to talk about a real judgment according to imperfect works serving as evidence of regeneration and covenant faithfulness (and therefore union with Christ by faith) as being "according to the gospel."

3. There is no clear signal of hypothetical thought in Paul's mind here. In fact, he repeats five times in slightly different ways the reality and certainty of this coming judgment and its impartial nature of being "according to works." Verse 2: "we know the judgment of God is according to truth upon the ones practicing such things." Verse 6: "For he will recompense each man according to his works." Verse 11: "For there is no respecting-of-persons with God." Verse 13: "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." Verse 16 "on a day when God will judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus." One may wonder what else Paul may have said to "reify" this judgment scene and its nature in our minds--that is, what else could Paul have said to convince us that this is truly how things are going to go down on the Last Day?

4. Next is the strongest argument for position 2 that I am arguing for, and I think it is decisive, although proponents of the other view have their own well-thought-out responses even to this argument. If we take chapter 2 as a whole section--which we should do--we see that part of this unified section includes Paul talking about Gentiles who are physically uncircumcised being "counted" or "reckoned" as circumcised by keeping the Law! Paul goes on to talk about the nature of true Judaism as inward, and true circumcision as being that which is of the heart by the Spirit, not the flesh by the "letter." Paul is there speaking of the circumcision of the heart as a metaphor for regeneration or spiritual rebirth. For this spiritual miracle to happen to the covenant people of God as a whole was the great hope of the coming New Covenant for the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and arguably Moses in Deuteronomy 30. In the New Covenant age of the greater outpouring of the Spirit on the people of God, this great hope is realized for the people of God as a whole (although it is true that Old Covenant saints were regenerated the same way, and it is true that not all members of the visible Church of Christ today are personally regenerate). Therefore Paul is here referring not to sinless people but to Christians who really obey the Law--imperfectly--but really, and are on that basis vindicated by God at the last judgment as truly being His people. In fact, Paul says that they will judge Jews who were uncircumcised in heart and did not obey the Law in a consistently enduring or observable way, out of living faith.

5. Finally, I also just want to point out that in the very same book of Romans, Paul talks about the necessity of walking the path of sanctification if we would inherit eternal life. For example in chapter 6, verse 22, he talks about "...sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." Also, in chapter 8, he talks about how "...the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us" (v.4) and "if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (v.13).

So I think the final judgment will be carried out according to works not just for unbelievers, but for all the dead, great and small. "Books" will be opened, but also a "Book." The "books" contain deeds done by men. The "Book" contains names--those who belong to the Lamb and are washed in His blood, united to Him by faith and dressed in His righteousness. And there is what we should think of as accord between the "books" and the "Book." The accord between these is that all those written in the Lamb's Book of Life will have a record of their deeds that proves that at some point in their life, they were born again by the Spirit of God, definitively sanctified and set apart for holy purpose, and endured in imperfect but perseverant faith and repentance until the end. They will thereby be seen as manifestly united with Christ by faith, and credited with His righteousness, and as having had their sins atoned for by His blood.

Let's think about some implications for this passage.

1. As short as human judgment will fall in history--as short as civil justice will fall of an ideal standard for human society, there is coming a Day when a judgment will be executed by One who is infinitely wise, omniscient, omnipotent, and just; and His judgment will be swift, thorough, visible, and 100% perfectly just and equitable.

We ought to tremble at the thought of judgment according to works but as believers in Christ we ought also take comfort in the fact that God will infallibly right all wrongs in the universe. God will pour out wrathful recompense for every ounce of the trampling of His glory, for every instance of the murder and molestation of human beings by other human beings, for every theft, for every undue denigration of another's reputation, for every form of idolatry, and for every covetous lust burning in the hearts of men. This recompense will be poured out on the ungodly who persist in unrepentance, or it has been poured out on the innocent Jesus Christ on Calvary in the place of those who repent, turn to Him in faith, and continue in His love until the end.

