Saturday, December 08, 2007

The bad news that makes the good news so good

The “good news” of God’s salvation is really only appreciated when we realize how hopeless we are without it. The good news of the gospel is truly good because it is our only hope. Without the power and merciful justice of God we are all hopelessly doomed. The next section in Romans (1:18 – 32) is important because the bad news is the context that makes the gospel such spectacularly good news.

Ignorance of God’s law, Paul tells us, is not a valid excuse. It is a chosen blindness to some truths evident in what can be seen, namely God’s power and divinity. (It’s arguable that the essence of divinity here is righteousness, in which case there is a wonderful parallel here that God’s power and righteousness form the truths that are evident in creation and essence of the gospel [verse 16,17].)

This chosen ignorance has consequences in our behaviors.
It would be a mistake to read these verses as a simple list of sins.

It is unfortunate that this passage is sometimes used to present homosexuality as chief among sins. So, why did Paul seem to put such emphasis on homosexuality? Paul wrote this epistle to Rome sometime between 2 and 8 years after Nero became Caesar. Nero was by no means the first Caesar to engage in homosexual behavior, but he was the first Caesar to marry a gay lover. In fact, it’s possible to read this passage and find virtually every evil used to describe Nero by his contemporaries. He came to power by deceit and murder of his step-father. He kept power by the same means. His political rivals, including his mother, were murdered by his order. He was the first Caesar to aggressively persecute the Christians and yet he was “Divine” in the state religion. Verse 32 concludes the list with the observation that the ungodly not only do these awful things “but also approve of those who practice them.” Paul could hardly have said more plainly that the approval Rome gave to Nero was proof of a depraved state.

While I suspect that Paul was thinking of Nero, I believe that the Holy Spirit was moving to accomplish a deeper and more lasting objective. The passage lists the results of willful ignorance when God “gives them up.”

The Holy Spirit knowingly makes it impossible for anyone to read this passage and indulge in a self-righteous judgment against others whose sins are more “grievous” than our own. Like everyone I am tempted by certain sins, but not by others. Homosexual activity is extremely tempting to some, but not most. That reality makes it easy for the self-righteous to take prideful comfort in the condemnation of others.

Homosexual sin is one that far too many view with self-righteous contempt. It is wrong, but it’s no worse than gluttony. It’s no worse than telling a “little white lie.” It’s no worse than disobeying a parent. Those who struggle with homosexual urges should not be placed in a category different from any other sinner. To tell them they must stop their sexual behaviors and cease their desires in order to be in good standing is consistent only if you require the glutton to become thin and cease craving sweets to be in good standing. God’s love and His salvation are not based on the actions of the sinner, that’s the Gospel! God’s love and His salvation are based on God’s power and generous justice to treat faith as faith regardless of who has it, and regardless of what sin that person finds tempting.

Lest any of us feel any superiority to those of “greater sins,” the inspired apostle moves the target smoothly between wickedness, murder, deceit, arrogant God haters (all of which are easy for the self-righteous to deny) and the “lesser sins” of envy, gossip, and disobedience to parents.

The clear conclusion of any open-minded reading of the passage is that “I am no better than those I willingly condemn.” This intent of the Holy Spirit is confirmed in the first phrase of the next paragraph.

Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. (Romans 2:1)

The good news that God’s salvation is applied on the basis of faith alone is good news indeed.

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