“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above,
where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.
Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.
For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is our life appears,
then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
In 1962 I was a disillusioned graduate student in physics at Stanford University, taking a break school after two years, hoping to find myself. I was seeing a shrink and generally depressed. A Jewish scholar and friend, Paula Fern, then translating Russian for Carl Sagan, suggested we visit a Baptist Church in nearby Los Altos. I believed at the time that I would find my identity and purpose in science, and that religion was for the uninformed and the disillusioned.
But Paula pointed out that I ought to know the Bible if only to argue more effectively with my Christian friends. A Baptist Bible-teaching church seemed a better choice than the Stanford chapel or the local “liberal Christian” churches in the area. I did want to know what the Bible actually says.
Paula and I were fascinated by the First Baptist Church of Los Altos and the straightforward verse by verse sermons of Dr. Ralph Kraft, right out of the Bible. The old hymns reminded me of my Baptist grandmother in Idaho, and the people were accepting and friendly. Before too long Verle and Marjorie Thomson had us over the breakfast where we could ask questions about what they believed and why.
I remember how stung and uncomfortable I was when Verle answered a question I had by reading me Romans Chapter One.
Long story short, after a few months I was bothered enough by a good number of issues at this church to make an appointment with Dr. Kraft. It was there in his office that I came to discover that Jesus Christ makes Himself personally known to anyone who will meet Him on His terms. (The whole story is available for anyone interested.) Yes, I know what it means to be “born again.”
All this transpired in the Fall of 1962. In the months following I was water baptized, took LSD, and went through all of Romans with Paula in a series of private lunches with Ralph Kraft.
Just a few years later (1965) I moved to my present church (Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto CA). Soon I sat through verse by verse studies in the Epistle of Romans there which immediately captured my attention. Ray Stedman was surely correct when he said “I don't know any letter that is more fundamental and foundational than Paul's letter to the Romans. It is unquestionably the greatest of all of Paul's letters and the widest in its scope. It is most intent and penetrating in its insight into the understanding of truth; therefore, it is one of the books of the New Testament that every Christian ought to be thoroughly familiar with.”
Half a century has elapsed and the world I live in has gotten far worse than it was 50 years ago! The letter of Paul to the Romans is, I believe, more relevant now than then! I have therefore excerpted four great sermons by Ray Stedman below as appetizers, hoping you’ll read his whole series on Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
[Ray’s entire message set is available at two web sites, pbc.org and raystedman.org. His books on Romans are available on Amazon.]
From Ray C. Stedman 1975:
"I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God for salvation unto everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith," (Romans 1:16-17).
By that tremendous declaration, Paul sets in focus for us the great theme of this letter: The power of God to heal the hurts of men and to give us liberty and freedom from the bondage of evil in our lives. With the power of the gospel comes the righteousness of God, the sense of worth to give significance and meaning to our lives. The power of God frees us from the control of sin; God frees us from the meaninglessness of despair and guilt. This power and righteousness is available to us, the apostle says, "by faith."
That means the gospel can reach anyone, anywhere, at any time. Now that is the good news, that is the startling message that the church of Jesus Christ has for the world. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world, there is no rival to it. There is nothing that remotely approaches it in its possibilities in human affairs; therefore, we can say with Paul, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Beginning with Verse 18 of Chapter 1, a more somber note is sounded. This section introduces the most extensive, careful, and logical analysis of the human dilemma that has ever been found. It extends from Chapter 1, Verse 18, through Chapter 3, Verse 20. We will begin with Verses 18-20:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20 NIV)
In the preceding verses, Paul has already spoken of the Son of God -- the key and the heart of the gospel. He declared the power of God that is released among men by believing the gospel; he declared the righteousness of God which is granted to us as a gift which we cannot earn or ever deserve, but which is ours, nevertheless, by faith. But now Paul speaks of the wrath of God. This is the first negative note that has been sounded in this letter, yet it is a very necessary note because it introduces this passage that tells us why we need the gospel of God. We need it because men everywhere are suffering from the wrath of God.
What do you think of when you hear that phrase, "the wrath of God"? Most people think of the wrath of God as something that is yet to come, something that follows death -- the judgment of God. It is true that hell and all that may follow are an expression of the wrath of God. But that is not what it means at this point. Most people think of the wrath of God as thunder and lightning and judgment, fire and brimstone and the sudden destruction and catastrophes that come upon obviously guilty sinners. And these are all manifestations of the wrath of God. But actually, the wrath of God is not something to come, it is present now. As the text says, it is "being revealed from heaven" -- that is, it is going on right now.
When something is revealed from heaven, it doesn't pour down from the skies upon us. No, it is everywhere present because it is coming from invisible forces at work in our lives. Therefore, it is absolutely inescapable; everyone is confronted with, and suffers from, the wrath of God -- without exception. His wrath is everywhere present, it is being manifested by the invisible resistance of God to the evil of men. And that is what is meant here by "the wrath of God."
...We are continually confronted with this tragic sense of life. It is the wrath of God Paul is talking about.
Why is it that tragedy is so close to the surface? Even in the moments of joy and gladness, we experience it. We've all felt this bitter-sweet character of life, when, in the midst of all the warmth and joy of the home circle, there is an underlying sense of fear, of the probability of the whole thing suddenly being turned into tragedy and sorrow. Why is that?
...It is because of the wrath of God. God's resistance against human evil is creating this sense of tragedy and darkness that we live with. I think Moses, in the 90th Psalm, expresses this perfectly. He says:
For all our days pass away under thy wrath,
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength four-score;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalms 90:9-11 RSV)
The shortness of life, the brevity of it, the sorrow of it, the tragedy of it -- this is all part of what Paul captures here under this phrase "the wrath of God ... being revealed from heaven." No one escapes God's wrath; it is revealed, and we have to face it.
The rest of Verse 18 reveals the cause of this wrath. The apostle explains that it is "the godlessness and the wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness" that cause God's wrath. The tragic aspect of life is caused by the attitudes men have and the subsequent actions that follow. Notice the order of this -- godlessness and then wickedness. The order is never reversed. It is the godless attitude that produces the wicked actions, and that is why the wrath of God is being revealed constantly from heaven against man. What is godlessness? Godlessness isn't necessarily atheism, the belief that God doesn't exist. Godlessness is acting as though he doesn't exist, disregarding God. That attitude is widespread in our society today; it is what we call the "secular" attitude. It doesn't necessarily deny that there is a God, but it never takes any account of him; it doesn't expect him to be active. That is the attitude of godlessness which the apostle speaks of here.
As a result of godlessness, there is unrighteousness or wickedness, selfish and hurtful acts of men toward one another. Why do we act selfishly? Why do we hurt each other? Because we disregard God. That is Paul's analysis. By means of these hurtful and selfish acts, the truth is suppressed. Now that is the problem!
Here we are in a world in which truth from God is breaking out all around us, but we are busy covering it up, hiding it, suppressing it, keeping it from being prominent and dominant in our thinking. That's the picture. Against that attitude of hiding truth, suppressing the truth, the wrath of God burns among the human family. The reason why life has turned tragic in so many cases is that the world is deprived of the truth that is necessary for life and liberty and freedom and godliness, and it is hidden by men and suppressed by them. Verses 19-20 set before us the nature of the truth that is suppressed:
...since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20 RSV)
The truth that men labor to suppress is the existence of a God of eternal power and majesty; they suppress the greatness of God. This is the very truth Job 9 so eloquently expounds, the truth the world hides. There is, as you know, an evident conspiracy not to mention God. Don't talk about him; don't act as though God has anything to do with our common affairs in life; admit that there is a God if you want to, but don't expect him to interfere or to do anything with us. Don't, above all else, mention his name. Isn't that strange?