2. Though we as Christians do not have our final assurance in introspection, nor do we have our good works as the ground or basis of our "right standing with God," which is instead by faith apart from works, we nevertheless ought to "take care how we walk." We ought to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" and seek to make faith "work through love," making our "calling and election sure." We ought to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance" and multiply what we have been given by the Master to steward with wisdom lest He come back to find us empty-handed and unprofitable! We ought every day cling more to Christ and His promises in the gospel, and to kill more of the sin in our lives by the power of His Holy Spirit. We must persevere in faith, lest we find ourselves proven to be outside of Christ--never having truly been united to Him by living, vital faith--and without anything to show on the Last Day for the grace we have received. God's judgment accords with works.

3. Though the Bible teaches that we must demonstrate our faith's vitality through good works and obedience to the moral Law of God in order to pass muster at the last judgment, it also teaches that God--in an ultimate sense--requires perfect obedience if we would enter His presence. This we cannot do as sinners. And so we learn more about what Paul's gospel in 1:16-17 reveals about the "righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith." The gospel must address our need of an alien Law-keeping--a perfect obedience performed outside of us and for us.

Jesus Christ is His name. He was born under the Law, and obeyed it perfectly. He was crucified to atone for our sins. He was raised from the dead three days later, vindicated as the ultimate and perfect covenant-keeper and Law-obeyer, and as God's unique Son.

Whatever status you or I think we have as people who perhaps grew up in church or in a religious family, or have bloodlines linking us with past Christians or ancient Jews; or whatever degree of holiness you or I think we have attained above our neighbor who is "obviously much worse than us," let us know ourselves as needy sinners, let us know Christ as a necessary Savior--and in fact a more-than-sufficient Savior--and let us walk in Him as people who are, by grace, in the Light and not the darkness, and so prove ourselves as God's true people in His and the nations' sight at the Last Day when Christ comes again.

May God hasten the expansion of His kingdom on earth, and thereby hasten the Day of Christ. May He establish us, His people, in true holiness and righteousness. And may He, and no other, speak assurance to His people's hearts by His blessed Spirit.

Amen.







Endnote: see R. C. H. Lenski's commentary on Romans for a similar translation of v. 7; see works of Moo, Dunn, Schreiner, Fitzmeyer, Byrne, and Irons for translating krith─ôsontai as "condemned." Also see The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament edited by J. D. Douglas to see other bases for literalistic word choices and order in the above translation.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Romans Series 4: He Gave Them Over, Rm 1:24ff

Romans 1:24-32 (NASB)

These are the holy, inspired Words of God through Paul the apostle, to the church at Rome.

"24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 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. 28 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, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and 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."



I want to begin this week by framing this section in a few different ways in regard to wider considerations.

First, I want to frame the teaching of this section as describing in detail the general thrust of this wider section extending back to verse 18. What we have in this section is a number of repetitions about the dynamics of how God's wrath is revealed on idolatrous and unbelieving mankind because of their idolatry and suppression of the truth.

We learned that man, through idolatrous desires, suppresses the truth of God evident within him and within creation, and that this provokes God's holy and just wrath toward mankind.

The last verse of last week's section was verse 23, which stated how man exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for lesser glories of creation, by worshipping them instead of God.

Now we have a new section beginning with the word, "therefore." This "therefore" is one of result, namely, preceding the result of man having made this terribly dark and sinful exchange. I infer from this, and from the fact that the section from verse 18 to verse 23 described the cause of God's wrath, that what we have before us today is a section describing the nature of God's wrath that is here in view.

So today we will learn something about the nature of God's wrath that was mentioned in verse 18.

Secondly, and following organically out of that discussion, I want to talk about what some people would call the "fallen condition focus" of today's text. I don't usually explicitly tell you that this is what I'm describing when I'm describing it for a certain text, but I think a salient and interesting point is made by discussing it explicitly this time.

The "fallen condition focus" is a concept I learned from the teaching of Bryan Chappell, and it is based on the idea that the expositing of the Word of God is always a redemptive event. That is, whenever the Word of God is opened and explained and taught faithfully to a large group of people, there is salvation happening--both the convicting and regenerating of lost sinners, as well as the strengthening of saints within the hearing. Therefore, every text of the Word of God has power to save, and salvation is always from something. Therefore, it is profitable for the person who is explaining the Word to try and discern what particular aspect of human fallenness a biblical text most directly addresses. So I will be talking about the fallen condition focus of this text in greater detail later. For a preview, I will just say that this text uniquely connects the objective and the subjective aspects of something man needs saving from. That is, there is something outside sinful man that he needs saving from, and there is something inside man that he needs saving from.

