Through the letter to the Romans – Part 2: The other revelation

In Part 1 we saw that the bottom line to Paul is that the Gospel has the supernatural power we need for our life because it is the revelation of God’s righteousness. That righteousness has brought us a salvation based on the principle of faith. But only those who believe get to see it and grasp it. So, what about the rest of the world?

Paul immediately says, they get a revelation too:

Romans 1:18-21 For there is revealed wrath of God from heaven upon all impiety, and unrighteousness of men holding {suppressing} the truth in unrighteousness. Because what is known of God is manifest among them, for God has manifested [it] to them —for from [the] world’s creation the invisible things of him are perceived, being apprehended by the mind through the things that are made, both his eternal power and divinity — so as to render them inexcusable. Because, knowing God, they glorified [him] not as God, neither were thankful; but fell into folly in their thoughts, and their heart without understanding was darkened:

Paul is making the case that the existence of a righteous God, who is the definer of right and wrong, is a fact that is known to all mankind, regardless of who they are or where they came from. One of the delightful things in Paul’s prose is how not a word is wasted. Thus, when he speaks of unrighteous men, he doesn’t just say that they avoid the truth, or ignore it, or are ignorant of it. He says they suppress it, which implies a willful action. And when he admits that God’s attributes are invisible (to physical eyes) he immediately says that nevertheless they are visible to the eyes of reason (this is the way E. B. Howell translates that phrase which here Darby rendered as apprehended by the mind.)

Where does the ability to hear this revelation come from? It is built into our human psyche.

Scripture has testified to this truth from the beginning.

Psalm 19:1-4 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the expanse sheweth the work of his hands. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech and there are no words, yet their voice is heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their language to the extremity of the world.

And we saw last time Jesus’ declaration of the same truth from Isaiah and Jeremiah, namely that God has indeed taught all mankind. Paul also has declared this before. Thus, Paul told the people in Lystra (when they had decided he and Barnabas were Hermes and Zeus, and were about to make sacrifices to them):

Painting by N. P. Berchem, Paul and Barnabas at Lystra

Acts 14:15-17 …Men, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, preaching to you to turn from these vanities to the living God, who made the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and all things in them; who in the past generations suffered all the nations to go in their own ways, though indeed he did not leave himself without witness, doing good, and giving to you from heaven rain and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness.

And to the Philosophers at Mars Hill:

Acts 17: 24- The God who has made the world and all things which are in it, *he*, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, nor is served by men’s hands as needing something, himself giving to all life and breath and all things; and has made of one blood every nation of men to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, having determined ordained times and the boundaries of their dwelling, that they may seek God; if indeed they might feel after him and find him, although he is not far from each one of us: for in him we live and move and exist; as also some of the poets amongst you have said, For we are also his offspring.

Being therefore [the] offspring of God, we ought not to think that which is divine to be like gold or silver or stone, [the] graven form of man’s art and imagination. God therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, now enjoins men that they shall all everywhere repent, because he has set a day in which he is going to judge the habitable earth in righteousness by [the] man whom he has appointed, giving the proof [of it] to all [in] having raised him from among [the] dead.

This speech in the Areopagus is very important because Paul is not addressing here ordinary people. He is addressing experts at debating, logical thinkers, and rhetoricians. Cicero’s rules of rhetoric were well known by this time. And they start with: “the first part of the rhetorical process is excogitation of true things, or things similar to truth to render one’s cause plausible.” In other words, expert orators knew how to lie if needed, in order to convince people of their desired conclusion.

That audience could not be easily fooled. And they would have balked at any blatant attempt at tricking them. But when you read the passage, you realize they only balked when Paul ended by claiming that resurrection from among the dead had happened. That was too much for some of them to believe.

Which tells me that the rest of Paul’s argument was sound, as it was in Lystra. Peoples of all nations were willing to believe that there was an order in the Universe because of a Supreme Architect. And they believed implicitly that their own concepts of right and wrong were derived from that Creator, whatever name they chose to give Him, the one that Paul calls the God of Heaven and Earth.

Photo of C. S. Lewis

An excellent contemporary version of this argument is given by C. S. Lewis in his book “The abolition of man.” I highly recommend it. In it he points out that all ancient cultures shared a set of definitions of right and wrong that are universal to humanity. Lewis calls it The Tao of mankind. It is to this built-in moral compass that Paul is about to appeal.

All a compass can do is point out a direction

What is interesting about Paul’s appeal to this general revelation to all mankind – that all peoples know there is such a thing as right and wrong – is that he immediately declares that that knowledge has no power to enable the typical human being to choose right. This is why Paul says this revelation comes in the form of wrath.

Again, Paul has not invented any new theology here. Jesus himself said that not one tittle of the Law would be proven wrong. So, we turn to Genesis, and see at the very beginning God telling Adam and Eve not to partake of the fruit of the tree of all that can be known about good and evil. Why? Because the day they did so, they would surely die.

