August 6, 2022 - Romans Chapters 1-3

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Today we begin a 4-week series on the Apostle Paul’s letter to believers at Rome. Paul’s letter to the Romans has been called his systematic theology. Like a wise salesman, Paul first has to demonstrate why his audience needs what he has to offer, and then he shows them why his solution delivers what they need, why their lives will be better off with his solution, and finally, what it all means for the remainder of their mission in life.

 

Paul writes this letter to a church he’s never visited before. Paul writes this letter to give them a preview of the Gospel he preaches. The Roman church appears to have been made up of several house churches spread throughout the city. Not everyone in the Roman church knows each other, and most of them do not know Paul, but Paul does a shout-out at the end of his letter to more than 28 Roman believers that he already knows to establish rapport with them.

 

Paul writes this letter from Corinth, as we learn in chapter 16. writes it in the spring of 57 AD, when he is about to go to Jerusalem, after which he finally plans to visit Rome. ( gets to Rome 4 years later, in chains.) dictates this letter to a former slave named Tertius, whose name means “Number Three.” Imagine: God uses a slave with a number for a name to put a best-selling all-time theological classic into writing!

 

In chapter 1, Paul starts out by declaring that he’s got an obligation to proclaim Good News both to Greeks and barbarians. Paul says in verse 16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” (A lot of later copies add “of Christ,” but few copies before 400 AD contain that tiny addition.) Paul says the Gospel is “the power of God unto/for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The Jews are the first in line to benefit from this Good News, but the door is wide open for everyone who believes to be saved by this Good News.

 

How do people receive this salvation Paul is talking about? In verse 17 Paul calls it “the righteousness of God” (or a better way to translate might be “the righteousness from God”). Paul says this righteousness comes to us by faith, from start to finish (as the NLT puts it). Literally, Paul says “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.”

 

So what’s the catch, we might ask? What’s our problem? Why do we need this Good News? To know why, we first need to hear the bad news. Paul says in verse 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of humans.” Our problem is sin, and sin separates us from God. All of us, without exception, are sinners who need a Savior. Over the next 3 chapters, Paul’s going to prove that there are no exceptions.

 

What if we don’t know about God? Paul denies that such people exist. Paul declares that humans “hold (literally “hold down”) the truth in unrighteousness.” The verb “hold down” Paul uses is like when we try to hold a balloon full of air under water; it keeps popping back to the surface. We might want to use the verb “suppress” to translate this verb. Paul argues that the atheist knows far more about God than he/she will admit. Unbelievers suppress what they really know about God. We all know too much to plead ignorance.

 

How so? In verse 19 Paul says, “Because what may be known about God is manifest to them (we can translate that “clear” or “plain”), for God has shown it to them.” In the next verse, Paul says that God’s invisible nature (his eternal power and Deity) are “clearly seen” in what God has made, in the creation. Therefore, Paul says, “they are without excuse.” Paul says that unbelievers “knew God,” but “they did not honor him as God or give him thanks.”

 

Instead, Paul says “they became vain (or “futile”) in their thinking, and their senseless heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image of corruptible man and birds and four-footed beasts and reptiles.” (Notice: they replaced an invisible God with idols made to look like mortal humans.) Paul says in verse 25 they “changed the truth about God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” How crazy of us to worship substitutes, to worship nature, to worship the creation instead of the One who created it! Talk about getting it all backwards!

 

Because humans have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, Paul says, “God handed them over to dishonorable passions.” When our car starts making a loud grinding sound, we don’t think, “Hey, that’s cool!” or “That’s natural.” We think, “What’s wrong?” We take it as a warning sign. Likewise, Paul points to sexual brokenness as a sign that there is something very, very wrong with the human race. The 2 examples Paul gives are women pursuing women sexually, and men pursuing men. Paul doesn’t say these acts are worse than any other sins; he says simply that they are “contrary to nature” (we weren’t designed to function this way).

 

What Paul’s talking about was even more common among his Greek and Roman neighbors than it is today. Nero married a man while he was emperor. Plato said it’s the noblest kind of love. People back then said, “We love each other. We were made this way,” just like people say today. Paul makes it clear that this desire is not a good gift from God.

 

But we must not draw the conclusion that sexual brokenness is worse than any other sin. It’s wrong to treat someone like dirt all because of 1 weakness in their life, whether it be sexual brokenness, drugs, or whatever. Paul’s point is that sexual brokenness is a sign of a broken creation, a symptom of what is wrong deep within all of us.