Thirdly, I want to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ directly applies to the problems raised by this text. Having studied further the problems from which we all need saving, we will have an even deeper appreciation for what Christ has accomplished for His people on the cross.


So, I begin with the connections with the previous section and the deeper details we are given today.

The text begins, "therefore," and starts to tell us more about God's response to idolatrous and unbelieving mankind.

So what is His response?

Verse 24: "Therefore He gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them."

After restating in verse 25 the reason, or basis, or cause for this divine response, we read again in verse 26,

"For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions..."

Once again, in verse 28, "God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper"

And in the rest of the section, we are given an extensive list of sinful "things which are not proper."

Ok.

What we mainly learn from this section is that one way the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against ungodliness and unbelief and idolatry is the handing over of sinners to further sin and depravity.

The implications this teaching has is vastly huge, and the questions it raises are difficult, manifold, and beyond the scope of my focus today. However, I will briefly mention a couple of things.

First, this presents to us a picture of God that may be foreign to some of us who have grown up primarily in a sentimentalistic evangelicalism that neglects the transcendent qualities of God--that neglects teaching the absolute sovereignty of God. It gives us a picture of a God who for holy, wise, and mysterious purposes, not only allows evil in the world He created as good, but judiciously hands sinners over to further sin!

We must guard ourselves on this point and affirm that

1. God is holy and perfectly good in all that He does
2. God is sovereign over all things, and no event of history lay outside the control of God
3. Human beings are held responsible for their sin and wicked rebellion; and in fact, this passage strongly emphasizes that what God does is hand over sinners to their own lusts and degrading passions. It is as if for many, God simply says, "Ok; you want as your god the lesser glories of creation? Fine...wallow in that filth to your great delight" and hands them over to do it.

As mysterious as all of this is, and as challenging as it is to some of our usual default conceptions of the biblical God, does it not resonate with what we see in the world? Do we not see so many people full to the brim with wicked desires, entrapped and ensnared apparently beyond recovery in the worldly lusts of their hearts?

We must take sin in our world seriously, and recognize it for what it is. To help us understand its current magnitude, though, we are taught in Romans 1 that it is by reason of a divine decree that many people have fallen into deeper and deeper, baser and baser, and more and more profane ultimate desires, without any to blame but themselves--including not being able to blame God the holy Creator of all men, whose judgments are just and right.

So we learn that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven partially by His handing people over to further sin. We have several other questions to answer about this.

One is glaring, and you probably wondered whether I would address it or not. I will, because Paul does, and I am going through Paul's letter.

Why does Paul focus so much on one particular sinful desire and act of man, namely, homosexuality?

The bare mention of homosexuality will bring to mind many other questions related to homosexuality and the Christian faith. I have tried to answer those in a Kindle ebook 'Gay and Christian?', the rough manuscript of which I would be glad to send to you for free if you are interested.

However, before answering at least this one question, let me say that I believe that this passage does indeed refer to homosexual desire and behavior in general, and not merely to pagan pedophilia in idol-worship as some have taught. To me the parallel mention of the two genders, as well as the terminology of "natural function" versus "unnatural function" obviously mean that Paul is referring to homosexual desire and behavior in general.

So why does Paul zoom in on this particular result of God's handing-over? One reason may be that concepts of marriage, and men's and women's roles, are the foundation of living in the image of God and being charged with the cultural mandate given in Genesis 1 and 2 to dominate the earth and reproduce. Therefore Paul is showing that God, in pouring out His wrath by handing people over to sin, hands them over even to the degree that their most basic human desires and identities are distorted by sin. Another pastor surmises that homosexuality may be God's parable--a demonstration--a dramatization of man's self-glorifying, self-worshiping idolatry. Since homosexuals are sexually attracted to the same sex, it dramatizes man's (and woman's) pre-occupation with self, and the spiritual deadness of which that idolatry consists.

