Study On The Book Of Romans If you would like to comment on one of the lessons simply click on the title of the lesson and you will be take to the lesson page where you will find a comment section at the bottom.
*The material for these studies is from Jon Courson’s Commentary by Thomas Nelson Inc., R. Kent Hughes Preaching the Word series by Crossway, and Warren W. Wiersbe’s Commentary by Chariot Victor Publishing, and from James Montgomery Boice’s Expositional Commentary published by Baker Books, and from The Message of Romans, John R. W. Stott published by Inter Varsity Press, unless otherwise noted.
It should be evident from our study of the earlier portions of Romans that everything that has been said thus far applies to all men and women. That is, it applies to ourselves – apart from the supernatural work of God in us through the Holy Spirit. Regardless of our achievements, our vaunted moral standards or our outward position in life, we are all in exactly the same situation as the hedonistic pagan described in Romans 1. We have suppressed the knowledge of God disclosed to us in nature and have therefore launched ourselves along the path of moral and spiritual decline that the chapter describes. The propensity to condemn others for what we ourselves do which is unfolded in Romans 2, also describes us. We are great at making distinctions, particularly when these are to our advantage, and it is to another of these self-serving “excuses” that we come now. The new distinction here is made by individuals who consider themselves to be religious.
In Paul’s day such a person was a Jew, which is how Paul begins the section: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew…” Today the person who fits this category could be an ardent Fundamentalist, any churchgoing Protestant (regardless of denomination), a devout Catholic, or some other variety of “religious” individual. The religious person night be thinking: “I am a very religious person, and my religious commitments exempt me from your blanket condemnations. I have been a churchgoing person all my life. I have been baptized and confirmed. I go to communion. I give to the church’s support.” Paul replies that these are genuinely good things and not to be ignored. “But you still need the gospel,” he says.” Why?” “Because God is not interested in outward things alone – things like church membership, the sacraments, stewardship – but rather in what is within.” God says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7b).
The Eighth Commandment: So we see the knowledge of God and of the way of this true God was not enough. This is because, as we have already seen, God judges according to truth and not according to appearances, according to what men and women actually do and not according to their mere professions. At this point Paul brings forth three examples of that “superior” way of the Jew, which came as a result of his possessing the revealed law of God: the eighth Commandment, the seventh Commandment, and a statement embracing the first two Commandments.
As stated earlier, that these verses speak to all kinds of “religious” people. So let me ask, “We who preach against stealing, do we steal?” The idea of stealing is a generally accepted standard of human behavior, but it’s just as generally broken. We steal from God when we fail to worship Him as we ought or when we set our own concerns ahead of His. We steal from an employer when we don’t give the best work of which we are capable or when we overextend our coffee breaks or leave work early. We steal if we waste company products or use company time for personal matters. We steal if we sell something for more than it’s worth. We steal from our employees if the work environment for which we are responsible harms their health, or if we don’t pay them enough to guarantee a healthy, adequate standard of living. We steal when we borrow something and do not return it. We steal from ourselves when we waste our talents, time, and money.
The seventh Commandment: After citing the eighth Commandment, Paul moves backward to the seventh and asks: “You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” What are we to answer to this question, particularly if we live in the United States where adultery, fornication, and a variety of forms of sexual experimentation are not only excused, but even encouraged and applauded? What are we to answer in view of the revelation of sexual sins in the lives of prominent national figures, both secular and religious? What are we to say in view of Jesus’ teaching that the seventh Commandment has to do with thoughts of our minds and the intents of our hearts and not only with external actions? According to Jesus’ teaching, lust is the equivalent of adultery, just as hate is the equivalent of murder (Matt. 5: 27-28, vv. 21-22). The biblical standard is purity before marriage and fidelity afterward. At one time people would defend high sexual standards, even though they often did something quite different on the side. But today we do not even hold to the morality. “If it feels good, do it!” That’s the cry of our age and the practice of the great majority.
The First and Second Commandments: The third of Paul’s examples of preaching one thing but doing another is a reference to the first and second Commandments: “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” It’s not as easy to understand this question as it is to understand the first two. Regardless of the particular way the ancient Jew may have broken the first and second of the Ten Commandments (which we may or may not understand), we certainly understand how we have broken them – even the most religious among us. The first Commandment is a demand for our exclusive and zealous worship of the true God. To worship any god but the biblical God is to break this Commandment. But we need not worship a clearly defined “god” to break this Commandment – Zeus, Minerva, Buddha, Allah, or one of the countless modern idols. We break it whenever we give some person or some object or some worldly aspiration the first place in our lives, a place that belongs to God alone. Often today the substitute god is ourselves or our image of ourselves. It can be such things as success, fame, material affluence, or power over others. To keep this Commandment we need to see all things from God’s point of view and do nothing without reference to Him; to make His will our guide and His glory our goal; to put Him first in thought, word and deed; in business and leisure; in friendships and career; in the use of our money, time and talents; at work and at home.
If the first Commandment deals with the object of our worship, forbidding the worship of any false God, the second Commandment deals with the manner of our worship, forbidding us to worship even the true God unworthily. This means that we should take the utmost care to discover what God is truly like and thus increasingly worship Him as the only great, transcendent, spiritual, and inscrutable God He is. But we don’t do this. Instead, as Paul argued at the beginning of his discussion, we suppress the knowledge of God and find that our foolish hearts are darkened (Rom. 1:18, 21).
