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Romans: Set Apart for the Good News

Romans: Set Apart for the Gospel  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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Study of Romans 1 based on the work of Dr. Steven Runge: Runge, S. E. (2014). High Definition Commentary: Romans (p. iv). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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Romans: Set Apart for the Good News

First of all, I want to thank you all for your prayers last week! Apparently if you show up to the doctor with one swollen leg and no bruising or pain you set off some type of – let us make sure you are not going to drop dead on us protocol… Thankfully all the testing came back negative, so that is positive! Also, Wendy is not here today because she had her wisdom teeth removed yesterday, she will not be operating heavy machinery this week, but could possibly end up on America’s Funniest Home Videos…
What I learned from my trip to the hospital last week is that you will be treated according to what you present. When I sat down in front of the doctor the first question was, “Why are you here?” There was no real exchange of pleasantries, this was a purposeful visit, so after getting my age weight and blood pressure we got to the point of the visit…
The opening lines of New Testament letters play the important role of introducing what follows. Paul adapts the basic “From Paul, to the Romans” format into something that better accomplishes his purpose for writing this particular letter. (Next Slide: Romans 1:1)
Romans 1:1 ESV
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
He first supplies a description of who he is. Since letters were hand-carried, the Romans would have no doubt which “Paul” was writing them. Instead, the description functions more like a business card, presenting a specific set of credentials. If you compare the greetings of Paul’s letters, you’ll see that he introduces himself differently depending on the material he intends to discuss.
Paul’s greeting in Romans is the only one that mentions the gospel, for which he is set apart (1:1). By characterizing himself as a slave/servant of Christ Jesus, set apart for the gospel, Paul lays the groundwork for declaring his obligation to preach it to all people (1:14), especially to those in Rome (1:15). His self-description makes sure the Romans think about him in a particular way. Who knows what they may have heard about him, or what would have come to mind when his name was mentioned. Adding this extra information shapes (or even corrects) how they think of him.
I actually carry 3 different (digital) business cards and I share them according to what is most appropriate to the situation…
Paul introduces himself differently in his various letters.
The introduction he chooses seems to reflect the types of problems or issues he will address with that church. Romans is the only letter that mentions the gospel. His description points to the gospel as his mission in life and sets the stage for the exposition that follows.
This shaping of people’s ideas also applies to how Paul characterizes the gospel in 1:2. (Next Slide: Romans 1:2)
Romans 1:2–3 ESV
which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh
The gospel is far more encompassing for Paul than our modern notion of the gospel being a plan of salvation. It is impossible to know exactly what a mention of the gospel brought to mind for the Roman believers. Based on Paul’s exposition, he wants them to understand that the gospel message of salvation and restoration is not some new thing; instead, it has been part of God’s plan all along.
He drives this point home in 1:2, characterizing the gospel as something God had announced through the prophets centuries earlier.
Paul uses Old Testament quotations throughout his letter to reinforce this point.
All of the anticipation in the Old Testament is less about the gospel than it is about the Son (1:3).
concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,” (Romans 1:3–5, ESV)
In verses 3–5, Paul provides intentional characterization of Jesus, just as he provided for himself. He does not intend to narrow down which “gospel” or “Jesus” he has in mind. This characterization sets the stage for how we think about the ideas Paul introduces in the rest of the letter.
1.Verse 3 emphasizes that Jesus was fully man, descended from David, is critical for understanding how He was able to conquer the power of sin.
2.Verse 4 highlights another important aspect of His nature: being God’s Son. What proof is offered? Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a declaration by the Holy Spirit of His divine Sonship.
3.In Verse 5 Paul extended his characterization of Jesus by describing his own connection to Christ. He is the source from whom Paul received grace and his apostleship.
These gifts drive Paul’s desire to preach the gospel in Rome, as he states in 1:6, explicitly referring to the Roman congregation as those loved and called by God. Paul is not offering hollow pleasantries to break the ice; he is carefully selecting images he calls upon later as he outlines his understanding of the gospel and its implications for everyone. This entire section introduces key ideas he will elaborate upon later.
Who Is…
Paul uses a long string of descriptions to refer to Jesus before actually using His proper name. By delaying this specific reference, Paul not only builds a little suspense, but he ensures that readers conceptualize Jesus in a particular way
Take a look at how Paul has ordered his description of Jesus. It is almost like the old game “Twenty Questions,” where a person has to guess who the other has in mind by learning different facts about them. Paul builds a mental image of Jesus while at the same time delaying His introduction. He provides titles and roles before actually mentioning Jesus’ name. A reader would likely not have struggled to determine who Paul was talking about, but for our purposes, it is important to recognize the effect of Paul’s strategy. If he had begun with Jesus’ name, the descriptive expressions that followed would have had a different effect. Instead, Paul is able to shape how the reader views Jesus by painting the picture before assigning a label.
