For God Shows No Partiality
Passage: Romans 1:16–32
As you heard, we are jumping into a Summer series on Romans…actually the first 12 chapters of Romans. Romans is a dense letter by the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome. Most of the times I have heard Romans preached, it is like a 40 part series slowly working through each passage because there is so much here. The problem with that is that we can miss the forest for the trees. People can come out of that kind of sermon series with lots of great doctrine and not understand the main thing Paul is trying to address.
So, let me set the context for us. Paul is likely writing from Corinth as he is collecting money to help the church in Jerusalem buy food because of a famine there. Paul did not plant the church in Rome and has never visited it before. It was likely started by Jews who had traveled from Rome to Jerusalem and witnessed the events of Pentecost just after the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul, up to the point, has had one main church as his sending church and that church was the church in Antioch. They have been his home base for three missionary journeys. Now, Paul wants to go west to Spain and needs a more appropriately located sending church and his eyes are on the church in Rome. So, if you read chapters one and 15, you can see that Paul tells them that he is clearly wanting money from them to support him in his missionary endeavors. So you just can’t get around the fact that this is, in part, a support letter. So, if any of you have ever raised support for any missions type work and anyone gives you a hard time, point them to Romans.
But, there is one major problem in the church in Rome that could have prevented them from being an effective sending church: They are a divided church. In the beginning of Acts 18, you can see that the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. It didn’t matter if they were Christian Jews or traditional Jews, if they were ethnically Jewish, they had to leave. Probably anywhere from 15,000-60,000 Jews left Rome. That lasted for about five years until Claudius died and his successor, Nero, let them back in.
So, imagine what this does to the church there. You have a church that is made up of both Jewish Christians and all the culture and unique theological vantage points that comes with them, but it is also made up of gentile Christians with a whole different culture and theological vantage point. Not only is the church made up of both cultures, they lived in very close proximity to each other. Often living in the same buildings, but they looked more like college dorms than New York City apartment buildings. So imagine the impact on the church when an entire group of people and their culture leaves. Add to that that those who had to leave Rome were the ones who started the church in the first place.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but my family was a part of starting a church in Southern Italy with other Americans and now the church is thriving without any Americans. And I can tell you that our departures have allowed that church to become much more Italian. That’s normal. But, imagine that all the Americans came back and wanted to assume their previous roles of leadership. Or, imagine that in our church, all white people had to leave Orlando and for five years, only people of color were allowed to live and worship here. I guarantee you that would change the church significantly. Then, imagine that after five years, people who look like me are allowed to come back and we want our church to go back to the way it was. That would create problems.
But, in Rome, there was the added layer of complexity in that there were theological differences between the Jewish Christians and the gentile Chrisitans. There was a struggle for control based on ethnicity. The Jewish Christians wanted to take back their proper place in the church because they had the birthright. They felt like they deserved a superior status than the gentile Christians. The gentile Christians, on the other hand, kind of liked it the way it was and seem to be resistant to what these returning Jewish Christians wanted. And then Paul’s letter arrives. And Paul, being a Jew himself, surely he’s going to straighten these gentiles out. And likely the church is gathered together and his letter is read.
The way I’m outlining this part of Paul’s argument is that he is talking about the lost people ‘out there’ and to the lost people ‘in here.’ That is, in the church. So let’s flesh that out. First, the lost people ‘out there.’
- The lost people ‘out there’
This passage is one of Paul’s most harsh statements about the reality of people in the world who do not have Jesus. It’s interesting though because you often hear Christians condemn non-Christians because of their ungodly actions, but Paul doesn’t start there. He starts with the heart. He says that just by living in creation and seeing everything, we know something about God. We call this natural revelation. We know something about God’s attributes, power, and nature just by being alive.
There are things we don’t need to be taught. Things about God we should know just by living in this world. Like a baby learning to talk. Generally speaking, we don’t send our kids to special schools to learn to talk, they just learn to talk from living in this world. Spiritually, the same thing is true of what we know about God from just living in creation. But humanity has chosen to suppress that observable truth.
When one of my kids was younger, his sibling was accusing him of stealing a toy. And he was clearly holding a toy that was not his. When I asked him if that was his toy, he said, “Well, I was the first one who found it today.” Do you see what’s happening? He knew he had done something wrong, but he was trying to justify it because he wanted that toy. He was suppressing what he knew to be objectively true. And that is exactly what people do to God.
Then, in verses 21-23, Paul says that the glory of God that has been revealed to us through creation, instead of embracing that glory, humans exchanged that glory for idols. That is, we exchanged it for something that is created. And this makes logical sense. When we turn from the glory of God, we have to turn to something else and every option we have are created things. It isn’t possible for us to turn from the glory of God and not turn to something else to find that glory. So, we turn to good things like marriage, children, or our jobs to find glory. But, when we take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing, it becomes a bad thing. An idol.
Now, certainly in many cultures, they exchange the glory of God for trinkets of animals and created deities. But, that’s not the only way it can go. You can exchange the glory of God for power. You can devote your life to influence in whatever sphere you’re in because there is where you think you’ll find your fulfillment and satisfaction. You can exchange the glory of God for money. You can devote yourself to making more money, legally or illegally, because there is where you think you’ll find your fulfillment and satisfaction. You can exchange the glory of God for sex, for academics, for fashion. You can do it in innumerable ways because there are innumerable created things.