When Paul comes to the end of this paragraph, which describes the true state of the orthodox, or “religious,” person, he quotes the Old Testament to show that “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (v. 24; cf. Isa. 5:25; Ezek. 36:22). This is always the case when ostensibly devout persons violate the very standards they proclaim. If you have been trusting in anything other than Jesus Christ and His death upon the cross in your place, throw whatever it is completely out of your mind. Abandon it. Stamp upon it. Grind it down. Dust off the place where it lay. Then turn to Jesus Christ alone, and trust Him only!
Romans 2:17-24 Reflection Questions:
Why is it important to be into God’s Word on a daily basis?
How are you doing with the eighth commandment?
How are you doing with the seventh Commandment?
How are you doing with the first and second Commandments?
Lastly in verses 12-16 we see the perfection of God’s judgment because He judges everyone with faultless discrimination. Again our text stresses that whether a person has access to God’s Word or not, he will be judged by his deeds, and when he falls short he will indeed be lost (vv. 12-13). Paul anticipates that some may think this is unfair because the Jews have had the advantage of God’s written Word. So he explains how perfectly discriminating God is in applying His judgment (vv. 14-15). Paul says that while the Gentiles do not have the Law written in their hearts, not even the Ten Commandments, nevertheless “the work of the law is written on their hearts.” That is, they know the moral standard of God.
With incredible discrimination God judges those lacking His Word by how well they live according to the sense of right and wrong in their hearts. God’s judgment is so perfect that He takes into account one’s moral perception in rendering judgment. To be sure, no one escapes condemnation. All fall short. None measure up to their own moral perceptions of right or wrong, let alone God’s Law. No one will ever be able to rise before God and declare that He has been unfair. His judgment is so precise that He takes into account the delicate moral perceptions of each person.
So what does all this teaching regarding the perfection of the judgment of God mean to those who believe and to those who do not believe? To Christians it means that God knows everything and that one day we will stand before Him to give account of our lives. He knows what has gone on in our hearts, this includes envy, sensuality, pride, malice and judgmentalism and many others that goes to church. God knows it all!
We should pursue a profound honesty before God, for He knows everything. We need to admit our inner spiritual sins (even the “really bad” sins) and ask for His help. We must reject worldly rationalizing and moralizing, for in these ways the sickness and importance of the Church is perpetuated. Furthermore, we need to pray specifically and honestly for deliverance and for grace. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).
Those who are not believers must realize that if they do not have the righteousness of Christ through faith, their sins are yet upon them, and God will judge them with perfect judgment. Handy moralizations – “Everybody’s doing it,” “To err is human, to forgive is divine,” “Nobody’s perfect” – will not suffice. In verse 16 Paul refers to “that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” The Day of Judgment is coming, and men and women need to “settle out of court” while they can. Jesus said, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). However, the Scriptures also tell us, “But to all who receive Him, who believed His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Peter wrote: He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed (1Pet. 2:24).
What a challenge the perfection of the judgment of God brings to all of us! Believers should strive for a profound inward righteousness. Non believers should seek the righteousness that comes from God by faith.
Romans 2:12-16 Reflection Questions:
In what ways do you strive for a profound inward righteousness?
Are you praying specifically and honestly for deliverance and for grace regularly?
Are you praying for those in the Church that have heart issues (this includes envy, sensuality, pride, malice, judgmentalism and many others)?
To presume on God’s patient kindness, as if its purpose were to encourage permission, not penitence, is a sure sign of stubbornness and of an unrepentant heart (v. 5a). Such obstinacy can have only one end. It means that we are storing up for ourselves not some precious treasure but the awful experience of divine wrath on the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed (v. 5). Far from escaping God’s judgment, we will bring it all the more surely upon ourselves.
Paul now enlarges on his expression God’s…righteous judgment (5b), and begins by stating the inflexible principle on which it is based. The NIV rightly puts this in parentheses, since it is a quotation from the Old Testament Scripture, namely that God “will give to each person according to what he has done” (v. 6). The verse quoted is probably Psalm 62:12, although Proverbs 24:12 says the very same thing in the form of a question. It also occurs in the prophecies of Hosea and Jeremiah, and is sometimes elaborated in the vivid expression, “I will bring down on their heads what they have done.” Jesus Himself repeated it. So did Paul, and it is a recurring theme in the book of Revelation. It is the principle of exact retribution, which is the foundation of justice.
Does Paul begin by declaring that salvation is by faith alone, and then destroy his own gospel by saying that it is by good works after all? No, Paul is not contradicting himself. What he is affirming is that, although justification is needed by faith, judgment will be according to works. The reason for this is not hard to find. It is that the Day of Judgment will be a public occasion. Its purpose will be less to determine God’s judgment than to announce it and to vindicate it. The divine judgment, which is a process of sifting and separating, is going on secretly all the time, as people range themselves for or against Christ, but on the last day its results will be made public. The day of God’s wrath will also be the time when His righteous judgment will be revealed (v. 5b).
Such a public occasion, on which a public verdict will be given and a public sentence passed, will require public and verifiable evidence to support them. And the only public evidence available will be our works, what we have done and have been seen to do. The presence or absence of saving faith in our hearts will be disclosed by the presence or absence of good works of love in our lives. The apostle Paul and James both teach this same truth, that authentic saving faith invariably issues in good works, and that if it does not, it is bogus, even dead. “I by my works will show you my faith, wrote James (Jas. 2:18). “Faith [works] through love,” echoed Paul (Gal.5:6).
Verses 7-10 elaborate verse 6, namely the principle that the basis of God’s righteous judgment will be what we have done. The alternatives are now presented to us in two carefully constructed parallel sentences, which concern our goal (what we seek), our works (what we do), and our end (where we are going). The two final destinies of humankind are called eternal life (v. 7), which Jesus defined in terms of knowing Him and knowing the Father, and wrath and anger (v. 8), the awful outpouring of God’s judgment. And the basis on which this separation is to be made will be a combination of what we seek (our ultimate goal in life) and what we do (our actions in the service either of ourselves or of others). It is very similar to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in which He delineated the alternative human ambitions (seeking our material welfare or seeking God’s kingdom, and the alternative human activities (practicing or not practicing His teaching).