The opening of the letter is much more than just a simple greeting. Paul uses it to introduce ideas that will play a key role in the exposition that follows. It is as if he is placing items onto the table of the discourse to make it easier to unpack each one when the time comes. This part of the book is not something to hurry past to get to the “good stuff.” This introduction should be carefully digested; it sets the stage for all that follows.
(Next Slide: First – Romans 1:8-17)
Romans 1:8–17
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” (Romans 1:8–17, ESV)
As stated earlier, Paul’s fundamental intention in writing seems to be the exposition of the gospel rather than the announcement of his plan to visit Rome. Several times in the letter Paul begins a sentence with “first,” creating the impression he will add a number of related points—only there aren’t any others.
Verse 8 is the first of these “firsts” in Romans, and it presents two possibilities: Paul intends to move on to other items in the list but gets distracted, or the “first” is rhetorically motivated to make it look like he is going to continue. In my view, the second option best explains what we see in the letter. It allows Paul to fake going one way so that he can go a different way, just like a pump fake in basketball. Here’s what I mean:
We can see this in verse 8, where Paul presents what seems to be the first of several things for which he is thankful. But Paul gives thanks, but Paul mentions only one thing. This is not to say that Paul isn’t thankful for many things; it means he quickly moves on to the real purpose for writing by offering the reason he gives thanks (1:11–12).
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11–12, ESV)
(Next Slide: Romans 1:9)
Romans 1:9 ESV
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you
We find a different rhetorical device in 1:9: extra thematic information. This device separates Paul’s declaration that God is his witness from what it is that God witnesses. Since we already know which “God” he is referring to, the extra information shapes how we think about Him (and Paul). This delay draws extra attention to the final part of the sentence: Paul constantly making mention of the Romans in his prayers.
Let’s read vv.8-12 (Next Slide)
Romans 1:8–12 ESV
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.
Delay Tactic: Paul begins a statement about God being his witness, but then interrupts this idea with a description of the God whom he serves. This extra descriptive information delays revealing what God is a witness of, drawing extra attention to it based on this delay.
We find digressions into supporting material in verses 9, 10b, and 11.
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you” (Romans 1:9, ESV)
always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” (Romans 1:10b, ESV)
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—” (Romans 1:11, ESV)
These “for” digressions serve the same kind of purpose as a rhetorical question, but without the need for interrupting the flow. Each statement strengthens the one immediately preceding. These statements not only offer support, they also sidestep off the main line of argument onto what can become an embedded theme line. This is just like when we go off on a tangent in the middle of a story, filling in important information before coming back to the main storyline. However, in the case of Romans, 1:17–18 begin an extended digression that continues all the way through the end of chapter 4. Then 5:1 resumes the argument suspended in 1:16–17.
By beginning the thanksgiving statement in 1:8 with “first,” Paul creates the idea that he’s going to provide another thing related to the list, but his digressions remove him ever further from the list. He never returns to his list of things for which he is thankful. Paul’s feint here is rhetorically motivated, based on his larger purpose of announcing his visit and providing an exposition of the gospel. Paul’s desire to visit becomes the big idea for the balance of this section, and all the rest simply serves to strengthen this assertion.
You have to love Paul’s cleverness in getting to the point…
Development of Thought: Paul introduces a series of sentences using “for,” with each one providing support for the preceding sentence. Each of these statements digresses off the main argument line. The longer the series, the bigger the digression. These “for” statements create a specific development of thought (just as using rhetorical questions would), by providing a rationale or motivation for what precedes.
In 1:11 Paul seems to misstate his motivation for wanting to visit Rome before he corrects it in 1:12. This kind of mistake is quite common when speaking, since there is so little time between planning what to say and actually saying it. But when we write, things are different. We devote time to “chewing on the pencil” while we plan, and we make fewer misstatements than we do when speaking. Even back in Paul’s day, it was possible to erase and make corrections. This means we might better understand 1:11 as an intentional statement rather than a misstatement.
