Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why it matters how you live. Romans 2:6-10

In these verses, the apostle Paul continues to target those who think they will escape the judgment of God.  In the previous verses (1-5) he targeted the psychological maneuverings people use in order to avoid facing up to the possibility that they themselves will one day face God’s righteous judgment.  In these verses, he delivers a knock-out punch by stating categorically that every single individual will be judged by the same standard.  No one is exempt.  God’s judgement is universal.  And it is based on works – for you, that means your works.  You don’t get a pass.  One day, you will stand before God and give an account of the life that you lived.  You too will be judged according to your works.

Though I don’t think the apostle is just targeting his fellow Jews here, I do think he certainly has them in mind; perhaps even primarily in mind.  For they could easily point the finger at the crumbling and morally corrupt Gentile society all around them while claiming special privilege for themselves.  They thought that since they were members of God’s covenant family through the promise given by God to Abraham, that they would on that basis escape the judgment of God.  Paul is claiming in these and the following verses that this is just not so.  

Today, it is not Jews per se that need to hear this, but a lot of people in the church who think that just because they identify as a Christian they will never stand before God in judgment, that they need not give a thought to the possibility that they will have to give an account of their life to the Lord.  It’s the very same attitude.  Just as the Jews could point to God’s covenant of grace with Abraham, many professing Christians do the same, pointing to the new covenant established in Christ, and to which they see themselves as belonging.  As a result, they don’t see how their works have anything to do with a future judgment.

However, this poses a problem.  Elsewhere in this epistle, the apostle makes it very clear that we are not saved by our works.  In particular, we are not justified by the works of the law (3:21, 28).  And it will not do to confine these works of the law to those ceremonial aspects that passed away with the advent of the Messiah.  These are any works that people do in order to win the favor of God.  We cannot be saved that way, argues the apostle, because we are all sinners.  We have to be saved by grace, otherwise no one would be saved (4:13-16).  Paul puts it starkly in 11:5-6, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  But if it is of grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”  So the question is: how can Paul say on the one hand that we will be judged according to our works and yet on the other claim that we are saved not on the basis of works but by grace?

I am going to argue that there is no contradiction between these two things: namely, that we are judged according to our works and we are saved according to God’s grace.  I want to address that matter first. But if I am right, then it does matter how we live.  Your life matters.  The choices you make matter.  So that will lead to another question: what is the sort of life that will be blessed in the judgment to come?  Who will hear the words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34)?  And who will hear the words, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41)?   Surely there can be no more important consideration that that.  And the apostle in these verses tells us what that life looks like that will receive God’s blessing, and what that life looks like that will receive God’s wrath.

Judgment by works (6)

So the main point of these verses is here in verse 6: “He [God] will render to each one according to his works.”  There are two points here that we need to take to heart.  First, that the judgment to come will be determined in some measure by the lives we have led on this earth.  That is what is meant by “according to his works.”  Second, that the judgment to come is universal.  That is the meaning of the words “to each one.”  

Now again, some people will claim that Christians are exempt.  But this is not so.  “Each one” means “everyone.”  That means you and it means me.  Paul is in fact explicit elsewhere, including in this epistle, that believers as well as non-believers will have to give an account to God for their lives.  For example, consider Rom. 14:10-12, when addressing the Roman believers, the apostle argues that we should not judge other believers because they and we will ourselves stand before God.  It’s no use for you to stand in judgment over another brother because they will give an account to God.  So will you: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?  Or you, why do you despise your brother?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.  For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’  So then every one of us will give an account of himself to God.”  Note in particular how the apostle includes himself in that description.  

Or consider what the apostle says in 2 Cor. 5:9-10.  “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”  Here the apostle connects the future judgment with the life we live here on the earth.

Now some may argue that these verses are just about temporal judgments.  But that is extremely unlikely.  Notice that in the verses mentioned above, the judgment is always described as something future, not something that is ongoing.  Furthermore, talking about temporal judgments just doesn’t mesh with a passage where the emphasis is on leaving this body behind and going to be with the Lord.  The judgment seat of Christ is a reference to the final, climatic judgment that our Lord will render over all the nations (cf. Acts 17:31). 

What Paul is talking about here is exactly what our Lord himself described in one of his confrontations with the Pharisees, as it is recorded in John 5: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all you are in the tombs will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (28-29).  Here our Lord connects the resurrection of life with doing good and the resurrection of judgment with doing evil.  That’s exactly what Paul means when he says that God will render to each according to his works.  We could go on, but these verses make the point quite well.  Everyone one, and that includes you, will stand before God and give account of your life.  And whether or not you will enter heaven will be determined in some measure by the life you lived in this life.

Salvation by grace

But aren't we saved by grace?  Yes!  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-10).  And as Paul is at pains to establish in this epistle, we are not justified by works but by the sheer mercy and grace of God through Christ.  We don’t merit God’s favor by good works.  In fact, Paul even goes so far as to say that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).  In other words, we do not and cannot enter into a relationship with God on the basis of works.  That can only happen on the basis of grace.  And it is not partly on the basis of works, it is all of grace, thank God!

However, salvation is more than just justification.  It is more than the forgiveness of sins.  It also involves the transformation of the entire person.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).  I love the way the apostle describes the salvation of the Corinthian Christians.  They had been engrossed in all sorts of wicked behavior – but that all changed when they met Christ: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).  “Such were some of you.”  What changed?  What changed is that they were saved, washed, sanctified, and justified.  (See also Tit. 3:3-7)

This is true of every single person who is saved.  God doesn’t save some people and leave them in their sin.  All who are saved are sanctified and washed by the Holy Spirit.  “You know that he [Jesus] appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.  No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.  Little children, let no one deceive you.  Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.  Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.  The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the words of the devil.  No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.  By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn. 3:5-10).

So though it is true that works cannot and do not save us in the sense of meriting God’s favor and fellowship, it is also true that works are the evidence that God’s grace has saved us.  Works are not the foundation of our salvation, but are the superstructure which is built upon the firm foundation of the grace of God toward us in Christ.  This is the point of Eph. 2:10.  Good works are the inevitable by-product of salvation.  You are not saved by works, but if you are saved, you will surely produce good works in your life.  I think it was C. H. Spurgeon who said, “You are not saved by good works, but neither are you saved without them.” 

