BIBLE STUDY:The Letterto the Romans
In the last article, I defined the phrase "the righteousness of God" as referring to God’s unswerving commitment to display and preserve the glory of His character. One of the ways He does this is to be merciful to humanity in spite of their sins so that He forgives us and saves us from the consequences of our sins. But God’s righteousness is also manifested in His wrath, His righteous hatred and judgement of human sin (1:18). In fact, God must judge and condemn sin, because sin is a rebellious challenge to God’s rule over humanity. Human beings, refusing to recognize the Creator’s authority over them, presumptuously assume the role of "god" over their own lives, and attempt to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, without reference to the true God. Humanity presumes to deny God His glory as the only independent self in the universe, His right to display the glory of His character through us, and we attempt to become "independent selves" with our "own" lives and agendas, and to provide for ourselves as ifwe were self-sufficient selves who did not need God. But God will not abide this slight or insult to His character, namely that He is unable or unwilling to best provide for humanity’s happiness, as if His plan for us were not the highest and best.
Therefore, God must respond in wrath to this insult and blasphemy from us, His creatures. But God in His wrath is not like some irrational raging maniac thatwe have all encountered at some point in our lives. God’s wrath is not abusive, as if God was judging us according to some impossible standard that no human could possibly fulfill. Nor does God in His wrath hold us responsible for whatwe could not have possibly known. God is not arbitrary in His judgement. Rather, God’s wrath is absolutely fair, judging us impartially for the fact that we continue to sin in spite of what we do know about God. God’s wrath is also not some impersonal law of cause and effect in which evil consequences follow inevitably from bad choices without reference to a personal God. No, God’s wrath is very personal, but it is not an irrational rage. Instead, God’s wrath is His just and righteous response to human rebellion, giving humanitywhatwe deserve,no more and no less.
God’s wrath is a response to the godlessness and unrighteousness of human beings who attempt to suppress the truth by that unrighteousness (1:18). To be godless is to fail to give God the respect, which He is due as the only independent Self in the universe. Godlessness is the attempt to live life on one’s own terms without God, to assume the place of God in one’s own life. Godlessness, irreverence, represents an unwillingness to recognize the surpassing value of God’s character or glory. So we are godless when we assume thatwe independently possess the wisdom and power necessary to live life, instead of relying upon the wisdom of God revealed in His Word and on the Spirit of God who powerfully causes thatwisdom to bear fruit in our lives. Unrighteousness, on the other hand, is the rebellious refusal to live life according to the rules, which God has laid down for human happiness. A "law," broadly speaking, is how something works. To refuse to live life according to God’s rules is to deny that the Creator has given us rules thatmake life work. In other words, to reject God’s laws is to accuse the Creator of being ignorant and stupid at best, and malevolent and cruel at worst, as if He had not given us everything we need for life and real happiness.
Suppressing the Truth by Self- Deception or Denial
In order for humanity to live in this condition, they must exist in a state of selfdeception or denial. That we are able to do this at all is quite astonishing, for how can one deceive oneself when one knows what the truth is all along? But this apparently impossible paradox is precisely what Paul describes as the human condition.Although we know the truth about God, we attempt to suppress or deny the truth by our unrighteousness or our repeated refusal to live life within God’s terms.We live our lives pretending that the true God does not exist or doesn’t care about our actions, even though we know, at some level, the falsity of this claim. Denial works not so much by denying the fact ofGod’s reality,but bydenying the significance of God for our lives. In other words, humanity recognizes the existence of God, but doesn’t consider God worth considering in planning out their lives. Another way that denial works is that we never verbalize the truth to ourselves or to anyone else, for once we commit ourselves verbally, we can no longer avoid the inescapable conclusion that we are wrong. In other words, we believe that if we can continue to act rebelliously without thinking through the consequences of what we are doing, without putting into concrete words the irrational way we are thinking, then we will never have to face up to the irrational way we are living life. Denial works because our amorphous irrational thinking is never nailed down into concrete words and pictures thatwould compel us to face the truth about God and repent.