In verses 9-10 Paul restates the same solemn alternatives, with three differences. First, he simplifies the two categories of people into every human being who does evil (v. 9) and everyone who does good (v. 10). Jesus made exactly the same division between “those who have done evil” and “those who have done good” (John 5:29). Secondly, Paul elaborates the two destinies. He describes the one as trouble and distress (v. 9), emphasizing its anguish, and the other as glory, honor and peace (v. 10a), taking up the “glory” and “honor” of verse 7 which form part of the goal believers seek, and adding “peace”, that comprehensive word for reconciled relationships with God and with each other. Thirdly, Paul adds to sentences, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (vv. 9-10), affirming the priority of the Jew alike in judgment and in salvation, and thus declaring the absolute impartiality of God: For God does not show favoritism (v. 11).
Romans 2:5-11 Reflection Questions:
Are your daily actions in service of yourself or to others?
Do you daily practice Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7)?
Do other people know that you are for Jesus?
What is your ultimate goal in life?
As we begin our study of Romans 2, we need to focus on this thought: mankind does not accept God’s assessment of human sin and the imperative of divine judgment. This is not to say that men will not admit they are sinners. It is very easy to get a non-Christian to agree that he is a sinner (“nobody’s perfect”), but it is almost impossible to get him to realize the gravity of his sin. Typically he has no trouble agreeing that those who are guilty of “big sins” like murder and rape and treason deserve judgment – even death. However, that God’s wrath should fall on those guilty of such “lesser sins” as envy or arrogance does not seem quite right to them.
Most people don’t take God’s word about sin and judgment seriously, but rather reject it and replace it with their own reasoning. “But everybody’s doing it”, “Nobody’s perfect”, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Such thinking suggests that since we are human we are under moral obligation to sin, and that God is under moral obligation to forgive us. Inherent in the common thinking that because everyone is doing it, it is not so bad – as long as we don’t commit the “biggies” we will be okay – is the assumption that God does not mean what He says or say what He means.
This problem is twofold: first, man does not understand God’s holiness, and, second, he does not understand his own sinfulness. As to God’s holiness, sinful man’s idolatrous mind fails to see God as the transcendent, wholly other, perfect God who is infinitely above him, but rather imagines that He is like himself. As to sin, man forgets that he is made in the image of God and that every sin communicates a distortion of the image of God to the rest of creation. It is through such ignorance that the world suggests that if God does judge as He says, He insults His own integrity, holiness, and justice.
The eternal fact is, God means what He says and says what He means. Moreover, His judgment, despite moralisms to the contrary, is perfect. That is what 2:1-16 is all about. As we come to understand (or reaffirm our understanding of) the perfection of God’s judgment, we will bring health to our souls. For those of us who are believers, this will drive us toward a greater authenticity in life – and thus spiritual power. For the non-Christian, there will be strong encouragement to face fundamental issues about oneself and God.
There are three major points in this section, and the first, covered in verses 1-4 is this: We see the perfection of God’s judgment in that even the most religious people do not fool Him. Just as millions of religious people today think they are going to get by because they are good people and God must certainly forgive them, thousands in the Jewish nation in Christ’s time thought the same way. But they took it one step further. They believed everyone else would be judged except the Jewish race! Many Jews believed they were immune from God’s wrath simply because they were Jews. The self-righteous Jew never dreamed that he was under the same condemnation; he was blind to his actual condition. God sees sin in their hearts that they do not see, and condemns them.
The second insight, related to the first, is that the self-righteous have an intrinsic blindness to their own faults. They do not see they are doing the same things for which they condemn others. A classic example is found in the life of David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah her husband murdered (see 2 Samuel 12:5-7). The self-righteous person is not only blind but judgmental to the extreme. There is no one more severely critical of others than such a person. Hell will be full of judgmental, goodie-goodie people. Unfortunately, such thinking is not confined to the damned. It is also the favorite “indoor sport” of many Christians. There is nothing more destructive to the spread of the Good News than this. There is yet another facet of the psyche of the self-righteous religionist – he wrongly thinks he will escape judgment by taking God’s side in condemning the unrighteous.
The last insight of religious people is that he actually thinks the “kindness and forbearance and patience” of God in his life is a kind of divine OK on the course he has chosen, rather than seeing it as a chance for repentance (v. 4). Sometimes God brings people to Himself through difficulties as they come to the end of themselves and cast their lives upon Him. But He also draws people to repentance through “kindness and forebearance and patience.” No one should assume he all right with God just because life is easy for him at a given time. God calls people through sunshine as well as through rain.
So we see the psychology of the self-righteous: their ignorance of the nature and extent of sin, blindness to their own sins, extreme judgmentalism, siding with God against others’ sin, and interpreting God’s kindness as approval. God understands those who are truly self-righteous. He is never fooled. That is why His judgment will be rendered with unerring, terrible perfection. He sees all. In Psalm 139:4 David says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” God knows the real intention behind every spoken word. God knows instantly and effortlessly everything about us. A man may be a “good” person – upright, outwardly moral, sure of his goodness. But if he dies without Christ, Christ will say to him, “You have no excuse” (Rom. 2:1). And His judgment will be perfect.
Romans 2:1-4 Reflection Questions:
Do you take God for granted?
How often do you humble yourself before the God of all creation?
How often do you catch yourself in judging others? What does God see in your heart?