Judgment proceeds upon works, even for those who are saved, because good works are the evidence that grace has wrought its work.  However, we must not think that the Final Judgment is there because God needs to make a final determination.  He certainly knows the exact state of every man and woman’s soul.  Rather, the judgment to come is for the sake of all rational created beings, both human and angelic.  It will demonstrate to all men once and for all that God has acted in accordance with his glory in his role as Creator and Judge and Savior.  He will bless the righteous and punish the wicked, even though now the roles are often reversed.  But there will be a day when the wicked will know just how tragic was their choice to reject the claims of God upon their lives.

So there is no contradiction between being saved by grace and being judged by works.  Works are the inevitable fruit of the grace of God in the heart and life.  Moreover, we are not judged by works because works somehow complete the work of salvation, but because works are the evidence of salvation.  Just as fruit on a tree doesn’t make it a fruit tree, so good works don’t make a Christian a Christian.  But a fruit tree will produce fruit and a Christian will produce good works.  You can’t have one without the other.

But that does mean that it matters how you live.  Your works will determine (again, not in the sense of merit but in the sense of evidence) which resurrection you will experience – either that of life or that of judgment.  You simply can’t assume that you are saved while you live in the neglect of your soul.  So what kind of life is it that God blesses?  Paul addresses this in verses 7-10.

The life that God blesses (7, 10)

The apostle says that “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (7).  And, “but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (10).  There are three things that stand out to me about the life that God blesses.  (It is the ultimate blessing which is described here: that of eternal life.)  The apostle here describes what the blessed person does, how they do it, and why they do it.  Let us consider these three things in order.

First, what they do.  What is translated by “well-doing” here in this version is literally “good works.”  Of course, we must not interpret “good works” in terms of what the world thinks is a good work.  Rather, it is God’s standard, given to us in his word, that must determine what is a good work and what is not.  Looking ahead a bit, in verses 11-16 the apostle will argue that God’s law is what is determinative here.  In other words, here is a person who is seeking to shape their life into the mold of God’s word, not trying – as so many do – to fit God’s word into the mold of the world.  Everything, their desires, their affections, their plans, their goals are tested by the standard of God’s word.  

But if you live like that, it’s going to be hard.  We talked about that last Sunday.  The resurrection of our Lord is, at least in part, a call to suffer well.  Christ calls us to be holy in a world that is not holy and that is not always going to be easy.  So secondly, the apostle goes on to describe how they do good works: they do it “by patience in well-doing.”  That word “patience” can also be translated “endurance” or “perseverance.”  This implies that there is resistance to a life of good works.  It’s why Paul said to the Galatian Christians, “And let us not be weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do give up” (Gal. 6:9).

This description also differentiates between those who take up the mantle of Christ and then throw it away at some point.  Though I don’t believe that a true believer can ever lose their salvation, I do believe that a lot of people who claim to be a Christian were never truly saved.  Such people will eventually give up on Christ, especially when they encounter difficulties in the way, much like the character Pliable in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  They do not persevere in the faith; as such they are never saved.  In another place, the apostle tells us that it’s not getting into the race that’s so
 important; it’s finishing the race.  “Do you know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?  So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24).

How then do you do it?  That’s the third point: they do it by “seeking glory and honor and immortality.”  This is not glory and honor and immortality upon the earth.  This is glory and honor and immortality in the age to come.  You endure and persevere by laying up treasure in heaven, by seeking first the kingdom of God.  The motivation to be patient in well-doing does not come from this world but from the world to come.  You do it by having the same perspective as the apostle himself, who said, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. . . . I am hard pressed between the two [staying or dying]. My desire is to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:21, 23).  

And the motivation doesn’t come by transferring earthly greed into heaven.  That’s not what Paul is referring to by “glory and honor and immortality.”  This is glory and honor and immortality in the presence of God.  It is the result of unhindered and untarnished fellowship with God.  You simply cannot separate “glory” in the Scripture from the glory of God.  Any glory we receive will only be in the context of fellowship with God.  What motivates the true believer is the thought of one day being with Christ and seeing his glory.  Truly grasped, this will put iron in his blood and give him the motivation to endure anything the world throws at him.

The life that God curses (8, 9)

Sandwiched between the description of the life God blesses is the life God curses: “but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.”

The fundamental description here of those who will be condemned is that of “self-willed” (or “contentious,” KJV).  Here are people who want to be the lords of their own life.  They want to call the shots.  They don’t want to bend their will to the Lord’s.  They do not want to obey his word, the truth, but instead want to obey unrighteousness.  This is the underlying reason why people reject Christ and his claim on their life.  I don’t think it’s because of the lack of evidence.  There is plenty of evidence if people would just consider it.  It’s because they don’t want to live the kind of life that God is calling them to live.  They are self-willed and so they reject Christ’s rightful lordship over them. 

What will happen to such people?  Paul’s description of their fate is one of the clearest descriptions of what hell will be like.  Those who want to deny eternal punishment simply have to ignore or reject passages like this one.  Hell is described in terms of its function as a judgment from God (wrath, fury) and then in terms of the human experience of that judgment (tribulation, distress).  This is no more a metaphorical description than the description of the blessedness of those who do good is metaphorical.  Nor is this an account of some temporal judgment.  It is contrasted with “eternal life” in verse 7.  This is a real and terrifying picture of what awaits those who live in sin and disobedience.

What then should be our response to passages like this?  Certainly it should awaken us to the reality that life is serious.  It should show us that our choices are significant.  God is not to be trifled with and life is not to be frittered away.   The apostle’s aim in this is ultimately to convince us that we need Christ.  We need him to wash away our sins and to renew us by his grace, for only he can do this.  We need Jesus Christ who is our Lord to be our Savior.  The breathtaking reality is that in the gospel he offers himself to us in precisely that capacity.  May we all embrace him as such.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

“Remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead” – 2 Tim. 2:8-13

Why is it important to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord?  This is not only the purpose of Easter, but from the beginning this was the purpose of gathering weekly on the Lord’s Day – it is called the “Lord’s Day” precisely because it was on this day that our Lord rose from the dead.  So the celebration of the resurrection of Christ is not just an annual event for the believer, but a weekly one.  Indeed, it should be a daily one as well.

Thus Paul calls on Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead.”  But so often events like this over time seem to take on shades of meaning they were not meant to have.  Too often we turn the great redemptive events of history into Hallmark-greeting-card sentimentalism.  Remembering the resurrection becomes for many a reason to think that “all will be well in the end,” which is of course true for the Christian, but is frequently misinterpreted in terms of the goods of this life and earthly comfort and safety.  But if this is all “Easter” is good for, then it is really nothing more than a psychological palliative.  It is just another holiday, a reason for people to think positively about life because they are supposed to, a religious placebo.