In short, though, I'm not 100% sure why Paul focuses so much on homosexuality here.

One thing we can say, though, is that the apostle Paul continued the Old Testament teaching that homosexual lust and behavior is indeed sinful, and not "another option" or an "excusable natural result of genetics." Whatever the manifold possibilities of the causes of homosexual orientation--physical, nurture, personal choice, divine handing-over, homosexual lust and behavior are not options for Christian who would be faithful to God's Word, walk with Christ, and declare truth in public. It is sin, and as I will discuss more later, Christ is a more-than-capable merciful Savior in this case as well as any.

Also, I do not believe it is only homosexuals in view in verse 28. Experience of the world alone proves that, but the structure of the text also supports that. In this whole section, all the unbelieving idolaters in view have been ones who "did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer." Therefore, while it is true that all sexual sin together is in an especially serious category, or "level" of sin, homosexuals are not singled out as being the most prone to the most severe cases of what is described in verses 28 through 32.

Another question that presents itself here, and leads to the next part of the message today is, "How else is God's wrath revealed?"

We normally think of God's wrath as either the Old Testament descriptions of God's destruction of entire cities, or His hot anger burning against apostate Israel, or of the "lake of fire" and the final judgment.

But here Paul discusses human sinfulness not primarily as the cause for God's judgment--but as if it is God's judgment!

Well, it seems there are complicated things going on here. But let me answer the question as well as I can..."How is God's wrath revealed to us?"

Other than God's handing sinners over to their lusts to their greater dishonor, we see God's wrath in at least four ways:

1. Physical death of normal humans. With only a couple of biblical exceptions, every human dies. This is a part of the penalty for sin which God threatened our original parents with should they sin; and ever since they sinned, every one of their posterity--with minor exceptions--has tasted physical death.

2. The brokenness and futility of the created order is more evidence of God's wrath for human sin. See Romans 8:18-25.

3. God reveals in His Word that there will be a final judgment in which all those who are not covered by the blood of Christ will have to answer for their own sins, and the wrath of God will burn against them forever in the "lake of fire," which is indeed a symbol, but one which points to more horrible reality than itself, not less horrible--and includes physical and spiritual torment, not spiritual only.

4. Jesus Christ Himself, on the cross, drank of the full force of the wrath of God for sinners, in their place. So there, when we see the sinless Savior bearing the sins of the world, we see God's wrath revealed.

Even in this section of Romans we are reading today, we see a verse that mentions the death of men. Verse 32: "and although they knew the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death ..."

So this section about God's handing people over to their sinful lusts is not exhaustive of the wrath of God against sinners, but it is one expression of it.

This leads naturally to our second consideration, namely, the objective and subjective aspects of this text's "fallen condition focus."

There are two things people need saving from in this text. One is the objective standing of "condemned" before God in the courtroom of heaven, and the other one is the subjective, personal sinfulness of every human being who ever lived save for Christ.

As I contemplated which one was the main focus in this text, I found that they are too connected in the text to be sharply distinguished in my message.

This is because the objective, condemning wrath of God in this text is indeed the very handing of people over to further personal sinfulness!

So I will not disconnect them now. I will simply say that man needs spiritual rebirth, and spiritual growth in holiness if he would be saved! I will simply say that man also needs a removing of his natural status of "condemned" and having the "wrath of God abiding on him!" And these realities are connected.

Perhaps the best way for me to apply this truth of the connectedness of condemnation with personal rebellion in sinners is to apply the gospel. After all, in the gospel, these realities are connected as well. There is a proper order and structure to them, but they can never be utterly separated.

All of the benefits of the gospel happen in union with Christ.

That is, when we are "regenerated" or "born again" of the Spirit, it is "together with Christ" that we are "made alive" (Ephesians 2:5). When we are justified, it is union with Him by faith (Philippians 3:8-9). In progressive sanctification, it is in Him and in fellowship with Him that we are made more like Him (Philippians 3:10-14). When we are resurrected and glorified, it will be together with Him (2nd Thessalonians 1:10; 1st Corinthians 15:22).