Are you building on your relationship with Christ daily?
Man reaches the lowest point of depravity when he heartily applauds those who give themselves to sin. To delight in those who do evil is a sure way to become even more degraded than the sinners one observes. This, I think, was one of the supreme horrors of the Roman Coliseum. Those committing the mayhem were supremely guilty, but those watching and applauding were perhaps even more wretched. It makes little difference whether the vices are real or portrayed; the effect is much the same – an increasingly debased mind on the part of the viewer. Approving another’s sin or encouraging another’s sin is a sign that life has reached its lowest dimension.
We Christians are not exempt from this. Satan knows that if he can get us to laugh at the things we believe we would never do, our defenses will fall. Maybe someday our unwitting approval will give way to action. We need to be careful what we watch and applaud.
According to Psalm 8 man is made a little lower than angels. This suggests that man is in a position somewhere between the angels above and the beasts below. Angels are spirits without bodies. (Sometimes they take on bodies, but they are spirit beings.) Animals are bodies without spirits. Man is in between because he is body and spirit. This puts man in a mediating position. It has always been man’s prerogative to move upward toward the spiritual or downward toward the animal, and we become like that which we focus. This is why we cannot sin “a little bit.” All sin moves us downhill individually, nationally, and culturally.
As our society has moved downward toward the beast, no one seems able to say “This far and no further.” No one can put a limit on sensuality. Incest is even being promoted by some. Our culture has been unable to draw the line on pornography. Such are the dimensions of depravity. What is the answer? Why does God give a civilization over to this kind of thing? He does it because when darkness prevails, and despair and violence are widespread, men and women are most ready to come to the light. He gives mankind up so that in their despair they might give themselves to His grace. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2)
In the first century mankind was sunk in the darkness of despair. Idolatry had penetrated the whole world. Men had turned from the true God, whom they could have known. In that hour, in the darkness of the night, over the skies of Bethlehem the angels broke through, and a great light of hope shone forth. From that hope all light streams. The angels’ message was the coming of the Lord Jesus, the availability of the gift of the “righteousness of God.”
Against the growing darkness of our own time we need to make this message as clear as we possibly can – by our testimony, by our lives, by the joy and peace of Heaven in our hearts. God has found a way to break through human weakness, arrogance, despair, and sinfulness to give us peace, joy, and gladness. Just as Jesus was born in Bethlehem so long ago, so He can be born in any person’s heart now. This is good news of the gospel. In this decaying world in which we live, we can see again the glory of this truth as it delivers people from their sins. “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
In Ephesians 2, Paul paints a similar picture of the dimensions of man’s depravity, concluding in verse 3 with “[we] were by nature children of wrath.” However, he doesn’t stop there but continues: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God… (vv. 4-8). Christ came in the darkest night, and He can meet us even in the midnight of our souls.
It’s true that our rejection of God has left us looking to the beasts and becoming increasingly like them – even worse than the beasts – and that left to ourselves there can be no end to this grim descent into depravity. But the gospel, for the sake of which Romans was written, tells us that God has not left us to ourselves. In Christ, He has acted to restore what we are intent on destroying.
Paul writes about this in 2 Corinthians 3 verses 16 and 18. When we come to Christ, the question is not “How low can you go?” We are done with that. The question is “How high can you rise?” And to that question the answer also is: no limit. We are to become increasingly like the Lord Jesus Christ throughout eternity.
Romans 1:32 Reflection Questions:
Are there movies or shows that you watch regularly that maybe you should stop watching?
How are you keeping yourself from sliding down the depravity slippery slope, and becoming increasingly like the Lord Jesus Christ?
In what ways are you making it clear to others of their depravity?
For several studies we have been studying the most dreadful description of the sinful human race in all literature, the description provided by the apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-32. It began with the rejection of God by all people and has proceeded to God’s abandonment of us, as a result of which human beings rapidly fall into a horrible pit of depravity, to their own hurt and the hurt of others. We come now to the last verses of Romans 1 where Paul rounds out his description by a catalogue of vices. It’s a long list, containing 21 items. How can we face such a devastating unmasking of ourselves? Some will not face it at all, of course. Even many preachers will not. These verses detail what theologians call “total depravity,” and people don’t want to hear about that. So many preachers change their message to fit today’s cultural expectations. They speak of our goodness, the potential for human betterment, the comfort of the gospel – without speaking of that for which the gospel is the cure.
Paul wrote in verse 18 that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” In that verse the second use of “wickedness” refers to man’s suppression of the truth about God. But at the beginning of the verse, where the term is used for the first time, “wickedness” is distinguished from “godlessness”; godlessness and wickedness are employed to designate two great categories of human evil. The first embraces the sins of man against man, those of the first table of the law. The second embraces the sins of man against man, those of the second table of the law. Generally speaking, it is the sins of “godlessness” that we have been looking at to this point; they are fundamental. However, in these last verses Paul lists examples of man’s “wickedness” (wickedness, evil, greed, depravity).
Paul, having shown earlier in this chapter that human beings hate God and would kill Him if they could, he now shows how they also hate and attempt to destroy their fellow man. In other words, the first four terms describe sins against the property and well-being of others. In the next five terms Paul details sins against the very persons of other human beings. The sins are: envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice.
It’s hard to see any meaningful groupings in Paul’s arrangement, and it may be wrong to try. However, if the first four terms catalogue sins against the property or well-being of others, and the next five list sins against other persons, it may be that the next six terms could be those of which pride is the center. They are certainly among the most harmful of these vices (gossips, slanders, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful). Up to this point all the vices mentioned are but one word in Greek. But now Paul seems to need two words each to describe the next evils: “inventors of evil things” and “disobedient to parents.” Paul concludes this devastating catalogue with these last four terms: senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless.
