To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Justified through faith

Romans 4:1-8
Preached Sunday morning, July 17, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul pounds the idea home that every one of us, every man and woman, is guilty before God. Whether we are Jews convicted by the Law of Moses or Gentiles convicted by God’s imprint on our consciences, we have sinned. And sinning means being in darkness. In Chapter 3 we began to see the way out of that darkness. Now, in Chapter 4, that way comes clear. This chapter focuses on the patriarch Abraham, who was counted as righteous before God around 2000 years before the letter to the Romans was written. And as we learn here, the way Abraham was counted righteous in 2005 B.C. is the same way we may be counted righteous in A.D. 2005—through faith.

We see at the outset that Abraham had no grounds to boast of his righteousness, either before either man or God. If the letter to the Romans were a work of music, the idea of boasting would be the "melody line" of this section.[i] Bear in mind that Abraham was one of the most respected figures, not only among the Jews, but in all the ancient world. All through the Old Testament, the prophets spoke of Abraham. God had promised to bless Israel and the whole world through Abraham and his descendants. Indeed, during the first century tales of Abraham were told throughout the known world. By being a well know figure of the ancient past, Abraham was one of the Jews' biggest "claims to fame" in the first century. He was so well known, in fact, that even the Spartans in Greece claimed to be his descendants[ii]. If Paul, then, could show from the Old Testament that Abraham himself had no grounds to boast about his righteousness, then no one else would have any grounds to boast, either.[iii]

First-century Jewish rabbis taught that Abraham was saved by his obedience.[iv] Even the idea of faith in Abraham's life was interpreted as faithfulness, and thus was considered a good work. The common perception among Jews of the day was that justification before God was the result of good works, and thus justification was grounds for boasting. That idea, however, is mistaken. In reality, faith in God brings us justification, which bears fruit in our obedience.[v] The Jews, being fallen humans, preferred to think they had something to boast about—namely being direct descendants of Abraham. They had already boasted to Jesus about their relationship to the patriarch (Mt. 3:9, Jn. 8:33ff), and they kept detailed genealogies showing their descent from Abraham. In effect, they tried to rest on the laurels of their multi-great grandfather.

Should this kind of behavior surprise us? Many of us today, even if we aren't Jews, take pride in our genealogies. And it seems like everyone who traces the family tree back far enough sooner or later finds a king or prince or some such big shot in the family line. My mother's side of the family takes pride in our Italian ancestors—the Medici, princes of Florence. Several years ago while gathering family records I came across a family history written by my great-great-great-grandfather, who came to the United States from Scotland in the late 1700s. As I was copying his hand-written account, one of my aunts, from the Medici line, asked me to leave out the parts about my ancestors being buried in the potter's field, the poor folks cemetery, of Philadelphia. That little detail just didn't do much for our family reputation. We preferred the princes of Florence to the paupers of Philadelphia.

What's more, even as I was preparing this lesson, I felt a twinge of envy that, like today's Jews, I couldn't claim ancestry from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Much more snob appeal there than in Lorenzo de Medici. I'll admit that I sometimes feel the pull of snobbery in my own life, and I don't think I'm alone. Isn't it funny how a man will act the snob over something he has no control over—like who his great-grandpappy was? Snobbery is usually like that. Ironically, though, Christians can boast about something over which we have no control, you might say. We'll look further at that idea next week.

Yet even the illustrious Abraham was justified not through his good works, but through faith. Faith was the source of his righteousness. In verse 3, Paul uses the Jews' own scriptures to make this point when he quotes Gen. 15:6 — "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." That word for "reckoned" can be translated different ways: imputed, counted, credited to his account. All these choices depict the idea that Abraham's righteousness was something not earned, but given to him by God. If we have any doubts about verse 3, the next two verses reinforce the idea of unearned favor through faith. Faith was the source of Abraham's righteousness before the Law of Moses was instituted. We see also that faith was the source of righteousness in David under the Law of Moses. The implication, then, is that before, during, and after the Law, faith is the means by which a person becomes right with God.

