Last week we began our series in the book of Romans. Before we get into this week’s text, I want to remind you that the “book” of Romans is actually a letter, written by Paul, to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses, and Paul never intended for a sentence or two to be pulled from the entirety of his letter and used to clobber people. This week, we travel through some verses that have been used to harm others. We must resist that temptation.
I want to begin with the final verses we studied last week: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)
And this reminder:
Salvation = That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.
Righteousness = Dikaiosýnē; equity (of character or act). The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)
And from our Sermon on the Mount series: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.
Continuing with the last becoming first theme, I’m going to begin with the final verse from this week’s passage…
Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (2:4 NLT)
Right before Paul talks about the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (changing the way we think), he lists a number of behaviors and attitudes that separate us from God. That list includes: sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. It includes backstabbers, haters of God, the insolent, proud, and boastful. Also, those who invent new ways of sinning, and disobey their parents, refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy... do whatever shameful things their hearts desired...they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles…women turned… to have sex with each other, the men… burned with lust for each other, also people wouldn’t worship God or even give him thanks; and some began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like … (From Romans 1: 21-31) That’s quite the list, don’t you think? Everything from gossip to promiscuity is listed. I find myself on this list and I’m going to make the assumption that you find yourselves on it as well.
And just in case we’re tempted to try to evaluate which shortcomings are most offensive and which are least, Paul writes: You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things?
If these verses frustrate you and you’re ready to give up–remember that this is the bad news part of the letter…but don’t lose hope, the next verse is:
Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you?… Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4)
Last week we looked at Romans 1:1-16 which includes Pauls motivation for his ministry: Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (14 TPT) And, through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship (v.5)… Notice, again, that Paul lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.
I’m so tempted to jump ahead in this letter and not leave us in the bad news. I want to head into the territory of Paul’s message that includes: God loves us all exactly as we are–no one is condemned in Christ Jesus, we are all saved by grace and not by our behavior… and we’ll get there.
But for today, remember that Paul is writing one letter. It’s not divided into chapters and verses. Paul is a trained lawyer and in the “bad news” section he is setting up his argument, that ALL of us truly are a mess–we’re all in this together–so that when we get to the lavishness of God’s grace, we’ll realize how beautiful God is and fall deeply in love with God.
So, the bad news of today’s message: We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. We worship ourselves, we worship created things (in our consumeristic society this is a real battleground). Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices, but God never stops loving us. God never stops expressing kindness toward us. God never gives up on us.
One more quick thought before I pass the baton to Laura–Romans 1:18 says, But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Ouch! In the NLT translation, there is a footnote after the word wickedness which says “Or who, by their wickedness, prevent the truth from being known.“ God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who prevent the truth from being known. That little footnote gives this verse a completely new context.
As I ponder that footnote, I ponder what truth we prevent from being known. Could it be the truth that God is love. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.?
Could it be people like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces...?(Mt. 23:13)
Do we do that? Do we try to determine who is in and who is out?
As we continue to work our way through this letter, let’s humbly admit our own shortcomings, face our own bad news and our need for grace. Let’s be committed to offering grace and demonstrating God’s kindness to those around us. Let’s not make it hard for people to know they are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven exactly as they are. Let’s not be the reason that people don’t know the truth of how extravagantly they are loved by God. Let’s make it easy for people to enter in…
Like Luanne, I am so tempted to jump ahead in this letter, knowing that what is coming changes everything about what we think Paul is saying here. I actually planned to do just that–to take us into Romans chapters 3 and 5, and highlight all the good, beautiful news that Paul’s about to share–until I re-read Luanne’s portion. Sometimes we need to wrestle a thing through when what we really want to do is rush past the conflict it creates in our minds and hearts. This week’s focus is on the bad news, so I’ll choose to stay here, in the discomfort these verses create within me.
I want to highlight something Pastor John mentioned on Sunday. He told us about the Polish astronomer, Copernicus, whose assertion in the 1500s that the earth was not the center of the universe challenged everything he and his contemporaries believed about how the universe worked. There were discoveries that hadn’t yet been made, exploration yet to come that would turn things upside down.
Why does that story matter for us as we look at this week’s passage? Because sometimes we come to scripture assuming we know what it means, the one right way to interpret these words that were recorded thousands of years ago in a different culture and time; words that have passed through many different language translations and interpreters’ modifications. We don’t always know what we think we know–Can we agree together to stay humble enough to invite the Spirit to breathe fresh life into our minds and hearts as we consider these hard passages–and all passages–of scripture? Are we willing to see it from a different perspective? I hope so. There is so much to learn, so much to explore… It’s one of the things I love most about our God, the mystery and wonder and vastness of who he is. There’s always something new I haven’t seen before–and learning more about him and his love never gets old. My prayer is that each of us will desire to go deeper, to explore what’s below the surface as we read.
There are parts of this passage that are hard for me, verses that make me pause and ask some questions, because they don’t seem to line up with the character of God revealed in Jesus. It’s important to pause and ask the questions. Because God’s character doesn’t change. He is love. His disposition toward all of his sons and daughters is kindness and grace. All the time. He doesn’t relate to us through condemnation, shame, guilt, or vengeance. We sometimes project those things onto God and make assumptions about how he feels about us–and passages like the one we’re looking at this week can help us build a case for that if we’re not careful.
