Sunday January 17th
An obviously intoxicated man sat down on a subway seat next to a priest. The man's tie was stained, his collar was plastered with lipstick, and a half-empty bottle of gin was sticking out of his coat pocket. He opened up his newspaper and began reading.
After a few minutes the guy turned to the priest and asked, "Say, Father, what causes arthritis?"
The priest answered, “It's caused by unrighteous living, being with cheap, wicked women, too much alcohol - just a basic lack of righteousness."
"Well, I'll be darned," the drunk muttered, “I never would’ve guessed that.” And he returned to reading his paper.
A few minutes later, the priest had second thoughts about his abrupt manner, so he nudged the drunk man and said. "I'm very sorry. I didn't mean to come on so strong. I would like to pray for you. How long have you had arthritis?"
The man said "Oh, I don't have it, Father. I was just reading here that the Pope has arthritis."
Righteousness and unrighteousness are the two sides of a coin that Paul is addressing here in Romans chapter 1:
Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, 4 who was declared the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles in behalf of His name, 6 among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; 7 to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul starts out by identifying himself as a bond-servant of Jesus. A bond-servant was someone who was totally dedicated and continually at the disposal of his master. It meant that Paul was completely devoted to Jesus, who had called him to be His servant.
He also says that he was called to be an apostle. An apostle was someone who was sent out on an official mission. In Paul’s case he was called to be an official messenger of the gospel to the gentiles.
In verse 5 Paul says that the call of his apostleship is to teach an obedience of faith to the gentiles. This is because obedience flows from faith and true faith implies complete submission to the call of God.
He identifies those who he is writing to as “saints”, called by God and loved by God, filled with God’s grace and His peace. These terms will be continually repeated throughout the whole letter, as God’s calling, love, grace, and peace will be explained at greater length in the coming chapters.
Paul also wants to encourage and commend these Roman believers for the testimony of their faith that he has heard about. Because at the time that he was writing this letter Paul had not yet been to Rome.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the world. 9 For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, 10 always in my prayers requesting if perhaps now, at last by the will of God, I will succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also just as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to the uncultured, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Paul tells them that although he hasn’t visited them yet, he had often intended to go to Rome.
One example of this would be found in Acts 19:21
Now after these things were finished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”
And then Paul focuses on the key message that he wants to share with them when he comes:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Although the gospel was considered to be foolish by the supposedly wise and cultured members of his society, Paul saw the gospel message as divine wisdom, and he was not embarrassed to share God’s way of salvation, not matter what others thought of him. In our world today, many people still ridicule the gospel message and call it foolishness.
But to Paul it was the only true source of power. And that’s true for us as well. The life-changing impact of the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit is essential because of the inherent weakness and spiritual inability of humanity to set ourselves from free the bondage of sin. We need help from a power greater than ourselves to get free.
Paul said that this power was available to anyone who was willing to believe. Although salvation is unmerited, meaning that it can’t be earned; faith is still required for the power to be acquired.
He also emphasized that the gift of salvation was offered to the Jewish people first.
This was true in terms of the history of the redemption story, which came down through the line of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, through David to Jesus. It was also the pattern of Paul’s missionary outreaches. In visiting the various cities of the world Paul would always begin by expounding on Scripture in the synagogues, preaching Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. Then, if the Jewish citizens rejected his message, he would share it with the gentiles.
This next verse, verse 17, is the verse that caused Martin Luther to challenge the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church - thereby establishing the entire Protestant Reformation:
17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written: “But the righteous one will live by faith.”
Since we can’t obtain righteousness on our own, the only hope that we have is to receive righteousness from God as a gift. This is a key theme in the book of Romans. We will see it again in chapter 3, in chapter 5, and in chapter 10. In each instance, it is clearly explained that this righteousness can only be received through faith, not by works or effort.
As a righteous judge, God through the death of His Son Jesus justifies, or declares righteous, and forgives the sins of those who come to faith in Christ as their savior.
Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4
“Behold, as for the impudent one,
His soul is not right within him;
But the righteous one will live by his faith.”
This provides the biblical basis for justification by faith alone, indicating that the way to eternal life by faith was already known in the Old Testament.