Remember from the introduction that Paul’s lack of a relationship with the Romans likely leads him to use a less-direct approach than we find in his other letters. One way to communicate his humble stance to the Romans is to intentionally overstate something and then correct it. Lawyers do the same kind of thing in court, asking questions they know are not allowed and then retracting them. These are not mistakes, but calculated decisions to achieve certain effects. After all, the jury still hears the question! We have good reason to believe this is Paul’s intention, since he uses rhetorical devices elsewhere to mitigate his directness.
The shift from 1:11 to 1:12 shows how Paul transitions his role from someone who exercises authority over the Romans to someone who functions more as a peer seeking mutual encouragement. Paul reinforces this sense of commonality at the end of the verse by adding “both yours and mine.” Even so, the Romans would have had little doubt about whose faith he had in mind.
Paul begins a new point in 1:13, addressing why he hasn’t yet visited the church in Rome. He uses an attention-getting metacomment—“I don’t want you to be unaware”—which draws attention to what he is about to say. He could have skipped the metacomment, saying only that he had often intended to visit, but that statement would have lacked the same rhetorical punch.
Remember that all facets of this discussion—Paul’s being prevented from coming and his intentions in seeing the Romans—support his big idea of wanting to visit. In other words, it is all a digression rather than an advancement of the main argument.
So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Romans 1:15, ESV)
The first word in 1:15 signals Paul’s return to the main idea of this section, just like someone saying, “So anyhow” or “as I was saying,” to resume where they left off.
Romans 1:16–17 ESV
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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Romans 1:16–17
Anyone who has tried to outline the book of Romans knows it is notoriously difficult. Part of the problem arises from Paul’s structuring the bulk of the letter as his motivation for wanting to visit. Even though many versions begin a new paragraph at 1:16 or 1:18 (or both), this material serves two purposes simultaneously. First, it provides supporting motivation for what precedes. In verses 16–17, Paul supports his stated desire to visit Rome; 1:18 and the following verses support his claim in 1:16–17 about not being ashamed of the gospel.
Similarly, 1:18 and the following verses digress from 1:16–17, addressing the universal problem of God’s wrath being revealed, before coming back to address the power of the gospel in the believer’s life at the beginning of Romans 5. Thus I view 1:18–4:25 as one giant digression in Paul’s overall argument. Nevertheless, this section provides crucial information we need to understand his flow of thought. The phrase “having been justified by faith” in 5:1 reaches back and resumes the argument line in 1:16–17 about the power and righteousness of God revealed in the gospel. Paul first addresses the plight of humanity with regard to sin and then returns to his discussion of the impact God’s righteousness can have in a believer’s mortal life after the penalty of sin has been removed.
Similarly, the whole section describing humanity’s depravity and God’s plan for reconciliation and restoration is embedded within the larger idea, described in 1:16–17, of the preeminence of the gospel message. Beginning with the universal problem of sin and its consequences for Jew and Gentile alike. It is not just a matter of having committed sins; the presence of sin in the world and in our flesh has destroyed God’s intended purpose for creation.
After outlining God’s reconciliation plan, Paul addresses lingering issues concerning the relationship between the Law and the believer’s ongoing struggle with sin. Finally, Paul moves on to how this reconciliation affects our interaction with others in the church and the world around us. Paul sees the gospel as much more than a simple plan of salvation. The power and righteousness it reveals change everything, if we really understand it. This, in a nutshell, is what motivates Paul to come and preach the gospel in Rome.
Paul’s unashamed embrace of the gospel is based on its power for salvation to all who believe. The reference to “Jew and Gentile” alike makes clear that there is no favoritism here, which, as we will see, cuts both ways. But there’s more: The gospel is not just the power of God for salvation; it also reveals God’s righteousness.
(Next Slide: Important Revelation)
Important Revelation: Verses 17–18 reveal two things, one positive, one negative. The positive—the righteousness of God—should lead God’s creation to a humble and obedient response.
This positive revelation sets the stage for a more daunting revelation in the next verse. Although the revelation of God’s righteousness ought to be sufficient to get people’s attention, Paul provides more practical motivation: the revelation of God’s wrath (1:18).
Romans 1:18 ESV
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
This positive revelation sets the stage for a more daunting revelation in the next verse. Although the revelation of God’s righteousness ought to be sufficient to get people’s attention, Paul provides more practical motivation: the revelation of God’s wrath (1:18).
Progression of Thought: Paul uses a series of closely related statements to accomplish the same kind of supporting development he would have achieved by using rhetorical questions to connect thoughts. Each statement supports what precedes. Each steps further off the preceding line of argument and onto a digression. An extended digression begins in 1:20–21 and continues through the end of Romans 4.
