Revealed … suppressed (Romans 1:16-32)

What is the mission of the local church in the city?  A lot of churches if asked that question will talk about sharing the love of Jesus, being salt and light, showing compassion etc. But what dies it mean to be salt and light, what does it mean to show the love of Jesus? Those terms can include a whole range of actions and activities from evangelistic events through to social actions.

Our mission should be rooted in our understanding of what we need to live in the city and what it is that people need which we have to offer.  We have been saying that what people need most of all is “The Gospel.”  Which of course leads us to the question “What exactly is that Gospel.” Paul is going to spell it out.  At its heart, Gospel or “The Good News” is about people needing and being rescued but isn’t that a little bit patronising? Does it set up those of us who move onto an estate as saviour figures?  Isn’t it insulting? Here we get to the nub of the historic objection to mission.

So Paul is now going to spell out why the Gospel is essential.

There is no shame in offering the good news of the Gospel  because it is the good news we need (v16-17)

V16 Paul’s desire to visit Rome and to preach the Gospel there is explained further. His statement that he is not ashamed of the Gospel is an understated way of declaring his pride and joy in the Gospel. This is his one priority, front and centre in his life. He delights in the Gospel because of what is revealed.  The Gospel reveals God’s power.  This is both for Jews and Gentiles.  So the logical flow from v 11 -16  can be seen as follows at this stage

  • Paul wished to visit Rome to encourage, bless and equip the church with a re-telling of the Gospel to their benefit and strengthening.
  • He wants to share this gift because he has a commitment not just to Jews but to Gentiles, people from all nations.
  • The gift he will bring is the proclamation of the Gospel which he delights in and is proud of
  • This is because the Gospel brings good news both to Jews and to Greeks.

The whole flow of verses 16 -32 is held together by the word “For”  (gar in Greek), meaning that we are offered an extended reasoning for Paul’s desire to visit Rome which is founded in his pride and delight in the good news of the Gospel.

V17 explains why the Gospel is powerful for all people. It is powerful and effective good news for both Jews and Gentiles because it reveals God’s righteousness which is a righteousness “from faith to faith.”  I would suggest that this can be rendered as “that is all about and completely dependent upon faith” or “faith from first to last”.[1]

To demonstrate the faith based nature of righteousness, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 which says “But the righteous shall live by his faith and is quoted by Paul.

Habakkuk was a prophet who looked in distress at the iniquity, injustice and violence he sees among God’s people (Habakkuk 1:1-4). God responds and says that he is going to act by sending an outside army in to bring judgement. This is not of course the answer the prophet was looking for but it was the one given (Habakkuk 1:5-11).   Chapter 2:4 is therefore about those who are righteous in the context of coming judgement or about who will be vindicated.  It may look to the prophet as though the ungodly and proud are getting away with wickedness but God in effect says “look again.” The proud lack a right standing with God, they are puffed up, empty, vain. Rather the righteous live by faith. What is it that is going to give a person that life and blessing, what will preserve them through the coming death and exile, well it will be their faith. 

. In Paul’s version, it is possible that he is saying the same, that it is by faith that the righteous live, which would connect faith with faithfulness or obedience. However, the preference by commentators seems to be to read it to say that it is “the righteous by faith who live.” This would seem to be a departure from Habakkuk. However, that might be to overstate the case. What both Paul and Habakkuk do is identify that there are those who live, who can expect God’s vindication, who will triumph as conquerors through the storms, troubles, trials of life and most of all through God’s discipline. Who are those people? Well they are the righteous. Who are the righteous, well they are the ones whose lives are characterised by faith. Even when that faith is expressed as faithful obedience, that remains primarily evidence of their trust in God.[2]

God’s righteousness may refer either to:

  • A righteousness from God (in other words, the righteousness which he gives to us)
  • God’s righteousness -the quality  or characteristic that he possesses
  • God’s righteousness in terms of his actin in salvation, acting to rescue and justify us.

We can over emphasise the distinction between the three.  Of course righteousness is a quality that God possesses and there is seen in action in salvation, because God s righteous and has righteously acted to save, this leads to us receiving a righteous which was not our own. However, I would argue that the emphasis here is governed by the parallel with verse 16’s description of God’s power at work so that the emphasis is on God’s righteousness as his saving act.[3]

The Gospel is the good news we need because there is excuseless shame in the alternatives we have opted for (v18-32)

V18 then develops the reason as to why righteousness needs to be based on faith and how this is good news for both Jews and Gentiles. Notice that whilst some Bible versions cbegin a new section and even insert a paragraph heading here, this is part of the same sentence and thoughts as verse 16, connected by the word “for”.

God’s righteousness is revealed in the Gospel as a faith thing because God’s wrath, or anger has been revealed.  What do we mean by God’s anger? Well, the next section will show that this is not about God losing it, about him being hot tempered. We know that “the Lord is slow to anger” but here we see God’s settled will in evaluating sin as evil. It is not that God loses it with people unfairly when they do their best but make mistakes in ignorance. No, they intentionally supress the truth. This truth has been clearly and unambiguously revealed to them by God.  It is plain and obvious (v19).