Somebody has put it this way in a little poem entitled, The Humanist:
He exists because he was created.
He's here because he was placed here.
He's well and comfortable because divine power keeps him so.
He dines at God's table.
He's sheltered by the roof that God gave him.
He's clothed by God's bounty.
He lives by breathing God's air which keeps him strong and vocal to go about persuading people that whether God is or not, only man matters.
Man, in his puniness and weakness, struts about acting as though there were no God. That is the truth that men suppress. But there are times when men cannot evade the fact of God; and when those times come, when they just have to speak of God, people resort to euphemism. They don't use the name of God, they call him something else. They may call him "nature."
"Nature" is responsible for the way we are. Well this, of course, is because nature is what we are; nature is the sum total of all the phenomena of the natural world. To say that the sum total of the phenomena of the natural world accomplishes what is the phenomena of the natural world is nonsense. Yet everywhere this is the way men talk. That is simply a way to avoid mentioning that God is at work in human affairs.
Sometimes men call it fate, or karma, or destiny. And yet, I think it is one of the ironies of life that God, who sits above the heavens, often laughs at the foolishness of men. He has arranged it so that they can't even rip off a round oath without mentioning the name of God. You never hear people go about saying, "By nature I'm going to do this." You never hear them say, "Fate damn you!" But, in order to be emphatic, men must use the name of God. Though they will not use him in other ways, God sees to it that they recognize his presence when they swear. Isn't that strange? But that's what happens. The great God who made all things is ignored and treated with this conspiracy of silence, and yet we can't even swear without him.
How has God made truth plain? The Scripture says that God has revealed himself to man. Truth is not a vague, invisible, difficult thing to comprehend; it is clearly seen. God himself has insured that. How? The Scriptures say, "It is seen in that which is made," i.e., creation. From the creation of the world it is visible; i.e., it has been always and everywhere present. There is no one who is left out -- all can read this revelation of God if they want to do so.
...How ridiculous that in all this vast, impressive, imposing display of beauty and light and order anybody should ever say it all happened by chance! ...How can we say that only by intelligence and wisdom and skill can a watch be built, but hearts beat and babies grow and roses smell simply by chance. Isn't that ridiculous? You only have to put it that way to see how foolish, how absurd, a statement like that can be.
This argument from design and order has never been answered. Those who disregard God cannot explain it because truth about God is breaking out everywhere around us. Elizabeth Barret Browning wrote,
Earth's crammed with heaven,
and every common bush aflame with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes;
the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Thus, says the Scripture, men are without excuse. No one who really wants to find God need miss him. One of the great verses that confronts the problem of what happens to those who never hear the gospel is Hebrews 11:6. It says: "He that comes to God must believe that he is and that he is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him." Just two things are necessary:
First, he must believe that God is there. Everything in his life is telling him that. Everything about himself is yelling at him, shrieking at him, that God has planned all these things. The easiest thing in the universe to believe is that God is there. You must work hard at convincing yourself that he is not there, and only the very intelligent are able to do it. The rest of us, who simply see facts and believe them, will accept the fact that God is there. Those who never hear the gospel first must believe God is.
Then, they must diligently seek him. If men don't find God, it is because they don't seek him. The Scriptures promise us that if we seek after him, he will give further light on himself, and that light will eventually lead, as other Scriptures tell us, to the knowledge of Jesus Christ; for without the Son, no man can come to the Father. There is no other "name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12b KJV), but the name of Jesus. It starts with where you are and the revelation that is in nature and in yourself about the majesty and the power and the greatness of God. In Verses 21-23, the apostle tells us in detail how men suppress the truth about God:
For although they knew God they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:21-23 NIV)
Paul tells us in detail how men suppress the truth about God. There are three steps traced for us here and the effects they have upon the race:
First, they neither glorify God nor give thanks to him. In other words, they ignore him. There is this obvious conspiracy of silence. That is why we are not allowed to sing carols in our public schools at Christmas time; that is why there is great resistance against having the Bible read on almost any public occasion today. No one wants to admit that there is a God They do not glorify him as God, neither do they give him thanks...
Men resist acknowledging the presence of God. The effects of this are immediate. Paul says two things are immediately created in society when this attitude prevails: First, the peoples' thinking becomes futile; Second, their hearts become darkened. Futile thinking means that clever ideas and procedures and programs will fall apart and come to nothing. In my own lifetime I have lived through the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Society, Peace with Honor, and the Great Recovery. All of them have failed dismally! They all started with brilliant promises, glowing words of hope and expectation; and every one of them came to the same dismal end.
When hearts are darkened, human needs which ought to evoke emotions of pity and response are passed by. People lose compassion and awareness of the struggles and needs of others. Some of us have been horrified at the accounts in the paper of people in desperate need, calling out for help, while people wait right by and ignore them because they don't want to get involved. That is the sign of a darkened heart, and it is the result of ignoring God. The first device men employ to suppress the truth is to ignore God.
The second device they use is to claim to be wise. In other words, they imitate God. They claim to know and be able to know everything and to run anything. The result of that is put in one brief, blunt, pungent word: They become fools!
Remember the old story of the sorcerer's apprentice who, picking up the magician's wand, loosens powers that he doesn't know how to handle? Finally he cowers in terror at the tremendous forces that he has unleashed. Just read the intellectual magazines of our day and see how clever the secular writers are. They are masters at taking some simple discovery and making it sound impressive and profound, as though it were on a parallel with the creation of the universe as recorded by Moses. They claim to be wise, but they become fools. The third device men employ to suppress the truth is that they exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made like mortal man. They exchange the glory of the undying God for images made like dying men, and birds, and animals, and reptiles. Notice the descending order. When idolatry begins, it begins first with men making images of men. The world is filled with statues, most of them reflecting the images of the ancient Greek and Roman world. These, of course, are merely symbols of ideas that men worship, and we still have such images today. But these images invalidate God; they debase him by substituting something for God and making God seem to be less than what he is. That is what idolatry always does. It is a very destructive force in human affairs. Idolatry begins first with men, then birds (which are at least heavenly), then animals, and finally it ends up with reptiles. Man is at one end and a snake at the other.
Do you think people don't worship images and bow down before idols now? What are movie stars and football heroes? They are dying men and women who are idolized and worshipped in our day. And I, personally, don't believe that it is any accident that we tend to name our cars after animals. We once named them after men: Lincoln, Ford, Chrysler and Dodge. But now we are naming them after animals: Impala, Cougar, Mustang, Pinto, Jaguar, Rabbit, Panther, and there's even a Greyhound bus! It is God's ironic way of forcing men to name what is going on inside. We already have a car called the Cobra. And perhaps we will soon be naming our cars for the python, vipers, and maybe, for the slower models, the crocodile.
These are our gods, aren't they? We worship rockets, planes, guns, bombs, tanks. We worship power, military power, or forces like sex, and money, ambition, and greed; or concepts like comfort, beauty, youth, adventure, life. We've exchanged the glory of the undying God in all his majesty and greatness for images. What are movies but images? What is television -- images of mortal men, birds, animals, and reptiles.