Thus Paul claims that at some deep level we know the truth about God, even if we have not verbalized it to ourselves or others, since God has make it plain to us (1:19).The reason that Paul can claim thatwe knowthe truth is that God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen from the creation of the world in what God has made, so thatwe are without excuse (1:20). We can see God’s power and wisdom in the ordering and the beauty of the world around us, and only a blatant refusal to look at this factwill result in the denial of God’s reality and the significance of that fact for our lives.Moreover, the very drive thathumans have to make meaning out of their lives, to find a purpose to it, all testifies to the fact that a divine purpose or plan exists for the world.The fact thatwe have a conscience and an innate sense of justice (we all knowwhen someone else has wronged us), shows that we know that an ultimate moral being exists who sets the standards of right and wrong. Even ifwe do not feel guilty forwrongdoing,we feel angry when someone hurts us, showing that we innately know good and evil, right and wrong. There would be no point in having this sense of morality and justice if God did not in fact exist.
Moreover, the fact that we have this sense of justice and the fact that justice is not done in this world testifies to the fact that we know that someday all things will be made right as a result of God’s righteous judgement. In the depths of our hearts we know that God is our judge to whom we must render account. We may not wish to face the fact that we will some day answer for what we have done, for then we might have to change the way we live our lives. In the last analysis, it is the truth of God’s final judgment that breaks human denial, and it is this that enables us to repent. The fact that we know the truth about God is not enough to bring about a change in the human heart; we must be confronted by the significance of who God is and compelled to admit ourwrongness in the face of God’s judgment. For this reason, we must never allow ourselves to compromise biblical teaching about God’s wrath and final judgement, for it is this truth, when it confronts sinners, that breaks denial and brings humanity face to face with the ultimate eternal consequences of sin. Man Refuses to Acknowledge God’s Glory
In verse 21, Paul says that although humanity knew God, they did not glorify Him as God norgave thanks to Him. In other words, we have failed to give God the respectful place He deserves as our Creator, to recognize His authority over us,and most of all, we have failed to acknowledge His glory as the only all-sufficient Independent Self in the universe. God alone possesses all power,wisdom, goodness and love.He alone deserves respect and worship. It is His plan that prevails; our human plans are nothing but God’s ordained means for accomplishing His great purpose in history, so that none of our decisions can ever thwart God’s purpose in anyway whatsoever. He is totally complete and fulfilled in Himself, needing no one to make Him happy.We were created not to meet some feeling of loneliness in God, but to display the glory of God’s absolute sufficiency. So when we deny God the glory of being the independent Self in and through us, we arrogantly assume the place of God in our lives, believing that we are independent selves, asserting our (false) freedom to do as we please. Instead of living in humble and grateful dependence upon ourMaker,we presume to live our"own" lives and to take pride in whatwe have and what we accomplish, not acknowledging that every breath we take is a gift of God. Gratitude is not to be reduced to mere words or prayers of thanksgiving, but constitutes a total approach to life in which one lives in grateful dependence upon God, giving thanks in all circumstances, aware that a loving and sovereign God guides all the events of life for our ultimate good.
As a result of this failure to glorify God, the thinking of men becomes futile or vain, and their hearts become darkened (1:21). In other words, the very manner in which we make decisions becomes warped and distorted by this lie of independence. Our minds are taken over by this lie, and we make our decisions according to a "virtual reality" which we have made for ourselves. Not wishing to live with God constantly in our awareness,we push Him to the sidelines and live our lives without His truth. As a result, the decisions we make and the values we hold and the desires we have are based on a faulty understanding of reality, of the way that God has made the world to be, and the laws He has set down for living, to make life work. In fact, those laws appear simply as unnecessary restrictions and obstacles to the pursuit of our own pleasure. What is worse, humanity claims to be wise in throwing off the shackles of God and His laws, just as Adam and Eve did in the garden (Gen. 3), arrogantly presuming to know more about how to live life than the Creator himself!
