Friday, March 22, 2024

Paul’s Surprising Conclusion in Romans

Many evangelicals know how Paul begins his long argument in Romans 1. But I wonder how many know the surprising conclusion he comes to at the very end of his argument, one that we would not have expected by the way he begins. The argument stretches from chapter 1 all the way through chapter 11, after which Paul breaks into wondrous doxology.

Paul’s point in this long argument, even at the beginning, is not to establish blame, though there is certainly plenty of blame to be had. And, clearly, God’s interest was not in establishing blame but, quite the opposite, in revealing salvation.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23)

What we see in Romans 1 is that the wicked had rejected God because their thinking was futile and their foolish hearts that were darkened. In verse 24-28, we see that God “gave them over” (Paul repeats this three times): to their sinful desires, their shameful lusts, their depraved minds.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:24-28)

Had not their minds been depraved, and had not their hearts been foolish and darkened, perhaps the revelation of God in nature (which is created by Christ) might have been enough to keep them from wickedness, for the human will would then have been able to function properly. But the will was manifestly not free but in bondage to sin and darkness and depravity of mind, and so the will was defective, not able to function freely.

So, God handed them over to that darkness and depravity. But we must ask for what purpose? Was it so they would finally be destroyed? No! Quite the opposite — and that is the surprising thing. The dark hearts and confused minds of men call for retribution and revenge. But God is Love (1 John 4:8), so everything God does is a manifestation of who God is. Love is not retributive, nor does it seek revenge — that is simply not the way of God.

Paul’s long argument continues, ranging over hill and dale through eight chapters, with many insightful points along the way. Then in the final section, Romans 9-11, he takes up a completely hypothetical proposition and thoroughly examines it.

What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22-24)

The hypothetical here is the notion that some people are destined for destruction and others are destined for mercy. Paul works through this proposition in the balance of Romans 9-11. And what is his conclusion? That this is exactly what God is doing, with the destiny of some being destruction while others receive mercy? No, not at all! Quite the opposite, and many have not seen this coming. Paul concludes: 

For God has bound all over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all. (Romans 11:32)

All are blameworthy, and God has handed all over to disobedience, not that they be finally destroyed but precisely in order to have mercy on all in the end. Who would have anticipated this from the way Paul opens his argument in Romans 1? But this is the good news of the gospel. Not that some are going to eternal damnation while others will be the object of God’s mercy but, rather, that God will have mercy on all.

So, evangelism is not about brokering some deal, getting people to complete some transaction, fulfill some condition, do some quid quo pro or “this” for “that” with God. The gospel is not a transaction but an announcement, a proclamation, that God is having mercy on all. That God is in Christ reconciling all the world to himself, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).

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