UNRIGHTEOUSNESS and RIGHTEOUSNESS: A Study on Romans 1
Currently, my wife and I are participating in a community Bible study on Romans. I joined the study because I wanted to be around people. When one is legally blind and doesn’t drive, one’s world begins to contract. I’m not particularly interested in conscientious study; I’m interested in conversation. However, my wife and others have taken me on as “the answer man,” and their questions are forcing me to go back to my books and use my limited sight in study to dig out answers for them. Well, to those who are forcing me to work, I say: THANK YOU VERY MUCH! And I really mean it! It is important to read and listen slowly to the words of the Bible.
As I opened the first chapter of Romans, I was met once again with how shockingly counter-cultural and politically incorrect the message of the Christian “gospel of God” is. Take away our modern contraptions and our post-modern, twenty-first century world and the ancient, Greco-Roman world are not so different. As a member of my study group put it: “Sin doesn’t change much!”
When asked how I divide Romans 1, I said one of the ways of dividing the chapter is Paul’s contrast between RIGHTEOUSNESS and UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. The best way to do this is to reverse Paul’s order – that is, to contrast (1) the unrighteousness of men with (2) the righteousness of God.
1. The Unrighteousness of Men
First, Paul’s contrast of the unrighteousness of men with the righteousness of God is thoroughly chilling and frightening. The unrighteousness of men is DEATH (see Eph. 2.1 and Col. 2.13) and the righteousness of God is LIFE. Surely, I don’t think a starker contrast is possible!
In the Old Testament, one of the ways righteousness is described is lifestyle. The righteous man lives rightly, that is, he lives as God directs him. For example, consider this from Deut. 4.6-8 and 6.24-25:
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? . . . . And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.
The righteous man lives a lifestyle of faith in God. BY FAITH, the righteous man hears and obeys what God says. BY FAITH, the righteous man orders his life according to what God prescribes. BY FAITH, the righteous man embraces what God allows and rejects what God forbids. BY FAITH, the righteous man sets his heart to live according to what God thinks and not what he thinks.
Unrighteousness is also a lifestyle. According to the Old Testament, the unrighteous man lives a lifestyle according to what he thinks rather than what the God of the Bible thinks. The unrighteous man rejects God and turns from the revelation of God in His WORKS OF CREATION and in His WORDS OF REVELATION which are inscripturated to us in the pages of the Bible. The unrighteous man, in his rejection of God, turns to the worship of the idols of his mind and hands. Instead of embracing the morality and lifestyle of God’s commandments, laws, and decrees, the unrighteous man, as he makes it up on the fly to suit his desires, reverses God’s commandments and
- turns to cursing instead of blessing,
- turns to arrogant self-reliance instead of patient dependence on God’s provision,
- turns to embracing a culture of death instead of defending life,
- turns to culture-destroying sexual impurities instead of ennobling and life producing sexual purity,
- turns to the poverty of legalized theft instead of the wealth of industry,
- turns to the vanity of lies instead of the simplicity of truth, and, finally,
- turns to an infatuation with greed instead of the pleasure of contentment with God’s good gifts.
As Paul describes the Greco-Roman world of the first century, he sounds like an Old Testament prophet, doesn’t he? Paul paints the Greco-Roman culture in the loathsome colors of “ungodliness and unrighteousness” – a ghastly world that even “hinders the truth in unrighteousness” (1.18). This world is “ungodly” because people have rejected the God of biblical revelation. This world is “unrighteous” because people hate God’s prescription for life. It’s a world where people profess to be wise but are fools for they have purposefully forgotten the God of the Bible (1.22). It’s a culture under judgment, and God has turned the people over to do what they think (1.24) – and what they think is the good life is a pit of death. They have dug for themselves a pit-trap to fall in, and this pit-trap is filled with poisonous punji sticks which are culture-destroying in this life and soul-damning in the life to come.
Beginning with 1.22, with Paul’s treatment of God’s judgment on the Greco-Roman culture and Paul’s enumeration of particular sins, a number of people have asked me this: “Why does Paul begin with homosexual sins? Why does Paul spotlight homosexual sins so harshly? Isn’t homosexuality just another sexual sin?”
That’s an astute observation! Those are good questions!
Well, to begin with, homosexual sin is sexual sin. However, there is more to be said. Indeed, Paul certainly puts a harsh focus on the homosexual lifestyle – in fact, it’s a scolding and withering focus.
At this point, I think the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) is very helpful in dealing with this question. Questions 82, 83, and 84 are the conclusion of the WSC’s treatment of the Ten Commandments. With regard to the nature and degree of various “sins,” Question 83 is set forth in this manner: “Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?” The answer is given in these words: “Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.”
Somewhere I read that before modern ventilation machinery and accurate gages to check air quality, coal miners used canaries to inform them of the quality of the air they breathed. According to what I read, canaries are more sensitive to poisonous gases than humans. So, the coal miners of old took canaries into the mines with them. If their canaries stopped singing and fell over dead, the coal miners knew it was time to get out of the mine.