The effect of idolatry upon a society is profound and terrible to contemplate...We are right where they were (in the First Century). We will see what happens in a society when men everywhere begin to worship men and women, birds and animals, reptiles, and the ideas that these represent.
The amazing thing to me is that this description of the wrath of God is wholly and fully met by the righteousness of God. God's righteousness wipes out his wrath. Wouldn't you think, therefore, that men everywhere would be eager to discover this marvelous gift of the righteousness of God? That is what heals our hurts and corrects our errors and gives a sense of peace and joy and forgiveness to the heart. The wrath of God creates the hurts of life; all the pain and heartache and darkness, the death, the depression, the despair all come from the wrath of God. They are the products of ignoring God, trying to imitate God, and invalidating God in our lives.
Wouldn't you think that men everywhere would long to hear this good news? Yet the wonder of our times and the revelation of the twisted, demoralized, distorted world in which we live is that we cling to our hurts and refuse the healing of God. (Source).
Romans is probably the most contemporary, the most continuously up-to-date human document that ever has been written. In this chapter, Paul has been analyzing the civilization of the 1st century Roman Empire. He describes the moral life of great cities like Ephesus and Corinth and Rome. But the letter describes exactly what happened last night in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and New York. The moral climate of today is the same as the moral climate of the 1st century Paul wrote about. That gives rise to the question, "Just how much progress have we made in twenty centuries of human existence?"
The apostle says there were two characteristics of the civilization he lived in, and those characteristics describe our society today too. The first characteristic is godlessness; the second is wickedness. Godlessness is a disrespect of God, and this results in wickedness -- injury and hurt done to other human beings. The fundamental thesis upon which this epistle to the Romans is built is that in every generation there is godlessness, which results in wickedness.
The apostle has traced for us how this godlessness came about. He begins with the self-disclosure of God in nature; God has spoken to this world and has shown himself in the natural scene. Nature includes mankind itself, for we are part of nature too. God has made himself visible in every age and place. The truth about God pours out toward us from every direction, if only we have eyes to see. This truth, the apostle says, has been met with an unspoken agreement among men to suppress it. There is a conspiracy of silence everywhere to ignore the truth that is everywhere present.
In the first part of this chapter, Paul explains that mankind follows a three-fold process in suppressing the truth: First, he ignores God. He does not glorify him or give thanks to him. This is characteristic of our day in the way the media ignores God. We act as though he does not exist and has nothing to do with our world.
The second step in the process of suppressing truth is that men imitate God. They claim to be wise; they claim that they are able to handle all the problems of life and that they understand all that has happened in human affairs...
The third process by which man suppresses truth is to choose substitute gods and to make God appear to be much less than he really is. By these means, men suppress the truth of God and have become godless.
In Verses 24-32 of Chapter 1, the apostle traces the effects of this godlessness in human society -- the wickedness which inevitably follows. When men lose God, they always lose themselves. They do not understand what is happening in human affairs and are not able to diagnose the sicknesses and problems that break out in society because we have lost God.
In his book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis says hell is made up of people who live at an infinite distance from each other. That is the result of the loss of God in our life. This wickedness at work among human beings also follows a three-step process which is identified for us in this passage by the thrice-repeated phrase, "God gave them over." Paul repeats this phrase in Verses 24, 26, and 28, and this phrase identifies what is going on in our culture. Let's look at the first reference to this phrase in Verse 24:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (Romans 1:24 NIV)
The first mark of wickedness in a godless society is widespread sexual immorality -- the degrading, or the dishonoring, of the body. Note that the sentence begins with the word therefore. This immorality is a result of the idolatry into which men fall. Idolatry is common in our day. We do not worship idols and images so much anymore, but concepts and ideas are idolized and deified as much as any of the idols of the ancient world. The result of idolatry is widespread sexual immorality. Many people think this account describes all the evil things men do and then says that God, in effect, gives up on the people who do them. They think God washes his hands of them because they are so filthy and dirty. That certainly is not what this account says. But because men run after other gods and refuse the testimony of their own hearts and the world of nature around them, because they run after other gods and do not glorify or thank the true God, God removes his restraints from society so that what is done in secret is allowed to break out into openness and acceptability. That is the mark of the wrath of God at work. The first sign of wickedness in a civilization is that sexual immorality, which is always present in human life, becomes widely accepted.
God allows us to experience the full effects of our attempts to satisfy our hungers and our cravings and our desires without him. He allows us to discover that we don't have the answer. God removes the societal restraints to let these things come to the surface. By that means, he forces us to experience the full effect of what we do. God forces us to harvest the crop we insist on sowing. We like to sow our wild oats, but, when they begin to sprout and the results begin to appear, we want to abandon the field and run to another one, and just keep sowing our wild oats. But God says you cannot do that. You are going to have to live with the results. This is what Paul, earlier in the passage, calls "the wrath of God" at work among us.
You may ask, "Why is it that sex always seems to be singled out as the sign of God's judgment? Why is sexual immorality the first sign of a disintegrating civilization?" There is a good reason. Many Christians have wrongly concluded that sexual sins are the worst kinds of sin. But that is not true. Sexual sins are not the worst kind of sins. C. S. Lewis has caught this fact very accurately. In a paragraph from his book, Mere Christianity, he says,
If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual. The pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me competing with the human self which I must try to become: they are the animal self, and the diabolical self; and the diabolical self is the worst of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig, who goes regularly to church, may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But of course, it's better to be neither.
Those words are true, and this passage in Romans bears it out. It begins with sexual impurity and proceeds to sexual perversity. But the final result, the ultimate climax of the chapter, is not sexual sins, it is the sins of the spirit. Widespread animosity, hatred of the heart -- these are the worst sins.
There is good reason, however, why God allows heterosexual practices to become publicly detectable. He allows it to show us what is going on in our spiritual lives. It highlights the fact that sex is linked with worship. Any serious reading of the Scriptures will make this crystal clear. Sex is man's longing after worship. Sex, you see, is a desire to possess another body and to be possessed by another. It is a deep-seated craving inherent in every human being.
We have all heard the statement, "Girls give sex in order to get love; boys give love in order to get sex." This is true, superficially. But what both are really after is not sex at all; they are after worship. They really want to worship and to be worshipped. They really want a sense of total fulfillment, a oneness, an identity. That is what they think they are getting when they indulge in illicit sex.