It’s hard to imagine anything more horrible than this great list of human vices, not merely because they are horrible in themselves, but also because they are with us everywhere. Yet, as horrible as this is, it is only a foretaste of what hell itself will be like; for hell is only what is described in these verses, going on and on for eternity. The basic point is that the human race has chosen to go its way without God and that as a result of this choice God has abandoned the race to the result of its own sinful choices. We have made earth hell! And we will carry that hell with us into hell, making hell even more hellish than it is already!
We need to be reminded that it is only an awareness of the horror of our sin that ever leads us to appreciate the gospel when we hear it. What if we think we are basically all right before God? What is we think ourselves good? Then we think we do not need the gospel. We think we can do without God, which is exactly what these verses are describing. When our blinders are stripped off and the depravity of the race – to which we contribute – is unfolded before us, the glory of the gospel bursts forth, and Romans 1:16 and 17 becomes for us what Martin Luther found it to be for him, namely, “the door to paradise.” The gospel is then seen to be “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” – no matter how sinful, no matter how corrupt.
We do not deserve this gospel. How could we? We couldn’t even invent it. But because God is not like us – because He is not “wicked,” “evil,” “greedy,” depraved,” “envious,” “senseless,” “faithless,” “heartless,” “ruthless,” or anything else that is bad – He not only could invent it, He did!
Romans 1:29-31 Reflection Questions:
Where in the gospel of Mathew does Jesus talk in detail about these sins?
Do you basically think that you are all right before God? Why?
Do you think of yourself as good?
So far in our study of Romans we have been concentrating on human rebellion against God, and we have seen – as Paul has explicitly told us – that the wrath of God “is being revealed from heaven” against men and women because of this rebellion. It’s clear what we have done. We have (1) suppressed the truth about God; (2) refused to glorify, or worship, God as God; and (3) declined to be thankful. As a result human beings have become “darkened” in their thinking. We have become fools. Nevertheless, up to this point we have not been told specifically of anything that God has actually done to unleash His wrath upon humanity. Now this changes. For the first time in the letter we are told – three times in succession – that God has abandoned men and women to perversion (vv. 24, 26, and 28). But here is the irony. Man’s punishment is to be abandoned by God. But, of course, this is precisely what man has been fighting for ever since Adam’s first rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Man has wanted to get rid of God, to push Him out of his life. Like the Prodigal Son, He releases the rebellious child, permitting him to depart with all his many possessions and goods for the far country.
Well! Isn’t that what we want? Yes, it’s what we think we want. But the problem is that it doesn’t turn out as we anticipate. In fact, it turns out exactly the opposite. We think of God as a miser of happiness, keeping back from us all that would make us happy. We think that by running away from Him we will be happy, wild, and free. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead of happiness we find misery. Instead of freedom we find the debilitating bondage of sin. When we run away from God we think our way will be uphill, because we want it to be so. But the way is actually downhill. We are pulled down by the law of moral gravity – when God lets go.
Down! Down! Down! It’s a sad life history, but it is the experience of all who run from God, and Paul says all men and women do run from God, trying to rearrange the universe to fit their own desires. In Romans 1:24-28, Paul marks this downward rush of the human race in three stages. We don’t know why, when he set out to trace this downward moral path of human beings, the apostle Paul concentrated on sexual sins, since he could clearly have chosen other sins as well. Perhaps it’s because sexual sins are so visible (sins of the spirit are harder to detect) or because the damage in this area is so evident or because this was the obvious, stinking cesspool of corruption of his day and, therefore, something those to whom he was writing would clearly understand. Whatever the reason – and there may be more reasons than these – it is an excellent example.
At the start of this path the Prodigal Son would no doubt extol it for its freedoms. He would speak of being free to think new thoughts, have new experiences, and shake off all that old inhibiting sense of guilt that bound him previously. But given time, the feeling changes, and the one who is running away comes inevitably to feel used, taken advantage of, dirty, and betrayed. There was once an hour-long TV special on the freewheeling lifestyle in California, interviewing particularly many women who had been caught up in it. Interestingly, their nearly universal opinion was that they have been betrayed by the sexual revolution. As one woman said, “All men want from us is our bodies; we have had enough of that to last a lifetime.” Isn’t it the case that these women were expressing precisely what Paul says in verse 25, when he observes that those who act this way “have exchanged the truth of God for a lie”?
Paul’s description of a declining society in this great first chapter in Romans unfortunately, becomes even more apparent as Paul, with almost shocking candor, begins to talk about sexual perversions, namely lesbianism and male homosexuality (vv. 26-27). For centuries these matters were hardly spoken of in western society. Although some were no doubt practicing these acts, they were considered reprehensible that a moral person not only was not to speak about them, but he or she was not even to know what such vices involved. But today? Today they are written about with explicit detail in virtually every media in our land. Grade-school children discuss them. Not only are we not shocked – but we have become complacent, as if this were a natural expression of an upright spirit.
“Natural” is the important word here – Paul uses it in verse 27, and the opposite term, “unnatural,” in verse 26 – because it explains why this stage is a further step along the downward moral path. Perhaps this is why at this point, and at no other point in his discussion of the results of our rebellion, Paul speaks of a specific judgment of God upon the sin itself (v. 27).