I recently heard it put this way: "Faith itself is not righteousness....It is only the vehicle by which God's righteousness reaches us. However, it is the only vehicle by which it reaches us."[vi] This is the central message of Romans, and in fact of the whole gospel—that salvation is a gift from God that we access through faith. This knowledge also sheds light on the Old Testament. If Abraham and David—the two most prominent and blessed men of the Old Testament—were justified by faith and not works, then why should we think we can be?[vii]

Probably because we're geared toward performance. We prefer to earn what we have, not have it given to us. Some people may not have this problem—praise God if you don't. If you're like me, though, your natural response is something like, "Wait a minute. Are you telling me you're blessing me not because I'm good but because I'm bad? Are you saying I haven't done anything to deserve this justification, this condition of righteousness and eternal life?" We want a right standing with God, but it's painful to think we don't deserve it. We'd rather earn it. Isn't it a little insulting to be given something we don't deserve?

But that's grace. It's a gift, a blessing, willingly given by God to people who don't deserve it.

"But wait a minute!" the Pharisee in us exclaims. "Doesn't this idea of being counted righteous when we aren't fly in face of God's own teaching? After all, Proverbs 17:15 says, 'He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.' So why would God do such a thing?"

The answer is that God loves us. He loves us better than we love ourselves, and he treats us better than we treat ourselves or each other. He gives us unearned righteousness because it is the only way we can be righteous once we've sinned, polluted ourselves, disqualified ourselves forever from holy fellowship with God. Only a perfect sacrifice could save us from the hell we chose by our own sin. That's why Jesus died to pay our sin debt. Now it's paid. And if we have faith in God, then "He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:13, 14).

That's a wonderful place to be. If we have redemption, forgiveness, righteousness, then we don't have to keep trying to justify ourselves or to impress God. Sad to say, some Christians still try to do just that, to win God's approval by working hard. But it won't work. "You cannot earn the gift of love, but it is yours to take in faith in Christ, fresh every morning"[viii]. God loves us and counts us as righteous. Although God does want Christians to grow in righteous deeds, no amount of good work on our part will make us any more righteous or make God love us any more. That's worth spending some time thinking about in quiet contemplation.

It's worth thinking about because it's hard for many of us to accept, if we're honest with ourselves. How about you? Do you have trouble accepting the wonderful, gracious gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ? Are you too proud to accept it? I hope not, because it's absolutely essential for justification with God to accept that our righteousness comes only from God, by grace through faith. As someone once described the Christian life, "The Spirit of God makes us clean and whole and delivers us from drowning before we can swim a stroke."[ix]

This passage in Romans 4 ends with some happy thoughts:
Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.

Another translation for "blessed" is "happy." I like those words, because nothing could be more blessed or happy than having our sins forgiven by God and being in fellowship with him. Next week, we'll look at Romans 5 and "unwrap the package" of those blessings.[x]

In the mean time, the point of this week's passage is what God credits us with. "What do you want credited to your account? Do you want God to credit you with what you are owed according to your works or do you want Him to credit you with righteousness for your faith."[xi] The choice is yours.


1. Bob Deffinbaugh,“The Basis and Benefits of Justification (Romans 3:27-5:1-21),” on-line study at

2. First Maccabees 12:21

3. Hampton Keathley IV, “Justification by Faith: The Case of Abraham and David (Romans 4:1-8),” on-line study at See also Bob Deffinbaugh, “Abraham: The Faith of Our Father (Romans 3:27-4:25),” on-line study at

4. Thomas Constable, Notes on Romans. On-line commentary at, p. 42.

5. James P. Sweeney, Review of Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1‑5, Review of Biblical Literature 4 (2004), on-line copy at

6. Constable, 43.

7. John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, on-line copy at

8. Ray C. Stedman, “The Father of Faith,” on-line sermon text at

9. Richard Lischer, "Pick It Up, Read It," Christian Century, 17 Feb 1999, p. 179. On-line copy at

10. Deffinbaugh, “Benefits and Bases.”

11. Keathley, p. 3.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

God is Righteous and True

Romans 3:1-8
Preached Sunday morning, July 10, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

In our study of Romans we now move into Chapter 3. In the first two chapters, Paul showed how both Jew and Gentile have no excuse for disobeying God. We also saw in Chapter 2 that God is more concerned with character than with ceremony[1]. Here at the beginning of Chapter 3, Paul begins an imaginary dialogue with a Jew, as if to answer objections that his fellow Israelites in Rome might have[2]. This section is a pivotal point in the letter, because here Paul begins moving from his teaching on God’s condemnation to God’s grace.