After verse 17, Paul now shifts his attention from the righteousness that comes by faith to the unrighteousness that comes by rejecting faith. In the New American Standard Bible the title over this next section is:
Unbelief and Its Consequences
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
So the first consequence of unrighteousness is that it opens people up as the objects of God’s wrath.
That wrath is God’s righteous judgment against immorality and evil. Justice demands a consequence.
Notice that Paul says that God’s wrath IS revealed, meaning that God’s judgment is not limited to the future. The consequences of sin are already shown in the world around us. Its effects are visible even now.
Paul uses two words together - ungodliness and unrighteousness. This is significant because moral decay always follows spiritual rebellion.
And the end result of these two things working together is that the unrighteous want to suppress the truth. When confronted with the truth of God’s righteousness, fallen, sinful humans seek to deny it. But they actually do know what the real truth is, which is why they are “without excuse” as Paul will go on to explain in the next few verses.
19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
The entire created world around us should be enough evidence for anyone to know these two key truths about God:
21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and they exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible mankind, of birds, four-footed animals, and crawling creatures.
Paul stresses that all of humanity has the opportunity to know God through the revelation of His creation, therefore, humanity’s greatest sin is their refusal to acknowledge what is already known to be true.
People simply refuse to honor Him or give thanks to Him. They might worship what God created, talking about the wonders of nature and the beauty of the environment, but they won’t acknowledge the one who created it all. And one consequence of rejecting God is that their minds and hearts grow dark.
That’s why Paul says “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Intellectual arrogance before God brings forth a twisted sense of values. Worship of God is exchanged for devotion to man-made idols. And what happens as a result of this twisted idol worship? Impurity becomes acceptable behavior.
24 Therefore God gave them up to vile impurity in the lusts of their hearts, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
That’s a general way of saying that things start to get perverted when we allow the truth to be denied and twisted. Now Paul is going to break it down to the real nitty-gritty – so get ready for these verses:
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged natural relations for that which is contrary to nature, 27 and likewise the men, too, abandoned natural relations with women and burned in their desire toward one another, males with males committing shameful acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
Here is how one commentary sums up those two verses:
The effect of perverting the instinct to worship God is the perversion of other instincts from their proper functions. The consequence is degradation of the body, domination by lust, the disintegration of what is truly “natural”, and bondage to uncontrollable passions.
I want to take a minute here to clarify a few things about these verses:
28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a depraved mind, to do those things that are not proper,
God gave them up. Isn’t that so sad? Choosing sin over God risks abandonment by God to a spirit of licentiousness. It’s as if God says, “You want to worship at the altar of sin rather than worshipping me? Have at it! See how that works for you!” And what is the end result of that path?
29 people having been filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, and evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unfeeling, and unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them.
One interesting fact about this description of a life filled with sin is that Paul was writing this letter to the Romans while he was living in Corinth, which was one of the most sinful cities in the entire known world. Right outside of his own window Paul could see the clear evidence of their bondage of sin. The fact is that the rejection of the reality of God’s judgment not only removes all forms of restraint, but it actually becomes a source of further rebellion in the form of encouraging others to sin. Sinners gonna sin. And sinners gonna try to get others to join them.
I think that it’s important to bring balance to our understanding of these issues by bringing in these additional verses from Paul in 1st Corinthians 6, verses 9-11:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor those habitually drunk, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Unrighteousness has no inheritance in God’s Kingdom. None of it, from sexual sin, to stealing, to greed, to drunkenness. It’s just not acceptable to a holy God. But such were some of us before we were washed in the blood of Jesus, and sanctified by His grace and justified by putting our faith in Him.
So when we see people around us who are still trapped in the darkness of their sinful choices, before we are too quick to judge them, let us stop for just a moment and recall this important truth –
There, but for the grace of God, go I!
Here is a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
God’s grace stands over man’s sin. Now, the grace of God is not just some passing phrase, not just some old concept that we should be ashamed to use now. It’s not just some mechanical concept that has no deep meaning. Grace has a very vital place in any life. It has a very vital place in understanding the whole predicament of man and the whole predicament of the universe, for you can never understand life until you understand the meaning of the grace of God. The whole of life hinges on the ever flowing power and ever flowing stream of God’s grace. Grace is just that something that God gives us. It’s a gift that we don’t merit, that we don’t deserve, but which we so desperately need. That’s grace, and none of us could live without it.