Is Faith Itself Imputed as Our Righteousness?

Arminians and Roman Catholics will typically argue that Romans 4:5,9 are talking about faith itself as the thing that is imputed, thus avoiding imputation of an alien righteousness. They will translate it something like “faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Sometimes they will use the word “for” instead of “as” while understanding it of identity. There are three insuperable objections to this understanding of the passage. Here are the two verses (translation mine):

4:5 “To the one who does not work but rather believes in the One justifying the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” 4:9 “Does this blessing, therefore, come to the circumcised only or also to the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.”

The first insuperable objection to understanding faith itself as the thing reckoned is the context, especially verses 3-5. It goes like this: if faith is righteousness (in the eyes of the law), then it is a work. Then works justify us, the very thing Paul explicitly denies in verses 3-5, where he contrasts faith and works, and makes a point of saying that it is NOT reckoned as a reward, but rather as of grace. If in the situation of justification, there is anything in us that is righteous as a basis for justification, then it is a reward, and not of grace. There is no way around this problem. Limiting the scope of the works so that they are boundary markers or ceremonial aspects of the law simply doesn’t fly at all. The contrast is between the one working and the one believing. That is a general contrast.

The second insuperable objection is the nature of faith itself, which has to be determined from the rest of Scripture. The Scriptures usually speak of faith as being in someone. Faith is really not a thing inside us. It is rather our connection to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Triune God. Faith derives its meaning and substance from the object of faith, not from faith itself. Otherwise, we are saved by faith in faith. Faith is rather our connection to God. The analogy I like to use goes like this: if a person is canning something, then he is faced with a situation of having to get jars out of boiling water. Obviously, he cannot use his hands to do so. Therefore, he must use something to grasp hold of the jars. There are tongs manufactured for just such a purpose. They wrap around the lip of the jar so that a person can lift the jar out without any mishap. Faith is like those tongs. Faith is not the jar with the good stuff in it. Faith lays hold of Christ and all His goodness. It connects us to Him. It is another way of saying our union with Christ which the Holy Spirit creates.

The third insuperable objection (and something that is absolutely fatal to Roman Catholic understandings of justification) is the phrase “justifier of the ungodly” in verse 5. Roman Catholic theology NEVER believes that God ever justifies an ungodly person. Nevertheless, in all the ways that count at the time of justification, Abraham was ungodly in his actions (remembering that faith is contrasted with works in verses 3-5). If faith itself is the righteousness, then God would be justifying the godly, not the ungodly. But Paul says here that God is justifying the ungodly. In a future post I will argue the case that this understanding is not a legal fiction.

Is Imputation Taught in Romans 4?

Nick, over at Creed Code Cult, has thrown down the gauntlet (thrown many times before, of course) that Romans does not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. I don’t think I will get to all the things he addresses, but I do want to address Romans 4 in particular, since that is the clearest place where Paul does teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

But let’s summarize Nick’s argument first. He notes that David, in Psalm 32, does not speak about righteousness being imputed. Paul, in quoting Psalm 32, mentions it as a “counting for righteousness.” Therefore, according to Nick, forgiveness of sins is the equivalent of being regarded as righteous. In fact, Nick goes farther than that to claim that this is the “only coherent explanation.” He then adds a reductio ad absurdam argument: “Realizing this, it’s impossible to interpret ‘reckoning righteousness’ with the ‘Imputed Righteousness of Christ’ (as Protectants typically identify it), because then you’d have to say forgiveness of sins refers to Christ’s keeping of the law in our place, which makes little sense.” This is a very brief summary of Nick’s argument, but it will do to be getting on with.

There is another equally coherent explanation of the way that Paul quotes David that does much better justice to the context of the early part of Romans 4 (which Nick ignores), and it is this: Paul regards the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sin (with the accompanying imputation of our sin to Christ) as so tightly coherent that they always come together. In other words, to say that one happens is to say that the other also happens, because they are the flip side of each other. Let’s see how Paul does that.