But as Luanne reminded us, the “book” and “chapters” of Romans is a letter to a people living in Rome at a specific time in history. She wrote last week that it is, “One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love.” It is essential that we hold tightly to the overall theme that Paul himself told us in the very beginning of this letter he was writing about as we pick up different verses throughout the letter. Sometimes we do the opposite–we grab onto a verse here and there with a white-knuckled grip and let go of the context in which the words are written.
With all of that said, let’s take a moment to explore the “wrath” that Paul brings up in this passage. Verse 18 begins with, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven. . .”
But… Paul is writing this letter post-cross, right? Hadn’t Jesus already absorbed all of our sin and violence on the cross and come back from Hades, after setting its captives free, holding the keys to death itself? Is Paul saying that God has wrath to pour out on humanity even though Jesus already conquered sin and death for the world? That doesn’t make sense… So let’s look a little deeper…
As Luanne wrote above, Paul is making a case, and this week we don’t get to see beyond the prosecution’s case against all of humanity. We’ll get there soon, but for now, there’s a long list of things that appear to separate us from God and cause his wrath to be revealed. But, what if wrath doesn’t mean what we’ve always thought it means? What if God’s nature really is love, and we’ve misunderstood this wrath thing? I’m not writing as someone who knows the right answers. This passage brings up so many questions within me as I read it. But what if we considered a different perspective and asked God to grow our understanding? Can we do that together?
In the book A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, Brad Jersak offers this regarding wrath:
“Literal human ‘wrath’ combines emotional anger with violent retribution. We describe ‘the wages of sin’ (self-destructive consequences) as ‘the wrath of God’ because we infer sin’s consequences as God’s reaction. In actuality, biblical wrath is a metaphor. It signifies the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God.”
Whether we agree fully with this assertion or not, I think it’s worth considering.
With this working definition of wrath, let’s look at the first passage in Ephesians 2:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. . . gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 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. (Ephesians 2:1, 3-5, my emphasis)
Our sin made us all ‘deserving of wrath’–of the intrinsic consequences of turning away from the mercy and love of God–and that wrath led us all the way to death. But… because of his love, God came to us again–all the way around to where we stood with our backs to him, arms crossed in defiance–and stood facing us in the person of Jesus, who conquered death by his life and now holds the keys to every grave. It’s so beautiful.
Later in this same book, the author says:
“Paul clarifies throughout Romans 1, what had been described in the narrative as active wrath is in fact a metaphor. He defines ‘wrath’ three times as the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of people to their own self-destructive trajectories–even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on others.”
This makes sense to me. God doesn’t actively lead us into–or hand us over to–evil, destructive ways. But as the Giver of free-will, he allows us to choose for ourselves who we will serve. When we choose to live in the inexhaustible mercies and grace of God, we don’t experience ‘the wages of sin’. When we choose to step away from the flow of mercy and choose to live for ourselves–make ‘me’ the center of the universe–there are consequences. Harm is done to ourselves and to others.
Luanne explained the same concept this way:
“We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. . . Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices. . .”
So, when Paul–called by some the “Apostle of Grace”–lists the things that God “gave them over” to, he is telling his readers that there are intrinsic consequences to choosing to live a self-centered life. Outside of the flow of God’s mercies (which he never shuts off, but we can choose to live in ignorance of) we find ourselves on a path that leads us to indulge in all kinds of excesses. He writes of the evils that result from selfishness, and includes sexual indulgences that are unnatural to how a person is designed. I do want to note that throughout his list, Paul is not identifying a specific community or group–he is writing an exhaustive list of the consequences of choosing a self-focused, self-indulgent life that doesn’t exhibit the kingdom principles of loving God and loving others.
Finally, as we’ve written about so many times before, we need to be aware of our own filters as we read scripture, and commit to reading everything through the lens of Jesus. Even the writings of Paul, as brilliant and wise and stirring as they are, must be read through a Jesus lens. Does our understanding of a particular passage line up with the nature of God revealed in Jesus? Do our filters line up with kingdom values and the way of self-giving love modeled by Jesus? Do we have an agenda as we read certain parts of our Bibles? Are we searching for something that will back up our positions and personal convictions? Or are we bringing everything back to the good news of Jesus? He is the foundation of our faith. He is the perfect Word who was with God and was God from the beginning, through whom all things were made. (John 1:1-3, paraphrased)
As I close, I’ll say again, I don’t have the answers. I’m wrestling through things I don’t understand, as we all are. What Luanne and I hope to do in this space is dig in and give all of us space to explore what’s buried in the depths. Ultimately, our hearts are totally captured by Jesus and his kingdom, and our desire is to learn and grow into kingdom people who carry his heart to the world around us. What we write here evidences our wrestle, our processes, as we journey with Jesus. We hope you will dig in and do your own exploring, trusting the Spirit as your guide. There is much to be found if we’re willing to learn and listen and grow.
This week’s message brought us what appeared to be some bad news. But this passage is one small portion of a complete letter, and the theme of this letter is grace. Hold on… there’s so much more to come.