 

Paul goes on to identify a whole long list of symptoms which show that the human heart is desperately sick, a sickness caused by our rejection of God. Paul’s not saying that every one of us is exactly like every detail on his list. Paul’s talking about the human race as a whole. Paul paints a picture of a human race that is grasping, murderous, bickering, struggling for power, treacherous, hurtful, slanderous, insolent, and arrogant.

 

A couple of items stand out on this list. Paul mentions “inventors of evil” – as if there weren’t already enough ways to do evil, some of us are creative enough to invent more, like those who create computer viruses (I call it electronic rock-throwing). Look at an STD prevention pamphlet, and you may find all sorts of creative new ways to do evil.

 

Paul also speaks of “heartlessness.” The word means “lack of family affection.” Paul’s talking about the Roman practice of infanticide. To kill one’s own children because they are unwanted, by leaving them on the sidewalk or drowning them or poisoning them in the womb, would seem to be lack of family affection. Finally, Paul speaks of mercilessness (literally “ruthlessness”), cruelty with no restraint, crimes so hideous that yesterday’s criminals would have recoiled in horror.

 

Finally, Paul says what’s even worse is not only that people do such sins, but they also approve those who practice them. Tolstoy the Russian novelist reportedly has a scene where a character exclaims in amazement, “Others were at least ashamed of being criminals. But what is to be done with this man who is proud of it?” Paul warns that we are a sick society when we “not only do such acts, but approve those who practice them.”

 

Paul has presented a sizzling inventory of what is wrong with the pagan world, and it’s only a partial list. Paul doesn’t bother to mention stealing or adultery or alcohol abuse. By now, you can bet Paul’s Jewish audience is cheering him on for telling it like it is about how bad those pagan sinners are. We can just hear them shouting, “Yeah! Sock it to those heathens, Paul! Ain’t it awful?” But in chapter 2, Paul turns and points the finger at his fellow Jews. What they are so quick to condemn in others, Paul says, is really the ugly side of themselves reflected in their pagan neighbors.

 

Paul echoes Jesus’ words: “Therefore, you have no excuse, O human, when you judge another person. For in passing judgment on them, you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” I used to wonder, “How can Paul say this? How can Paul claim to know that an accuser is just like the person they accuse?”

 

What Jesus and Paul are saying is truer than we realize. Each of us has what is called a “shadow,” a dark side of ourselves that we despise. When we condemn or criticize another person, we are often reacting to evils that are much like our own. We can see our own blind spots in that other person, and we don’t like what we see.

 

In verse 17 Paul says to the Jew, “You boast about your relationship with God… You are sure you are a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, a corrector of the foolish… You who teach others (he asks), will you not teach yourself? You who boast in having God’s law, do you dishonor God by breaking God’s law?”

 

Paul complains that the Jews he knows cheat on their spouses, they steal, they even rob temples. (Pagan temples had valuable metal and marble works of art in them, and only a monotheistic Jew would be so bold as to steal them. But what business does a Jew have marketing idols?) Paul charges that because of the sins of the Jews, the holy name of God gets dragged through the mud among the non-Jewish nations.

 

Paul argues that no one, Jew or Gentile, can claim they don’t know what God requires. A lot of Paul’s fellow Jews were proud that they had an inside track with God. They had God’s written instructions on what God wants, and everyone else was in the dark. Paul’s response to them is, don’t be too sure. Paul says that even the pagan Greeks and Romans who have never heard one word of the Law of Moses have a law “written on their hearts.” Is it as clear as God’s written word? No. But when an unbeliever does by instinct what God says, they prove by their actions that they know more of God’s law than meets the eye.

 

As philosopher J. Budziszewski writes in his book What We Can’t Not Know, God’s law is written on the heart even before a child can put it into words. A child sees the color red before they know the word for it. All we do is give them the word for it. Likewise, a child knows that hurting people is wrong before they understand what “hurting people” means. As soon as they grasp the concept, they know it’s wrong. We don’t teach them right and wrong. We just reinforce what they already know. As Budziszewski says, when little Billy steals Suzy’s cupcake, Suzy knows enough to cry “Not fair!”, and Billy knows enough to lie about it.