Paul asks the question of whether Abraham was justified by works. Leaving aside for a moment the much-vexed question of the scope of these works, we merely note at the moment that positive works that obey the law are certainly in view here, obviously not works for which Abraham would need forgiveness. This is proven by the introduction of the boasting motif in verse 2. One presumably does not boast of sin. As opposed to this method of being justified, Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith instead. The key phrase here is “eis dikaiosunen” (“for righteousness”). Faith itself is not a fulfillment of the law. The very nature of faith is that it lays hold on Someone Else. So faith itself cannot be the righteousness here mentioned. The “eis” is a telic preposition. Faith, in laying hold of Jesus Christ, lays hold of His righteousness. Let me be plain: the righteousness here spoken of cannot be Abraham’s righteousness. Otherwise, he would be tempted to boast (as per verse 2). Verse 2 also proves that the concept of “righteousness” as used here in the passage CANNOT refer merely to the forgiveness of sins, which is not something about which a person would even be tempted to boast. It is further proven by the case of Adam in the garden. Forgiveness of sins wipes the slate clean. Adam started with a clean slate. So why didn’t he pass immediately into glory? Because he had to prove himself vis-a-vis the command that the Lord had given him. He had to be actively righteous to God’s command to multiply, fill the earth, guard the garden from Satanic intruders and not eat of the tree. Neutrality does not equal the blessedness of David by itself. What Paul is saying is that David’s explicit mention of forgiveness as constituting blessedness is half the picture, and imputation is the always-accompanying other half of the picture. Paul is saying that we need a righteousness. We cannot get it by working, because then it wouldn’t be grace (as verse 4 says so clearly). Faith is the only way to get this righteousness.

As Calvin would say, we need two things in justification: forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness. An analogy I’m fond of using is the gears of a car. Having one’s sins forgiven is like being taken out of reverse gear and put into neutral. Imputation is like being put into a forward gear. You need both of them to be headed in the right direction.

Lastly, I need to answer Nick’s reductio argument. Christ’s keeping of the law results in two very important facts for the believer. Firstly, it constitutes Christ the perfect Lamb, who can take away our sins (so, you see, Christ’s righteousness is VERY closely tied to the forgiveness of sins: if Christ was not the perfect Lamb, then He could not take away our sins, and He couldn’t die in our place). Secondly, He earned our way to heaven. Nick’s reductio fails because he leaves out the step of Christ’s righteousness constituting Him the perfect Lamb, and thereby achieving our forgiveness.

I will answer also his claim about the phrase “justified by His blood” being absurd to talk about the imputation of righteousness. As I have already noted (and what is a commonplace in Reformed treatments of justification), justification is not just about imputation, but also about forgiveness. Sometimes one aspect is more in view, sometimes the other. In 5:9, plainly forgiveness is more in view, since he is talking about being saved from wrath. Wrath is upon us due to sin, so when that sin is taken away from us, so is God’s wrath. That will do, to get the conversation started.

Futility, What Futility?

by Reed DePace

Let’s label it D3. The Bible teaches that in some manner the historical Fall of Adam brought about the introduction of three things as a curse-judgment on Adam and Eve’s sin: death, decay and destruction – D3.

If you believe in a historical Adam and a historical Fall, what does it mean for God to judicially administer these as judgment for sin? (If you do not believe in a historical Adam or a historical Fall, no disrespect, but this post is not addressed to you.)

If you think the death, decay and destruction existed before the fall:

Do you believe these things were in some manner also introduced in response to sin? If so, how are pre-fall forms of D3 different from post-fall forms of D3?

Do you think there is no difference between the pre-fall and post-fall forms of D3? If so, then what does God’s judicial administration of these on sin actually consist of?

If you want to limit the extent of God’s judicial administration of D3 on sin to just man, then what is the nature of the futility that the created order has been subjected to on account of sin (Rom 8:20)?

Do you believe God uses actual physical things to both picture and apply the gospel? If so, did God actually use a rainbow as a physical picture for a story that didn’t happen? Did God provide a real tree for a mythical test in a mythical garden? Etc., how do you determine where history ends and myth begins?