And this gospel is just as much for the person with homosexual desires and behaviors as it is for me, for you, and for every human sinner of every kind and degree.

Through it God promises full forgiveness of sins past, present, and future because Christ has born the penalty in full. Through it God gives new life and healing to sinful hearts--and indeed bodies! This aspect is partial in this life, differs between believers, and will only be perfected in the life to come. But there is a life to come full of blessing for those who are in Christ--for they will finally be made absolutely perfect, restored to the original human image of God and beyond! No more sin, no more temptation, and at long last the full experience of the reality to which sex and marriage and all of life pointed all along: intimate, personal, perfect union with Jesus Christ our Great Savior.

So let us embrace the Bible in all its truth--in all its portrayals of God's holy and just decrees. Let us tremble at His revealed wrath in letting many sinners go their own way, becoming entangled in the enticements of the lusts of this world to their greater destruction in the end. But moreover, let us rejoice with very deep joy and with full assurance of faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel and His salvation that He has wrought for all those who will simply confess that they are indeed in need of a Savior--that they are indeed sinners who need their sentence from the heavenly Judge removed and who need their hearts cleansed, sprinkled with the blood of Christ and the water of the life-giving Spirit.

God is full of wrath and hatred for sin, but He is a God of love, and His disposition is to save sinners. All we must do is come. Just come to Him and believe. Drink of His Spirit. Be satisfied with the flesh and blood of Christ our heavenly Bread. He will forgive and He will cleanse. He will finish it all on the Last Day, yes, so let us worship our Savior and witness to the world of our Savior! Amen.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Romans Series 3: The Wrath of God Against Idolatry and Unbelief, Rm 1:18-23

Romans 1:18-23 (NASB)

This is the Word of God; let us hear it and heed it:


"18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 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, so that they are without excuse. 21 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. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and 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."

Last time in this series we learned that the gospel--the "good news"--Paul was eager to preach in Rome is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. We also learned that in it--that is, in the gospel--the righteousness of God is revealed. What it means that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel is manifold, but by staying with our current text and our current progression through Paul's thought in Romans, we will ensure that we learn exactly what Paul had in mind in writing such a phrase and, through Paul, what God intends for us to understand about it.

Our section for today begins with the conjunction "for" or "gar" in Greek. As we are well aware, this usually serves to denote that whatever comes after it serves as a ground or basis for things that have come before it. Most naturally here, it seems to serve as a ground of verses 16 and 17, particularly verse 18, as a continuation of the chain of "for's."

In verses 17 and 18 Paul says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes it, for (or because) the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith to faith.

In starting our current section with the word "for," Paul is beginning to take on the very weighty burden of explaining to us why it is that the gospel reveals God's righteousness, and that this revelation of His righteousness in the gospel is what enables the salvation of believers in the gospel.

This is extraordinarily important. For in the same way that an accurate assessment of a mathematical problem paves the way to a right understanding of its solution, or the accurate diagnosis of a disease paves the way to a right application of treatment; in the same way, an accurate understanding of the problem addressed by the gospel--which we know in advance to be the cure--will aid us greatly in developing a right understanding of the gospel itself.

It is for this reason that I have no hesitation in my intention to continue this series by progressively expounding the rest of chapters 1 and 2 of Romans, which focus chiefly on negative aspects of the human condition. Though these are sobering, heavy, painful thoughts in themselves, when the gospel is applied afresh once we have a more thorough understanding of these problems, we will have new capacities for savoring its salve and new wisdom about how to appropriate the grace found in it for our daily lives. The question before us is, "What is it that we are saved from by the power of God found in the revelation of His righteousness in the gospel?" Again, the biblical answer to this question is not one, but many. But we are keeping with Paul's focus here in this text.

Paul says, in v.18, "the wrath of God is revealed" or "...being revealed..."

This is the main point of the section from v.18 and onward for a while, and serves as the ground of Paul's assertion that the gospel is the power of God to save because God's righteousness is revealed in it. To say it more succinctly, the reason the gospel saves believers is that it addresses the wrath of God.