The Scriptures tell us that only God can give that fulfillment. Only God can satisfy that deep sense of longing for complete identity and unity with another person. That is what we call worship. When we worship, we are longing to be possessed of God, and to possess him fully. That is why the highest description of the relationship possible to a believer is found in the words of Jesus in John 14-15, "You in me, and I in you," (John 14:20). When men think that they are going to find that fulfillment in sex, God, in effect, says to them, "Look, it won't work. But you won't believe that until you try it out." So he removes the restraints and allows immoral sexual practices to become widely accepted, understanding that men indulging in these things will finally find themselves just as dissatisfied, empty and hopeless as they were when they started. Thus they will learn that God is trying to teach them that sex is not the way by which men find fulfillment. This is true even in marriage. Men only find their fulfillment in a relationship to God. This brings us to the second mark of a godless and wicked society, found in Verses 25-27:
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator, who is forever praised, Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans 1:25-27 NIV)
Homosexuality is the second mark of a godless and wicked society. In the first step of this process, bodies were dishonored. In this second step, Paul speaks of shameful lusts arising from inside, desires that are part of the soul of man. The apostle describes the growth of widespread psychological confusion. Notice the irony of this. This is God's silent way of forcing men to demonstrate their sin so they can see what is going on in their lives. Paul says because they have exchanged truth for a lie and exchanged the Creator for created things, God allows them to exchange natural functions for unnatural functions -- to use a man for a woman, and a woman as a man. The restraints are removed, so homosexuality becomes widely accepted in society. In this 1st century world in which Paul lived and wrote, homosexuality was a commonplace thing. All the great philosophers extolled it and practiced it, for the most part. Men like Socrates, and other great names of Greece, were homosexuals. Out of the first fifteen Roman emperors, fourteen of them were homosexuals, and some gave themselves blatantly and openly to this vice. This was common in the Roman world, as it is becoming common in our own day. Once again, the restraints are being removed, and these things are thrusting themselves into public view.
The truly awful thing about the rise of homosexuality today is that homosexuals are allowed to believe the lie that this is a biological condition which they cannot help, but to which they should adjust. Even churches are falling into this trap and consenting to this deceit...
The papers carried a report this week that the Santa Clara County Council of Churches accepted into membership the Homosexual Church of San Jose. The arguments reported in the local papers were unbelievable. Pastors stood up and said they could not make a judgment as to whether homosexuality was good or evil. Yet I was encouraged this week by a paper which was sent to me by a Christian who is an ex-homosexual. The paper was written by a group of Christians who were homosexuals, but who have been delivered by the grace and the gospel of the Lord Jesus, by the power of Christ in their lives. In order to help those still enmeshed in this vice, they are publishing a paper that makes a forthright plea to those trapped in homosexuality not to believe the lie so widely circulated today, that this is a biological condition and they cannot help themselves. This lie is what holds them in a fatal grip. As long as homosexuals believe that, there is no help for them. But if they understand that homosexual behavior is a sin, like other sins, that it can be forgiven and they can be delivered and freed from this sin by the power and grace of Jesus Christ, then there is tremendous hope in the midst of their darkness.
Paul speaks of a "due penalty" for this... Anyone who has spent any time with those involved in this unfortunate condition know what this penalty is. It is a loss of their sense of identity, an uncertainty as to their role and place in life. It creates an almost unbearable tension as to who he is, and what he is, and what he or she is here for. We see this manifested in considerable degree in the Women's Liberation Movement, as well as in dress styles and the emphasis on unisex in education. This sexual confusion that abounds on every side is an attempt to mar and to defeat God's precise delineation when he made them male and female.
The third and final mark of a godless and wicked culture is given in Verses 28-32.
Furthermore, since they did not think It worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28-31 NIV)
This is a terrible list of sins, but it is the mark of a civilization that is nearing collapse -- this growing spirit of contemptuous and arrogant disregard for other human beings. In one word, this describes a desire to exploit other people. Godlessness eventually brings us to the place where we will see these things in society.
"Depraved mind," used here, literally means "an unacceptable mind," a mind that cannot be lived with, that simply will not fit into any kind of civilization or culture or society. A depraved mind destroys, rends, and fragments everything it touches. It is an unacceptable mind, and its public hostility is marked by increasing cruelty and violence. I think the most vivid demonstration and documentation of this in our day is probably given in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book, The Gulag Archipelago, where you find an entire culture characterized by this terrible, senseless cruelty. But we in the Western world are not escaping either. Every day our newspapers report the skyrocketing rise in senseless vandalism and vicious and unprovoked attack upon innocent and often helpless people. The rise in child abuse is a symptom of this in our society.
It culminates, as Paul makes very clear in Verse 32, in an attitude of callous disregard:
Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve those who practice them. (Romans 1:32 NIV)
Knowing that harm is coming from their wickedness, nevertheless they attempt to spread it more fully. They invade the field of education; they dominate the media; they seek legal status for their wickedness and defy all attempts at control. As you can well recognize, this is what is going on today.
Thus the Apostle Paul traces the deepening darkness of his own day. And yet it is ours as well. Though this is an honest record, it is also clear that God does not turn his back on man. This account is not a record of what God despises, and thus turns aside with contempt. Man is never treated here as an object of contempt, or as a worm. Rather, God's concern underscores this whole passage. He is at work to try to bring men to their senses, to wake up a civilization as to what is going on in its midst, and to show it how desperately it is in need of deliverance -- which can only come as a gift of righteousness from God's hands.
You may ask, "Why does God give a civilization over to this kind of thing?" He does it because it is only when darkness prevails, and despair and violence are widespread, that men are ready to welcome the light. Remember Isaiah's prediction? "They that dwell in darkness, upon them has the light shined. They that live in the land of deep darkness, unto them a great light has shine" Isaiah 9:2). In the 1st century, the world was sunk in the darkness of despair. Idolatry had penetrated the whole world; men had turned from the true God, whom they could have known. Hopelessness and rank despair lay like a heavy blanket upon the earth... (Source).
In Chapter 1 of Romans we saw the eagerness of Paul to go to Rome and preach the gospel, for, above all else, it is exactly what Rome needs to hear. "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile," (Romans 1:16 NIV).
Paul took pride in the gospel, and rightfully so. The gospel is what men and women everywhere desperately need. In the gospel, God has found a way to condemn our sin and to destroy it without destroying us. No man can do that.
When we want to correct evildoers, we have to punish them by imprisoning them. Sometimes, to protect society, we have to take their lives. But God does not do that. Jesus, the center and heart of the gospel, changes people. He has found a way to change our most fundamental urges from self-centeredness and selfishness, to loving concern for others, so that the very basis of our urges has been altered. In the gospel, God has made divine power available to us. God has promised to us and provided for us an ultimate destiny that is mind-blowing, beyond all our wildest dreams. And yet it is amazing that when people hear this good news, they often resist it and stubbornly hold out against accepting it.
Of course, the reason for this struggle is that the gospel can never be accepted until you admit your need. Men will never accept this message until they come to a place of hopelessness and helplessness. But that is the problem; we do not like to admit we need any help. We want everybody to think we are able to handle what is coming our way. We struggle against this humiliation (as we see it) of stooping to receive from God something that we cannot earn or gain for ourselves.
In Romans, Paul describes the four types of men who resist and refuse the gospel. Two of these types we have already looked at: There is the obviously wicked person who, in essence, simply defies God. He is described at the end of Chapter 1: "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them," (Romans 1:32 NIV). This type includes the whole world of people who flaunt morality, defy the words of God, and who encourage people to get involved more deeply in things that are hurtful and destructive.
In Chapter 2, Paul deals with the second type of man who rejects the gospel, the self-righteous moralist, who is outwardly decent, good-living, and clean-cut. Inwardly, however, he is filled with resentments, jealousies, murder, hatred, and envy; and his attitudes are as wrong as the actions of those who are outwardly evil. The problem is that such men delude themselves by thinking that everything is going to be all right with them. Because they have maintained a certain respectable facade, they think that God is going to overlook the inner sins of their life and that there is going to be no judgment for them because everything appears to be fine.