Sincerely, it does not appear that we are thinking through the necessary ramifications of affirming some sort of theistic evolution position.

by Reed DePace

POSTSCRIPT: these and the last two posts on this topic were written at the same time, last week. Nothing I’ve said in these may be construed ad specific responses to any discussion on these previous threads.

My focus in these posts has not been to make a positive argument for a specific pre-fall death scheme. Instead my focus has been ask my theistic evolution persuaded brothers to think about what this position does to the reality of a historic fall and God’s curse-judgment response to it. I do not believe theistic evolution enables an adequate explanation of sin and death. Please disagree. Please do not take personal offense.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: here is a good starting article to consider problems evolution: What Are the Top Ten Problems with Darwinian Evolution? This is a scientific perspective, not a biblical perspective. For those interested in an informed and reasonable critique of evolution from a science perspective, I recommend this site.

Fall, What Fall?

by Reed DePace

Theistic evolution maintains that the natural processes currently seen in the physical world are part of God’s original creation. That is, these are the processes he has used to bring into being all that we see.

Thus stars and planets evolved over billions of years through processes involving death, decay and destruction. The ecosystems of our planet (geology, meteorological, biological, etc.) similarly evolved over millions of years through processes involving death, decay, and destruction. And God was in charge of it all.

O.k., got it.

So what does that mean for God’s claim that He made everything good, very good, that is perfect? What does it mean that God created everything without the reign of death to be found anywhere in the created order?

Well, the deadly poison of theistic evolution can be seen in the kinds of arguments that are being offered by young folks raised to believe both that God created everything and that He created everything perfect. Watch the Q&A discussion Doug Wilson has with such young folk at the Indiana University, Bloomington. Their arguments demonstrate that they hold to the following convictions:

  • God created everything, including me.
  • God created everything perfect, including me.
  • God created the capacity to love as a part of this perfect creation, including in me.
  • I was born with the desire to love members of my own gender.
  • Therefore Christians who say homosexuality is wrong are acting wickedly – they are sinning!

It is not a surprise at all to find young folk raised in:

  • Schools teaching them that everything came about via evolution,
  • Communities that protect and promote their self-esteem,
  • Churches that tell them God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives, and
  • A Culture that says God (if He actually exists) doesn’t make mistakes,

Would reach the conclusion that their same gender sexual attractions are pure and holy.

Now, as Theistic Evolution has already affirmed that death, decay, and destruction are a normal, good, wholesome, beneficial part of God’s original creation,

How are we ever going to be able to justify the idea of sin and judgment?

It is no surprise when such folks, acting consistent with the necessary conclusions of Theistic Evolution, want to shut us up when we tell them the gospel.

“Fall, WHAT FALL! There is nothing wrong with me. You’re just a judgmental jerk!!”

by Reed DePace

POSTSCRIPT: For those who think I’m making ridiculous connections in this post, here is another example:

The Little Boy Who Wanted To Be a Girl

So how do you explain to these folks that the problem is the fall? How do you explain to them that God did not create this child this way? After all, mankind keeps evolving, right? If you follow theistic evolution you have no alternatives here.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: here is a good starting article to consider problems evolution: What Are the Top Ten Problems with Darwinian Evolution? This is a scientific perspective, not a biblical perspective. For those interested in an informed and reasonable critique of evolution from a science perspective, I recommend this site.

Need a Lift?

One of the most constant dangers that Christians face is the temptation to think that our sin is greater than God’s grace. It isn’t. Paul points this out rather extensively in Romans 5:15-17, where the entire theme is “how much more” is God’s grace than all sin in the world. Phillip Melanchthon’s commentary on the passage is worth quoting here for its pastoral sensitivity:

“The godly should diligently consider this superiority of grace in order that they may oppose it to the magnitutde of their sin and to their present weakness. No sin, no matter how great, ought to be considered greater than grace (p. 139 of the Kramer translation).”