And Paul says that because the attributes, power, and nature of God are revealed in creation, they have no excuse for seeking glory in the created instead of the Creator. They can’t plead ignorance. Misunderstanding this is why people often ask what happens to the innocent person in Africa or India who never hears about God. The answer is that there is no such person. Everyone knows something about God, but there is a limit to what we can know about God from natural revelation. Creation can’t tell us that God would send his Son to atone for our sins. It just tells us enough to be without excuse. If humanity were not guilty until they heard the gospel and denied it, then sending missionaries would be the worst thing we could possibly do because we would be sending condemnation worldwide. But they are already experiencing the wrath of God and that is why we send missionaries to the world.
So, Paul says, God hands them over to the desires of their hearts. When my oldest son, Turner, was four, we lived in Italy and someone had gifted me some locally brewed beer. I had poured a glass and it had a very orange color. He thought it looked good because it looked like Fanta, his favorite, and he asked me for a drink. I told him no because it wasn’t Fanta and that he would hate it. He pitched a fit and I told him. Listen, I’m your dad and you should want to listen to me. But, I’m going to give you a choice. Do you want to listen to me, having heard that this is not going to go well for you, or do you want to do it anyway? I’ll let you choose. He said he wanted to drink it anyway and I let him take the glass and sip..which is not illegal in Europe:) And he started screaming, “It’s spicy!!!! This is terrible!! I want to throw up!!” Do you see what happened? Having been warned in every way, he decided what he wanted to do and I handed him over to it and it didn’t go well. And he was without excuse. And this is a picture of what we see happening in the world only at a much deeper and more significant level.
Paul says God hands them over to their immorality. If you prefer that glory, go for it. It’s not going to go well for you, but that’s what you’ve chosen. And Paul names about every lust you can imagine. Envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossiping, slandering, pride, disobedience to our parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, and all kinds of sexual pursuits that are not in line with God’s design. I think Paul names 21 different kinds of sins. And in God’s handing them over to their pursuit for created glory that is his wrath is presently being revealed.
Let me be clear, he does not say that because these people commit bad sins, they will one day suffer God’s wrath. And I’m quoting Dr. Cole at RTS here. ‘He says the exact reverse. God’s wrath is manifested in the very fact that he is presently turning people over to sin. The immorality that we see is itself a revelation of God’s wrath. Idolatry begins in the mind and heart and then results in immoral behavior as an act of God’s judgment.’ The sin in the unbelieving world is a present demonstration of the wrath of God. ‘He unties the boat from its moorings and lets it get taken in the current.’ And the wrath is not yet finished because Paul says ‘they deserve to die’ for what they have done.
So, we ask the question, why is there suffering in the world? Much of the suffering we see and experience is because God has handed people over the consequences of their own desires. That may seem to us like a heavy start to a letter to people Paul’s never met before, but his primary audience would have been loving this! Paul is playing on the self-righteousness of the Jewish Christians in Rome. They despise the gentile world and that arrogance is carrying over into the church as they look down on the gentile Christians and want to be in charge because, after all, they are Jewish. They are the original people of God. At this point they have to be thinking that after putting the unbelieving gentiles in their place, Paul is SURELY going to then put the Christian gentiles in their place. And here is where he switches from the lost people out there to the lost people in here.
- The lost people ‘in here’
Up to this point, Paul has been talking about ‘they.’ They should see the glory of God. They choose to worship the created instead. They have been handed over to their lusts. They deserve to die. But, in the beginning of chapter two that all changes. The first verse of chapter two says, “Therefore, YOU have no excuse!” What? As uncomfortable as chapter one might be for many of us today, this is actually where it gets uncomfortable for the church in Rome. Especially for those of Jewish heritage because it seems like Paul is aiming this section right at them.
Remember the phrase natural revelation. Revelation that everyone receives from living in this world. There is also something called special revelation. That is the clear message about God and salvation that only comes through God’s word. Martin Luther said that all creation speaks the glory of God. But after the fall, we ceased to hear it clearly. It wasn’t that it ceased to speak, it was that we can only hear enough to be without excuse. So, God sent something we can hear more clearly, his special revelation. His word.
What Paul is saying is that the gospel reveals that just as the unbelieving gentiles stand condemned without the special revelation, some who have special revelation also stand condemned. The Jewish Christians Paul is addressing think they are ok because they look good on the outside, but things are not good on the inside.
Yesterday I had the privilege of taking part in the installation of my friend Justin Holcomb as the new Bishop of the Episcopal church in Central Florida. I got to walk in the procession which was funny because there were all these men and women in white robes and I’m wearing a dark suit. I was thinking the whole time which of these is not like the other. But, I was ok because I was wearing the only suit I own that my mother in law bought me and I looked pretty spiffy if I do say so myself. But, then, I started to smell asparagus. So random! But it was a really strong smell and it was certainly asparagus! And I remembered that the last time I wore that suit, I had eaten asparagus and I had sweated into it and I hadn’t washed it and even though it looked good on the outside, it was not clean on the inside! I was like, this is what Paul is talking about! Which somewhat redeemed the embarrassing moment.
