I’m having increasing difficulty fitting these lessons into the mold of “backgrounds of the Restoration Movement,” but I have to look at an issue that came up in class on Sunday — because it fills in an important blank in our understanding of how God works in the world.
The question came up in class: why is the world such an awful mess and what are we going to do about it? Well, before deciding what to do, we have to understand the problem. As a friend of mine likes to say, prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.
So we go to Romans 1 —
(Rom 1:18-32) The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
We tend to think of God’s wrath as somethign that happens at the end of time — and it will. It certainly will. But Paul says God’s wrath is already being revealed against all godlessness and wickedness.
He also says it’s quite fair because God’s may be known.
20 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 men are without excuse.
Paul argues that God may be known from what he has made — just as you know much about me from my writing and would learn a great deal from a painter by viewing his paintings. But that’s a topic for another day …
21 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. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Those who should know God — and even many who actually knew God — rejected him, preferring idols.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
“Gave them over” is quite a controversial term, but the Greek is plain enough. Paradinomi is used elsewhere in Romans as follows:
(Rom 4:25) He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
(Rom 8:32) He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
The thought is that God allowed the world to become this way — but with that being his purpose. God didn’t crucify Jesus, but he delivered Jesus to the authorities full well knowing — and intending — that Jesus be crucified. In other words, God allows the idolaters to behave as they do because that’s the result God intends — but it’s not contrary to their will, any more than Jesus’ crucifixion was contrary to his will.
This is what life is like without God — when God abandons you.
5 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Paul sees homosexual behavior as evidence of God’s giving up on these people. They became so distant from God that they left the bounds of nature.
Remember that Paul has just argued that nature reveals “what may be known about God.” Leaving God therefore means leaving nature, that is, leaving God means exceeding the boundaries he made for our own good.
28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
In the next few verses, Paul explains how our moral nature should tell us that immorality is wrong. If you don’t want to be murdered, what makes you think it’s okay to murder others? If you want your children to obey you, why would you think it’s okay to disobey your parents?
The degree of the perversion is shown by a society that approves of these things. In fact, the NIV softens the message. “Approve” really means “takes pleasure.” Society not only permitted these things, it celebrated these things!
And, of course, this is a very accurate description of the Roman world. The government supported and encouraged idolatrous worship, which included prostitution, hetero- and homo-sexual, bestiality, and orgies. The world was a mess.
What does this tell us about today’s world? I can think of a few things —
* It seems to be God’s way to allow the lost to look and act really lost — so that their behavior shows a clear distinction between the saved and the lost. So long as the lost are good, nice people, they may well see no need for salvation — and the church may see no need to save them.
* If we pass laws that make the world look like the church, we are working at cross-purposes with God. The goal isn’t to hide their lost, degraded state, but to bring them to Jesus.
* Although, like Paul, we should certainly call sin “sin,” we must never forget that we are called to love our neighbors, even neighbors who are our enemies — or are sinners. God loves sinners; so must we. Therefore, when we speak of homosexuals or God-haters, we speak from a heart filled with love — and love isn’t really love if we aren’t willing to help those we love.
We may well struggle with knowing how to respond to homosexuals, but we should know where to start — with the heart of an humble servant. And that will go a long way.
Paul doesn’t get practical with his teaching until chapter 12, but there he gets very practical indeed —
(Rom 12:16-21) Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And if the church were to actually live this passage, the world’s impression of the church would be radically changed. You see, God delivers the world to the mess he describes in chapter 1 to show his wrath. But he delivered Jesus to the cross to show the cure — and the cure is a crucified church. It’s Philippians 2 — self-emptying, service, humility — all empowered by the Spirit.