The New Perspective on Paul Schools the FV

I was quite pleasantly surprised to find this in none other than James Dunn’s commentary on Romans. Given the recent discussions on faith versus faithfulness, I thought people might enjoy mulling over this quotation. Dunn is commenting on Romans 4:21 (which describes Abraham’s confidence that God fulfills His promises):


It was confidence in God, a positive acknowledgment of God’s power as creator, a calm certainty that God had made known to Abraham his purpose and could be relied on to perform it without further question or condition. Here from another aspect is the same reason why Abraham’s faith should not be though of in terms of covenant loyalty or as incomplete apart from works, for faith is confidence in God’s loyalty as alone necessary, as alone able, as alone sufficient to bring God’s promise to full effect (p. 239 of volume 1).

It should be noted here that in the context of Romans, Paul goes on immediately to apply Abraham’s faith as a template or example for us (see 4:23). I should note that this quotation does not alleviate the other problems in Dunn’s theology. However, on this point, Dunn seems to agree with the critics of the FV.

2k – 2nd Table Only – Another Biblical Argument

(Reed DePace)

In a previous thread I presented a biblically based argument for the 2K proposition: in the new covenant era the civil magistrate’s duties are limited to the 2nd Table of the Ten Commandments (from honor to parents to no coveting of neighbor’s possessions). A number sought to challenge that argument by referencing Psalm 2, verses 10-12 in particular.

Some prayerful reflection on that passage led to a few observations, which when taken together, I believe present another biblically based argument in support of this Reformed 2K proposition. While you’re reading Psalm 2, go ahead and read Rom. 13:1-5 and also Heb. 13:17.

To begin, let’s note the context of Psalm 2:10-12. For the sake of the discussion here, let’s ignore the initial audience, the pagan civil magistrate under the Old Covenant era. (Although there appears to be an additional huge supporting biblical argument from reflections in that direction – maybe later).

Surely, given the reference in v. 6 (Zion) in part in view in Psalm 2 is Christ’s rule over His Church (2K terminology: the Sacred Kingdom). Yet it is also clear that the primary focus of the Psalm is Christ’s rule over the pagan nations of the world (2K terminology: the Secular Kingdom). In this context, the commands in Ps. 2:10-12 can only be understood as a direct command applicable to the pagan civil magistrates in the New Covenant era.

At the very least, it is a command for these civil magistrates to recognize from Whom they have their authority, and thus to Whom they are accountable for its use. Even more we could say the Psalm promise judgment to these civil magistrates for the failure to rightly use their God-given authority. Jesus is the Great King Who will demand an accounting of the civil reigning “in his name” as it were.

So now imagine the pagan civil magistrate who hears this warning? What’s the first question he is going to ask? “O.k., how do I rightly use this authority?” In the New Covenant era, the passage that best answers that question is Rom. 13:1-5. Here we see Psalm 2’s divine ordination of civil authority picked up and explained in practical terms. Again, tracking with the previous thread’s arguments, at the very least the civil magistrate would conclude he is responsible to use his authority with reference to 2nd Table issues, those dealing with man’s relationship with man.

But what about the 1st Table issues? Where in the New Covenant might I find insight into whether or not the civil magistrate’s authority includes these issues, man’s interaction with God? Hmm …

Turn to Heb. 13:17 and notice the some interesting comparisons and contrasts with Rom. 13:1-5. In both there is mention of a God-ordained authority. In both there is the notion of accountability for the exercise of that authority. Yet there are two critical differences between these passages. In the Hebrews passage, the ordained authority is the elders of the Church, not the civil magistrate. Further it is an authority that involves 1st Table matters, man’s relationship with God.

The parallels are pretty clear: both passages have in view the authority of the Great King Jesus, delegated to an ordained human authority, who will be held accountable for his use of that authority.

The differences are pretty clear as well: 2nd Table authority is delegated to the civil magistrate, and 1st Table authority is delegated to the church elder.

To be sure, these aren’t the only considerations for the authority of the church via its elders (i.e., they do exercise 2nd Table authority, but only spiritually, not materially). Nevertheless, the parallel/contrast does support the 2K argument that the civil magistrate is given authority only over 2nd Table issues.