The kind of beings that Adam and Eve were, the kind of beings that we are, have a problem with such knowledge. Once we have it, once we know how to do evil to get something we want, how to do whatever it takes to gain an advantage over someone else, we invariably choose evil. This is human nature, all ancient cultures understood it. Which is why they created codes of law full of “don’ts”. If human beings were more likely to do good rather than evil, you would expect a preponderance of accolades in those codes of law. Instead, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, we find the soul of the deceased making a list of declarations before the gods of the underworld that go like this:

I have not committed sin.
I have not committed robbery with violence.
I have not stolen.
I have not slain men and women.
I have not stolen grain.
I have not purloined offerings.
I have not stolen the property of the gods.
I have not uttered lies.

phot of wall of egyptian tomb

And so forth…

The belief in the intrinsic goodness of humans is a relatively modern invention. But if man is intrinsically good, the only way to explain the disagreements and conflicts among people is either to blame something else (e.g. Capitalism, Religion, the State) or to say that truth and right are all relative. But for that position to be defensible, you have to deny the existence of a God who established the absolute rules of right and wrong. No surprise then that the Enlightenment tried to replace Religion with Science.

The ancients had plenty of their own Science. But they did not use it to replace their knowledge of the God of Heaven and Earth. They took a more defensible approach, one that did not require them to lie to themselves about the fact that their hearts knew right and wrong do exist. They invented their own (multiple) gods who could then excuse certain actions. It was a rather clever idea: Divide and conquer. If there isn’t just One God, then if I do what god “A” lets me do, even if god “B” doesn’t like it… Hey, they can work that out among themselves.

So, all mankind has a compass. And all mankind knows how to create loopholes in order to ignore what that compass says… because we are just like Adam and Eve. And the moment we refuse to acknowledge the God we know is there, we start down the slippery slope of self-destruction. That is why Paul says:

Because, knowing God, they glorified [him] not as God, neither were thankful; but fell into folly in their thoughts, and their heart without understanding was darkened:

How does this slippery slope proceed?

Romans 1:22-25 professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into [the] likeness of an image of corruptible man and of birds and quadrupeds and reptiles. Wherefore God gave them up [also] in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness, to dishonour their bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into falsehood, and honoured and served the creature more than him who had created [it], who is blessed for ever.

N. T. Wright points out that the inexorable fall of man down this slippery slope, that Paul proceeds to describe, takes the form of inverting all of God’s plans for humanity. Whatever God had made to bless humanity with, we corrupt and distort. And when we do that, it cannot satisfy, because it can no longer bless us. So, we take it to the next level, and the next… until we reach the extreme point of ending up hollow, being unsatisfiable. And then to deny that we are in that state, we seek to bring as many others as we can into that state with us. In this sense, misery does appear to love company… but it isn’t love at all that seeks to condemn others into matching our own folly; it is desperation.

If this is a letter to believers, why even mention this other revelation?

Because it comes back full circle to Paul’s mission: To proclaim the gospel. The only thing that can protect us from falling down this slippery slope is the supernatural power of the gospel. And that is something Paul needs the Romans to understand. Their salvation is not a static state. It is not a destination to which they have arrived and that’s it. Power implies action. Faith, to be faith, has to be alive, dynamic, and demonstrating its reality by action every day. Jesus said it this way: “My Father works to this day; therefore, so do I” (John 5:17).

Even though, as we will discuss, Paul’s repeated argument against works of the Law has nothing to do with the idea of people thinking they can earn their salvation by doing good works, there is a very real danger for any religious person to default into complacency. This is why Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

Luke 18:9-10 ff And he spoke also to some, who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and made nothing of all the rest [of men], this parable: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer…

(I will let you read the rest.)

Which is why Paul follows that discussion of the revelation of wrath, with this shocking statement:

Romans 2:1 Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, every one who judgest, for in that in which thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.

This statement is not as shocking to us today. We know full well cases where we have developed a high opinion of a public figure or a politician, based on the things that he says and the legislation that he champions, and then one day we discover that he is being accused of the very things he railed against. This should come as no surprise to us. But it should be a shock to a people who the whole world held up as exemplars of faith (as Paul said of them in Romans 1:8.)

Surely, the reaction to Paul would be, “Wait, wait, we are saved! We believe the gospel.”  But the problem with that answer is, what do you mean by that? Are you telling me that you are saved because you have trustworthy compass and you follow its direction? I have news for you, a compass cannot save you. That’s where this argument is headed.

The Jews of that first century society had a cultural tendency to think that way. Their compass was The Law. Didn’t that Law single them out as being in the right with God?

But the Christian believers, both Gentile and Jewish, could also fall into a similar trap: thinking that “faith” declared them right.  That’s why James had to say in his letter: James 2:18-19 Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

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