And isn’t it about time? This is the third week we’ve looked at God’s wrath on unrighteousness—isn’t it time to move on to a happier subject? Well, I think it’s worthwhile from time to time to really look deeply into our own sin and God’s wrath, because most of the world, most of the time has existed under that wrath. A thorough knowledge of the sinfulness of each one of us—of all humanity—is necessary for a full appreciation of the Christian message. A recognition of our own sin, unrighteousness, fallenness (the bad news, in other words) is necessary for a full appreciation of the good news. Once we know the depths of what God wants to save us from, we can begin to appreciate how wonderfully gracious God is in offering salvation in the church through his Son Jesus Christ.

Still, normal people don’t really want to hear bad news. What’s more, we simply don’t like someone telling us how bad we are. That’s part of the reason we need to hear it—over and over. Left to our own “druthers” we prefer to ignore or deny our own sinfulness, despite those pangs of conscience that God gives to bring us back around.

The lost, those who have not embraced the grace of God, have a special, urgent need to hear about the condemnation of God upon unrighteousness. If they don’t, they have no hope of salvation. It’s up to Christians to raise our voices in truth to tell them, because certain elements in the world are shouting loudly for people not to face up to our sinfulness. In America right now we have a whole culture of psychological excuses for not taking responsibility for our sin. I don’t need to give you a lot of examples; listen to the radio or watch television. Did I do something wrong? Well, it’s my parents’ fault, or my spouse’s fault, or my friend’s fault, or society’s fault. In the past few decades there’s been an epidemic of apparently mature men and women refusing to take responsibility for their own actions. The number of divorces and lawsuits have exploded. We would rather not admit we are wrong, and it’s not hard to listen to the people telling us we’re not. There’s only one problem. If we don’t admit we’re wrong, we simply cannot take the step of repentance that begins to put us right with God.

Christians need to remember the judgment of God, too. If we’re not careful we can forget why we’re really here. When we gather on Sunday morning we’re in our best clothes and on our best behavior. We’re clean and polite, we smile at one another. We’re friendly people and we probably really do have fewer problems than those outside Christ. Like the Jews, we have the benefit of God’s oracles—the Scriptures. And we have the blessing of the New Covenant, the full revelation of God’s love and nature. Like the Jews in Jesus’ day, we’re also tempted to coast. We’re tempted to think that simply belonging to a holy congregation of God’s people makes us godly in our hearts. We’re tempted to believe that we’re good people because we’re nice, not because God’s son died to make us holy.

Christians need to make sure we don’t live up to the world’s unfair, cartoon picture of what Christians are all about. Christianity Today ran an article a few years ago about what the world thinks about us. According to a survey, most non-Christians think they know exactly what Christianity is all about—but most of them really don’t. Many people outside the church think our faith is simply a set of rules we’re supposed to follow to be good people. When I worked at one of the federal plants in Oak Ridge, one of my co-workers, a non-Christian, challenged me at lunch one day: “You think that because you’re a Christian that makes you better than the rest of us?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just as bad as anyone else. It’s not what I do that makes me good; it’s what Jesus does that makes me good in God’s eyes.” I don’t know that my friend understood what the gospel is at that point, but I believe he was coming to understand what the gospel isn’t. Christians should never forget what we are without the grace, the free gift, of Jesus Christ: evil, lost sinners.

Even when we own up to our own sin, however, we face another challenge to our faith: Do we really believe God is just in condemning us for our sin? So far in Romans, Paul has talked about all of us being without excuse if we sin. In a few verses he will tell us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The obvious question is, how can God hold us accountable for something everybody does? If everybody sins, then how can we help it if we sin? Would a loving God really condemn us for something we can’t help but do? And there’s another problem. Even if we acknowledge that God is just in condemning sinners, why does he give some of us a second chance in hearing the Gospel, while thousands never have the opportunity to hear the good news of salvation? As Paul anticipated with the Jews of his day, we are tempted to call God unrighteous.

But no. God is righteous and holy. That’s the central message of the entire Old Testament: that God is holy and loving. We must never let our limited understanding of the infinite God make us think his actions are ever unrighteous. If we have faith in God we must accept his holiness and truth. Once we have accepted these qualities of his nature, we see what a great gift he has given us in the Gospel, and how urgent our calling is to tell the good news to every human being on earth.