Each of these ideas bears a close relation to the one that immediately precedes, but they represent a pretty big leap when we compare where Paul begins (his obligation to preach) with where he ends (God making His attributes clearly understood). In other words, support A links to B and then to C, D, and E, but A seems to bear little connection to E. This flow of thought fosters a sense that each piece naturally derives from the one before it.
It also allows Paul to move in a different direction subtly, without making one dramatic move. It creates powerful connections that might have seemed more abrupt had he used a more direct approach.
So why is God’s wrath revealed? What is the source of humanity’s ungodliness?
•They have rejected the created order of things that God set in place from the beginning.
•This rejection doesn’t just affect humankind; rejecting God’s created order affects God and upsets how He intended things to be.
•He didn’t create things for our good pleasure, but for His. Paul characterizes this rejection as three different exchanges:
1. the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of mortal beings
2. the truth of God for a lie
3. natural sexual relations for what is unnatural
Although these are three separate rejections, they all represent an overturning of God’s intended order. Thus, the message of Romans is not simply about the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. Rather, Paul describes a problem confronting all of creation, not just humankind. In Romans 8:22, Paul specifically refers to creation groaning in agony as it awaits the same needed restoration we do.
So as you read through the balance of this section, remember that Paul has much more in mind than the universal problem of sin.
As we will see in 2:1, Paul has all people in view here and not just Gentile idolaters. The people facing God’s impending judgment are those who have perpetrated the disorder.
Paul describes them less than objectively in 1:18 as suppressors of God’s truth. How have they suppressed it? Verse 19 states that they have missed what God has made clear about Himself. How is it their fault? Well, God has clearly revealed everything that is knowable about Him. Like what? Verse 20 outlines the attributes He used to reveal Himself, with the result being that these perpetrators are without excuse.
Paul often relates his points to one another as though they are natural consequences of a decision. If you decide on choice A, then you will receive consequence B. Different choices may bring about different results, but Paul typically correlates consequences with a decision. In 1:21, Paul uses a rhetorical question to elicit a pair of contrasting paths. He makes clear that refusing to honor God brings about a negative result, and elicits the possibility that the choice to honor Him would have led to a different outcome.
Since in 1:20 Paul tells us that God has clearly made Himself known by revealing His divine attributes, we cannot blame our separation from God on our lack of knowledge. Rather, the problem stems from our response to the knowledge He gives. Verse 21 is pivotal for understanding this problem. Paul makes clear in 1:21 that although the people knew God, they chose not to honor Him as God and thus rejected His intended order. It’s not as if they misunderstood who He was; in fact, it was quite the opposite. They understood exactly who He was, but refused to honor Him as God (1:21). This initial rejection leads to even worse natural consequences: futile thinking and a darkening of their hearts (1:21).
Paul’s line of reasoning eliminates any possible excuses people might make by highlighting the intentionality behind their rejection of His order. God has clearly revealed Himself to the world in ways no one could miss. The million dollar question is how we will respond to this information. We can choose to honor Him and thank Him, or not. From Paul’s perspective, it’s that simple.
Romans 1:21 ESV
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Knowing He Was God: What would be the expected response to this kind of knowledge? The choice has dire consequences. If people had chosen to honor God and thank Him in response to His revelation, the power of God for salvation would have been available to them. In contrast, the choice not to honor Him as God or give Him thanks resulted in futile and foolish thinking, a darkening of their hearts.
And what does this darkening and futility naturally lead to? Being wise in our own eyes (1:22). It also means that the “God-shaped vacuum” He created to draw us to Himself remains empty. Those who have rejected God find other things to worship in His place (1:23). After all, the existential questions about where we came from and the meaning of life don’t go away even if we reject the correct answer to them. So how do we make something that isn’t God seem godlike? We assign godlike qualities and characteristics to it. If someone tries to persuade you to worship something, chances are they are not going to call it a dumb idol or a false god. They are going to use every means possible to make it sound attractive. Think of a used car salesman trying to get you to drive one of his cars off the lot.
Paul uses the same kind of marketing strategy to build a case against exchanging the worship of God for something else. He contrasts the inherent unworthiness of these things with God’s worthiness to be worshiped, and he uses terminology that intentionally casts a negative light on the peoples’ decision to reject God. Instead of describing their behavior as a change—from worshiping God to worshiping animals and such—Paul casts the exchange as abandoning worship of the Immortal for images of things that are mortal. He draws a stark contrast between how God intended things to be and how things actually are. His contrasting terminology makes clear the lunacy of the exchange. He seeks to talk us out of going down this path by making it sound like a really bad idea—which it is.