 

As he moves into chapter 3, Paul winds up his case by concluding that the entire human race, Jews and non-Jews alike, all of us, desperately need a Savior. In verses 10-12, Paul writes, “There is no one who is righteous, no, not one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. They have all turned away; they have together become unprofitable. There is no one who does good, not even one.”

 

No one can go before God and claim to be good enough or worthy enough for God. None of us can be put right with God by trying to obey God’s law. All God’s law can do is show us how badly we have blown it, and convince us of our need for Christ. As a good salesman, Paul knows that you have to convince a customer of their need before they’ll buy what you have to sell. We need to hear how badly we need Christ before we can recognize how wonderful the Good News really is. We need to first come to grips with how desperate our human condition is, before we are ready to hear God’s solution to our human problem.

 

God’s solution, in a nutshell, is that only Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross can save us from our sins. All we can do is accept what Christ has done for us as an act of faith. Neither Judaism, nor Islam, nor Buddhism, nor any other religion can offer an effective way by which our hearts can be cleansed from guilt. Out of all the competing claims of faith on the market, only 1 offers a compelling solution to deliver us from the guilt and power of sin.

 

You see, except for the Good News of Jesus Christ, all the other religions in the world base their approach to God on performance, on a program of do’s and don’ts. But Paul writes in Romans 3:19 that the purpose of God’s law is to silence all excuses: “so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”

 

Paul writes in verse 20, “For no one is put right with God by doing what the Law requires. What the Law does is to make humankind know that we have sinned.” God’s law is not the medicine that can cure the fever. It’s the thermometer that tells us we are sick.

 

God’s way of putting people right with God has nothing to do with do’s and don’ts. Paul teaches that we are justified (meaning “put right with God”) through faith in Jesus Christ, through believing that what Christ did on the cross was for us. Paul says in verse 25 that God put forth Christ as a propitiation (an atoning sacrifice) “through faith in his blood.” All we can do is place our faith in the blood that Christ shed on the cross to take away our sin. Why does God save us this way? It’s because none of us could have earned our way to God by our own efforts – not if we take the reality of human sin seriously.

 

"Because all have sinned,” Paul argues – because all of us have blown it too badly to save ourselves, we are “justified (put right with God) freely by his grace (as a free undeserved gift), through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (the price Jesus paid for us). Friends, we have been redeemed. We have been bought out of slavery. We have been ransomed with the blood of the only perfect human who ever lived, a person who was God in human flesh.

 

Jesus died in our place. He took upon himself the penalty of sin that we deserved, so that we would never have to suffer that pain of hell, if only we will accept what Christ has done for us in faith. That’s the only way humans can be put right with God. It’s not by how good we are. It’s not by how much we’ve done to save ourselves. It’s by what Christ has done for us. Being saved from sin is letting Christ do for us what we never could have done for ourselves.

 

One might ask, Why didn’t God just order a blanket pardon for our sins? Why didn’t God just say, “Poof! You’re forgiven,” and leave it at that? Paul says the answer is, “to show that God is righteous.” In other words, it’s to show that God does not sweep sin under the rug. God is not like the weak boss who is forced to lower the standard or bend the rules. God means it when we are told that we deserve to die for our sin. The price has to be paid by someone. God’s self-sacrifice in Jesus Christ demonstrates that God is willing to play by consistent self-imposed rules when setting us free from sin.

 

What becomes of our boasting, then (if that’s how God saves people)? Verse 27 says, “It is excluded.” Self-righteousness goes right out the window. The fact that self-righteousness is so pervasive in the church proves that we’ve either forgotten or misunderstood the Good News by which we are saved. With Christ, there’s no room for boasting.

 

None of us can boast that “I did more than she did” or “I deserve to be saved more than he does.” How can we? On what basis can we boast? Does God save us by our good works? No, but by our faith in what Christ has done for us on the cross. Paul says in verse 28, “We conclude that a person is put right with God through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands.” Obeying God’s laws is not a way to be saved – it is a natural response of gratitude.

 

Finally, Paul asks in verse 31, “Do we then make void (nullify) the Law through faith?” Can we just throw out God’s law? Absolutely not, Paul says; “yea, we establish the Law.” We confirm that God’s law is valid. God’s law is the very reason why we need a Savior from sin.

 

On our next broadcast, we’ll turn to chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul appeals to Abraham and David as Biblical proof of how God saves us through faith in Christ, not by how well we obey God’s law. Join us as we continue in our series on Paul’s epistle to the Romans next time on Biblical Words and World!

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