Here in Chapter 3, Paul anticipates a more subtle challenge to the faith. If our sinning makes God look good, then isn’t our sinning a good thing? If our sins show God’s justice, the argument goes, then God would be wrong to punish us for sinning. Doesn’t that make sense? To paraphrase Paul’s answer to that question: Absolutely not! If God is not righteous, then he could not judge the world. As Paul told the Galatians, “God is not mocked.” He is holy and loving, and if we expect to be in communion with him, we must be holy too. God may overlook circumcision, but he will not overlook sin (Rom 2:26-29). God is faithful and good and true, and a realization of his nature is the foundation of a redeeming, transforming faith.

Here is the beginning of the good news—the God who is faithful and true. God is faithful to the promises he has made to his people. Two thousand years before Christ, God told Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (Gen. 12:1-3). Although God’s people have not been faithful to him through the centuries, God has been faithful to his people. And now, through Jesus Christ, the blessings of Abraham have come not only to Israel, but to us Gentiles as well (Gal. 3:14). God’s promises for his people have expanded in Christ to include eternal life, the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God itself, and communion with the Father.

Why would God do such a thing? Why would he continue to offer us these great gifts when humanity has abused and neglected God’s gifts through the centuries? Why did God choose Abraham and his spiritual descendants to bless? Because Abraham and his children deserved it? No. God reached out because of his love. He seeks us out, and he wants to give us blessings—salvation, fellowship, peace, joy. Those are gifts and not wages because we don’t deserve them, we haven’t earned them. And how do we know that God loves us? Because he sent his son to earth to redeem us!

So God loves and blesses us. But let’s not forget that he may also condemn. Simply because we enjoy God’s blessings at the moment is not proof that we will escape punishment. In the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram all ate manna and enjoyed all the other blessings from God to his people (Num. 16). But because they rebelled, they fell under God’s wrath. God wants to bless us, but he gives us the freedom to either accept or reject those blessings. Accepting God’s grace is eternal life; rejecting it is wrath and destruction.

God calls us to righteous living. To live righteously we must repent, turn away from our sin and accept righteousness through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul writes on and on about sin. In the first century the Romans, like Americans in our day, lived in an amoral society in which the culture did not acknowledge an absolute standard of right and wrong. God, though, has offered us a standard, both in the law of Moses and the law of conscience. None of us have held perfectly to it—which is why we need God’s grace. The standard of God’s righteousness is nevertheless good, because it forces us to choose where we will align ourselves: with his righteousness or with our own sinfulness? With rebellion or grace? With death or life?

The good news is that the bad news is not the last news. God wants to impute righteousness upon us—that means to give us credit for righteousness even though we haven’t earned it ourselves. We can’t redeem ourselves from sin, because we can’t pay a high enough price. But Jesus can. He is the only one to live without sin, and so he did not owe his life to pay for his own sin. Instead he gave up his life willingly to pay for our sin. He died with our sins upon him, and he rose from death with our life upon him. It’s not up to us—it’s up to Jesus to save us. There’s a wonderful freedom in knowing that truth: that I don’t have to keep trying to make myself good, but that God has made me good through the blood of Jesus Christ. I have new life as a gift from God.

If we have joined ourselves with Christ in faith and baptism, then we have a new life, a new Spirit, a new Kingdom. God has been so good to us. How are we responding to his goodness?

1. Constable, Thomas L. Notes on Romans, 2004 ed. On-line commentary at, p. 29.
2. Stedman, Ray C. From Guilt to Glory, Vol. 1 (Rom. 1-8). Waco: Word, 1978, p.56.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Got to Have, Got to Be, Got to Do

Romans 2:12-16
Preached Sunday morning, July 3, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

This week we’re continuing through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Last time, in chapter 1, we saw a picture of how disobedience produces every form of unrighteousness and how sin leads to darkness of mind. Paul had been writing primarily of moral shortcomings among Gentiles. Now, in Chapter 2, he begins looking at the shortcomings of the Jews as well. They seem to have felt that simply having the Law of the Lord somehow made them righteous, whether they followed it or not. Paul tells them differently. And in the process here of addressing both Jews and Gentiles, the apostle begins to deliver one of the most sobering and critically important messages in all the Bible.

