Paul's first officials sentence lasts 8 verses. That's classic Paul. There's so much just in the introduction, and reading more than 2-4 verses devotionally in Romans can be overwhelming because there is so much to think to about with seemingly every line.
In his greeting, Paul includes significant details about the content and nature of the gospel itself, and it's impact. In a day when more and more professing Christians and church leaders are embarrased by the Bible, undermining confidence in the Bible, and supposedly too smart to actually believe the Bible, Paul's statement in verse two is super important... about the gospel of God, Paul says "which He promised before hand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures..."
So, while many today want to unhitch from Christianity from the Old Testament, or dismiss and disregard the OT, Paul is reminding us that the truth and glory of the gospel was promised and foreshadowed and anticipated throughout the OT. When people question the reliability of the OT and the Bible, Paul is reinforcing the divine revelation and total trustworthiness of the Scriptures. He is showing us that with the challenge of misunderstanding and misinterpreting the OT in particular, we don't need to disown it, we need to more precisely and rightly teach it. Brothers and sisters, we need more confidence in the Word of God, not less. We need more understanding of the Word of God, not less. We need greater reliance upon the Word of God, not less. Paul's certainly advocating for the clarity, reliability, authority and sufficiency of Scripture, and we should too, for the sake of our own souls and for the sake of the world we've been sent to.
In addition to the Word of God, if we are to grow in Christ, we also need the people of God. Paul gives us a window into the function of being in the body of Christ in v. 11-12, where he expresses his desire to be with the church in Rome, to strengthen them and to be encouraged by them. Paul expects to receive life and strength from his brothers and sisters as well as to give life and strength to them. The church is unified and sustained by the mutual edification given to each other by each other. This is a simple but beautiful summary of what it means to function as a member of Christ's body, the Church.
This means that, like Paul, that when we gather as a church, either as a whole body such as on Sundays, or as smaller groups meeting informally in homes, we come with an openness to God's grace through his people and consciously seeking to impart God's grace to his people. We are not takers only. We are givers. We aren't consumers. We contributing members. We are all called to disciple one another toward Christ-likeness, and we do so with a heart and mind, attentive to God's Spirit, intentionally seeking to encourage one another through gospel reassurances and reminders.
I would love to see the heart Paul expresses in these two easily overlooked verses become normative for the heart of every church member at Generations. Who wouldn't want to be part of a culture where everyone is taking responsibility for the faith and growth of one another by looking for ways to encourage each other with and toward the truth of the gospel revealed in Jesus and through God's Word.
Let's give ourselves to this... let's be a people willing to receive and willing to give the encouragement and grace we all need.
Oh, man, this passage has so much going on. The big emphasis though is on truth and error. In v. 18 we see that unrighteousness is the result of supressing truth. The description that follows is the progression of unrighteousness... the alternative to repentance and faith is to deepen the suppression of truth by ignoring God, and living as though He is not real and is not personally involved with us. Paul describes the hardening that takes place within our hearts to keep that up. It leads to fultility in our thinking and foolishness in our hearts, that begin to cement themselves as normative...
If we stay in that posture, we become worshippers of creation rather than the Creator, because we will have to be shaped by the worth of something, and if it's not God himself, it will be that which he has made. He goes on to characterize that as exchanging the truth of God for a lie... and he says that God will not force our hand, but he will give us over to the reality of what's in our heads eventually. He will let us experience the living deadness and darkness of life without him, on our terms, based on our assumptions and ideas. We can live in the lies we believe, the lies we nurture, the lies we export, so that we might yet come to see the truth as an ultimate treasure, not to be ignored, negotiated, or bargained for.
And when we still won't submit to him or align with reality as revealed by God and through Jesus, then Paul describes the perversions and distortions corruptions that leads to, not just at a personal level, but at a cultural level. And the scary thing for us is that Romans 1 describes so much of our culture and the current climate which we find ourselves in...
Look at the description of a persistently godless way of life on a massive scale in v. 26-31... this is the context we're living in. Which means we traded truth for lies a long time ago, and we've build our lives, and our communities, and our culture, and our morality, and our whole system on those lies while suppressing the truth. And God has been increasingly giving us over to our godlessness... not in the sense that nobody believes in God, but in the sense that our belief in God is according to our assumptions, and very few believe in God has he has revealed himself to be. So, it's led, as v. 32 makes clear, not just to the legitimization and normalization of so much darkness, but the celebration of that darkness, as though it were light.