If that’s all Easter is, then we had better stop celebrating it immediately.  And it doesn’t make any sense in the context of the New Testament.  Think about the historical context of this letter.  Paul is in prison.  In these verses, the apostle alludes to himself as he was perceived by his enemies: a “criminal” (“evil-doer,” KJV).  The only other place this word is used in the NT is in Luke 23 where it refers to the criminals who were crucified with Christ (ver. 32, 33, 39).  This is how Paul was viewed, even though he was an innocent man and even though he had done nothing wrong.  He was considered to be in the same category as convicts worthy to be crucified.  In fact, in the latter part of this epistle, we come to realize that Paul’s death sentence has already been signed, for he tells Timothy that, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Tim. 4:6).  How in the world is the message of Easter as a feel-good moment going to help Paul as he is staring into the face of death itself?

And yet that is what Paul does.  And that is what he exhorts Timothy to do.  “Remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead.”  For Paul the message of the resurrection was something that enabled him to endure all things, to suffer and to face death for the sake of Christ.  That is a powerful message.  But it was not just something for Paul to remember, but which the apostle encourages Timothy, and through him us, to remember.  This is an exhortation for you and me.

And what it says to us is that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we can endure suffering and die with Christ to the world.  It gives us the reason and motivation to do this, and it gives us the power to do this.  The resurrection is not there so we can go on with our lives blithely forgetful of the age to come.  The resurrection is there because this life is not the endgame.  Our treasures are supposed to be in heaven, not upon the earth.  The resurrection is there because there is no hope if this life is all there is to it.

Let me say it again, the resurrection is a call to suffer with Christ and die to the world.  Paul links the resurrection in verse 8 to his own suffering in verses 9 and 10, and then in verses 11-13 to the call of every believer to endure suffering with Christ.  That is radically different from the way most people today – even people in the church – think about the meaning of Easter Sunday.  So what I want to do this morning is to consider how the resurrection can call us to hope in the midst of suffering and why it is important for us to make this connection between resurrection and suffering.

Now before I go on, let me say that I do not believe that the resurrection calls us to go out and look for suffering or persecution.  Nor do I think that suffering is necessarily always directly linked to persecution on account of our faith.  We live in a world that is broken and filled with suffering and pain.  Suffering, in one form or another, will inevitably come to you.  The question is then, how will we face the varied trials of this life in a way that is consistent with our faith in Christ?  How will we bear up under duress, however that comes, in a way that does not betray the worthiness of Jesus Christ?  And, how is this linked to the resurrection of Christ?

How the Resurrection can call us to suffer well

When I say “suffer well” I mean what Paul says in verse 10: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect” and what he says in verse 12, “if we endure, we will also reign with him.”  To endure in this context doesn’t mean to merely get by, with grinding teeth and clenched fist.  It means to endure with joyful confidence that the suffering we are enduring is not for nothing.

Throughout the NT, we are called to endure suffering in this world with joy.  For example, to the Romans Paul writes, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation” (12:12), and “we rejoice in our sufferings” (5:3).  Our Lord himself exhorted his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).

How can we do that?  To rejoice in suffering is one of the most counterintuitive things you can call a person to do.  It is the very opposite to what we are inclined to do.  

The reason the resurrection of our Lord can call us to rejoice even in the face of trial is because the resurrection is the seal of Christ’s redemptive work and the sign that God the Father has accepted the sacrifice of his Son.  What makes this all the more certain is that our Lord himself faced his own death with joy knowing that resurrection was to follow: “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  In like manner, we can endure our own crosses for the joy that is set before us by virtue of our Lord’s death and resurrection.  Our Lord himself has shown us the way.  For the resurrection reminds us of what God has promised as well as what he has not promised.

First of all, it reminds us that God has not promised us a pain-free, trouble-free, worry-free life.  For resurrection is always preceded by death.  The sinless Son of God came into this world to be hated and rejected and crucified on a cross.  He died.  “Risen from the dead” makes no sense apart from the death.  We must remember that Jesus never promised his followers anything different.  Though it is true that not everyone is called to be a martyr, it is true that we should not expect our lives to be padded with comforts, or to be mad at God when he takes certain comforts away for a season.  After all, remember that Christianity is all about following Christ – a Christ who suffered and a Christ who died.  It makes no sense to for us to become disenchanted with the Lord when we claim to be following him and expecting that to mean that our life will be like a waltz through fields of daisies.  

The call to follow Christ is a call to die, not only to die with him in terms of participating in the benefits of his atoning sacrifice, but also to die with him to the world.  This is what our Lord meant when he said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lost it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his own soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angles” (Mk. 8:34-38).  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

The resurrection is in one sense a warning that all who come to Christ to milk the best out of this life, are coming to him for the wrong reason.  Now that doesn’t mean that this isn’t his world and we can’t enjoy his gifts.  Of course we can and of course we should.  But our allegiance to Christ must come before our enjoyment of his gifts or we are not really his disciples.  And if he calls on us to give up some of his gifts we should willingly do it.

But more importantly, the resurrection is a reminder of what God has promised, and what in fact is obtained by the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  And these things are reasons for us to rejoice in the face of trial and suffering and persecution.  What are they?

Paul mentions four related, yet distinct things which are ours in virtue of the resurrection.  They are salvation, glory, life, and a kingdom.

First, salvation.  In verse 10, Paul writes, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”  The reason why Paul’s sufferings made sense to him was because he saw that they were the means by which the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ were conveyed to the elect.  Paul is not saying of course that his suffering is what saved the elect.  What he is saying is that his suffering are what made possible the preaching of the gospel in places where it would otherwise never have gone (like Caesar’s court, for example), and it is the gospel of Christ – the good news of what he has accomplished in his death and resurrection – by which men and women are saved. 

If you look in the pages of the book of Acts, you will see that almost every evangelistic sermon was a sermon that centered on the resurrection of Christ.  The call to faith was a call to believe that God raised Christ from the dead.  And Paul writes to the Romans that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

What is the salvation under consideration here?  Again, the apostle Paul explains that we believe in “him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:24-25).  In other words, the resurrection of Christ secured our justification – by which the apostle meant our acceptance with God through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us and the forgiveness of all of our sins.

In the NT, salvation is not about getting our best life now.  It is about escaping the wrath of God which we all deserve.  The only way to escape that wrath is by having our sins purged and expiated and dealt with completely.  None of us can purge our own sins.  The only one who can truthfully offer to us the forgiveness of sins is Jesus Christ and the proof that he can do this is found in the fact that God raised him from the dead.