We have come to understand that when men and women abandoned God, God abandoned them: first, to sexual impurity and, second, to sexual perversions. Now we find that God abandons them “to a depraved mind” (v. 28). Paul is writing not just any sinful mind – he has earlier talked about the generally foolish minds and generally darkened hearts of human beings – but about the specifically “depraved mind” created by continuing down this awful path for a lifetime. At the end is a mind not merely foolish or in error, but totally depraved. It is a mind so depraved that it begins to think that what is bad is actually good and that what is good is actually bad. The evidence of this bottom stage of depravity is disclosed in Romans 1:32. A person might be ashamed of his or her action, and then repent of it. But here, at the very end of this awful downhill path of judicial abandonment described in this chapter of Romans, the individuals involved actually come to approve of what is evil.
Hopeless? Yes, but not for God. For if it were, why would Paul even be writing this letter? Although in a sense God has certainly given the race over to the natural out-workings of its rebellious ways – a judgment we see about us on all hands – in another sense God has not “given up” at all. At least He has not given up on those whom He has set His affection. If God actually did give up on humanity forever, all would be hopeless. The Lord Jesus Christ would not have come. He would not have died for our sin. There would be no gospel. But that’s not the case, Jesus did come. There is a gospel. The way back to the eternal, sovereign, holy God is open. This is the Good News. Hallelujah!
If there is the gospel, if this is still the age of God’s grace, if God has not given up on us ultimately and forever – though He will eventually do that for some one day – then we are not to give up on other people either. How can we, if we have tasted the elixir of grace ourselves? We tend to give up, at least if the sin of the one we are abandoning is different from our own. We think of others as too far gone, or as having sinned beyond the point of a genuine repentance. Or, terrible as it is, we think of their sin as proof, evidence, that God has abandoned them forever. Many have done that with homosexuals. They regard AIDS as the kind of divine judgment on this sin. Is AIDS a judgment? It may be, just like many other consequences of sin. But it is not the final judgment. And until that final judgment breaks forth on our race, it is still the day of grace in which all who know the Good News and are obeying the voice of Christ in taking it to the lost can be hopeful. The consequences of sin are dreadful. But they alone, if nothing else, should compel us forward as agents of God’s great grace and reconciliation.
Romans 1:24-28 Reflection Questions:
What’s another classic example of man running away from God found in Scripture?
Have you given up on someone or a group of people?
What could you be doing for them or how can you reach out for the lost?
Our study of Romans 1:18-21 has shown what human beings have done in terms of their relationships to God. They have (1) suppressed the truth about God; (2) refused to glorify, or worship, God; and (3) neglected to be thankful. Because of the first and perhaps also because of the second and the third of these transgressions, the wrath of God has already begun to come upon them.
But the problem not only involves people’s relationships to God. It also involves what happens to them as a secondary result of their breaking of the ties that should exist between this holy and loving Creator and His rational creatures. When Adam rebelled against God it was not only his relationship to God that was broken. His relationship to Eve was broken also, and this, too, was to affect the history of mankind. Adam acted the fool, and he became one. So also with the race as a whole; thus, having spoken of that cosmic rebellion by which the human race has set its face against God, Paul goes on to declare verses 21-23. According to these words, the first result of man’s rebellion against God, so far as he himself is concerned, is that he became a fool. His heart was darkened.
The opening phrase of verse 21 tells how perversion to idolatry initially came about. “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God…” means there was a time when idolaters saw God as majestic, transcendent, all-powerful, infinitely greater than themselves. However, though they understood this, they did not honor Him but instead worshiped images like themselves. It’s important to see that what is involved is a falling away from high level truth, received by revelation, and not an upward climb to it.
It’s important to see this, because the world believes exactly the opposite. It tries to teach that the path of the race has been consistently upward from its original “animal” beginnings and that our present world religions or philosophies are a step upward from whatever religious sensibilities went before them. We have been taught that primitive ages of the race were marked by animism and that animism progressed upward to polytheism, which in turn produced monotheism. But this is not the way it happened. Research from anthropologists suggests that the original form of religion was monotheism and that the polytheistic or animistic religions we see today among certain “primitive” peoples are actually a falling away from that much higher standard. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools. For what could be more foolish that to have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for gods of our own devising?
In the midst of these important verses, Paul introduces another word that is extremely significant for understanding the nature of non-biblical religions and the human psychology that has produced them. This is the word exchanged. It occurs in verse 23 as well as verse 25. The word explains why the human race has been so determined to invent religions to replace worship of the one true God. The fact that people are religious does not prove that we are all seeking God. It proves the contrary. It proves that we are all running away from God. Although we are unwilling to know God and do not want Him, we are nevertheless unable to do without Him and try to fill the void with our substitute gods.
There is one more word we need to look at before we bring this study to a close, and that is the word darkness (v.21). Darkness is an image, of course. It’s the equivalent of Paul’s saying that “their thinking became futile” or “they became fools” or “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. When men and women turn away from God, they don’t admit this, of course. Instead, they speak of “bright new ideas,” “enlightenment” or “seeing the light.” But since God is the sole source of light, any ideas of enlightenment apart from Him that we may think we have are an illusion. And what we need is the revelation and power of God to bring us back from self-inflicted darkness into God’s light.
This is what has happened to Christians. We do not have any ability to rediscover the light of God by ourselves. Before God worked in us we were as much in the dark as anybody. In the case of Christians, God has uncovered for us the cause of our great spiritual trauma. He has dealt with our rejection of His revelation (as well as with all our other sins) in Christ, making that known to us. Then He has brought us back into harmony with Himself so that we no longer need fear Him or run away from Him but rather bask in His light.
We are also to live by His light. From Ephesians, Paul goes on to say: “Live as children of light (for the fruit of light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord” (Eph. 5:8-10). If we are of the light, we must live by the light. If we know God, we must show it by being like Him.
Romans 1:21-23 Reflection Questions:
Today in the 21st century, what idols do we use instead of worshiping God?