V20ff hangs logically from verse 19 showing the reason why truth has been made clear but has been suppressed.  V20 tells us that God reveals himself through creation. The visible world reveals to us the invisible attributes of the creator behind it. When we look around at the world, we see that it came into being and is sustained by one who is powerful and eternal.  This is a constant theme in the Psalms. See for example Psalm 29 which talks about God speaking and revealing his power in the storm.

Paul insists that they did know but despite this, humanity chose not to glory God or to give thanks to him. The problem of sin is not just a lack of belief but a lack of worship and a lack of gratitude. This is seen in Adam and Eve’s failure to acknowledge that all good things are from God and to trust him, instead seeking to usurp him in Eden but it also reflects the subsequent behaviour of humanity generally(v21). The result of this is a loss of ability to reason clearly.  I think first of all that the consequences of The Fall but also reflects that our reasoning is dependent on revelation so that if we refuse to hear what God is saying that we are actually attempting to function without the necessary data to process. 

An important theme for Paul is the contrast between wisdom and foolishness. In 1 Corinthians he talks about the Gospel as foolishness in the World’s eyes but in truth, God’s wisdom. Here in v22 he tells us that humanity considers itself wise but has in fact become foolish.  In Genesis 3, it is wisdom that Adam and Eve seek, the knowledge of good from evil but by seeking wisdom through the experience of sin and rebellion, they do not discover true wisdom but instead the shame and folly of nakedness, their first feeble attempts to cover their shame are a pitiful joke. They exchange God’s glory for animal images (v23).

Note that this reflects both a choice of who to worship to and who to listen to.  Sin involves idolatry. In the Garden, Adam and Eve opt to listen to the voice of the creature, the serpent instead of the voice of the creator, YHWH.  Humans throughout history have chosen to worship idols which in different ways reflect the fallen world.  However, sin is also about the marring of God’s image within us so that we fall short of his glory.

V24 -31 now talks about God handing sinful humanity over. First of all in v24, we are handed over to lust or impure passions and desires and this leads to the dishonouring of our bodies. The reason for this is that just as humans exchanged God’s glory for animal worship, so too, we have exchanged his truth for a lie. Again, this is about worship, the creature instead the creator is worshipped (v25).

As a result of their exchanging of truth for lies and God’s glory for creature worship, God hands people over to folly. If they exchanged truth for a lie and glory for shame then this will be reflected in their exchange of natural relationships for unnatural, specific same sex relationships, men with men and women with women.  We should not ignore this specific focus on homosexuality as crossing of boundaries, a degeneration away from created order but we should also keep it in context, there are two verses identifying this specific example in a whole chapter, indeed in th whole book (v26-27).

There is a further handing over (v29), now as a result of their failure to use their minds to know God, they are handed over to base thoughts. The handing over to their thought life leads to further immoral acts and attitudes, specifically a maliciousness that comes out in their speech (v30-31).

Once again we are reminded that these are people who knew God’s law, his decree, they were not ignorant but not only chose to participate in sin but also chose to approve it as well.

A look at ourselves

If there is no excuse, then we cannot turn up as “saviour figures” coming in to sort things out whether that is through the proclamation of a message to be believed or through good works and social action which bluntly may well be seen as equally paternalistic.

Rather, the Christian’s evangelistic message is that both you and me are sinners, we deserve God’s wrath but God offers grace, God offers righteousness and forgiveness.  This calls for humble demeanour, I am not the one offering the solution but I’m saying that I have found the one who does and I invite others to join me in coming to him.

As we look at the people who we live amongst, Romans 1:16-32 encourages us to see them as people who are made in God’s image and who have received revelation from God (in this case General Revelation). We need to recognise that God’s word points to them and us not as ignorant but as those who wilfully reject what God says. This also has implications for how we seek to reach the lost. The assumption that we can draw them in with acts of kindness in many respects is doomed to fail because those things in effect are examples of General Revelation and so the message behind them remains likely to be suppressed.  This may seem like a bleak analysis and to be clear, I’m not saying “Don’t show mercy and compassion” and “don’t be good neighbours” but I’m saying that the starting point of Gospel ministry has to be the convicting work of the Holy Spirit and so we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to open blind eyes.

Finally, Romans 1:16-32 helps us to see something of the state and condition of those we minister to. They are both willingly complicit in sin and helplessly bound by it. They have been handed over to futility but they have also actively chosen the foolishness of idolatry instead of the truth and wisdom of God’s Word.

This may lead to us seeing mission as a hopeless cause.  It does not have to. For one, it reminds me that when we talk about “hard places” the real problem is hard hearts and we find them everywhere, in inner cities, in countries closed to the Gospel, in leafy suburbs, in the secular West and in Catholic South America, on council estates and in rural villages.  Any place we go to with the Gospel is “hard.” However the power of God is at work when the Gospel is proclaimed and tht power is greater than any obstacle we might face.

[1] See Schreiner, Romans, 73.

[2] For more discussion, see Schreiner, Romans 74-75 and Moo, Romans, 77 – 79.

[3] See a fuller discussion of the righteousness of God in Moo, Romans, 79 -90.

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