Ironically, the end result of such defective minds and hearts is exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images of human beings and animals (1:22). Instead of holding onto the real thing, they exchange the truth of God for a lie, the surpassing glory of God’s goodness and faithfulness for something that cannot possible fulfill our needs, so that humanity worships and serves created things, which are mere vessels and shadows of the divine reality (1:25). Instead of becoming like God, as the devil promised Adam (Gen. 3:5), humanity descends to the level of beasts, worshipping their images.
Consequences of Unbelief
As a result, God gives humanity over to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another (1:24-28). We must remember that Paul is not presenting sexual sin, much less homosexuality, as the worst possible sin here, but rather is presenting sexual immorality as the inevitable divinely laid-down consequence of having a sinful and corrupt mind. When humanity no longer seeks its fulfillment and happiness in being vessels of the divine life, a void is created in the human heart where God was meant to be, a void that is never satisfied until it returns to God (St. Augustine). Humanity must fill that void, and we attempt to do through various perversions of our natural appetites (eating, drinking, sex, pleasure), which quickly turn into addictions of various sorts. The sexual addiction that Paul describes here is simply the most blatant effects of a corrupted mind, not necessarily its worst manifestation.
So God gives humanity over to a disqualified mind (1:28), one that is unable to make right choices in life, not passing the test and therefore totally inadequate as a decision-making faculty. As a result of refusing to live life according to God’s law, our actions are based on a faulty understanding of the way things are as God made them, so that we do what ought not to be done, sexual sin (1:28). In fact, it is the failure to give God His due as the only independent Self in the universe and to live in grateful, humble awareness of this fact that leads to this terrible consequence. In other words, sexual sin is the consequence of the cardinal sin of belief in independent self, and not the cardinal sin itself.
God’s handing humanity over to the consequences of their sin does not mean that God has given up on humanity, for then Paul would have no reason to write the rest of the book. God’s wrath would fall on humanity for their sin, and that would be it: no salvation. Fortunately that is not the case. Instead, what Paul means to say is that God causes humanity to experience to the bitter end the terrible consequences of their choice to ignore the truth of God. It is as if God were to say to us: "So, you want to be free of me? Here, gorge yourselves on this "freedom" and see where it gets you," in the hope that humanity might be disillusioned with its experience of "freedom" to do as they please, and turn back to God. In the end, humanity’s "freedom" is no more than the pursuit and fulfillment of one’s sensual desire for pleasure. Instead of freedom, humanity finds that it is enslaved and addicted to animalistic instincts, so that instead of being exalted, humanity is reduced to the level of beasts in rut.
In verse 29-31, Paul lists all the forms of human sin that are the result of having a mind corrupted by Satan’s lie of independence: greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, arrogance, hating of God and parents, faithlessness etc. Finally, Paul says that we continue to act in these ways even though we know God’s righteous decree that those who live like this deserve death (1:32). What is worse, we approve of others who act in these ways, demonstrating our flagrant disregard for God’s judgement, sure that He will not act in judgement against us to preserve the glory of His name.
Since we have all acted in these sinful ways, we all fall under the sentence of eternal death that God pronounces. If this is the case, how can we continue to complain about the troubles of this life? Although we may not deserve the evil things that others do to us, nevertheless anything we receive in this life is better than what we deserve according to God’s judgement, namely eternal death in hell. Given this fact, the only real option is to repent of both our self-pitying raging at God for our circumstances and our arrogant self-sufficient refusal to live life according to God’s design. Instead we need to forsake Satan’s lie of independence and live in the grateful awareness that God does not give to us what our sins deserve.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 20 No 2
- No Independent Self
- The Real Problem: Satans Lie
- Tape Talk
- Editors Note
- Sin Ruled My Life
- Reminiscences of Rees Howells The Village Years, Continued
- For the Shame of Christ
- A Look at a Book
- BIBLE STUDY:The Letterto the Romans
- Yes, I Am
- The Faith Life Has Its Tight Times
- Letters from Norman