First, we see that, while the Gentiles did not have the Law of Moses, they nevertheless have another image of God’s law—the law of conscience. In mature human beings, our consciences are those inner voices telling each of us what is right and wrong. Thus our own thoughts “accuse or even excuse” us (Rom 2:15). Because the Gentiles did not have the benefit of the Old Testament law, their consciences could not be as developed as those of the Jews. Yet every adult human being has some inkling of right and wrong down inside us. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his book Mere Christianity, not every society agrees on the particular definitions and limits of marriage. But because all human beings have an inner sense of right and wrong, every society has agreed that the commitment inherent in marriage is necessary for a stable society. This passage in Romans simply reminds us that God holds each human being responsible for behaving righteously according to our own consciences—our best understanding of right and wrong. Paul will say more on this later.

In a sense, conscience is both a curse and a gift. The very fact that we know the difference between good and evil is a direct result of humanity’s first disobedience (Gen. 2:15-3:7). Yet now that we have the knowledge of good and evil, God uses our consciences to help bring us back to communion with him. Conscience is the voice of right and wrong, and that can be a good thing if we follow it. Human conscience is far from infallible, but if we really listen to it and follow its guide, we can come to righteous obedience to God. That’s good news.

There’s also very bad news, though. Although God gives each one of us the ability, through our consciences, to know the good, and to do it, in fact none of us follows it all the time (Rm. 3:23). God’s standard of righteousness is perfection. If we don’t live absolutely sinless lives, we have absolutely no place in the absolutely sinless Kingdom of God. So then, the bad news is that all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death (Rm. 3:23, 6:23). Conscience, then, can show us that we’re doing wrong, but once we’ve done wrong, it’s powerless to save us. That brings us back to the same, troubling message of Chapter 1—that we have no excuse for unrighteousness.

Yet in the knowledge of sin there is hope. In Christians, for example, our consciences guide us on the path of discipleship. Have you ever felt the tingling of conscience say you were going the wrong direction, and as a result you changed? Have you ever lain in bed at night unable to sleep because you knew you had been sinning? We’d better listen to that voice of conscience, Christians and sinners both. For Christians, our consciences can be an especially reliable guide, trained and shaped by the Word and Spirit of God.

In the lost person, conscience is part of the first step of conversion. Our internal sense of right and wrong allows us to see our need for God’s grace. When we sin, we ought to feel bad about it. When we feel bad enough, we begin to see the need for repentance. That’s why I don’t consider it my job as an evangelist necessarily to stand up and try to make people feel good. Sinning should make us feel bad—especially if we’re choosing sin and death over grace and life in Jesus Christ. As long as we haven’t repented of sin, we should be troubled at the deepest levels of our heart. We should never feel good when we sin. That’s why, I believe, the apostle James urged the recipients of his letter to “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection” (Jas. 4:9).

If we stop being dejected by our own unrighteousness, we’re in a very bad place. The more we resist the voice of right and wrong, the easier it becomes to sin. If we do it long enough, we eventually get to the point where we don’t recognize right and wrong anymore. That’s what Paul was saying about those who “became foolish in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). God have mercy on us if we ever get to that point.

Simply hearing the voice telling us what we ought to do isn’t enough, as Paul points out in Rom. 2:13. God expects us to demonstrate righteousness in our actions. The Jews in Paul’s day evidently believed that having the law did the trick—that being in the right church, so to speak, was all it took to be righteous. Of course, that’s not true. But do we Christians believe that simply attending the right church makes us righteous? Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the church makes us righteous by some kind of spiritual osmosis. It doesn’t. While we are redeemed only as members of the church, God expects each one of us to be righteous in our own hearts through faith and obedience in Christ Jesus.

The Jews had been proclaiming the law but not living it. There aren’t many things more ugly that those who know the truth but don’t choose to live it. We can excuse the innocent, but not the hypocrite. As Paul told the Romans, being a Jew on the outside is not enough (Rom. 2:25ff). Righteous actions are more important than rituals. God doesn’t want circumcision of the flesh, but of the soul (Rom. 2:28,29). Could we say the same thing for Christians? Immersion in water is not enough. God wants us also to be immersed in his will and his righteousness. We need to have not just the name of Christ but also his heart and his Spirit.