This is the space we're living in. And it's the place every wealthy, powerful, decadent culture throughout history has gotten to. And it's God's wrathful removal of himself that allows us to descend there... and yet mercy is available to us. God is allowing us to experience life on our terms without him so that might taste the bitterness of that... there is always an invitation to repent and turn and renounce the lies on which we've built our own reality for oursevles, so that we can start living again in the reality of God's sovereignty, authority and glory revealed ultimately in and through Jesus.
I could expound on this text for a long time... but I'll stop here to ask some questions: are you building your life on lies or the truth of God according to His Word? Are you contributing to the lostness of our culture by reinforcing and celebrating that which is unrighteous and evil in God's sight. Are we bending life to God's truth, surrendering to his truth, aligning with His truth, or ignoring his truth? We are all either part of the problem and in revolution against God, or we are living under the rule and reign of God and in revolt against the kingdom of this world? Which is it for you...?
So Paul connects all the godlessness of Romans 1 that we read yesterday and personalizes it to everyone of us. He basically outs us all and any pretense that we aren't complicit in the culture of wickedness at some level. As believers, we can look at the decadence and decay of our culture and have a judgemental posture toward those outside the church as though the problem is external to us and internal within us. I'm thinking again of Francis Schaeffer's statement that the biggest problem we face is never outside the church but inside the church...
Paul's reminding us pretty forcefully and unequivocally that we are always battling our own lies, and the biggest one may be that we're grounded always in the truth and uninfluenced by the culture around us. Paul is saying if you believe that than you're blind to what's really going on. We are always being influenced by the world around us, and we need to remain postured in repentance for small and distorted thoughts of God, for lies that we give authority, for the pride and superiority that thinks we have things ordered rightly and are immune from the deception that we're all vulnerable too, etc.
In Romans 2, Paul is confronting the ethnocentrism of the Jewish community which denigrated teh Greeks and saw Gentiles as the corrupting influence in the world, rather than taking resopnsibility for the corruption which is so obviously present in the Jewish community too. He's telling the Jews to stop elevating themselves above the Gentiles and seeing them as the enemy. He's telling them to stop elevating Jewish culture and denigrating Gentile culture and to reject both in favor of a Kingdom culture, where ethnic identity has no bearing on right standing with God.
God is leveling the playing field and flattening all of our man-made hierarchies. Our standing with God has nothing to do with status and culture and success and attractiveness and other surface level things which we value... He rejoices over integrity, righteousness, obedience and truth ordering our lives, regardless of external factors that we're so consumed by. He repudiates rebellion, pride, self-importance, and self-rule regardless of our external factors. God is not favoring Jews over Gentiles, or the rich over the poor, or the educated over the uneducated, or the social elites of the social anonymous, or republicans over democrats, or the young over the old or whatever classifications we assume and establish. He is concerned with the heart and character of our lives and whether we relate to him and ourselves and the world on the basis of faith in Christ's finished work, or whether we're operating on any other basis.
God is bringing us back to our shared status with all other people to remind us that, even as Christians, we are what we are by grace. The privilege of living under God's favor and experiencing his power and presence is nothign we've earned or deserved or achieved, so it should humble us into the dirt rather than make us superior toward those who have not yet come to a place of embracing Christ. Rather than hammer away at people or withhold dignity from them or treat them with superiority, we should be motivated by the grace we've received to see them through the lens of that grace and treat them accordingly. Paul is advocating for the witness of the church and our engagement with the world to be anchored in the reality of God's grace to us in Jesus, so his patience and kindness toward us would dictate our attitude and posture toward those who are even hostile toward us.
Paul is deconstructing the sense of superiority which was deeply ingrained among ethnic Jews in the first century church. There is this idea that they are the real Christians because of their cultural identity and adherence to the Mosaic Law. But Paul starts by arguing that moral guilt and the penalty of sin is universal with or without The Law. He argues that even the Gentiles who had no law from God in the written sense, are still burdened by a guilty consience or a defensive instinct or both. There is an inner awareness of our guilt, even if the feeling is for the wrong things.
I think the point Paul is making is that whether you have God's Law as Israel did, or a social and cultural laws without divine weight, we all know we're not living up to even our own self-ideal, much less to the standard of a Holy God, and we feel the burden of our brokenness. The function of the Law, or any law, is that it accuses, condemns and judges us. Law is always on the attack. For example, there is a functional law for women in our culture that tells them they must be highly productive and successful in the workplace, physically attractive and in shape, very involved moms with wonderfully pleasant and high achieving kids, and a husband who adores her. There is some version of these unrealistic demands and expectation placed on women and they feel the pressure of these things and their inadequacy. They can't live up and even though plenty of these things aren't sinful at all, they feel guilty for what they aren't doing.
