Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Romans 1 and the State of the World

passioncartoonI’m having increasing difficulty fitting these lessons into the mold of “backgrounds of the Restoration Movement,” but I have to look at an issue that came up in class on Sunday — because it fills in an important blank in our understanding of how God works in the world.

The question came up in class: why is the world such an awful mess and what are we going to do about it? Well, before deciding what to do, we have to understand the problem. As a friend of mine likes to say, prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.

So we go to Romans 1 —

(Rom 1:18-32)  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

We tend to think of God’s wrath as somethign that happens at the end of time — and it will. It certainly will. But Paul says God’s wrath is already being revealed against all godlessness and wickedness.

He also says it’s quite fair because God’s may be known.

20 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.

Paul argues that God may be known from what he has made — just as you know much about me from my writing and would learn a great deal from a painter by viewing his paintings. But that’s a topic for another day …

21 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. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Those who should know God — and even many who actually knew God — rejected him, preferring idols.

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.

“Gave them over” is quite a controversial term, but the Greek is plain enough. Paradinomi is used elsewhere in Romans as follows:

(Rom 4:25)  He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

(Rom 8:32)  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

The thought is that God allowed the world to become this way — but with that being his purpose. God didn’t crucify Jesus, but he delivered Jesus to the authorities full well knowing — and intending — that Jesus be crucified. In other words, God allows the idolaters to behave as they do because that’s the result God intends — but it’s not contrary to their will, any more than Jesus’ crucifixion was contrary to his will.

This is what life is like without God — when God abandons you.

5 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 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.

Paul sees homosexual behavior as evidence of God’s giving up on these people. They became so distant from God that they left the bounds of nature.

Remember that Paul has just argued that nature reveals “what may be known about God.” Leaving God therefore means leaving nature, that is, leaving God means exceeding the boundaries he made for our own good.

28 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. 29 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, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 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.

In the next few verses, Paul explains how our moral nature should tell us that immorality is wrong. If you don’t want to be murdered, what makes you think it’s okay to murder others? If you want your children to obey you, why would you think it’s okay to disobey your parents?

The degree of the perversion is shown by a society that approves of these things. In fact, the NIV softens the message. “Approve” really means “takes pleasure.” Society not only permitted these things, it celebrated these things!

And, of course, this is a very accurate description of the Roman world. The government supported and encouraged idolatrous worship, which included prostitution, hetero- and homo-sexual, bestiality, and orgies. The world was a mess.

What does this tell us about today’s world? I can think of a few things —

* It seems to be God’s way to allow the lost to look and act really lost — so that their behavior shows a clear distinction between the saved and the lost. So long as the lost are good, nice people, they may well see no need for salvation — and the church may see no need to save them.

* If we pass laws that make the world look like the church, we are working at cross-purposes with God. The goal isn’t to hide their lost, degraded state, but to bring them to Jesus.

* Although, like Paul, we should certainly call sin “sin,” we must never forget that we are called to love our neighbors, even neighbors who are our enemies — or are sinners. God loves sinners; so must we. Therefore, when we speak of homosexuals or God-haters, we speak from a heart filled with love — and love isn’t really love if we aren’t willing to help those we love.

We may well struggle with knowing how to respond to homosexuals, but we should know where to start — with the heart of an humble servant. And that will go a long way.

Paul doesn’t get practical with his teaching until chapter 12, but there he gets very practical indeed —

(Rom 12:16-21)  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And if the church were to actually live this passage, the world’s impression of the church would be radically changed. You see, God delivers the world to the mess he describes in chapter 1 to show his wrath. But he delivered Jesus to the cross to show the cure — and the cure is a crucified church. It’s Philippians 2 — self-emptying, service, humility — all empowered by the Spirit.

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13 Responses

  1. Jay,

    This is an important and interesting topic. Your following statement is particularly interesting:

    * If we pass laws that make the world look like the church, we are working at cross-purposes with God. The goal isn’t to hide their lost, degraded state, but to bring them to Jesus.”

    Within the context here, this can go in many, many directions. I look forward to see where you take it.

  2. In the post we find the following: “Paul sees homosexual behavior as evidence of God’s giving up on these people. They became so distant from God that they left the bounds of nature.”

    Perhaps this is actually God’s judgment on people rather than merely giving up on them. But, as you pointed out, we are to love them and preach the good news to them just as are so glad we were loved and had the good news preached to us.

  3. Jay-But he delivered Jesus to the cross to show the cure — and the cure is a crucified church. It’s Philippians 2 — self-emptying, service, humility — all empowered by the Spirit.

    The cure is Jesus, the work He does in His people gives hope to others. When Jesus radically changes a person who no one thought would ever change their ways through these people He shows there is hope to those who have lost hope of anything better.

  4. Jay,
    It is interesting that you posted this today. In Edward Fudge’s GracEmail today, he gave a link to a scholarly article on the theology of the Flood as sin, judgment, and alleviation of the judgment. This article spoke of how the antediluvian world broke the bounds of nature. The punishment God inflicted was essentially the reversal of creation. The link is http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/ipaper/ft_flood_clines.html#top

    Note: This article is in a format that cannot be copied or reproduced. (At least, I was unable to copy or print it.)

  5. I found that statement interesting, too. I’ve been thinking about the effect of law on the conscience of people since I’ve been reading about 19th century British and American evangelical abolitionists like William Wilberforce. They saw an injustice and worked to eliminate it. In doing so, they challenged the consciences of the people around them. They may not have contributed directly to more people becoming followers of Christ by advocating legal reforms, but they were loving their neighbors as they engaged in social activism; and that activism pierced the consciences of some of the people who realized that they were supporting sin and were needing to repent. Indirectly, they were cooperating with the purposes of God by bringing people to the point of knowing that they needed to repent.