The unambiguous teaching of both the Old Testament and the New Testament is homosexual sin is one of the sins which, in the words of the WSC, is “more heinous in the sight of God.” Indeed, the homosexual lifestyle is the canary warning a culture of God’s impending judgment.
Paul links homosexual sin (that is, the impudent lifestyle of homosexuality and the corresponding advancement of the lifestyle as normal) to the “godlessness” and “unrighteousness” of men and women who knowingly and wantonly reject the God of the Bible and, particularly, reject God’s prescription for sexuality and sexual health – that is to say, they reject the lowest common denominator for societal health and stability. In their arrogance and contumacy, these people deify and worship the idols of their hearts and live according to the anti-wisdom and foolishness of their minds. These are people who call good what God calls evil and condone what God rejects. According to Paul, these are people God gives over to a “reprobate mind” in order for them to embrace their lusts to their destruction (1.28). This is the description of a culture under God’s judgment and standing on the precipice of social implosion and cultural annihilation.
Well, people come and people go; however, there is no “variableness” or “shadow of turning” with God (Jas. 1.17). God, who comes to us in “the volume of the book,” defines righteousness and unrighteousness (Ps. 40.7 and Heb. 10.7). “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Num 23.19), and this means the categories He has established for a normal and wholesome sexual relationship between men and women do not change. Surely, Paul painted a bleak portrait of first century Rome, and, unfortunately, Romans 1 is as relevant to our twenty-first century as it was to the first century – and perhaps more so for the light of the gospel has shown brightly for us.
2. The Righteousness of God
Second, I call your attention to Paul’s emphasis on the righteousness of God.
Paul writes he is “a servant . . . separated to the gospel of God.” The Greek word Paul uses for “gospel” means “good message.” The Hebrew word Paul has in mind translates “glad tidings.” The English “gospel” is from the Old English “god-spell” or “good + spell,” that is, “good news.” I like “good news.” I think it is clearer. So, Paul is “separated to the good news of God.”
I like Paul’s use of “for” in Romans 1. The Greek word translated “for” is a conjunction. It is used to connect thoughts and “to express cause, inference, continuation, or to explain” (Arndt and Gingrich). Paul uses “for” like hammer blows on a bell to emphasize. Paul writes, FOR the cause of the good news of God, he thanked God for the Romans; FOR the cause of the good news of God, he wanted to travel to Rome in order to impart a spiritual gift to them; and FOR the cause of the good news of God as the power of God to the salvation of sinners, he was not ashamed of either his message or his task.
Paul DEFINES the good news of God in terms of God’s power to do the impossible: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scripture, and that he appeared to [many reputable witnesses] and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1 Cor. 15.4f.). Paul DESCRIBES the good news of God in terms of God’s power to wash, sanctify, and justify the unrighteous:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6.9-11)
And Paul further DESCRIBES the good news of God in terms of God’s sanctifying power to enable His people to be zealous for good works:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Tit. 2.11-14)
The good news of God is “the righteous man shall live by faith” (Rom. 1.17). Paul’s source for this quote is Habakkuk 2.4. Habakkuk lived in a time of theological, moral, and national decay. It was a time of judgment. There was no good news. The people of the kingdom of Judah lived according to Paul’s litany of immorality in Rom. 1.18-32. Habakkuk cried out against the people’s sins of idolatry and immorality. He asked God why He delayed judgment. God informed Habakkuk He was bringing down the military might of the Chaldean Empire to destroy Judah. Habakkuk was horrified. He asked God how He could do such a dreadful thing since the Chaldeans’ sins were worse than the people of Judah. God responded He would also destroy the Chaldean Empire in His time. Habakkuk asked if there were any good news.
There was good news. The good news of God was for Habakkuk to trust God who is faithful to His people. The good news of God is the lifestyle of obedient faith. Indeed, if the good news is “the righteous man shall live by faith,” what other option did Habakkuk want?
In a sin-mad world where evil is called good, light is called darkness, moral is called immoral, and the truth of the Bible is called fiction, there seemed to be no good news. In the godless and unrighteous darkness of ancient Rome, the light of the good news of God in Jesus Christ appeared and shown brightly in many lives. BY FAITH, they exchanged the darkness of Satan and sin for the good news of the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ. BY FAITH, they laid hold of God’s forgiveness of their sins in Christ’s blood. BY FAITH, they came to know the transformation of their lives through the work of the Holy Spirit. BY FAITH, they joined Paul in service to the living God of the Bible. BY FAITH, they cried out to God in Jesus’ name, and they were given Paul’s song of salvation to sing:
Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him. (Rom. 4.7-8)In a God-denying culture where there is no good news of forgiveness and salvation, the light of the good news of God in Jesus Christ still shines brightly for those who will have it. As a matter of fact, in the words of Paul, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent [and believe in the Jesus of the Bible], because [God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts17.30-31).
Will you exchange your godlessness for the God of the Bible? Will you exchange your faithlessness for faith in Jesus? Will you exchange your good newslessness for the good news of God? Will you exchange your sin for the cleansing blood of Jesus’ cross? Will you exchange your immorality for God’s morality? Will you exchange your unrighteousness for God’s righteousness in Christ? Other than death, do you have another option?
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson
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