And now we move from the main point of the section to several points in the text that serve as a justification of God's wrath being revealed.

This is just as necessary today as it apparently was in Paul's day. For it seems that in our wider culture, and, I'm afraid, even in professingly "evangelical" circles in our country, that people in general and even many professing Christians have an aversion to wholeheartedly affirming that God is a God of wrath. The preferred picture of God in many quarters is of one who is loving, but non-judgmental; tender and warm-hearted, but not angry with the wicked every day; pleading with sinners to repent, but not threatening Hell; understood a certain primitive way by the ancient Jews and Greeks, but more maturely developed in the minds of later humanistic children of the Enlightenment; or a God of anger and wrath in the Old Testament, but revealed only as meek and gentle through Jesus in the New Testament.

These pictures of God are inventions of human minds darkened through rebellion, over against an accurate picture of God painted from the whole counsel of God in His holy written Word.

God has many attributes, and these include love, grace, mercy, compassion, patience, and the like. But they also include: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, sovereignty, majesty, justice, and utter holiness leading to hatred of all sin and wickedness, as well as wrathfulness against sinners.

This is not my opinion, but God's own revelation of Himself in His Word, which we will now continue to study.

Paul now goes into detail to justify the rightness of God's wrath. In v.18 he continues that God's wrath is "against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men..." So God's wrath is not a capricious, unstudied, unpurposeful irritableness against random annoyances, but rather a just aiming of judicial, divine anger against unrighteousness and ungodliness.

Of what does this unrighteousness and ungodliness here consist? Or, at least, what does it do? Paul continues in v.18 "...who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." Two questions present themselves here. One is, "what is the 'truth' mentioned here?" and the other is, "what is this 'suppression' of it?"

The first question is answered immediately in the next two verses: "because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood by what has been made."

Clearly, the truth under consideration here is the truth of God's power in creation and His divine nature itself; more succinctly, the existence of a divine Creator. This has been a hot-button issue in human philosophy since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers and long before that. The existence of God is among the most important questions man can ask, because of the sheer weight of its implications for human self-understanding and how to view the world and live life. Here in our text, Paul treats the question--and the knowability of its answer--head on with divine authority as an apostle of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

His answer is that "truth" includes the fact of God's existence as God, as well as the fact of God's existence as powerful Creator. Not only these facts, but Paul even goes so far as to say that God has made Himself known to man within man, through the revelation of Himself in all creation. That which is "invisible"--these facts about God, namely, His power and divinity--has become "visible" by God's revelation of Himself in what has been made, so that in a sense man has been granted to "see" the invisible!

Now creation and its relation to the question of the existence of God has been paid no small attention by philosophers and theologians and scientists throughout the ages. And there certainly must be some scriptural merit in the Christian apologist's appeal to the order, irreducible complexity, and origins of life and all of nature as evidence of God's existence; however, as we will soon see, the fundamental problem of unbelief is not lack of evidence for God's existence in the world. Rather, the problem is a moral issue--a heart issue. It is a heart issue that fails to recognize divine glory and so trades it away for lesser glories, causing a darkening of the mind and subsequent inability to reason rightly from creation to Creator.

As a textual basis for reading this kind of thought from verses 19 and 20, independently from later discussion of glory, consider the Greek word here for the phrase "what has been made": poiEma, from which we derive the word, "poem." More than the simple math of the unlikelihood of the existence of life on our planet, or the incredible causative power needed for the beginning of our universe which by all appearances had a beginning, or the biological discussion of concepts like irreducible complexity, God's Creation is "poiEma," or "poem." It is a book of poetic verse with such compelling, gripping, and enrapturing combination of rhyme, alliteration, progression, and cadence; that to read this--the "book of nature" as Calvin called it--is to leave the reader, as Paul says at the end of verse 20 "without excuse" with regard to the truth of God.

So we end up with a clear teaching of Paul that all who are capable of reading this "book of nature"--this "poiEma"--are accountable to God for acknowledging His power and divinity. The result is that not one person anywhere in the world will be able to claim ignorance of God's existence as a basis on which they may be exempt from the results of their having suppressed the truth of God, the truth which He Himself had made abundantly and clearly evident to them.