Paul reminds us here in verse 13 that our actions confirm our faith. Paul sounds a whole lot like the Apostle James who said, “What use is it, my brothers, for a man to say that he has faith if he does nothing? . . . Even so faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:14, 17). People who read the letters of Paul and James superficially sometimes say they disagree on the roles of faith and obedience in the lives of Christians. No, they don’t. Each apostle, in his own way, explains an important truth. Living our new life in Christ changes us—our souls, our minds, our actions. Our souls are made clean in an instant at baptism. Change in our behavior may move slowly, and it’s always incomplete while we are in these fleshly bodies. But God expects Christians to reflect the image of Christ in our actions. That’s because our actions are images of our hearts.

That’s where our consciences come back into the picture. That voice of right and wrong allows us to look at our actions as reflecting our hearts. How are we doing as Christians? Are my actions demonstrating a changed heart and a new life in Christ?

More seriously, for those outside Christ, are you listening to your own voice of conscience—the voice that says you are being disobedient to God? If so, you’d better heed its message. Eternal life and death lie in the decisions you make.

There is one more absolutely awe-inspiring idea in this passage from Romans. In 2:15 Paul writes that the thoughts of the Gentiles sometimes excuse them. God, it seems, makes allowances for innocent lack of knowledge about his law. But notice what Paul doesn’t say: that these Gentiles have thereby earned a ticket to heaven. On the contrary, “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:21). All of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23), meaning we have violated God’s law even as we understand it. Therefore all stand under condemnation, apart from salvation, who do not call upon the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12, Rm. 10:13). That makes these verses in Romans Chapter 2 some of the most haunting in the Bible.

Every human being without the Gospel of Jesus Christ is lost. And it’s absolutely awful to think that some of our fellow human beings are dying without ever hearing that good news [1]. How could that be? How could God allow anyone to die without hearing the gospel? The answer we see here is that everyone has a chance to live righteously—and everyone blows it [2]. Some of us, for some reason, receive a second chance through hearing the gospel. And God has entrusted the spread of that gospel to us—to fallen human beings. Humans got us into sin and death, it seems, and God is leaving it up to human beings to get us out. I think that’s why Jesus Christ came to earth as a man.

So spreading the good news of salvation depends on us. As Paul tells the Romans, “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher” (10:14). Eternal salvation depends on Christians spreading the word. Nothing is more important than the gospel. That’s why proclaiming it is of utmost importance. And that doesn’t simply mean proclaiming it from the pulpit. Telling the good news of Jesus Christ is the duty of every Christian everywhere—on the mission field, at the plant, at school, at the grocery story, on the golf course—everywhere. The gospel is the best we have to offer to the world, for it “is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rom. 1:16).

We need to commit to telling the good news. That means bringing the lost here to our worship services to hear the word preached. Better yet, it means telling them ourselves, each Christian here. If you are in Christ, please pray to have the courage, wisdom, and strength to proclaim the good news of Christ to the best of your ability. If you are outside of Christ, come to him to receive the greatest life—and the greatest life’s work—that ever was.


1. Norman Geisler,“Who Will be Saved, According to the Word of God?” From When Cultists Ask. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997. Accessed 28 September 2004.

2. Roy B. Zuck, “What About Those Who Haven’t Heard,” Kindred Spirit 18:4 (1994). Accessed 28 September 2004.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Wrath of God on Unrighteousness

Romans 1:18-25
Preached Sunday morning, June 26, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

This week we’ll begin a series of Sunday morning lessons from Romans. Of all Paul’s letters, Romans is the most oriented toward doctrine. In it, Paul clearly states the gospel and its relationship to righteousness, both for Jews and Gentiles. The letter begins with prayers for blessings to the Roman Christians (Rm 1:8-12). Soon, though, Paul turns to doctrine, and when he does he turns first of all to the sin and wrath of God. Paul says that “God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of those who in their wickedness suppress the truth” (1:18).

We learn something here about the righteous God, the God who has prepared wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. We learn something about unrighteousness, too—that unrighteousness is against truth. Sin is not just action, it’s lies, too. At one time or another that describes every one of us—wanting our own ways of unrighteousness more than God’s righteousness and truth. So Paul is talking here about all of us, and it’s not a pretty picture. This talk about unrighteousness is a picture of willful disobedience, of darkness, of lies, and of God’s wrath against such wickedness.