These Jewish Christians saw themselves as morally superior because they had the law and they came from the line of Abraham. Paul, though, is saying that even though they might look ok on the outside, they are not ok on the inside. Actually, on the inside they are no better than the gentile pagans they look down on. And in the way they judge the pagan gentiles, they show the judgment of God on them.
In fact, they were worse than the pagan gentiles. At least the pagan gentiles were consistent in what they said and did. This group of Jewish Christians said that the gentiles were condemned by what they did, yet they did the same things themselves. It might not be something everyone sees, it might be something deep within their heart. But he says that these Jewish Christians are judged by the way they judge.
Now, this brings up some important questions. Are we never to judge someone? When I was growing up, no question the most popular verse in the Bible was John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son… Now, it seems like the most popular verse is judge not, lest you be judged. This passage isn’t a prohibition on judgment. We must help each other to strive for Christ and fight sin and that will at times mean calling someone out in their sin, but doing so with a heart of humility knowing that we ourselves need that kind of judgment in our own lives. Knowing that but for the grace of God, we would be no different than any other lost person. This passage is a warning against hypocrisy and pride. A hypocrisy and pride that is dividing the church in Rome and robbing them of joy, unity, and the ability to send to the nations.
It’s interesting that it almost perfectly mirrors Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. Remember the prodigal son was the younger of two sons and this son told his father that he wanted his share of the inheritance (which was a way of saying ‘I wish you were already dead’) and he went and blew it all on drink and prostitutes. He came back to his father and his father joyfully forgave him, but the older brother who followed all the rules did not want his father to forgive the younger brother. He didn’t want him to bring the younger brother back into the family. Jesus said the younger brother left justified, but the older brother did not. The older brother was an arrogant, unforgiving, hypocrite. And who was the original audience of this story? Arrogant, unforgiving, hypocritical pharisees. Pharisees Jesus called whitewashed tombs. They look nice on the outside, but smelled like asparagus on the inside:)
These Jewish Christians in Rome professed faith in Jesus, but they still believed that there were two kinds of people: the morally good and the morally corrupt. Those who had the law and worked to follow it and those who did not. The gentile Christians, they need the grace of God in Jesus, but we Jewish Christians, we already contribute a lot to our salvation and we just don’t need as much grace as they do.
And Paul is saying there are only two kinds of people, but they are different than what the Jewish Christians think. The two types of people are those in Christ and those who aren’t. All have sinned. All fall short, both Jew and gentile. All need the forgiveness and healing only found in Jesus, both Jew and gentile. And the sign of that forgiveness is a soft heart for those still trapped in their own sin and experiencing the wrath of God in their very pursuit of that sin.
A few years ago a young man came into this church and I met with him and he told me that he felt like I needed to preach more sternly on homosexuality. He said he just hated gay people and couldn’t stand to be around them. And my first thought was to doubt his salvation and his relationship with Jesus. Now, Paul is clear on the Christian sexual ethic, but following Jesus doesn’t create a judgmental spirit, but a compassionate one. A spirit inside us that recognizes that, but for the grace of Jesus, we would still be pursuing our idols. A spirit that knows that we need as much grace as anyone else. This is the only type of person in the one true church.
So, here is a hard test that is between you and the Lord. When we read that text this morning from Romans 1 and we walked through it, did you feel pride in your heart that you weren’t like that and deep down did you champion the wrath that Paul is saying they will receive? Were you hoping for a stern sermon on homosexuality? If you did, you might be without excuse yourself. You might not realize that, in the words of Paul to the church in Corinth ‘and such were some of you.’
So the second question that is raised is this. Is Paul teaching moralism here? Does this contradict salvation by faith alone by saying that you are judged by your works? Absolutely not. Paul is saying that our actions show if our faith is real. James writes: 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith rapart from your works, and I will show you my faith sby my works. -James 2:17,18 If we have been forgiven, we will offer that same forgiveness to others. If we realize we are all sinners, we are all lost, then we will also realize that no one has the right to look down on anybody else. We’re all in trouble. We’re all alienated from God. And we all need equal measures of grace that can only come through and from Jesus.
Every other worldview offers a path to work your way back into God’s good graces. It could be the religious path of doing the Ten Commandments or the five pillars of Islam. It could be the secular path of doing more good than bad or just living a good life. But, at the end of the day, they are the same thing. They are ways for us to feel like we are morally superior to other people and, because of that, we don’t need as much grace.
Only in Christianity does God say, none of you can do it. So, God, in Jesus Christ, does for us what we never could. Only he lived a perfect life and that makes him uniquely qualified to take the wrath of God in our place on the cross and then to give us his righteousness that we might be declared perfect in God’s sight. Not because we earned it, but because Jesus did.
And when we realize that we are as far from God as anyone else in the world, we will have a more sympathetic heart for everyone, a deep desire to honor him in every aspect of our lives, unity in the church, joy in our hearts, and fruitfulness in our mission.