It doesn’t matter how comfortable this life is if you are facing the wrath of God on the other side of death.  But on the other hand, if you are justified and forgiven – saved – then in the end it doesn’t matter too much what we have to endure now, knowing that we are accepted in the Beloved and instead of having God as our enemy we now have him as our Father and Friend.

Second, glory.  The salvation is described in terms of “eternal glory” (10).  This is possible because of what Christ achieved for us by his death and resurrection.  One day when we are raised, we will be raised in glory (1 Cor. 15:43).  It’s why Paul could write, “For our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).  Note the link between the glory of Christ’s resurrected body and the glory of the resurrected body of believers.  

But glory goes beyond just having glorified bodies.  It is a term which describes every aspect of life in the age to come: “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).  And there is nothing in this world than can even compare.  When Paul got a glimpse of the glories of heaven, he said they were “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor. 12:4), not because God is trying to keep it a secret but because we just do not have the ability to conceptualize adequately the magnitude of the glory which exists in the very presence of God.  The best we can do is to approximate the glory by figures of speech, which is exactly what John does in the Revelation.

Suffering inevitably brings shame.  It reminds us of our frailty.  But the resurrection of our Lord reminds us that glory follows the shame.  One day, the shame will go away, but the glory will remain forever.

Third, life: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (11).  One of the things that we are prone to fear is death.  But Jesus came to give us life and to redeem us from the power of death: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15).  And then we have this amazing statement in John 11: “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn. 11:25-26).

Resurrection helps us in the face of suffering, since the worst thing that can happen, death, has already lost its sting because of what our Lord has done, because he is risen from the dead (1 Cor. 15:54-56).  Not even death can take away the life that we have in Christ, or can keep us from rising again.  That is hope that only Christ can give!

Finally, a kingdom.  We see this in verse 12: “If we endure, we will also reign with him.”  It is an amazing thing that not only does Christ offer us life and glory in the age to come, but the privilege of sharing with him in his reign in the age to come.  Every believer will be exalted to the status of kings and queens in the age to come.  Though it is hard to conceptualize what this will look like, yet there is no doubt that what is intended is for the believer to grasp the fact that life in the age to come will not be a menial existence but one of exalted status.  In this world, the believer may be, like Paul, considered to be no better than a criminal, the lowest of the low.  But in the age to come, there will be no doubt in any part of the universe who privileged are.  The first will be last and the last first in that great day.

Suffering can come in a myriad of forms, posing challenges that we never foresaw.  And suffering not only brings shame and pain, but also massive uncertainty.  How can you rejoice in the midst of that?  The believer in Christ can because the resurrection of Christ has guaranteed our resurrection and with it salvation and glory and life and a kingdom.  And no one or nothing can take that away.  There is no uncertainty here.  The promise of God is sure.  It’s why Paul could say, “the saying is trustworthy, for: if we have died with him, we will also life with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (11-12).  It’s why he was able to say in the previous chapter, “I suffer . . . But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (1:12).

But there is another side to this.  There are not only promises for those who endure, but also warnings for those who deny him.  That’s the point of the second pair of statements in verses 11-13.  The first two are promises and the last two are warnings: “If we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.”  

You see, Christ was not only raised as the Savior of the elect, he was also raised to be the Judge of all who reject him.  It was this reality that Paul was referring to when he called upon the Greek philosophers there in Athens to repent of their idolatry: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

We are to live life not only in light of the reality that Christ is Savior but also in light of the fact that he is our King and our Lord: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1).  

Though we must affirm the freeness of our salvation and the fact that we can never, ever do anything to earn our salvation, yet at the same time we must also affirm that when God saves a man, he makes him different, gives him new desires which results in the fruit of holiness and sanctification of life.  Those therefore who deny Christ and remain in unbelief will not find him a Savior but a judge.  They may deny his authority over their lives, they may refuse to believe it, yet Christ will not deny himself.  He will not be faithless to his right to be worshiped and served and obeyed and trusted by all men.  He does not wait for your vote – he is your king whether you accept him or not.

The resurrection of our Lord is therefore not only a promise of life for those who endure, but also a warning of judgment for those who betray the Lord for a few coins of earthly comfort and safety.  To avoid suffering by denying Christ is not a very good strategy.  On the other hand, in light of our Lord’s resurrection, we have every reason to hold fast to Christ in the midst of trial and to do so without losing the confidence and the rejoicing of our hope firm to the end.

Why we need to connect the Resurrection to our call to suffer well

Now the reason why I think it is so important to connect the resurrection to our call to endure and to suffer well, is that it reminds us of the power of the resurrection and what it has really accomplished.  The resurrection means that we can lose everything and yet not our joy.  There is nothing on this earth that can do that.  The fact that believers in every generation have found strength in the risen Christ, and that they have been able to do this despite the afflictions and trials and sufferings they have had to endure, shows that the resurrection is truly powerful.

And not just as a psychological motivational technique.  It could have no power unless Christ really did rise from the dead, unless he really is risen and ascended and seated at God’s right hand.  It is the reality that the resurrection is not only theology but history, that this took place in human history and that our Lord is truly reigning in heaven as we speak, that makes the resurrection the source of power that it is.  If it were anything less, Christianity would have disappeared years ago.  “But,” as Paul put it, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20).

It is also important for the sake of our witness.  I have been convicted recently that I have not always demonstrated to my coworkers the type of attitude that is consistent with hope in Christ.  When we Christians complain and go around frustrated all the time because things aren’t going as we want them to go, what are we telling others?  What does that say about our hope?  I believe that too often we give the impression that our hopes are really centered on this world, even as we profess to believe in the resurrection and the glories of the age to come.  And that is terrible, because it makes our faith look all the less real to unbelievers and undermines our witness.  I don’t think it was by accident that the apostle Peter wrote that we are to in our “hearts honor Christ as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).  In other words, here was a Christian whose hope was so inexplicable to the unbelievers around him, that they couldn’t help but ask a reason for that hope.  It is the doorway to evangelism and disciple-making.

You see this link explicitly stated for us in verses 8-10: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal.  But the word of God is not bound!  Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”  Paul was willing to endure the utmost for the sake of bringing the gospel to God’s elect precisely because of the resurrection.  It filled Paul with hope and courage.  Though he was chained, he knew the Risen Lord is not, nor ever can be, and therefore what men did to him could not affect the outcome of God’s plan.  The word of God was not bound because Christ is risen from the dead.  His sufferings, far from being impediments to gospel, were through Christ agents of the gospel.

Let us be like Paul.  Let us see all of life in light of the transforming reality of Christ’s resurrection.  Let it give us the kind of hope and courage that has set believers apart in every generation and make us brighter lights in our own.

And if you have not yet embraced the risen and reigning Christ, may you embrace him now as your Lord and Savior and find in him salvation, life, glory, and a kingdom in the age to come.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Why people think they will escape God’s wrath – Romans 2:1-5

This chapter begins a new division in the argument of the apostle.  In 1:18-32, it is clear that the apostle is addressing Gentile society in general.  Now the apostle switches to what we might call “self-righteous moralizers.”[1]  There is some debate as to whether Paul is addressing himself to the Jews here.  Although they are certainly in view, I don’t think they are the only ones, for there were plenty of philosophers in Paul’s day who were Gentiles and to whom these words were perfectly applicable.  So I agree with those interpreters who see the apostle addressing himself to all self-righteous moralizers, both Jew and Gentile, in verses 1-16 (note the inclusion of both Jew and Gentile in the argument of verses 9-16).

Paul’s argument from 1:18 is to show that everyone needs to be saved.  He wants us to see that all have sinned and have fallen under the judgment of God.  Now there is always a segment of the population who looks at others and does not doubt they are under the judgment of God, but for some reason think they are exempt.  A lot of time, these folks think they are better than others.  I think of the Lord’s interlocutors in Luke 13 and of the Pharisee in Luke 18.  We can always find someone else who is worse than ourselves and use that to justify both our contemptuous attitude towards them as well as our own lackadaisical approach to the sin in our own life.  My wife had a roommate once who told her that one of the reasons she watched a particular reality TV show was because she was comforted from the fact that shows like that made her feel good about herself since on that show there were people who were much worse than herself!

Before you cast your thoughts in the direction of someone else, think about how much this might describe you.

The apostle wants such people to realize that they too need to “flee from the wrath to come” (Mt. 3:7).  Just because they can agree with God that some people need to be punished for their sins, they think they need not fear.  The apostle now addresses himself to this sort of person. The key phrase here is found in verse 3: “Do you suppose . . . that you will escape the judgment of God?” 

If you do not think you need Jesus Christ and yet think that you need not fear any judgment to come, then you are probably the sort of person the apostle had in mind when he wrote these verses.  You think that you will escape the righteous wrath of God, but he is saying that this is a dreadful mistake to make.  In these verses, he outlines for us three wrong attitudes that make people who are in danger of God’s wrath think they are not in danger of God’s wrath.

Before we proceed, however, I want to point out another advance in the apostle’s argument.  We have noted in 1:18-32 that God’s wrath is presently revealed in the very sins we commit.  However, in these verses Paul shifts focus from the present outpouring of God’s wrath to the final day of judgment.  You see this in verse 5, where God’s wrath is not something we experience now, but something that is being stored up for; it is clearly something in the future.  Also, it is not something ongoing as in chapter 1, but something which is climatic and once-for-all: “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”  This is not something which is revealed now but which will be revealed in the future.  Paul will refer to this repeatedly in the coming verses, culminating in verse 16, where he calls our attention to “that day, when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

We need to remember this.  We do not live our lives ultimately before the judgment seat of people.  We will give account to God for the things we have done in our lives.  This is what makes life awesome and meaningful.  It doesn’t matter how lowly you are in the sight of men.  The fact that you will give an account of your life before God some day means that every act in this life, no matter how despised by men, is filled with infinite significance.  Your life is not something therefore to be frittered away on insignificant and fleeting things.  Don’t waste your life – not by experiencing all the things in some bucket list – but by living your life before the God to whom you will one day give an account.  And that means we need to avoid those attitudes which will kill any serious pursuit of God.  Again, the apostle mentions three in these verses.

They focus on the sins of others (1-3)

Paul begins by saying, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.  We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.  Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God?” (1-3)  

He begins by drawing an inference from the previous verses – “therefore.”  But what is the apostle referring to?  I think the key is in the phrase “you are inexcusable” (1).  He said the same thing in 1:20.  One of his goals has been to show that people know something about God and his law.  People sin, not because they don’t know better, but in spite of the fact that they know better.  That’s what makes them inexcusable.  So here, the moralist is also inexcusable.  That’s the point of the word “therefore” in verse 1.  They too, know some things, and they prove it by the fact that they judge those who do such things.  Note that Paul says that twice: “you, the judge, practice the very same things” (1) and “you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself” (2).  They condemn sin in others, so that’s pretty good proof that they know something about God’s righteous requirements and law.  The problem is that they don’t follow up in their own life.

Now it’s very important that we don’t draw the wrong conclusion from these verses.  The apostle is not saying that the problem here is that people judge others for their sin.  That would be to turn Paul’s argument on its head.  After all, isn’t that what Paul himself is doing here?  Isn’t he condemning something in these verses, namely, hypocrisy?  And in chapter 1, he has been condemning those who suppress God’s truth in order to exchange the worship of the true God in order to worship and serve the creature.  

And our Lord himself, in the same sermon in which he said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1), also said a few verses later, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits” (7:15-16).  You simply can’t do that without making some sort of judgment about the false prophet.  We need to remember that judging someone simply means that we are exercising discernment with respect to what they claim about themselves.  And the fact of the matter is that we all do that.  What our Lord was condemning in the phrase “judge not, that you be not judged” and what Paul is condemning in our text, is the practice of condemning a sin in someone else that you yourself commit while at the same time you have not repented of that sin (cf. Mt. 7:2-5).  The problem is that we judge and yet “practice the very same things” (1). 

So it’s not judging per se that is condemned here.  What is wrong is hypocrisy, pretending to be something that you are not, play-acting.  We expect that, when someone condemns an action in someone else, that they are dealing with or have dealt with that sin already in their own life.  So if they haven’t, they are pretending to be something they are not; they are a hypocrite.  That’s the problem.

And what makes hypocrisy so dangerous is that it blinds you to your own sins.  It allows you to feel righteous because you are focusing entirely on the sins of others.  And let’s be honest: how many of us can claim never to have fallen into this trap?  The easiest thing in the world is to condemn a fault in someone else while you secretly nourish the very same thing in your own heart.  It is a dangerous place to be.  

The only way to avoid this is to judge ourselves before we judge another. In fact, when we see sin in another person we need to let that be an opportunity to do some self-examination.  This is what Jonathan Edwards was getting at in his resolution: "Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God."

We also need to be aware that this sort of attitude is not something which is peculiar to unbelievers.  Unfortunately, it can attach itself to the faithful as well.  I think of King David, who was told a story of injustice by Nathan the prophet, which, unbeknownst to David, was a story which was about the king himself.  Nevertheless, as it was being told, David became enraged – until Nathan pointed the finger at the king and said the ominous words, “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7, KJV).

So when was the last time you engaged in some healthy self-examination?  Now the point is not that we become obsessed with ourselves.  But we do need to be aware of our sins, or we will never see the need to repent and to flee to the mercy of Christ, by whom alone we can be saved.  Don’t become blind to your own sins by focusing exclusively on the sins of others, but look to yourself so that you will look to the Lord for grace and forgiveness and freedom.

They presume on God’s mercy (4)

In verse 4 the apostle writes, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”  Here we encounter another wrong attitude that people can have towards God: presumption.  

Now actually Paul used a word which can mean “to despise” for the word which is translated in the ESV by “presume.”  In some ways, I think that “despise” articulates the apostle’s meaning more clearly.  When we presume on God’s mercy, we are despising it.  Why is that?

It is because God’s mercy – his kindness toward us, his forbearance and patience – are all meant to do one thing, and that is to lead us to repentance.  This is what the apostle Peter meant in his second epistle, when he wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).  So when we take God’s kindness and his patience toward us, and use that as an excuse to go on sinning and to remain careless in our sins, we are despising this incredible gift of God’s grace.

I remember hearing a story years ago about a man who knew he was not right with God, and was actually expecting every moment for God to do some terrible thing to him.  But it never came.  Then he realized that while he was waiting for God to clamp down on him, what was really happening was that God was calling to him in the myriad of mercies he had enjoyed in his life.  And he repented.  That is the way to respond to God’s blessing in your life.  This is the gist of the message of the apostles to the pagans in Lystra: “We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.  Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17).

Unfortunately, most people don’t respond that way.  Instead they misinterpret God’s blessing upon them as a reason to remain spiritually unconcerned and apathetic.  But that does not give them an excuse.  And again, when we fail to act in repentance as recipients of God’s mercies, we are despising that, and we are heaping up for ourselves wrath for the day of God’s final, climatic meting out of judgment.  

Now you may ask, if God wants us to repent, why does he not respond immediately with clear signs of his anger against our sins instead of giving us kindness?  And the answer is that if God were to immediately respond with justice upon our every act of sin, no one would ever be saved.  We would have all perished long ago.  That’s the point the apostle Peter was making in the text quoted above.  And even when he takes things away and brings trial into our lives, that itself is a form of kindness and patience and forbearance on God’s part.  Anything short of hell is mercy.  So if you are experiencing a tremendous trial in your life, it could be God’s mercy in your life calling you to repentance.  But if you are experiencing success and blessing, if you are not yet right with God, do not interpret this as God’s forgiveness but as God’s call to embrace his forgiveness through repentance and faith in his Son, Jesus Christ.

They harden their heart in sin (5)

The apostle finishes his description of the moralist in verse 5: “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”  Ultimately, this is the reason people don’t repent.  It is because of the hardness of their heart.

Now we normally only use this word “hardened” for people like the worst sort of person, like “hardened criminals.”  However, Paul is using this to describe moralists, people who appear to have a very real awareness of right and wrong.  Nevertheless, the apostle uses this word “hardened” to describe them.  

It is appropriate because we are all cosmic criminals.  That is, every one of us have sinned against God.  And unless we stop sinning, we remain impenitent.  Which means we have to keep justifying to ourselves the sins that we commit.  And the more we do this, the more hardened we become and the easier it is to justify sinning the next time.  The fact of the matter is that we are all by nature hardened sinners.

Remember the list of Romans 1:29-31?  “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”  You may be able to scratch a few of those things of the list of things you have done, but there is not a single human being that has lived on the earth that can scratch all of those things of his or her list.  Every time we commit one of these acts, we despise God.  We are faithless to God.  We have broken his law, and flaunted his rightful authority over our lives.  Why in the world should he extend mercy to us?  Yet he does, in every breath that we breathe.  To go on sinning is to harden our hearts and to store up wrath for ourselves.

How should we respond to God’s wrath?

First of all, we need to realize that we cannot escape God’s wrath.  For the moment, we may escape it, but this is not because we are no longer in danger but because God is showing mercy to us.  But while we remain impenitent, we are simply storing up wrath for the day of wrath.

There is no way you can escape God’s righteous judgment.  All will be summoned before his throne of judgment.  You cannot outrun God because he is omnipresent.  “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.”  You cannot deceive God, because he is omniscient.  When Christ comes the second time without sin unto salvation he will come to judge the secrets of men.  He knows what you are going to say even before you say it.  You cannot hide from God in any sense of the word.  Jonah tried to run from God and ended up in the mouth of a whale.  In Revelation 6, we read of people who are so terrified at the Second Coming of Christ that they will ask the hills to open up and swallow them – and yet there is no place to hide.  When our Lord came to earth, the demons would respond to him by asking him, “Have you come to torment us before the time?”  They know that their days are numbered and that there is no way to escape the judgment of the Lord.

Nor will you be able to resist God.  As Edwards put it in his sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” “…if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the strength of the strongest, sturdiest devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it [the wrath of God].”

There is therefore only one thing we should do.  And that is to repent.  Instead of running from God, we need to run to God.  The only way to flee from the wrath to come is to flee to Christ.  Did you know repentance is a mercy?  Why does God have to offer mercy to traitors?  He doesn’t, of course.  He could justly assign every human being to hell.  But instead, he offers mercy to those who will turn from their sins and turn to his Son in faith and receive him as their Lord and Savior.  Right now there is great mercy and kindness and patience and forbearance now.  Today is the day of salvation.  Let us not despise God’s mercy but receive it extended to us in the person and work of Christ.

[1] I get this term from John Stott, which he uses in his commentary on Romans (BST).

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Fatal Exchange – Romans 1:24-32

Newton’s Third Law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Though this law describes what happens in the physical universe in terms of forces and so on, there is a sense in which this is equally valid in the moral universe.  Every ethically charged choice we make has consequences.  You push back against the moral structure of the universe that God made and it is going to push back in one way or another.

The apostle is illustrating that principle in the verses of our text.  His basic argument is this: when you reject the truth about God and replace it with a lie, when you replace God with something else, then you can be sure that God’s holy and just wrath will come against you.  You push against God, and he is going to push back.  However, the apostle is also showing us that exchanging God for some sort of idolatry is also the basic sin.  It is the main and first reason why God’s wrath has come against men and women.