Are you basking in God’s light daily? What does that mean to you?
Are you living by the light? What does that mean to you?
No one likes to talk about the wrath of God, particularly if it is thought of in relation to ourselves. But if we have to think about it, as our study of these verses obviously forces us to do, we find ourselves reacting generally in one of two ways. Either (1) we argue that wrath is somehow unworthy of God, a blotch on His character, and therefore a mistaken notion that should be abandoned at once by all right-thinking people; or (2) we reply by denying that we merit God’s wrath, that we don’t deserve it. This second reaction is the more serious of the two. So it is the one Paul tackles in the development of his argument for the need we all have of the Christian gospel.
Romans 1:18-20 contains three important concepts, which together explain why the wrath of God against men and women is justified. The first is wrath itself. It is being revealed from heaven against the ungodly, Paul says. The second is the suppression of the truth about God by human beings, a point picked up and developed more fully in verses 21-23. The third idea is God’s prior revelation of Himself to those very people who suppress the truth about Him. These concepts need to be studied in inverse order, however. For when they are considered in that order – revelation, suppression, and wrath – they teach that God has given a revelation of Himself in nature sufficient to lead any right-thinking man or woman to seek Him out and worship Him, but that, instead of doing this, people suppress this revelation. They deny it so they don’t have to follow where it leads them. It is because of this willful and immoral suppression of the truth about God by human beings that the wrath of God comes upon them.
Revelation of God in Nature: It’s important to begin this study with some important definitions and distinctions. First, a definition: natural revelation means what it sounds like, namely, the revelation of God in nature. It is sometime called “general revelation,” because it’s available to everybody. Natural revelation is distinguished from “special revelation,” which goes beyond it and is the kind of revelation we find in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the revelation of the Bible’s meaning of the minds of those who read it by the Holy Spirit. When Paul talks about knowledge of God made plain to human beings as he does in this text, it is the general or natural revelation, not a specific scriptural revelation that he has in mind.
The second concept that needs to be defined here is “knowledge of God.” This is necessary because we can use the words know or knowledge in different ways. (1) Awareness: To begin on the lowest level, when we say that we know something we can be saying only that we are aware of its existence. (2) Knowing about: Knowing about something goes a step further, because knowledge in this sense may be detailed, extensive, and important. (3) Experience: The word know can also be used to refer to knowledge acquired by experience. (4) Personal: The last kind of knowledge is the highest and most important level. It is what we would call personal knowledge, the kind of knowledge we can only have of God, of ourselves, or of any human being. When the Bible speaks of knowing God in a saving way, this is what it has in mind. It involves the knowledge of ourselves in our sin and of God in His holiness and grace. It involves the knowledge of what He has done for us in Christ for our salvation and actual coming to know and love God through knowing Jesus Christ. It involves head knowledge, but also involves heart knowledge. It expresses itself in piety, worship, and devotion. It is what Jesus was speaking of when He prayed, “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
In the context of our text, of the four senses mentioned it is basically awareness, or nature that reveals God in such a way that, even without the special revelation of God that we have in the Bible, all men and women are at least aware that God exists and that they should worship Him. This awareness of God will not save them. But it is sufficient to condemn them if they fail to follow nature’s leading, as they could and should do, and seek out the true God so revealed.
Eternal Power and Divine Nature: Paul is precise here as he explains what the natural revelation involves. It consists of two elements: first, “God’s eternal power” and, second, God’s “divine nature” (v. 20). The second means quite simply that there is a God. In other words, people have no excuse for being atheists. The first means that the God, whom they know to exist, is all-powerful. People know this by definition, since a god who is not all-powerful is not really God. We can express these two ideas philosophically by the term “Supreme Being.” “Being” (with a capital “B”) refers to God’s existence. “Supreme” denotes His ultimate power. What Paul is saying is that nature contains ample and entirely convincing evidence of the existence of a Supreme Being. God exists, and we know it. Therefore, when people subsequently refuse to acknowledge and worship God, the problem is not in God or in the lack of evidence for His existence but in our own irrational and resolute determination not to know Him.
It’s important to understand that the revelation of God in nature is the limited disclosure of God’s existence and supreme power. There is no revelation of His mercy, holiness, grace, love, or the many other things necessary for us to learn if we are to know God savingly. Still, we are not to think of this limited revelation as minimal, as if somehow its limited quality alone can excuse us. According to the Bible, this natural revelation of God, though limited, is nevertheless extensive and overwhelming in its force. God’s revelation of Himself in nature does not stop with the external evidence for His existence, power, wisdom, and kindness, but it has what can be called an internal or subjective element as well. That is, not only has God given evidence for His existence; He has also given us the capacity to comprehend or receive it – though we refuse to do so.
Suppressing the Truth: This brings us to the second point of Paul’s argument in this section of Romans, the point that justifies and leads to God’s wrath; it is the human rejection of the revelation God has given. Paul’s description of what people have done in regard to natural revelation is in the phrase “who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). Why do we do this? It’s because we prefer sin to that to which the revelation of God would take us.
If, as Paul maintains, the revelation of God in nature is fully adequate to condemn people who do not allow it to bring them to worship and serve this true God, how much more terrible and awful is the case of the vast numbers of people, particularly in our country, who have not only the natural revelation to lead them to God but also have the Bible and the proclamation of its truths in virtually every town and hamlet of our land and (by means of radio and television and social media) at almost any hour, “without excuse”? The people of Rome were without excuse, and they had nothing but nature. No Bible, no churches, no preachers! What about us who have everything? If we reject what God tells us, we are a thousand times more guilty. No excuse! “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).