Paul goes on to tell us something else of great importance: “what can be known about God is plain” (1:19). God created the world, and his hand has made its mark on all creation. At the most basic level, all of creation points to a creator. The mere existence of the world is evidence for the existence of God. But creation reveals more than that. Looking at the world around us, with its goodness and beauty and order and workings—of the sun and moon, the seasons, the tides, the stages of our lives—we see evidence of a God of goodness, of order, of beauty, of power and might. As Paul told the Romans, “since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made” (1:20). God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in his creation, just as the Psalmist had said: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

Paul makes an important distinction in his words here. Notice that in Rom. 1:19 he writes, “what can be known about God is plain.” Of course there are deep mysteries about God’s nature that we will never understand on this earth. He is God and we are not, so we cannot possibly understand all the depths of his mind and actions. Part of the arrogance of our age is to think we can figure out, scientifically, everything we need to know about all we need to know. Science is good as far as it goes, of course. There is nothing wrong with using the minds God gave us to figure out all we can about his creation. We just have to remember that there are depths of God’s love, wisdom, and power beyond our understanding. God himself reminded Job of this fact when he asked him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4).

The fact that our own knowledge has limits, by the way, is why we need the Word of God. Truth that we ourselves can figure out, also known as empirical truth, will only take us so far. Some things we can know only because God reveals them to us. As we read in Ps. 19:7, “The law of the Lord is prefect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” So between those two, God’s creation and God’s revelation, we have been given all we need to know about God and life and salvation.

Why, then, is there any argument? Isn’t it obvious who God is and what we need to do as human beings? Why do so many people refuse to even recognize the truth of the gospel? Why do so many in the world around us consider the truth of Jesus Christ to be simply a matter of religious opinion, with no more basis in fact than, say, my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla?

Paul gives us the answer in Rm. 1:18 & 21. First of all, one result of wickedness, the sinfulness in which we all share, is that it suppresses the truth. Those who have given themselves over to wickedness “became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21). So even though the truth is out there, plain to see, all of us to one degree or another have allowed our minds to be darkened by the wickedness within ourselves and all around us in the world. Before we became Christians our minds were darkened indeed. After we come to repentance, we still must struggle to overcome the darkness that presses all around us. We choose that darkness whenever we fall back into sin.

The world, as a whole, has always chosen darkness, ever since Adam and Eve sinned and were thrown out of the garden. Paul is talking about the whole world here—the overwhelming majority of human beings in all places, at all times. Elsewhere Paul calls the world “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). It’s the world into which we are born, a world whose members make the choice of unrighteousness and lies over the truth and righteousness of God. But although human beings choose not to see, God has still made himself plain to the world.

Thus, as Paul says, they are without excuse (Rm. 1:20). Remember who he’s talking to here. He’s writing to Roman Christians in particular, but in a broader sense he’s speaking to us. All of us are without excuse. God has revealed his truth in creation and revelation, and we have all to one degree or another chosen darkness over light. It’s not that we couldn’t understand the truth, but that we wouldn’t understand the truth.

So we’ve all messed up. And what is the most natural thing for human beings to do when we’ve messed up? Deny it, of course. That’s the most natural, automatic response to our own failures—to deny it, especially when our character is threatened. Did you ever hear the story Bill Cosby used to tell about the so-called “honesty” of children? He told about walking into the kitchen one day and catching his two-year-old daughter with her hand in the cookie jar.

“What are you doing?” Cosby demanded.
“Nothing,” the two-year-old said, poker-faced.
“Nothing?” he exclaimed, “Then what were you doing climbing up on the counter with your hand in the cookie jar?”
“I’m getting a cookie for you,” the girl said sweetly.

If you’ve had a two-year-old you know this story rings true. As soon as little boys and girls can say the word “no” they learn how to use it to deny things that might get them in trouble. As we grow older we become more sophisticated in our denials. Such behavior may be cute in toddlers. But when we are mature, it’s sin, pure and simple, the fruit of darkened hearts.