Romans 1:23–25 (ESV)
and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Which Will You Worship? Like a good salesman, Paul makes his pitch by casting the choice between worshiping God vs. worshiping something else as a “no brainer” decision. No matter how appealing that other thing might sound, it is still a horrible exchange.
Verses 24–25 outline the natural consequences of rejecting God as the object of worship. Their rejection of God as God led Him to give them over to their own lusts. Verse 25 reiterates the exchange described in 1:23, but now in starker terms. Instead of contrasting the mortal with the immortal, Paul now expresses the exchange in terms of origins. He contrasts worship of a created thing with worshiping the Creator. There is also a contrast between the glory of God and the image of the created things.
In 1:25 Paul characterizes the rejection of God in terms of truth and lies, and again he paints rejection in a bad light to make the desired outcome look even more favorable.
(Next Slide: Romans 1:25)
Romans 1:25 ESV
because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
The Great Exchange
The choice not to worship God as God does more than just focus our attention in the wrong direction. Recall Paul’s assertion in 1:21 that it leads to darkened hearts and futile thinking. This mental and spiritual posture manifests itself outwardly in our behavior.
Paul provides specific examples and portrays them as “exchanges,” contrasting the order God had originally ordained with the unrighteous behavior that results from the rejection of His order.
The people’s rejection is what provoked God to reveal His wrath (1:18).
In verse 26, Paul’s metaphor contrasts people’s desire for each other and highlights another consequence of God handing us over to our own desires. The same Greek word for “desire” used in 1:24 is used again in 1:26, but with a different connecting word.
Verse 24 introduces a conclusion summarizing the consequences resulting from 1:20, but 1:26 shifts from consequences to a cause/effect perspective. It focuses on their passions instead of the darkening of their hearts.
The two are related; however, describing it in terms of passions sets the stage for a look at sexuality. The same Greek root translated “exchanged” in 1:23 and 25 is used again in 1:26 to describe the exchange of natural relations between men and women for unnatural ones. The repetition of these words cohesively connects these different images to one another.
Romans 1:26–27 ESV
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
The Great Exchange: The same root term found in 1:23 and 25 is used in 1:26 to describe the exchange of natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. This exchange of relations is portrayed as a natural consequence of people rejecting God as the object of their worship.
There is an important point to be drawn from how Paul frames this issue in Romans 1 and how it contrasts with how many present the issue today. The pendulum of public opinion has swung toward accepting same-sex relationships, a shift unlikely to change. This exchange of sexual identities falls under the general discussion of things against which God has revealed his wrath. The terms Paul uses in 1:18 are generally translated as “unrighteousness” and “ungodliness,” casting the problem in moral terms. However, it is interesting that this righteous/godly metaphor is not the one Paul uses to frame this exchange of God’s intended order. Rather than describing the behavior as immoral or ungodly, he describes it in terms of God’s natural order. It is unnatural—yet another rejection of the way God intended things to be. He also uses shame/honor language, describing the issue in terms of dishonoring passions (1:26) and shameless acts (1:27).
So why would Paul take this approach to what clearly seems to be a moral issue? If we claim to value attention to the details of the text, then we had better slow down and consider the implications of Paul’s wording. Some have claimed that what Paul has in mind here is not same-sex activity in general, but a specific kind. However, Paul’s language and the point that he draws from this argue against such a view. He includes men and women, rather than a subset of either. More important, the element of the behavior Paul focuses on is an exchange of natural relations for what is unnatural (1:27). Exclusion of certain kinds of same-sex behavior seems unlikely. But why would Paul make a shift from moral/immoral language to shame/honor language? The answer may well lie in how Paul chose to frame a potentially divisive issue.
Homosexuality would likely have been about as prevalent and accepted in Paul’s context as it is for us today, but not in the form of marriage or open relationships. Certain kinds of activity were regarded as more acceptable than others. This is not to say that the issue is less amoral than another kind of sin; it is not. After all, of all the potential sins Paul could have chosen to illustrate exchanging God’s way for some alternative, he chose this one. This is why we should pay close attention to how Paul chooses to frame the issue here. He does not describe it in terms of right and wrong behavior. Instead he uses shame and honor language to frame it as rejecting God’s natural order in favor of what is unnatural. Paul’s approach is less of a moral judgment and more of an observation regarding natural consequences of human decisions.