Romans 1:18-20 Reflection Questions:
What is your opinion of the “wrath of God,” do you believe it still applies in today’s world as it did in the Old Testament days?
Why do you think this country has so many atheists?
Who do you know to invite to church?
Paul’s confidence in the power of the gospel, an underlying and recurrent theme of the book of Romans, is revealed here in two of the most powerful and cherished verses in all of the Bible. Paul had to be one of the gutsiest guys in all of history. This bow-legged, poor-sighted, little Jewish rabbi was ready to preach the gospel in Rome.
Rome was a city wherein anti-Semitism had reared its ugly head, resulting in waves of brutal persecution. Rome was the home of Caesar Nero, the madman who was determined to exterminate Christianity. Nero, the one who dressed thousands of Christians in the skins of lambs and threw them to wolves and lions as he cried, “Where is your Good Shepherd now, little flock?” Nero was the one who dipped Christians in hot wax and lit them as candles in his garden while he shrieked, “How does it feel to be the light of the world now, Christians?” Rome was the entertainment capital of the world with a moral standard so low it would make Hollywood blush. Rome was the military mecca where generals and captains paraded pompously on the backs of black stallions. Rome was where the accepted greeting of the day was, “Caesar is lord.”
For a Jewish Christian who claimed no other Lord than One who commanded no army, One who made His triumphal entry on the back of a donkey, One who was pinned to a Cross by Roman soldiers, to preach a message of repentance in Rome, would take guts indeed. Why could Paul not only declare that he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel, but that he was ready to preach it in Rome? In this study I’d like to suggest eight reasons why we shouldn’t be ashamed of this gospel.
The Gospel is “Good News”: The first reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is the meaning of the word gospel itself. It means “good news,” and no rational person should be ashamed of a desirable proclamation. It’s good news about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is the best news imaginable.
The Way of Salvation: The second reason why we should not be ashamed of the gospel is that it is about “salvation.” And not just any salvation, it is about the saving of ourselves. Left to ourselves, we are in desperate trouble. We are in trouble now because we are at odds with God, other people, and ourselves. We are also in trouble in regard to the future; for we are on a path of increasing frustration and despair, and at the end we must face God’s just wrath and condemnation. We are like swimmers drowning in a vast ocean of cold water or explorers sinking in a deep bog of quicksand. But there is good news! God has intervened to rescue us through the work of His divine Son, Jesus Christ.
God’s Way of Salvation: The third reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that it is God’s way of salvation and not man’s way. How could Paul be proud of something that has its roots in the abilities of sinful men and women or is bounded by mere human ideas? The world doesn’t lack such ideas. There are countless schemes for salvation, countless self-help programs. But these are all foolish and inadequate. What is needed is a way of salvation that comes not from man, but from God! That is what we have in Christianity! Christianity is God’s reaching out to save perishing men and women, not sinners reaching out to seize God.
The Power of God: This leads to the fourth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, the matter he chiefly emphasizes in our text: The gospel is powerful. That is, it is not only good news, not only a matter of salvation, not only a way of salvation from God; it is also powerful enough to accomplish God’s purpose, which is to save us from sin’s pollution. It’s important to understand what’s involved here, for it is easy to misconstrue Paul’s teaching. When Paul says that “the gospel…is the power of God for salvation,” he is not saying that the gospel is about God’s power, as if it were merely pointing us to a power beyond our own. Nor is Paul saying that the gospel is the source of a power we can get and use to save ourselves. Paul’s statement is not that the gospel is about God’s power or even a channel through which that power operates, but rather that the gospel is itself that power. That is, the gospel is powerful; it is the means by which God accomplishes salvation in those who are being saved. He means that is, it’s the actual preaching of the gospel that the power of God is demonstrated in the saving of men and women.
A Gospel for Everyone: The fifth reason why Paul was not ashamed of this gospel is that it is a gospel for everyone – “everyone who believes.” It is “first for the Jew” and then also “for the Gentile.” Paul’s phrase has led readers to think that he was saying that the Jew was above the Gentile or than other people. But of course, this is not what Paul intends. In this text Paul means exactly the same thing Jesus meant when told the woman of Samaria that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Both were speaking chronologically. Paul’s point is that the gospel is for Gentile and Jew alike. It is for everyone!
Salvation Revealed to Sinners: The sixth reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that God has revealed this way of salvation to us. If God had not revealed the gospel, we would not know of it and would be living with the same dreary outlook on life as the unsaved. But the gospel is revealed. Now we not only know about the Good News but are also enabled to proclaim God’s revelation. When Paul says that the gospel of God “is revealed,” he is saying that it is only by revelation that we can know it. It is not something we could ever have figured out for ourselves.
A Righteousness from God: The seventh reason why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that it concerns a righteousness from God, which is what we need. In ourselves we are not the least bit righteous. On the contrary, we are corrupted by sin and are in rebellion against God. To be saved from wrath we need a righteousness that is of God’s own nature, a righteousness that comes from God and fully satisfies God’s demands. This is what we have! It is why Paul can begin his exposition of the Good News in chapter 3 by declaring, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (v. 21).
By Faith from First to Last: The eighth and final reason why the apostle Paul was not ashamed of the gospel is that the means by which this glorious gift becomes ours is faith, which means that salvation is accessible to “everyone who believes.” What does Paul mean when he writes “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last?” The meaning of the phrase is that the righteousness that is by faith (the first “faith”) is revealed to the perceiving faith of the believer (the second “faith”). This means that the gospel is revealed to you and is for you – if you will have it.
Romans 1:16-17 Reflection Questions:
Have you ever been ashamed of the gospel?
How are you proclaiming the gospel?
Do you have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?