The same could be said of men in different areas. The point is that Gentiles felt their guilt before God even apart from the Law because their conscience bears witnes to them that they are broken. They may feel guilty for the wrong reasons, but that they are guilty is real. Israel is no better than them. Having received the Law has not made Israel obedient to that Law. Israel is clearer on what Holiness looks like and what fits in the category of sin perhaps, but that should only give them greater clarity of their own sinfulness, not elevate their sense of superiority.
The first century church has this pervasive problem of Jews trying to retain a place of privilege, and make Gentiles more Jewish, rather than more Christian. They have associated cultural endorsement with God's gracious favor and blessing on Israel. They keep returning to the badge of their Jewishness rather than the badge of their forgivenness through Christ. And Paul is telling them, and us, that God's choosing of them had nothing to do with their merit or intrinsic worthiness, but it was according ot his grace and kindness. To be a Jew, which is to be included among God's chosen people, is not in reality an ethnic right... God's people are those whose hearts embrace him on his terms, and who find their life and identity in his grace. True Israel is comprised of those who love God, through Christ, because of the life of the Spirit in them. There is no room for superiority or pride or self-enhancement in any of this, because it's only by grace that we belong to God...
The Gospel flattens everything so we can see God for who he is, and ourselves for who we are and see everyone else around us as on equal footing, so as to extend the same grace that we ourselves have received.
So Paul, as he does often throughout Romans, anticipates the question from the text we read yesterday. Essentially, he asks, "if being ethnically and culturally Jewish doesn't actually land you inside True Israel, is there any benefit to being Jewish?" He knows that his readers have a sense of their identity and nationality playing playing an important role in both human history and redemptive history. But if it is not to be assured of place in God's family, what's the point... what difference does being Jewish make?
His answer is that there is great blessing and favor from God in their Jewish identity, because they have every reason to believe the gospel. Their culture and history and personal stories are thoroughly embedded in the ultimate reality of salvation. The cultural distance that 21st-century non-Jews feel from the world of the OT and the significance of Christ's fulfillment of the Law is lost on most people... their is a disconnect and fundmental lack of understanding of the glories of Christ which ought to be so poignant and personal for a Jew.
Specifically, Paul points out that being Jewish helps you understand the faithfulness of God, not because of Israel but despite Israel. Jews have a more accurate view of the cycles of sin and idolatry through their nation's history. Being Jewish, they understand the depth of their brokenness and the patterns of rebellion, and the desperate need for a Messiah to come... And being Jewish gives them a unique scope and depth of meaning to every aspect of the uniqueness of Christ as the provision for their need. The faithfulness of God to his promises, through the various layers of fulfillment by Jesus, is more clearly displayed and more deeply understood by those to whom His promises were made. Being Jewish gives you every reason to be a Christian and removes all kinds of hurdles which keep many from coming to Christ.
So, Paul argues that the unfaithfulness of Israel, which Jews are well acquainted with, is the backdrop to display God's faithfulness. And then he anticipates the follow up question... "that if God ordained unfaithfulness in us to display the undeserved faithfulness of God toward us, how can God hold us accountable for that unfaithfulness?" Or in other words, "if God is sovereign and he planned salvation but needed people to be sinners to need saving, then how can we be responsible for our sin?" Or said differently, "Isn't our sin God's fault and responsibility?"
Paul emphatically rejects that argument... that logic that would let ourselves off the hook and blame our unrighteousness on God. Paul even says this is the distortion many make of the gospel... that if you preach the grace of Christ for guilty sinners through the instrument of faith, my sin and brokenness are needed for God's grace to shine brightly. So I'm free to sin so that God's mercy might be made known... God's grace becomes an excuse for sinning. We don't need to take sin seriously, because our sin is needed for the display of Christ...
And Paul essentially lands the plane here... that within this human thought pattern is a sinful inclination to let ourselves off the hook and go easy on ourselves, and to shirk responsibility. And he just interrupts that idea and confronts it with this claim: that we are both simultaneously living under the sovereign rule and reign of God in real time and space, and we are repsonsible for the sin in us which renders us guilty. God is not unjust to hold us accountable for our lives.
He is sovereign in saving sinners and man is reponsible to receive that salvation or suffer the reality of remaining seprate from God.