That’s why it’s so critical for us to recognize our sin, to acknowledge our guilt. Later in his letter to the Romans Paul will address this issue head-on and point out that we are each personally responsible before God for our behavior. If we don’t recognize our own responsibility in sin, we can’t possibly repent. And repentance is essential to new life, to salvation.

To a great extent, repentance is unnatural. It’s a result of God’s grace in our lives, of his truth breaking through. Denial is much more natural. It’s what our hearts naturally fall back into—like our backsides onto a comfortable recliner. That, by the way, is why the world hates Jesus, because he is the truth, he is the light, and in him is no darkness at all (Jn 14:6, 1 Jn 1:5). The light of Jesus Christ exposes unrighteousness for what it is, and sinners cannot bear to see that. The world will accept Jesus if we tone him down—put him under a bushel basket, so to speak, so that he doesn’t show the world its own wickedness. But if Christians proclaim Jesus as he revealed himself, the world will hate him—and hate us for showing them the truth.

That hatred of the truth is the result of sin. Humanity traded the glory of God for shoddy counterfeits, cheap imitations our own hands had made—idols and images of men and animals. Paul tells us that because humanity made these bad choices, “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” (Rm. 1:24, 25).

Why would a loving God do such a thing? Why would he allow humanity to go further and further down a road that leads to wrath and destruction? If he loves human beings, how could he “give them up” to such an awful path?

The answer lies way back at the beginning of the human race. God made human beings out of two ingredients: dirt and his own breath (Gen. 2:7). God created us “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). An image is a representation of something: a statue is an image of a person or animal, a portrait is an image of a face, a photograph is an image of whatever is in the picture. Therefore God created us an image of him, to represent him on earth. In a sense God created us to be co-creators with him, to share in some mysterious way his nature. Throughout history God has allowed human beings to come to him with requests, and he has shown a tendency to let us have what we ask for. As a result, as the old saying goes, we’d better be careful what we ask for, because we just might get it. Sad to say, what mankind has asked for, has chased after, for most of our time on earth, has been unrighteousness. And as Paul points out here, if people have their minds made up to chase after sin, God won’t stop us.

There are, of course, consequences from that choice, as Paul goes on to explain: impurity and dishonor, homosexuality, degraded minds and bodies. “They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rm 1:29-31). In short, they allowed themselves to be filled with the Spirit of darkness rather than the Spirit of God. Or should I say, we allowed ourselves to be filled.

Some folks in the church will protest: “I read over that list, and I don’t do any of those bad things.” Some outside the church may go farther: “I don’t do any of those things, and I’m not even a Christian. But I’m a good person. I vote. I recycle. I exercise and eat right. I volunteer at the hospital, I give to the United Way, I love my family. I help my neighbors. I smile. I’m nice to waitresses at restaurants..” Some folks really do seem to have it all together, and it’s hard to argue when they say they’re nice people, even if they don’t acknowledge God. Of course, that’s a lie. As Paul tells us later in this letter, all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we try to get by as good folks without God, we fall for a form of the sin Paul describes in verse 25: worshiping the creature rather than the creator. In this case, it’s not idols, but ourselves that we’re worshiping. So no one is innocent.

For all who choose unrighteousness over truth—and that’s all of us to one degree or another—God’s wrath is reserved, for “those who do such things deserve to die” (Rm. 1:32).

Well, that’s where we stand before God—all of us, even nice folks—unrighteous, untruthful, worthy of death. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that even though we’ve made a mess of things ourselves, God has given us a way out. After laying down the bad news, with force, Paul goes on in the rest of the letter to the Romans to explain the good news, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rm. 1:16).

The good news is that even though we reject God with our sin, God does not reject us. He loves us so much that he sent his own son, Jesus, to live and work among us. Because Jesus was the truth, the world rejected him and killed him. And because Jesus died without any sin of his own, he was able to pay the price of sin (death) for all who receive him, who believe on his name. For those who believe and obey, we are given the privilege of becoming children of God. And if we join ourselves to Christ, we share not only in his death to unrighteousness, but his resurrection to new life.

That new life is something we don’t deserve. We deserve death. But God’s son, who is the source of all life, took death upon himself to give us eternal life. And eternal life is not something that comes only after we die. It’s something we can enjoy now—new life with the righteousness of God. As Paul told the Ephesians, “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.” (Eph. 5:8). That’s grace. That’s good news.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley