The apostle Paul was preparing to go to Rome, and then onto Spain. Although the Christians in Rome had heard about him, they had never met him, or knew much about him. Different stories had been circulating about him and what he preached. Some Jews regarded him a heretic; others, who had become believers in Jesus Christ, spoke very positively about him. To introduce himself to the believers in Rome, both Jews and Gentiles, Paul decided to write a letter to them before he went to Rome. Much of the letter explained the Gospel message he had been preaching, and then told believers how they should live in the light of this message.
The first eight chapters of this letter are generally recognised as Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel. The believers in Rome had to see first-hand what Paul believed to be the good news God promised to bring about. That moment in time had come, and it had come in the person of Jesus Christ. That was the good promised to Israel for centuries. It was also good news for the rest of the world because it did not confine salvation to the Jewish nation; it opened it up to whoever was prepared to accept it. But, in order for the good news to be understood and accepted, people had to face up to some bad news. It involved understanding the reason for the hideous death of Jesus on the cross. Why was it necessary for him to die? How can a rejected Christ become the means of salvation? For Jews, anyone who died the way Jesus died, was a clear indication that he was cursed by God. For Greeks, and those who had absorbed Greek thinking, the cross made no sense.
So, how was Paul going to start explaining the Gospel to people whose outlook on life was diametrically opposed to what he wanted to say?
The starting point had to be with a correct diagnosis of the human condition.
From bad news…
Paul says that every single human being, wherever he or she lives in the world, no matter how educated, how civilised, how rich; or, on the other hand, how pagan, how primitive, how poor and deprived, …all,… everyone without exception… is a sinner before God and incapable of doing anything to earn credit points with God. From the human point of view, it is impossible to find a way to be right with God.
Paul begins by explaining why things are the way they are in the world, whether people come from a so-called developed and civilised nation, or from the back of Timbuktu. The natural bent of people, is to do wrong. A child doesn’t have to be taught to do wrong; it is natural for him. It’s just that adults get smarter at doing wrong, whether it is cheating their partner, defrauding their company, lying their way through life, or persuading themselves that their good works or religious observances can please God. How can anyone claim merit through ‘good works’ while rejecting God their Creator?
The conclusion Paul comes to, is that every single human being is a sinner by nature, and under God’s condemnation. He then tells us why people have no alibi to offer God, whether they belong to one or the other of the following two categories.
1. People Who Do Not Have God’s Defined Law.
Surely, people who have no knowledge of God’s demands can’t be judged the same way as those who are far better informed! That’s not so, says Paul.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20).
Nature is one of the pointers to the existence of God, and the kind of God he is. The God who created this universe is no local deity. He not only created it, he maintains order in this vast universe. His power is infinite as a casual look at the stars will confirm. He has given us a planet that feeds us and gives us great enjoyment. He must surely be a God who cares for human beings. But these things are only pointers to God. What a person does with a pointer depends on the path in life he has chosen to follow.
But, there is another pointer to God, as well. It’s the human conscience. How does a primitive man, at the back of no-where, know that he should not steal, should not murder, should worship a higher power, and so on? The conscience may no longer be a good guide, but vestiges of it remain in every human being, telling him that his understanding of right and wrong has a basis for it. There is a universal awareness of this. Is this kind of projection too much to expect from people? Obviously, God doesn’t think so. It’s another pointer to God. Any understanding of what is right and wrong isn’t merely inherited; it is innate, no matter how pale it is next to an ultimate standard.
What people do with these signposts is up to them. None of these signposts lead people to God; they merely point them in the right direction. God wants people to seek him.
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13).
A missionary in Papua New Guinea told us this story when we lived in PNG. One day a man emerged from the jungle. He came to the mission station from a very isolated village, after walking for several days. He sat next to a local man and began his story. He had received a very strong dream that he had no way of understanding, and was wondering if someone could help him. The dream went something like this. He saw a great valley before him, littered with bones, and as he watched the scene, the bones began to move, to come together, and gradually took shape as skeletons. They then began to develop human shape, stood up, until the valley was covered by a multitude of people. What did this mean?
It just happened that the local man was a Bible School pastor who had recently concluded studies in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. He knew from chapter 37, exactly what the man was talking about. It spoke of a time when God would intervene in the history of people and breathe new life into people who were utterly dead and beyond human help. There was no way the man could have heard the story from any human source prior to this time. He had evidently followed the signposts Paul talks about in Romans and wanted to know more about this God. As a result he was given further directions in a dream, one step-at-a-time, to lead him to discover God in the person of Jesus Christ. God led him to a person who could take him further in his spiritual journey.