Our second question, "what is this 'suppression' of the truth?", is answered in the verses to follow.

Verses 21 through part of 23: "For even though they know God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God..."

Verse 21 says that they "knew God." This is incredibly important to believe, whether you are a believer or an unbeliever today: every person in one sense knows God. This is just a passing restatement of what we have already said. Through the revelation of God in Creation--in His poiEma--every person who comes in contact with the glory and beauty of Creation comes into contact with real knowledge of the living and true Creator God.

The problem isn't knowledge or philosophical wisdom. The problem is lack of worship and thanksgiving: "...they did not honor Him as God or give thanks." The problem is a preference of something other than the glory of God: "they...exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God." The problem is the heart, while the problem of the intellect is the result of this heart problem. "...they became futile in their speculations." However, there seems also to be a spiraling effect, such that heart problems give rise to intellectual problems, which in turn give rise to further spiritual blindness, resulting in even further foolishness: "...they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God."

But it all starts with a lack of worship. A lack of rendering to God the due honor and thanksgiving that belongs to Him results in futility in "speculations"--"dialogismos"--a futility in one's internal dialogue with one's self, manufacturing every possible rationalization of the apparent glory of Creation that leaves a sovereign God out of the picture.

This is such a vicious circular process in the unbeliever, having started from birth because of inherited sin and corruption, that it almost instantaneously becomes self-covering, such that an unbeliever is not even aware of the deceitful nature of his own idolatrous self-deception. People who deny God's existence in a very real sense "know God," but that does not mean that they are engaging in lying when they tell you they do not believe in God. What it means is that they have been accomplishing a very great feat for many years: successfully and continually lying to themselves! Their continual unbelief, as well as their just accountability for their unbelief, is accounted for by this reality of continuous idolatrous desire as the cause of continual blindness to the obvious truth of God revealed in the "book of nature" or the "poiEma."

So we have fleshed out a little more what this "suppression" of the truth looks like. But let us continue to draw out more of the nature and extent of the foolishness of this idolatry causing unbelief.

We have already seen that the unbelievers being considered here "exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God," but for what did they exchange it? The answer in verse 23 is, "for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures." In other words, sinful man exchanged the glory of God for the lesser glory of His Creation! Most chiefly, and first on the list, man exchanged the glory of God for the glory of man.

Now we have come to the bottom of where this text takes us concerning the utter foolishness and heinousness of idolatry and unbelief, and therefore, in connection with the main point of this section, the complete justice of God in revealing His wrath against such unrighteousness.

Not only has man had the truth of God clearly revealed in nature to him and within him; not only has man suppressed this truth; and not only has man fancied himself wise in his ungodly speculations even as his mind was actually being darkened more and more to the truth; but man has even traded the glory of God for the lesser glory of the images of God painted through Creation! Man has traded the glory of what is incorruptible for the glory of its corruptible image! Man has traded the powerful and divine for the dependent and creaturely!

This is the utter foolishness of all sin and unbelief, and this is the heinous unrighteousness of man's suppression of the truth, and thus, this is the just basis on which God reveals His wrath against men and their ungodliness.

God's wrath is always holy and just, and that His wrath here against unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth is holy and just, the apostle Paul has made plain.

But we move now to the application that we mentioned at the start. The problems of the human condition are manifold, as we anticipated. There is idolatry and darkening of the reasoning to be dealt with. However, the main point of this passage is that the wrath of God is being revealed, and this somehow has to do with the fact that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation because God's righteousness is revealed in it.

The implication is that the gospel addresses the wrath of God. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and one thing man needs saving from is the wrath of God against his unrighteousness. For every one of us at one time, and to a lesser degree today even us believers, have spurned the glory of God and traded it for lesser glories; we have all suppressed truth we knew about God for our own idolatrous ends; we have all failed to give God the honor and thanks due to Him. Therefore, God's holiness and justice threatens us with divine wrath.

Whatever else the gospel does, if it would save us, it must address the wrath of God against our unrighteousness. And it does. In later chapters, we will understand this more thoroughly.