We noted last time that one of the ways in which God’s wrath is shown is in the very sin we commit.  Though there will be a final, climatic event in which God’s wrath will be poured out on all who have rejected him, yet there is even today a sense in which God’s wrath is presently being revealed.  And that is in the sins that leak out of a heart that has first rejected the truth about God.  We are first ungodly before we are unrighteous (cf. ver. 18), but that unrighteousness is part of the consequence of being ungodly.  One follows the other and is a judgment in itself.

I want you to notice the structure of our text and see how Paul himself is explaining this.  In verses 23 to the end of the chapter, you have a three-fold exchange followed by a three-fold giving up.  First, note the exchange: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (22-23).  “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (25).  In these two instances, men exchange the glory and truth of God for something else.  Then follows this exchange: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.  For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.  And the men likewise …” (26).  

Now let’s look at the three-fold giving up: In response to the exchange of verses 23, Paul writes, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (24).  In response to the exchange of verse 25, Paul writes, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (26).  And then again in verse 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God [another way of saying they exchanged God for something else], God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” 

So you see what the apostle is doing here.  God gives people up to sin because they have first given him up.  God allows them to descend into moral anarchy because they have first refused to acknowledge his rule over their lives.  When we asked last time, “What is the problem with the world?” this is the most fundamental answer to that question.  The world is wrong because first and foremost men have rejected God.  That is extremely important to see.  What people need more than anything else, is to get right with God.  This is more important than the addiction to whatever lust or problem they currently are struggling with, because every lust and problem we have stems from this more basic problem of rejecting God.  You won’t adequately deal with the consequences unless you deal the fundamental reason for those consequences.

In our last message, we asked a what question.  In this message, I want to ask, why?  In brief we are asking two questions: why is it that exchanging the truth about God for something else is so bad, and then secondly, why does it lead to these other things the apostle mentions in our text?  The apostle specifically mentions lesbian and male homosexual behavior in verses 26-27.  In particular, why are those patterns of behavior mentioned as a consequence of rejecting God?  

Why exchanging God for something else is the fundamental sin

The key verse here is verse 25: “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.”  This verse is key because it is the reason for the “giving up” mentioned in both verses 24 and 26.  It therefore serves as the basic explanation for why all this is happening. 

To understand what is going on here, we need to understand what Paul means by “the truth about God” which is exchanged for a lie.  There are at least two things that are understood in this truth about God.  First, Paul is referring to the truth that God exists and that he is the Creator of all things (including you!).  “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse” (20).  You see it here also in verse 25, where God is described as “the Creator.”  Thus, God is to be understood as not part of the universe, but as distinct from it; not depending on the universe, but the universe depending upon him.  He alone is “immortal” (23), having no beginning, being alone uncreated.  

This reality has been rejected.  But remember, this does not mean that they became atheists; they just replaced the God who is transcendent above all things with a more manageable god.  You see this even today when people talk about God.  For example, Nikita Khrushchev is supposed to have once claimed as evidence for atheism that man had gone into space and found no god there.  C. S. Lewis’ reply to that is to the point: that going into space to find God is like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle to find Shakespeare.  It’s the fundamental mistake of thinking that God is part and parcel of the universe that he made.  He is not part of the furniture.  He is not hiding behind the moon.  And the reason is because, like Shakespeare to his story, God is the Creator and not one of his creatures.

You also hear this when, in response to the Biblical portrayal of God, people say things like, “My God wouldn’t be like that!”  When we say, “My God wouldn’t…” what are we saying?  Aren’t we saying that we have this idea of what God should be like and he should conform to that?  Isn’t that doing what Paul is describing here?  Aren’t we creating God in our own image, bringing him down to our size, turning the Creator into one of his creatures? 

The second thing about God that is rejected is not only his existence and role as Creator, but also his role as Lawgiver.  One of the things the apostle says here is that people know that when they do wrong, they are actually doing wrong.  You see this in verse 32: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”  They know they are doing wrong, and yet they not only do these things themselves, they encourage others to join them in the practice of wickedness.  They know God’s law in some sense, and yet they still reject it.

From these two things, we see that the fundamental truth that is traded away for a lie is the truth that God is our Creator and Lawgiver, that we depend on him, and that we are under his sovereign rule.  It comes down to this: our fundamental problem is that we want to assert our own sovereignty over our lives.  We want to be the ones who ultimately call the shots.  We’re okay with a notion of deity, as long as he minds his own business.  We want to define reality.  We want to be gods.  And the only way to do that is to exchange the truth about God for a lie.

So why is this so bad?  In some sense, the word “bad” may not be adequate here.  This is what the prophet Jeremiah had to say about this tendency to replace the true God with something else: “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.  Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13).  So maybe we should ask, why is this so appalling?  Why is this so shocking?  Why is this so evil?  There are at least two reasons.

First of all, because it is a lie.  “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”  When we try to carve out our reality, when we make ourselves the final judges as to what is right or wrong for ourselves, we do not cease to live in the world which God created.  This kind of thinking is like the cartoons when a character like Daffy Duck walks off a cliff and then someone gives him a copy of Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, upon which, having read it he begins to fall.  The thing is that ignorance of the God’s laws (whether the laws that govern the physical universe or the laws that govern the moral universe) doesn’t make them stop working just because we don’t want them to.  

Of course, we still go for the lie, and the reason is because we like the lie better than we like the truth.  This is what Jesus said: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20).  You see this played out on a miniature scale every time we choose something we know isn’t good for us.  You know you shouldn’t eat that thing or indulge in that treat or feed that craving, and yet you do it anyway.  Why?  Because what that thing or treat or craving is telling you is more desirable at that moment than what is actually best for you.  So we do it.  However, the problem with this kind of decision making is that just because something is desirable doesn’t make the undesirable consequences go away.

The same is true with respect to our desire for self-sovereignty.  Just because we don’t want God to rule over us doesn’t make the consequences go away.

However, the problems don’t stop there.  When we live a lie, when we live in self-deception, which is what we are doing when we refuse to acknowledge the reality of God’s ownership of us, we open ourselves to all sorts of wrong thinking.  Wrong thinking is rarely quarantined.  It usually leaks out into every part of life.  And this is such a basic reality that if we go wrong here, we are probably going to go wrong in many, many other ways as well.  One lie leads to another, and another, and another.