Despite the rising acceptance of “alternative lifestyles” and the clamor by today’s activists for our culture to celebrate diversity, Paul’s strategy here has a persisting relevance. There is still shame associated with alternative lifestyles, still a struggle with the reproductive disconnect it represents. Paul’s approach presents a more compelling appeal in our present context than the name-calling and placard-waving slogans we see in the media.
Sin is sin, despite the modern church’s adoption of an informal acceptability scale. Spiritual revival is characterized as a rejection of any sin, exchanging incremental repentance for total. The claims of hypocrisy by those outside the church can be traced at least in part to our inconsistent stance on sin in practice, despite what we might say in theory.
Stay tuned: Paul rejects the differentiation of sins in Romans 2:1 by showing how those who condemn others are guilty of the same thing. He shifts focus from behavior that immediately evokes moral indignation—for Jews regarding pagan, idolatrous Gentiles—to things that morally upstanding folks—like us—might do. In other words, he homes in on people who tend to think and act as if they have the Christian life pretty well figured out.
Paul is a master of framing issues and arguments to bring about a desired outcome. Throughout the book of Romans, he frames his argument based on whatever approach will best accomplish his purposes. We might benefit by taking a page from Paul’s playbook and rethinking how the church frames the issue of sexual sin (and sin more generally). It is no more sinful than lust, greed, hatred, or envy, just much less socially acceptable within the church. How we present an issue greatly affects how others receive it.
The final part of this chapter summarizes the consequences for those who reject God’s created order. The section begins in 1:27 where Paul introduces another “giving over” using the same Greek term from 1:24 and 26. Paul now looks at giving over to a darkened or debased mind rather than to degrading passions. This section provides something of a summary of the impact of rejecting God’s order to do “what ought not be done.” Nonetheless, Paul moves on to a list in 1:29–31.
Romans 1:28–32 ESV
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
The Great Exchange: In the final verses of the chapter, Paul reframes the issue in terms of throwing out God’s Word versus allowing it to renew our minds (12:3). Disregarding Scripture results in a debased mind rather than a renewed one, leading us to do what ought not be done.
Paul catalogs some horrible behavior in these verses. Envy, deceit, slander, insolence, prideful boasting—all can make life downright miserable as we suffer the consequences of other people’s decisions.
Paul summarizes this section in 1:32 by boiling down the fundamental issue of sin. God’s revelation of Himself is sufficient for us to recognize our unrighteousness.
But instead of agreeing and repenting, our sinful inclination leads us to deny or cover our sin.
How? By getting others to join in so that our behavior doesn’t stand out as much. The height of sinful hubris is not simply sinning and knowing that the penalty for such things is death; no, it is encouraging and approving of others who do the very same things.
Let’s review how Paul develops his argument in Romans 1: He likely has a number of reasons for writing, but he chooses to unpack them in a certain way. Following his greeting, Paul states his intention to come visit the church in Rome in order to be mutually encouraged.
He goes on to describe his shameless confidence in the gospel because God’s power and righteousness is revealed in it. Why is he so passionate about people hearing the gospel? Well, in addition to the revelation of God’s righteousness, there is the revelation of His wrath. The wrath is a consequence for those who reject God as God. People’s choice to exchange worship of the one true God for non-gods leads naturally to several other “exchanges.” In Paul’s view, the rejection of God’s created order leads to everything that is wrong in our world—and this rejection stems from the ongoing effects of sin. Therefore, God reveals His wrath against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness outlined following 1:18.
One of the effects of sin is that we often think more highly of ourselves than we should. Reading through the list of sins in 1:29–31—and the judgment that goes with them—it’s easy to see it as a “them” issue rather than an “us” or “me” issue. I can readily agree that “those kinds of people” deserve God’s wrath, not unlike the disciples asking Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54). It is much easier (and more common) to point the finger of blame at others instead of being convicted ourselves. Paul builds his argument so as to turn the tables in Romans 2:1. God pours out His judgment and wrath not only on the ungodly behavior of heathens, but even (perhaps especially) on that of people who confidently believe they have measured up to His righteous standard.
Sin and its consequences are universal problems, as Paul points out in the first section of the letter. In chapters 2 and 3, he will drive home the point that no one is exempt, but his main message here is that God will reveal His wrath against our rejection of His plan. We must understand this problem of sin before we can understand our need for the gospel and its power to bring about a restoration of God’s original plan. Remember that to Paul, the gospel offers much more than a means of forgiveness; it is the key to reestablishing the God-intended order and function of creation. The first step in grasping this bigger picture is to accept that we are all under God’s wrath. And for those who think they are somehow exempt, on to chapter 2!
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