Among things that Jesus does in the gospel of our salvation, He reveals God to us in a special way that overcomes His people's natural bent toward atheism and unbelief. General revelation--the "book of nature"--God's "poiEma"--is not enough to convince rebellious, hardened, mind-darkened sinners. But when God takes on a human nature through Jesus Christ, speaks like no man ever spoke, performs spectacular miracles of healing and provision, evidences sovereignty over nature itself and the demonic realm itself, and rises from the dead three days after having been brutally executed, God is saving revealed.

Among things that Jesus does in the gospel of our salvation, He also reverses our idolatrous exchange of divine glory for lesser glories. He invites people to come to Him, to receive Him, and to be satisfied forever in Him by "eating His flesh and drinking His blood" and drinking of the "living water" of His Spirit so that they will thirst no more. Paul exemplified this in Philippians 3:8 when he said "...I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord..." Jesus as God and as the conscious center of our Trinitarian worship becomes for the believer in the Gospel more glorious than the created things designed all along to point to His higher glory. So there is a new exchange, a reversal of the first one.

However, of the things that Jesus does in the gospel of our salvation, the most relevant here in this passage--and perhaps most foundational in a sense--is address the wrath of God against our unrighteousness.

Through the gospel God aims at our salvation. Part of this salvation must consist in our salvation from the wrath of God. But the wrath of God against our idolatry and unrighteousness and foolish unbelief is just! Acquittal in the courtroom of heaven from the penalty of such high treason would demean God's glory and demonstrate a lackadaisical divine attitude toward human trampling of God's honor! God is not a God who will tolerate such things. God is not a God who would fail to demonstrate His absolute righteousness in the universe. He is the most perfect, glorious being in the universe and would be unrighteousness to fail to call attention to and demonstrate His perfections.

What is the solution then? How then can anyone be saved from His wrath? Answer: the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ in the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ dying on the cross in the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ dying on the cross, representing sinners as a substitute on the cross in the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ the Son of God dying on the cross, representing sinners as a substitute sacrifice, bearing the very wrath of God against their sins on the cross in the gospel. And answer: Jesus Christ the Son of God rising three days later, vindicated by God as God's Son, and as having made an acceptable and sufficient sacrifice for sinners by His death on their behalf.

In Christ, there is no condemnation, because our sin was already condemned in Him on Calvary.

In Christ, there is no wrath of God against us, because it was poured out fully and finally on Him instead.

In Christ, God savingly demonstrated true mercy for sinners, by coming to us as one of us to bear His own wrath against our transgressions.

So unbeliever, turn to and trust in Jesus, because He has made God known to man even more clearly. God has spoken to us in many ways at many times, but has spoken to us in these last days in His Son.

So unbeliever, turn to and trust in Jesus, because He has demonstrated anew the preciousness of the glory of God, and calls you to satisfy your soul in it instead of lesser things. He calls you to repent not to deprive you of pleasure, but to give you deeper and longer-lasting pleasure of fellowship with Him.

So unbeliever, turn to and trust in Jesus, because He has born the wrath of God against the unrighteousness and sin of all who will simply have Him as Savior. Full forgiveness, and even a declaration of "righteous" is yours freely by grace, through faith alone apart from your efforts or works.

Christian, turn to and trust in Jesus, and glorify and give thanks to Him; because He has savingly revealed God to you, has defeated your idolatry and as God has become supremely valuable to you, and has in your place drank every last drop of the wrath of God for your sins past, present, and future.

Christian, consider the unevangelized, the unreached, and the unengaged! They are lost in idolatry and sin, and the "book of nature," God's "poiEma," will not save them. They are too hardened to recognize that the "heavens are telling the glory of God." They have no excuse for their idolatry, but they cannot save themselves. They are in need of a saving, special revelation: the revelation of the gospel! They are also in need of a heart change: the work of the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel! And if they would receive God's mercy, they are in need of a substitute sacrifice for their sins, according to the justice of God's holy Law: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen, in the gospel!

May Jesus our Very Great Savior be glorified, who has wrought so great and thorough a salvation for His people to embrace and to take to the nations for His glory. Amen.