Now we come to the last two types of people who resist the truth: One of these is the unenlightened pagan. Here we are dealing with the question of what to do about the people who have not heard the gospel. What about those who live where the Bible is unknown, or those who are in a different religion where there is no reference to the facts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? In this passage Paul says that their problem is that they defile their consciences. The other and last type is that of the religious devotee who seeks deliverance from the judgment of God by religious practices, rituals, performances, and knowledge of the truth.
These two types of people are introduced by a statement of the universal lostness of mankind, found in Chapter 2, Verses 12 and 13:
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Romans 2:12-13 NIV)
Now this is probably the strongest statement from the hand of Paul and it answers the question non-Christians ask Christians more often than any other, "What about the people who have never heard of Jesus Christ?" Usually they are thinking of savages in jungles. They seldom think of the savages in the concrete jungles of our cities, but both are in the same condition, as we will see. Paul's answer to this question is that they will be judged by their own standards. God judges men, not according to what they do not know, but according to what they do know. They will be judged by their own standards.
So far in Romans, Paul has made three great statements about the basis of the judgment: In Chapter 2, Verse 2, Paul says that God's judgment is according to truth, i.e., it is realistic. He only deals with that which is actually there. God does not falsely accuse anyone, but he judges according to truth. Then in Chapter 2, Verse 6, he says God judges according to works. Now that is interesting, because that shows God is patient. God, who does see what is going on in our inner lives and who judges wholly on that basis, nevertheless waits patiently until our inner attitude begins to work itself out in some deed, speech, or attitude that we manifest openly. Therefore, God allows men to be their own judge, to see for themselves that what is coming out is a revelation of what is inside.
In Chapter 2, Verses 9-10, Paul also says the judgment of God is according to light. That is, God is not going to summon all mankind and tell them they are going to be judged on the basis of the Ten Commandments.
But man, in this generic sense, is certainly going to be judged according to light. That means that God will say to that individual, "What did you think was right and wrong?" When the individual answers, God's question then is, "Did you do the right, and not the wrong?" By that standard, of course, everyone fails. Paul makes clear that this is true. He says, "All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law." The fact that such men never heard the Ten Commandments, or anything else that is in the Bible, does not mean that they are going to be acceptable in God's sight. They will perish, not because they did not hear, but because what they did know was right, they did not do. Now Paul goes on to take up the case of the unenlightened pagan in Verses 14-16.
(Indeed, when the Gentiles, who did not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)
This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:14-16 NIV)
Now I hope that your text of the Scriptures puts Verses 14 and 15 in parentheses because this all comes within the context of Paul's argument that there is a day coming when God is going to judge the secrets of men everywhere and all that is hidden will be revealed. In Luke 12:3 Jesus himself spoke of that: "What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops," (Luke 12:3 NIV). Now there were some in Paul's day who said that because the Jews possessed the Law and knew God's truth, they would not be condemned in that judgment. But Paul is saying, "Look, if your knowledge of truth is what saves you, then everybody will be saved, even the savages and the pagans, for they show that they have a law, too. They know a great deal about the Law; it is written on their hearts, and their consciences act as judges within them, just as they do within those of us in the more civilized world." On that basis, you see, everyone would be saved. But God does not judge that way.
Now here we have a revelation of what goes on in the primitive world. Men and women who have never heard anything about the Bible, Jesus Christ, Moses, the Ten Commandments, or any standard that we are familiar with, nevertheless are subject to judgment because they have truth written in their hearts. They do know what is right and wrong. They show it in their own lives...
People say, "Let your conscience be your guide." That is a recipe for unhappiness. If that is all you have, it is a certain way of plunging into a life that alternates between fear and momentary peace.
...Rachel Saint, is the widow of one of the five men who were cruelly murdered by the Auca Indians on the banks of a river in Ecuador twenty years ago. In this article she describes the way the Aucas lived before the gospel came and the tremendous work going on in that tribe since then. She writes,
The Aucas have been thoroughly acquainted with demons and devil worship for many generations. The result of this is a religion of terror. The witch doctor is the central authority, and he controls the tribe. Any death is supposed to be caused by the witch doctor. Then that death has to be avenged and the feuding starts. They are afraid that they might be speared at night in their own houses. Everyone is a potential enemy. If a father loses a son, he feels he must kill his daughter. If the group loses a marriageable girl, a grandmother is killed. Why should a worthless old woman live if a marriageable girl has died? This kind of thinking permeates their culture.
Now this sort of thinking goes on not only in the jungles of South America and other places, but also in the concrete jungles of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and everywhere else. A reign of terror always ensues when people are governed only by the law of conscience. Yet, even under their own law, they perish, just as much as those who are judged by God's Law.
Now Paul goes on to take up the case of the religious devotee of his day, the Jew. Today we need only substitute the title "church member" to bring it up to date -- because we American church members are in the same condition as the Jew was in the culture of Paul's day. We have a great body of truth that we delight in, and we feel proud of our knowledge and our understanding of it. But unfortunately, we oftentimes hope and think that knowledge, in itself, is what is going to deliver us in the sight of God. In Verses 17-24 we will see how Paul handles such thinking.
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth -- you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." (Romans 2:17-24 NIV)
Paul lists here the five great advantages which the Jews of his day had and on which they relied for their position before God:
First, they relied on possessing the Law. There are many people in the churches of America today who rely upon the fact that the Bible is available to them. We have the Bible in twenty-five different versions and many take great pride in owning a specific version. "I am a King James Christian! If it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it's good enough for me!" Or "We're liberated! We have the American Standard Version!" You hear people bragging about this! Well, that is exactly what the Jew was doing in Paul's day.
Second, they bragged about their relationship to God. The Jew made it clear that he had a special inside track with the Almighty. You hear people talking like that today. "God, Billy Graham, and I were just talking the other day..." We make it clear that we have a special standing with the "Good Lord," as he is usually called, and in some way we brag about our relationship to God.
Third, the Jews were people who knew the will of God. They had the Scriptures, they had the Ten Commandments, and the knowledge of what God wanted. There are many today who boast about their knowledge of the Word of God and who rest upon that fact.
Fourth, these Jews approved of what was superior, i.e., they rejected certain attitudes and actions in life and chose only that which was regarded as morally superior. Many, many church members do this. They take pride in the fact that they do not do certain things. I am amazed at how many people think that God is going to be impressed by the things they do not do. "We don't dance, we don't drink, we don't go to the movies, we don't go to theaters, we don't play cards, we don't drink coffee," and on and on.
Finally, the Jews were instructed in the Law. There were many who could quote great passages of Scripture and they took pride in that. Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these advantages except that the Jews and many of us today depend on them for righteousness. We feel we have a special standing with God because of them; and that is what is wrong.
Paul goes on to list four privileges which the Jews felt were theirs because they had these advantages: First, they felt they were a guide to the blind. Today we have those who are always ready to correct anybody around them, to impart truth to those unfortunate people who have not learned anything yet.
Second, the Jews felt they were a light to those in the dark. Every now and then we run into people who are quite ready to dazzle us with their knowledge of the Scriptures. They know all about the antichrist, they know when Christ is coming again, they know all the elective decrees of God, they are thoroughly acquainted with the superlapsarian position of the people before the Fall, etc., and they take great pride in this knowledge.