    I believe that Christians today can do the same thing on issues like abortion. We can point out the injustice of unnecessarily taking the lives of pre-born children. We can urge the government to do its job in trying to protect the lives of innocent people. We can help women with unexpected pregnancies (see http://www.contactchurch.net/contact_life for an example of a church which is doing it well). We can adopt the children who could have been aborted. We can work in a number of ways to express God’s love for pre-born children who have no legal protection. In doing so, we may not contribute directly to people becoming followers of Christ, but in the way we care for the vulnerable, we can help people recognize the need to repent (see http://adisciplesthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/06/sage.html for an example of how it happened).

    Thanks for considering another point of view on this issue.

  6. Jay,
    Many years ago when I was in grad school, I did a term paper on how the gospel reveals the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17). My main thesis was that “is revealed” in v. 17 is parallel in construction with “is being revealed” in v. 18. The latter says God’s wrath is being revealed in the way He has given the sinful world up to its own way.

    This afternoon I was looking at Romans 5:9 and context after reading this post. It occurred to me that by His sending His Holy Spirit (5:5) to us, we are saved (delivered) from God’s wrath. That is, He is not giving us up to our godlessness, rather He is living within us to help us.

    In this, He is actively revealing His righteousness in a godless world as the Holy Spirit leads us to become the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:29).

  7. Jerry,

    Tell me if this makes sense: Romans is about God’s self-revelation, especially his righteousness (1:17). In turning the world over to base behavior, God reveals his wrath (1:18). In Jesus, he reveals his righteousness — particularly his faithfulness to his covenant to bless the nations through the seed of Abraham (16:26). In the Spirit, he reveals his work in us to rescue us from wrath and the Curse (Rom 8:18-19).

  8. Terry,

    I entirely agree. Rom 1 is just a piece of the church/state analysis. We are also called to act out of love for those needing us to stand for them. Slavery and abortion are great examples.

    The line isn’t entirely clear to me, but there’s a difference between going to legislature and urging that unjust laws be changed for the sake of people we love vs. going to legislature and asking them to enforce God’s law against others. For example, I don’t think we should ask the legislature to ban gambling because we think God says gambling is a sin. However, if our hearts hurt for the poor who are duped by their government into making foolish bets on a lottery in order to fund college education for the middle class, then we should certainly advocate for the poor.

    It’s not so much about how we advocate but why we advocate. The poor, oppressed, widows, orphans, aliens, the naked, the hungry, and the imprisoned need an advocate — and the church always is at its best when it stands for those who need her protection.

  9. Anon.,

    Yes. I entirely agree. Jesus is the cure, not the Congress or the Alabama legislature. Sometimes we forget. The government is not our Savior.

  10. Jay,
    You made some wonderful points that more people should know and practice. I also think that you asked two very important questions. Though I was once a 5pt. Calvinist, I am now a Classical Arminian much like Jack Cottrel. Classical is the key word as there are several forms.

    This world is an awful mess because this is the setting that God chose to create so that divine love for those who believe could be clearly seen through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. To see the highest love, there had to be sin and death (Rom. 5:8). Of course all this was determined before the foundation of the world (Acts 4:27-28). Belief is life long, not something complete after baptism. God’s wrath is poured out on those that reject him daily as well as on judgment day eternally.

    What must we do about it? You mentioned the primary point that is expanded throughout the Bible; Christians must follow and live for Jesus [not the Jesus we create, but the one revealed in scripture]. Perhaps I can only add that God is in control even over government and Satan. Christians of the patristic period as well as those in persecuted countries today pray for government. We should pray more and trust him not in ourselves. We vote how and when we can [some say don’t get involved], but remember that we are always outnumbered. Whether promoting laws that agree with Christianity or suffering for laws that are anti-Christian, God is glorified and revealed. The fact that people can reject God means they saw him revealed in some means [creation, conscience, Christ, constitution]. However, laws cannot change people, only the gospel can. Those who have not been changed by God [via Spirit and word] are hostile toward him and are unable to do his will (Rom. 8:2, 7-8; Jn. 6:65).

    God’s kingdom is not of this world. Being converted means we leave living like the world and prepare to suffer! Upon hearing this, many fans of Jesus will leave him, but those that truly believe will ask “where else can we go?” and follow. Those that follow will suffer because we still live among all the unconverted as Christ did. We encounter and engage the world with light and selflessness while surrendering all to Jesus. We leave our church walls to save sinners, not live as hypocrites among them. We remember that Jesus sat with sinners, drunks, and prostitutes in order to teach and save them. As you plainly stated, I know very few Christians have been trying to live like Jesus and carry out Paul’s teaching, even from Rom. 12. Maturing Christians will struggle with sin like Paul (Rom. 7:21-25) and suffer for sin like Paul (II Cor. 11:23-33). I have not suffered to the point of death and thank God for it, but I have been wronged many times. I left revenge to God since I’m no better than the one wronging me and it was a blessing.

  11. Jay,
    I’m sorry if I did not post on the topic that you are heading for. Are you interested in discussing why the world is a mess and what we can do about it generally, or where you looking for specific topics about the role of Christians in world governments? I could even ask more specifically, are you interested in the role of Christians in the American Republic? Luke, Peter, and Paul say a great deal about government, though I don’t think Paul had it in mine in Romans 1.

  12. Good points, Jay. I agree completely.

  13. Jay,
    That sounds good to me.

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