Many people, however, reject the voice of their conscience by regarding it as the unfortunately inherited set of standards of their parents, or of an out-dated society, that they need to make every effort to shed. Paul says,
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21).
Paul calls this conscience, or innate awareness of what is right and wrong, as a ‘law written on the heart’. This is what makes us distinctively human, and is a reminder that we have been created for a relationship with a moral God.
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) (Romans 2:12-15).
There is not a human being in the world who has not been given the witness of creation and of conscience to point them to the reality of God. What they allow these witnesses to say to them, depends on the choices they make.
2. People Who Have A Defined Knowledge Of God
The second category of people who are under God’s condemnation are people who have been given a clear knowledge of God, but who have done nothing about it. It is not what we have received, but what we do with what we have received, says Paul. The Jews were given the Ten Commandments through an unforgettable experience at Mt Sinai on their way to the Promised Land, but they failed to understand the function of these laws.
Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:17-24).
God’s laws were given them to show what kind of God he was, and the kind of behaviour he expected of those who belonged to him. In a sense, they could never fulfil his requirements. The laws as a reflection of God’s nature, set a standard for their behaviour they were incapable of reaching. Their awareness of God’s requirements was to humble them, and make them realise how much they depended on God’s mercy and grace in everyday living. Instead, Israel boasted of being superior to other nations on the basis of possessing God’s laws.
Paul says that the genuineness of a person’s relationship with God isn’t validated by outward appearances, or outward religious practices or claims. It has to be something far deeper.
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29).
How does this apply to us today?
a) A person may have grown up in a very deprived environment, with little or no guidance about what is right and wrong. Even this person has not been left without an awareness of creation and the witness of a conscience. If a person is prepared to listen to that small inner voice, it can lead him in the right direction towards God who wants to be found. When Paul preached to a meeting of the Areopagus, in Athens, he said,
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:24-27).
Even a person who falls into this category is accountable for the path he or she chooses to follow. In an age when courts take into consideration the adverse conditions of a criminal’s upbringing, society tends to use that as an excuse for why the person should not be fully accountable for their actions. We tend to blame some of it on society’s role in shaping the person’s behaviour. God’s puts the responsibility squarely on the individual.
b) On the other hand, a person may have grown up in a religious environment where what was right and wrong was clearly taught, but he never allowed that knowledge to lead him to God through Jesus Christ. He may have even become part of the ‘church scene’, even been involved in church activities and tried to teach others some of the Bible stories, but never acknowledged his own sinfulness before God, never repented of living his life independently of God. He stands condemned before God. Not even religion can hide a person from God’s scrutiny. God doesn’t look on a person’s outward appearance, or involvement in good works or religious activities. He sees the human heart for what it is. And that is something no-one can hide from.
Roman Catholic Priests, and other Christian workers who have hidden behind the church’s protective shield to engage in paedophilia have brought disgrace to the Christian church in general, the very thing that Israel was accused of, when Paul said, God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. (Romans 2:24).
The greater exposure people have to the truth, the greater will be their judgement.
People who are not prepared to face up to who they really are in the sight of God, are like the ostrich that sticks its head in the sand, hoping nothing is going to happen to them because they are not aware of any impending danger. Paul says that by refusing to respond to what God has made obvious to us, our minds become ‘darkened’ and ‘depraved’ (1:21, 28). Our thinking and reasoning may even be ‘brilliant’, but futile when it comes to understanding life as we are meant to live it. (1:21). In other words, we are incapable of ‘seeing straight’. No amount of logic, reason, or facts can persuade a person to see what they do not want to see.
God’s call to us is to be honest with ourselves. If we refuse God’s diagnosis of our human condition we are like the person who has been told by a doctor that the only thing that can get rid of his cancer is radical surgery, but refuses to accept this news. His excuse is that the doctor doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Paul wants us to recognise, acknowledge, and admit our real condition before God, which should be self-evident to us. Deceiving ourselves only stops us from responding to God’s solution to our problem. Comparing our moral and ethical life to that of others has no relevance when it comes to our standing before God. Our good works are incapable of building a ladder up to heaven. No matter how hard we try, our ‘ladder’ will always fall far short of that destination. Paul says, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The Greek word for ‘fall short’ means that we ‘continue to fall short’ no matter how hard we try. No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. (Rom. 3:20). That’s why some people don’t want to hear what God has to say through his Word, the Bible. Often it’s not that they ‘switch off’ when hearing the Christian message; they actually become aggressive, or even mock it. It disturbs them, and they don’t want to be disturbed.
Some people even try religion as a way of pacifying their troubled conscience. The different religions in the world provide people with a whole variety of options behind which they can hide, depending on their personal inclinations. They are all vain attempts to bring satisfaction to people while they close their minds and hearts to their real condition, and to the only way back to God.
Let me give just one example. It is a common practice among many Christians of different persuasions, to make much of the symbol of the cross. Some wear a small replica around their necks; some have a crucifix on the wall at home; some cross themselves whenever they enter a church, or something serious happens to them or their family. Behind these practices is the idea that there is some kind of power behind this symbolism that will protect them, or bless them. But, these symbols have no power, and only point people to the real cross of Jesus Christ, who paid the ultimate price for their redemption, IF they will accept God’s diagnosis of their lost-ness, turn to God in repentance, and accept his right to rule their lives. When a symbol becomes an end in itself, religion becomes no more than a superstition, and totally incapable of working any kind of protection or salvation in a person’s life.
Creation and religion are only signposts to God. If we do not follow the signposts, we will never get there.
Paul concludes this part of his argument by saying, All have sinned; all continue to fall short of the glorious fellowship with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed when they were first created. God never made us for rules, or for mere religious observances; he made us for himself. And until we admit that we are cut off from God, and incapable of doing anything that is acceptable to him, he cannot help us.
…to good news
After emphasising that we all have sinned, and haven’t got a hope of getting right with God on our part, Paul turns our attention to God’s solution to the human problem. It doesn’t matter how religious we are, or even how pagan we are; how much we know, or how little we know; the solution to our problem must come from outside ourselves. We are born sinful creatures, and the real nature of sin is that it always tries to be independent of God. Only God can restore us to a right relationship with himself. Only then can we begin to experience real goodness in our attitude towards God and towards others. So, how did he do it?
But, NOW, says Paul, God has revealed to us his righteousness. It is not based on the keeping of any laws. It is a righteousness that is in a person, not in a set of rules. You have tried to keep God’s rules, and have failed, says Paul, whether they were rules that God gave you about the way you should live, or the rules that are deeply ingrained in your conscience as a human being. NOW, I am going to show you what true righteousness is in fact, says God. It is in the person of Jesus Christ.
How are we to understand the relevance of this to our situation?
Paul says that Jesus Christ dealt with our sins in a way that satisfied God’s righteous demands. He did it by taking our sins upon himself, and facing God’s judgement against sin on our behalf. That is the incredible grace and mercy of God. To think that he was willing not only to send his Son for our salvation, but that he was prepared to judge his own Son in our stead! This is so difficult for us to understand, that some modern theologians have scorned the idea.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement,through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26).
The cross was a demonstration of God’s justice and his love. Sin, as an attitude of rebellion against God had to be brought to an end. This took place in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ to the Father in all that he did and taught. His ultimate obedience was in his willingness to face the cross on our behalf. That’s when, in agony of soul, he prayed,
Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. (Luke 22:42).
He was willing to suffer God’s judgement on our behalf.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21).
In that act, God’s love and justice met. Sin had to be dealt with justly because it is destructive of all that is good. At the same time the cross expressed the incredible love and concern God had for our salvation, and our restoration to a right relationship with him.
If we are to benefit from this event, we must accept it as a gift of God. We can’t earn it. It is beyond our ability to deserve it. It’s just the opposite. What we deserve is condemnation, but God now offers us a new relationship with himself as a free gift. We have to believe that God’s diagnosis of our human condition is correct, and the way of salvation that he offers is the only solution to our problem. Faith in the Bible is never a ‘blind’ step into the unknown. God makes the situation plain to us, and we are asked to make a response to the case he has put to us. In the light of our self-understanding, faith accepts God’s verdict. Unbelief, and ongoing rebellion, rejects it.
The idea that God wants to relate to us, and has made everything possible for us to do this, is beyond human comprehension. That is why so many people reject God and the Bible.
For those who accept this news, it becomes incredibly Good News! It opens before us a dimension of living we could never have imagined for ourselves. Living under God’s direction in our lives brings a stability, a predictability, and confidence that people without God know nothing about.
When it came to attaching an endnote to his description of the Gospel in his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul wrote these unforgettable words.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39).