Third, the Jews felt they were instructors of the foolish. A lady came up to me after a service on Sunday and told me a long, painful story of how she had injured her wrist in an auto accident. The emergency doctor who took care of her happened to let slip a couple of curse words while working on her. She lectured him at great length about how she was a Christian, how she wouldn't listen to this kind of language, and how terrible it was that he took the name of God in vain. This attitude is typical of many who feel they are instructors of the foolish, because they have a knowledge of the Scriptures.
The fourth privilege which the Jews possessed was that they were teachers of children. I am amazed at how many want to teach Sunday school classes for the wrong reason. Now there is a right reason, but many want to teach because they feel they are imparting truth to people who need it, and they take great ego satisfaction in doing it.
Paul's judgment of such people is, "You are guilty yourself." This attitude of the Jew is the same one Paul condemned earlier in the moral Gentile. "You are outwardly righteous and correct, but inwardly you are doing the wrong thing." They were envious, proud, covetous, lustful, bitter, dangerous people. Religious zealots are dangerous people. The Jews were notorious in the Roman empire for being over-sharp in business deals. That is why Paul says, "You who preach against stealing, do you steal?" They were not above a little hanky-panky with slave girls they had to deal with. Paul says, "You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?" They were ready to profit from trade with pagan temples. He says, "You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?" They bragged about the Law, but Paul says, "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." That was the ultimate judgment upon the Jews. To them, blasphemy was the worst of sins. Yet Paul says, "Though you claim to have so much, and to be so knowledgeable, yet what you have done is to blaspheme God. People have been turned away from God because of you."
I do not think I have to detail how true that is of American Christianity as a whole. And not only in this country, but around the world, Christians have caused people to turn from God because of our attitudes and the way we approach people. I have often thought it is amazing how the people who keep close records on how many they win to Christ never keep any records on how many they drive away. And the name of God is blasphemed because of that.
Now Paul seizes upon and singles out the supreme symbol of Jewish separatism, circumcision, in Verses 25-27.
Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. (Romans 2:25-27 NIV)
The Jews, of course, prided themselves (and still do today) on the rite of circumcision, the symbol that they were God's people. You only need to substitute baptism, confirmation, or church membership to apply that to the twentieth century, to Protestant or Catholic American. So many Americans rest upon the fact that they have been baptized, confirmed, or accepted as members of a church, as the sign that they belong to God. Paul says that is useless and worthless, if something has not happened in the heart. Paul's final conclusion about the religious man is in Verses 28-29.
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29 NIV)
That last phrase is a play on words. The word "praise" is taken from the word "Judah," from which we get the word "Jew." Paul says the Jew is not praised by men but by God; but he also makes clear what constitutes a true Jew in God's sight.
Now this is one of the most hotly debated questions in the state of Israel today. The Israelis are constantly trying to decide what is the basis of Jewry. What makes a Jew? Is it religion? Is it observing the Old Testament Law, keeping a kosher kitchen? Many Jews are atheists, having no use for the Old Testament, and yet they claim to be Jews because their ancestry is Jewish; their mothers and fathers, as far back as they know, were Jews. Is that the basis on which to claim Jewishness? There are black Jews who are petitioning to belong to Israel. But other Jews say you have to be white to be a Jew. What makes a Jew?
God says that nothing outward makes you a Jew. One becomes a Jew when his heart is changed. As with Abraham and Jacob, you become a Jew when you believe in Yeshua Hamashiach, Jesus the Messiah. The Jews for Jesus group is telling people this today. What makes you a Jew is not the culture from which you came, the ritual through which you have gone, the circumstances of your life, or your background, ancestry, or history, but the fact that you have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what makes you a Jew. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:29:
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29 NIV)
Paul's conclusion of this section of Chapter 2 of Romans is that man without Christ is hopelessly lost. Though he defies God, deludes himself, defiles his conscience, or denies what he himself teaches, he is absolutely, hopelessly lost until he comes to know the Lord Jesus and lives on the basis of that relationship. That is what makes a Christian.
It is not a question of whether you are baptized, galvanized, sanforized, or pasteurized. The question is: "Do you have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and have you received the gift of righteousness which God gives to those who do not deserve it, cannot earn it, but receive it by his love and grace?" We will see what additional problems this raises with the Jews in the next section of the book of Romans. (Source).
"But now..." You can almost hear the sigh of relief in those two words. After God's appraisal of man's efforts to achieve some standing before him, given to us in the verses previous to this, now come God's words of relief, God's total answer to man's total failure.
Paul has concluded his description of what humanity is like as God sees it, with his ability to see everything about us. Nothing is hidden from his eyes, not our thoughts, our hearts, our intents, or our motives. We saw last week that there is clearly no one who can make it in God's sight. These words from Verses 10-12 tell us that:
There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who searches for God.
All have turned away
and together become worthless.
There is no one who does good,
not even one. (Romans 3:10-12 NIV)
That is God's appraisal. "But now," Paul says...
But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. (Romans 3:21 NIV)
This is God's great "nevertheless" in the face of man's failure. In the subsequent paragraphs, the Apostle Paul develops this in his usual reasoned and logical style. For a little guide to this section, here is the way it breaks down:
In Verse 21 you have God's answer to man's failure. In Verses 22-24 he tells us how that gift of righteousness is obtained. Verses 25-26 tell us how and why it works; and In Verses 27-31, the results that follow are given. Let us look together now at this great statement beginning with Verse 21, one of the great declarations of the gospel:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. (Romans 3:21 NIV)
This is what Paul elsewhere calls "the glorious gospel of the blessed God" (1 Timothy 1:11), the good news that God has to announce to us, which consists of a gift that God gives us -- the righteousness of God himself. We have already seen that this word righteousness is highly misunderstood in our day. Often it is associated with behavior. If people are behaving in a right way, we say that they are behaving righteously. But in the book of Romans righteousness does not directly touch on behavior. It is not what you do; it is what you are! That is even more important, because your behavior stems from what you are. The gift Paul is talking about, the gift from God, is that of a righteous standing.
But the real meaning underlying this word, as understood by us today, is found in the word worth. People everywhere are looking for a sense of worth. In fact, psychologists tell us that this sense of worth is the most essential element in human activity, and that without it you cannot function as a human being. Therefore, whether we know it or not, or describe it in these terms, we are all looking for a sense of worth. But the gospel announces that it is given to us. What other people work all their lives to achieve is handed to us right at the beginning, when we believe in Jesus Christ. According to the gospel, we cannot earn it, but it is given to us. Now that is the good news, and what a wonderful statement that is.
The other day, in reading an article on some of the movements of our day, I came across these words by Dr. Lewis Smedes, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. This is what he said.
Anyone who can see the needs of people today must recognize that the malaise of our time is an epidemic of self-doubt and self-depreciation. Those whose job it is to heal people's spiritual problems know that the overwhelming majority of people who seek help, are people who are sick from abhorring themselves. A prevailing sense of being without worth is the pervasive sickness of our age.
That comes from a man who spends a great deal of time trying to help people with emotional problems and personality difficulties in their lives. He says the basic need is a sense of worth. There are millions of people today who are openly acknowledging that they need help, and who come looking for help. There are others who never ask, but behind their smiling facades and confident airs, there are insecure hearts and a consciousness of deep self-doubt. This is the basic problem of mankind.
This gospel, therefore, is dealing with something tremendously significant. It does not have to do only with what happens when you die. I think this is one of the reasons why hundreds of churches today are half-empty; so many people do not know that self-worth is what the gospel is all about. Young people today are looking for a ground of worth. They want to be loved.
