Saturday, 21 May 2011

‘The just shall live by faith’

In Romans 1, Paul emphasizes why he is not ashamed of the gospel. It contains the revealed path to righteousness from God’s standpoint. It’s the one and only means by which God can get us on the right side of His perfect justice and thereby bless us eternally.

Paul backs this up with a supportive quote from Habakkuk. The prophecy assured Jews, dispossessed for their defection from the Old Covenant, that there would be a complete amnesty for a remnant. Those that God would declare JUST, i.e. under amnesty, He would miraculously deliver from captivity. The remnant would be characterised by their response and submission to His prophetic direction at that time, not by trying to maintain careful temple observances dating back to Moses (since that would be impossible in Babylon).

So, they would survive captivity as a chastened, humbled minority without the observances of the Law, anticipating God’s eventual deliverance: ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Hab. 2:4). Paul is saying that we can no more rely upon a return to ritualized observances to survive beyond this coming retribution than Habakkuk's Jewish remnant could. We will survive (as they did) by depending upon and responding to the higher challenge of immediate and prophetic direction provided by the Holy Spirit. Outnumbered and at odds with the whole world, but it’s the only way out.

Therefore Paul sets about explaining the outworking of universal retribution upon an ungrateful human race. This is why both the Jew and Greek find themselves in the same position: guilty before God and in need of the gospel. This view also explains Paul’s later castigation in Romans 2 of anyone who tried to damn his Gentile converts by moralizing over rituals. While he may have had his own era in mind, the scale of his declaration regarding God’s retribution towards man’s unyielding contempt is universal: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Romans 1:18)

This outpouring of God’s indignation is a current, rather than future process of supreme, inescapable justice. It is being revealed from heaven’: RIGHT NOW, current and inexorable. The scope of condemnation is universal, ‘against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’.

THANK GOD WE NOW HAVE CHRIST, for without Him, we are marked men and women, aggravating our desperate guilt.

‘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. 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. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen’. (Romans 1:20 – 26)

Far from being overwhelmed with gratitude toward the transcendent eternal God who orchestrates all of His creation in congruous order for our providence, mankind wilfully degrades this naturally revealed truth with recklessly arrogant supposition. We have replaced sincere heartfelt devotion to God with a servile fear of the transient powers of nature as self-sustaining deities, even portraying them as supernaturally empowered humans and animals. Look at how steroid-loaded ‘comic-book’ super-nature dominates every aspect of popular culture. We even invest grotesque, feeble, unworthy and contradictory worldly ideals, values and pursuits with divine greatness. We re-direct supreme devotion towards them. The guilt is self-evident.

God is presented as delivering mankind over to this wilful rejection of natural revelation. He does not resist our distortions forever. Without saving grace, the retribution is that we eventually become helpless hostages to this distortion of His natural revealed purposes, even in our sexual desires.

This is important because it explains God’s justice in relinquishing the majority of mankind to the blind debasement of natural order. it was mankind’s prideful self-deception that began the whole  descent into idolatry. Through the abandonment of our revealed purpose, man embraced sense-worship. God justly let them have their way, only to face the eventual penalty.

Paul says that the result of this patent disregard for the conventional purpose of sex is disease and ruin:

‘Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 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.’ (vs. 27)

It would therefore distort the whole thrust of Romans 1 and 2 to limit the biblical description of how normative sexual expression was abandoned, as some liberal writers have done. Rather than relating to very specific types of violent, forced sexual activity, the resultant depravity plainly refers to homosexual acts, whether consensual or otherwise. Yet, as sinners, we have all participated in the terrible progression towards this result. We were all co-conspirators. In order to resonate with his audience, Paul describes the acts as unconventional: ‘para physis’ – beside nature, thereby reversing the familiar charge of his critics that his gospel ‘set forth customs (ethe) which it is not lawful for us to receive, or to observe, being Romans’ (Acts 16:21)

Paul is mapping out the guilt of all mankind and the consequences of this path that discards God: the complete degeneration of God’s purpose for humanity: ‘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.’ (Romans 1:32) Mankind finally challenges God to all-out war by encouraging the final overthrow of conscience and divine government. This is why we all deserve death, both Jew and Gentile. It’s also why we all need Christ.

In our collective shame, we still cannot boast privilege and preference. As spiritual beggars before Christ, the only cure for us all (Jew, Greek, or otherwise) is to embrace the only amnesty of God by reliance upon the generous, eternal promises of His gospel.

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