And this is the reason why exchanging God for something else is the fundamental sin: it is because it is the first lie we have to believe in order to justify every other sin.  Every sin is an assertion of self-sovereignty, a declaration of independence from God.  But in order to get there, we have to first replace the true God with something or someone who can be managed.  The problem is that such a god simply does not exist.

Second, this is shocking because we when replace God with something or someone else, we have traded something of infinite value for something of immeasurably less value.  They “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (25).  

Sometimes people think that God is being petty by requiring everyone to worship him.  But here’s the problem with that kind of thinking.  Everyone worships something.  You are a worshipper.  There is something or someone (it may be yourself!) that you worship, that holds your affection and attention and ultimately your allegiance and loyalty.  Notice what the apostle says: he doesn’t stop at “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” but goes on to say “and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”  If you don’t worship the Creator, you will end up worshiping the creature. 

The fact of the matter is that you were made to be a worshipper.  It’s part of what it means to be human.  Worship is the appropriate response to beauty and truth and power and majesty and glory.  In the Anglican marriage service, the man is supposed to say upon putting the wedding ring upon the finger of his bride: “With this ring I thee wed: with my body I thee worship.”  Of course a man should worship his wife, because that is the appropriate response of a husband to the loveliness of his wife.

C. S. Lewis struggled with this idea, but he came to realize how absurd it was to think it was wrong for God and the authors of Scripture to call us to worship God.  He writes,

But the most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me.  I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour.  I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.  The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

He concludes by saying,

My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.[1]

Here’s the bottom line: when we worship other things above God or instead of God, we are saying that we do not consider God to be supremely valuable.  But how can that be true?  Everything else that we might delight in is itself a creature – something created by God.  How can the creature be greater than the Creator?  It cannot.  Everything that is beautiful borrows its beauty from God.  All truth and power and goodness ultimately finds its origin in God.  To trade God for his creation is insanity.  It is to forsake the fountain of living waters for cisterns that can hold no water.  

It is the ultimate insult to God.  It not only puts him on the level, but below the level of his creature.  He alone is the fountain of blessedness.  He alone is “blessed forever.”  Everything else will lose its desirability.  Finite things cannot offer lasting enjoyment.  They will run out, expend themselves, of their ability to sate the craving of our souls.  Only God can be the fountain of living waters for us.

Now what does this have to do with this being a fundamental sin?  At the end of the day, all sin is a matter of what or who we choose to worship.  You will either worship God and see him as the supremely valuable one, or you will worship and serve the creature.  And when we value the wrong things we are going to end up doing the wrong things, making the wrong choices, and having the wrong priorities.  We will end up loving what we should hate and hating what we should love.  Valuing the wrong thing tends to warp one’s perspective.  As Thomas Schreiner writes in his commentary on these verses, “To worship corruptible animals and human beings instead of the incorruptible God is to turn the created order upside down.”[2]  And this leads us to our second main point.

Why being given up is tied to our exchanging God for something else

Paul says three times that God gives some people over to certain patterns of behavior as part of his judgment upon them for their rejection of him.  The apostle says that they are given up to “the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (24), to “dishonorable passions” (26), and “to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (28).  

The basic idea is this: the most unnatural thing to do is to replace the Creator with the creature.  Once we do that, we open ourselves up to doing other unnatural things.  And the more we reject the truth about God the more we become susceptible to doing things are contrary to the moral order God has imposed upon his world.  What we do is a mirror what we believe about God.

And yet this is more than just a natural consequence, as in one thing always following another.  For the apostle explicitly says that God gives them up.  This is a judgment.  These sins that Paul mentions, in verses 26-27 and then in verses 29-31, are patterns of behavior that are in themselves a punishment for their fundamental rejection of God.  

Now I have to say something about verses 26-27.  In our day, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain Biblical fidelity in our culture without coming under some kind of attack, and being called a hater and a bigot.  What I mean is that though the Bible is crystal clear that homosexual acts are sinful, and are, in Paul’s words, unnatural (26), yet our culture no longer sees these things as unnatural; indeed, it celebrates this kind of lifestyle.

The Christian response to this must be two-fold.  First of all, we must never give anyone a valid reason to label us as hateful.  As followers of Christ, we are called to love even our enemies.  That means that even if we disagree with a person’s choices (including their choices regarding what Paul is describing here) we must still show love to them.  We must show kindness to all.  Moreover, we should never, ever give anyone the impression that we think we are intrinsically better than they are.  There is no room for self-righteousness in the Christian life.  We should be willing to invite gay people into our lives and love them and seek to bring them to faith in Christ.

But second, neither must we waver from a firm commitment to Biblical standards.  At the end of the day, we must obey God rather than man.  If God says something is sinful, it is neither courageous nor loving to say it isn’t.  These verses clearly affirm that homosexual behavior is sinful and is part of the revelation of God’s wrath against our sinful rejection of him.  Again, to quote Schreiner: “Just as idolatry is a violation and perversion of what God intended, so too homosexual relations are contrary to what God planned when he created man and woman.”[3]

But I also want to point out that these are not the only sins Paul mentions.  He also mentions greed and malice and envy and strife and deceit and gossip and boastfulness.  Who among us is free from these things?  Though some things in the list are certainly worse than others (murder, being an inventor of evil, and being heartless and ruthless), yet the apostle is clear that these are all the result of turning away from the one who made us to see his glory and worship him.  The apostle’s intention here is not to cordon off some part of mankind as being worse than others.  His intention here and up through the middle of chapter three is to show that we are all sinners, under the wrath of God, and in need of salvation.  Paul’s conclusion is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).  That’s not just true of homosexual sinners, it’s true of everyone else, too.  

Which brings us back to verses 16-17.  We need the gospel, which is the revelation of the righteousness of God, because of the revelation of the wrath of God.  The wonderful thing about this gospel of the righteousness of God, is that this is not a righteousness which is aimed to judge us, but a righteousness which is aimed to save us.  And it is also based on another kind of exchange.  Not a sinful exchange, like the one we have made.  This is an exchange of grace.  Though we do not deserve God’s mercy, and we are all worthy of his eternal judgment, yet in the gospel God extends to us his offer of salvation.  It is not based on what you do; it is based on what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for us on the cross.  We deserve God’s wrath, but on the cross, the Lord absorbed the righteous wrath of God for all who will believe on him.  Here is the way Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

[1] This is from his book, Reflections on the Psalms.  You can access it online here: https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20150358
[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (1998), p. 94.
[3] Ibid, p. 94.

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