We just read this prayer request of a boy who desperately needs to know that his dad loves him, and I sensed a murmur of concern throughout the congregation as we identified with that feeling of needing to be loved. Well, far, far deeper than the need to feel that some human being loves us is our need to know that God loves us, and that we are acceptable in his sight, that we have standing and value and worth to him. Something about us, that bit of eternity planted in our hearts by God himself, bears witness to us that this is the ultimate issue. Somehow life can never be satisfying if that question is not settled. Therefore this good news comes with tremendous relevance today.
What God is offering is a gift of righteousness -- his own perfect righteousness, that cannot be improved upon, a perfect value. By faith in Jesus Christ, he gives us a sense of worth and acceptance, and there could be no better news to mankind.
Paul adds two things to this, so as to make it clear to us: First, this righteousness is apart from the Law. That is to say, it is not something that you earn; it is a gift. You cannot earn it by doing your best to be pleasing to God, and anybody who approaches God on those terms has already failed. There is no way anyone can measure up to God's standards. The sweetest, dearest little old lady that you know of cannot make it, because God knows her heart. Nevertheless, God has found a way to give us that gift, and therefore it is apart from the Law; it is not something we can earn.
Second, Paul says, it is witnessed by the Law and the Prophets. This is not something entirely new in history, something that only Jesus Christ brought to light. He did make it known, so that we understand it far more clearly because of his coming, but it is found in the Old Testament as well as in the New. The saints who lived before the cross knew and experienced the wonder of this gift just as much as we do today, although they came to it by a different process.
The Law bore testimony to this righteous gift of God providing a series of sacrifices. The Jews knew, somehow, that they did not measure up to God's standards, so the Law itself provided a system of offerings and sacrifices that could be brought and offered on the altar. This system pictured the death of Jesus; the whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament is a witness to mankind that One is coming who will be "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world," (John 1:29b). They bear witness to this righteous gift.
The Prophets also -- these well-known names of the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others -- not only talked about this gift, but experienced it themselves. In one of the Psalms that we will read in the next chapter, David is quoted as saying, "Blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven, to whom the Lord will not impute iniquity, whose sins are covered," (Psalms 32:1). David understood that God had found a way to give the gift of worth to a man, even before the cross occurred in history. This is not new, Paul says; nevertheless, it is clearly explained and made fully available to us in the cross of Jesus.
In the next division Paul tells us how to obtain this gift. Perhaps you are looking for this sense of worth, this sense of value, of being loved and wanted by God. How do you get it? Here is Paul's answer:
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24 NIV)
There is one way -- expressed here in four different aspects, but only one way -- through faith in Jesus Christ: Notice first how Paul's answer centers immediately on the person of the Savior, not only on his work or his teaching, but on his person. It is by faith in Christ himself that you come into this standing. He is the Savior; it is not what he taught, not even what he gives; but it is he who saves us. Therefore the gift involves a relationship to a living person.
That is why in John's gospel he does not say, "Believe in what Jesus did" but rather, "As many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God," (John 1:12). That means there must come a time when you open your life to Christ, when you ask him to be what he offers to be -- your Lord. Later in this epistle Paul will say, "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved [another term of this gift of righteousness]. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved," (Romans 10:9-10 NIV). Jesus himself said, in the book of Revelation, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door [the door of your will, of your heart] I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me," (Revelation 3:20). There is no other way. No way can be found in all the religions of earth that can bring men into a sense of value and standing in God's sight, and of worth and love before him, except this way by faith in Jesus Christ. Second, Paul stresses the fact here that it is all who believe who are saved; it is not automatically and universally applied. People are teaching today that the death of Christ was so effective that whether people hear about it or not, they are already saved; they do not even need to know about it, for they are saved by the death of Jesus. But Paul is careful to make clear that this is not true. You are saved when you personally believe. Faith, therefore, is the hand that takes this gift that God offers. What good is a gift if you do not take it? Gifts can be offered, but they cannot be used until they are taken. When that occurs, then the gift becomes effective in the life of the one who takes it.
The third element that describes how we obtain this gift is in the phrase, "justified freely by his grace." Do you see what that says? It is God who does this. If you try to say, therefore, that there is anything man must do to be justified, you will destroy the gift, because it is all of God. We are justified, declared righteous, declared of worth in God's sight, by his grace. If you add baptism to that, or church membership, or anything else, then you destroy the grace of God. It is freely and completely and wholly God who saves us. We do not contribute a thing.
Have you ever sung the hymn, "Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling"? That is one beautiful way of expressing this truth. The last word in this section is this: It is "through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." That is, Christ is the one who accomplished something that does the work of redemption. Here we are brought face-to-face with the cross, with the death of Jesus, and the apostle is underlining this fact. Many churches are given over to following the teachings of Jesus, but hardly ever refer to his cross. If you find a so-called Christianity that does not emphasize the cross, you are listening to "another gospel" which is not the true gospel. The real gospel is based only upon the redemption which Jesus accomplished in his cross.
Paul now gives a brief explanation of how and why this redemption works. "How" is found in the opening words of Verse 25, and "why" in the verses that follow:
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished -- he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26 NIV)
I want you to give very careful attention to these words. This is the heart of the gospel, and the ground of assurance. Many people, even though they become Christians, struggle with assurance. They do not rest upon the fact that these words are true, so they are filled, often, with a struggle of doubts and uncertainty. They have a sneaking suspicion, deep inside, that perhaps, despite all these wonderful words, God is still not quite satisfied; if something should happen to them, they might be lost. I want you to pay very careful attention to Paul's argument here, because this is the answer to that struggle.
First, he says that God has accomplished a propitiatory sacrifice: God presented Jesus as a "sacrifice of atonement" (that is the phrase here) through faith in his blood. His words, "sacrifice of atonement" are really translating a single word in Greek (hilasterion, for you Greek students), which is translated "expiation" in some versions, and "propitiation" in others. I know that those words are theological terms, and may not make much sense to you. But I want you to understand their meaning, because this is the heart of the gospel:
Expiation is that which satisfies justice;
Propitiation is that which awakens love.
Both of these terms are involved in the death of Jesus, but expiation does not go quite as far as propitiation. Propitiation carries us clear through to the awakening of God's love toward us. That is why I think "propitiatory sacrifice" is a better translation than the word "expiation."
Let me illustrate the difference: In these days, we often read of industrial accidents. Let us say that someone has been injured in the course of his work, and has been partially paralyzed. The company is at fault, having neglected to provide safety equipment, thus creating the conditions that put this man in danger. So the company is held accountable for the man's injury and subsequent paralysis. Therefore the court awards this man a tremendous sum of money, to be paid by the company. When the money is paid, the company has expiated its wrongdoings; it has satisfied the demands of justice. It no longer has any responsibility toward this man; it has paid its costly debt. That is what expiation means. But that does, not say anything about how the man feels toward the company. He may yet be filled with resentment, bitterness, even hatred. He may spend the rest of his life abhorring the name of that company, even though it has given him all the money he could possibly use. The debt has been expiated, but it has not been propitiated.
What Paul is saying here is that human sin has injured God, just as that man was injured by the negligence of the company. Our sin has hurt and injured God, and justice demands that we be punished for that sin in some way. In the death of Jesus that punishment was accomplished, so that God's justice was satisfied. If you read this as expiation, that is all the cross means. In a way, it means that it paid God off, so that he no longer holds us to blame. But that is not all that Paul is saying here. The word means also that God's love has been awakened toward us, and he reaches out to love us, and grants us the feeling of worth and acceptance and value in his sight. That is what propitiation means, that is what the death of Jesus does. It did satisfy God's justice, but it went further; it awakened his love, and now he is ready to pour out love upon us.
Paul shows us why this had to happen, beginning in the middle of Verse 25,
He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished -- (Romans 3:25b NIV)
What is he talking about? He is referring to all the centuries when God apparently had done nothing about the wrongdoings of men. We find people questioning this yet today. They say, "Where is the God of justice? How is it that a just God lets these tyrants rise up and murder millions of people? How can he let people live in poverty and squalor and filth? He never seems to do anything about oppressors! Where is the justice of God?" Those questions have been raised for centuries; in fact, we even find them in the Psalms.
We have to face the fact that the last time in history that mankind got a clear idea of God's holy justice was the time of the Flood. In response to the wickedness of men toward other men, God wiped out the whole human race, except for eight people. The Flood was a testimony to God's sense of justice, but there has never been a manifestation of it to that degree since that time. So the question arises in human hearts, "Doesn't God really care? It doesn't matter whether you do wrong or not, God will let you get away with it. God won't do anything to you." David writes, "Why do the wicked flourish, and the righteous suffer? Where is the God of justice?" Now, God has been patiently restraining his hand, in order that the human race may continue to exist, but people do not see that. Therefore the justice of God seems to be compromised by his self-restraint.
But the cross settles that. The cross says that God remains just. All the stored-up punishment amply deserved by the human race, is now poured out without restraint upon the head of Jesus on the cross. God did not spare his Son one iota of the wrath that man deserves. Just because Jesus was his beloved Son, he did not lessen the punishment a single degree. All of it was poured out on him. That explains the cry of abandonment that comes from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 KJV). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced the possibility of being shut away from all love, all beauty, all truth, all warmth, all acceptance, the possibility of being forever denied all that makes life beautiful. There he faced the eternity of emptiness in the judgment of God, and this is what he experienced on the cross; all of it was poured out on him.
Paul's argument is that he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time -- so as to be just, and yet be free to extend love to us who deserve only his justice. That is the glory of the good news of the gospel. God' s love has been freed to act toward us, and his justice satisfied, so that it is no longer compromised by the fact that he forgives sinners. In the closing paragraph, Paul gives us the results of this forgiveness.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles, too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through the same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:27-31 NIV)
Paul raises and answers three simple questions to show us the natural results of this tremendous acceptance that God gives us in Jesus Christ:
First, who can boast? No one, absolutely no one. How can you boast when everyone receives the gift of grace without any merit on his part? This means that any ground for self-righteousness is done away with, and this is why the ugliest sin among Christians is self-righteousness. When we begin to look down on people who are involved in homosexuality, or outright wickedness, or greed, or gambling, or whatever -- when we begin to think that we are better than they are -- then we have denied what God has done for us. All boasting is excluded. There are no grounds for anybody to say, "Well, at least I didn't do this, or this, or this." The only ground of acceptance is the gift of grace. Then, no one is excluded from grace, Jew or Gentile. No special privilege or favor counts in God's sight. He has no most-favored-nation; they are all alike before him. Paul argues, "Is God the God of Jews only? Then there must be two Gods -- one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles. But that cannot be; there is only one God; God is one." Therefore he is equally the God of the Gentiles and the God of the Jews, because both must come on exactly the same ground. This is the wonderful thing about the gospel. All mankind is leveled; no one can stand on any other basis than the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Paul's third question is, "Does this cancel out the Law or set it aside? Do we no longer need the Law?" His answer is, "No, it fulfills the Law." The righteousness which the Law demands is the very righteousness that is given to us in Christ. So if we have it as a gift, we no longer need to fear the Law, because the demands of the Law are met. But it is not something we can take any credit for; indeed, whenever we act in unrighteousness after this, the Law comes in again to do its work of showing us what is wrong. That is all the Law is good for. It shows us what is wrong, and immediately, all the hurt and injury accomplished by our sin is relieved again by the grace of God, the forgiveness of God.
Receiving God's forgiveness is not something we do only once; it is something we do again and again. It is the basis on which we live, constantly taking fresh forgiveness from the hand of God. John's letter puts it this way:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 KJV)
That is God's gift, and we need all the time to take it afresh from the hand of God. When we find ourselves slipping into self-righteousness, when we find ourselves looking down our noses, when we find ourselves filled with pride and acting in arrogance, being critical and calloused and caustic and sarcastic toward one another, or feeling bitter and resentful -- and all these things are yet possible to us -- our relationship to a holy God is not affected, if we acknowledge that we sinned. We can come back, and God's love is still there. He still accepts us and highly values us. We are his dearly loved children, and he will never change.
That is what God's gift of righteousness means to us. It is wonderful good news indeed, that we never need fear. The God of ultimate holiness, the God who lives in holy light, whom we cannot begin to approach, has accepted us in the Beloved, and we stand on the same ground of worth that he himself has. We can remind ourselves, as I seek to do every day, of three things:
I am made in God's image -- therefore I am able to act beyond the capacity of any animal on earth. I am not an animal; I am a man made in God's image. Second, I am possessed of God's Spirit -- that means I am forgiven, I am freed, and I am filled. Third, I am part of God's plan -- I am part of the working out of his purposes in the world today, and God will make everything I do fit into his plan.
Therefore I can go on with purpose, and with confidence, and with love; without guilt, nor any sense of inadequacy or fear. I have perfect freedom to concern myself with the problems around me, and not be all wrapped up with the ones inside. Those are all taken care of, and that is truly wonderful. (Source).
Our heavenly Father, these words are so remarkable, we can hardly believe them. In fact, our hearts still struggle with them at times. We just cannot believe that this can be accomplished. But this is the clear declaration of your Word. And we know that millions before us have believed these words and found them to be true, and have gone shouting off to face death itself with a confidence that they had nothing to fear before your throne. We thank you for that. We pray that we may live on this basis, and thus find the ground of forgiving each other, and being tenderhearted and loving toward one another, knowing that we already have that gift ourselves, in Jesus Christ our Lord. If anyone here has never yet come to that, Lord, we pray that even now he or she might open his heart to you, and say, "You are my Lord, and I invite you to reign in my heart, and deliver me from my guilt." We thank you that this will be accomplished as your Word has declared, in the name of Jesus our Lord, Amen.
The Letter to the Romans (audio plus notes)
Famine in the Land | Is God Angry? | If the Rapture Happened Today | The Left Behind | On Everlasting Destruction
The Christian’s Three Enemies | Christ in You: The Hope of Glory
I just finished reading “Imagine Heaven” by John Burke, all the way through. I find no fault in any of it. He has been both thorough and accurate in covering all the bases in the Bible. The Near Death Experiences he draws upon are very moving, but it was his discussions of the content that carried the most weight with me. I usually read about “religious experiences” with a critical and skeptical spirit which reflects my training in science. But this book is a breath of fresh air for a dying church at the end of the age! I also agree with John Burke because of my own NDE two years ago this month. Folks who have returned to this life after a Near-Death experience aren't dead dead so they don't know everything about God yet.
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June 14, 2019
Edited September 13, 2019 by AZL