I’m drawn to the hermeneutical principle that the unclear in Scripture is to be understood in light of the clear. This particularly applies from OT to NT. Psalm 2 is best understood in light of NT passages that inform its subject matter, such as the two here. This comparison/contrast between Rom 13:1-5 and Heb 13:17, coupled with the contextual considerations outlined in the previous thread, given me strong reason to believe the 2K proposition is right here: 2nd Table only for the civil magistrate.

(Reed DePace)

2K, 2nd Table ONLY, Biblical Based Inference

(Reed DePace)

The third “New Machen’s Warrior Children” thread is about to pass 500 comments so far. Simple observation (no criticism in view): this thread has focused itself more on theonomically informed opposition to 2K than it has understanding of the 2K position. All who want to continue to pursue those lines are encouraged to do so on that thread. (If/when it gets up to the 700-800 comment range, if folks want to keep that focus going, we’ll start a fourth thread for that.)

Here I want to shift to a different thread in the tapestry of the 2K argument. In my reading this morning I happened to be in Romans 13, a key passage for one’s understanding of the role of the civil magistrate, the civil authorities of the secular nations (one of the two kingdoms in the 2K position, the sacred, the Church being the other). Before engaging further with the argument I’m about to make, let me ask you to read Romans 13 so it will be fresh in your memory.

Note the basic pattern of the chapter:

  • Verses 1-4: the civil magistrate” role as God’s ordained minister to administer civil justice.
  • Verses 5-7: the Christian’s public-square response to the civil magistrate in his exercise of his authority.
  • Verses 8-10: the Christian’s interaction with others in the public square in light of the of the civil magistrate's exercise of his authority.
  • Verses 11-14: the Christian’s "private house" obedience to God in light of eschatological considerations.

Note specifically verse 9b-10. There the second great commandment provides the summary justification for why the Christian is submissive in the public square to the civil magistrate's authority. It is not because this authority inheres in the civil magistrate, but because it is from God. Submission to the second great commandment is part of the Christian life (no duh), and this finds explicit expression in how we submit to the civil magistrate.

I don't expect there is any disagreement between pro and anti-2K up to this point. But let me make one debatable observation. When Paul goes to apply, the exemplify his reference to the role of the civil magistrate note where he specifically goes – to the 2nd Table of the Mosaic law (commandment 5 through 10). Note what he does not mention, any law from the 1st Table of the Mosaic Law (commandments 1 through 4). He does not even make an application from the 1st Table. Nor are there any 1st Table inferences present in what Paul says.

Even when he gets into verses 11-14, where it could be argued his focus shifts from public square issues, to "private house" issues (i.e., how we live behind closed doors), Paul still does not make any reference or inference to 1st Table considerations. Again his examples are expressly 2nd Table considerations!

Now, it is admitted that this is an argument from silence, or better yet, an argument from absence. Absent from what Paul says is any reference to 1st Table considerations. This does not mean that the absence here means the absence elsewhere in Scripture.

Yet at least it is a strong argument leaning in the direction of the 2K position that the civil magistrate in the New Covenant era only has authority over 2nd Table issues. It is almost as if Paul is providing a commentary on Jesus' bifurcated render to caesar/God command (Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Lk 12:25). In the one place in his letters where Paul offers the fullest explanation of the gospel (comprehensively Romans is an explanation of the gospel), when it comes to a key application of the Christian life, when Paul expressly brings into view the Christian's public square relationship – it did not cross his mind to say anything about 1st Table issues.

This is a very, very strong biblically based inferential argument in support of the 2K position. The civil magistrate in the New Covenant era has no authority over 1st Table issues. These are not in Caesar's purview, but they are reserved exclusively to his Church, and her alone.

(Reed DePace)

The Ultimate Blow to Seeker-Sensitive Worship

I just came across this quotation in my research for Sunday’s Romans sermon. It is from Sproul’s recent expository commentary on Romans, and it has to be the final nail in the coffin of seeker-sensitive worship. He says,


It is foolish to structure worship for unbelievers who are seeking after God when the Bible tells us there aren’t any seekers. It manifests a failure to understand the things of God. If we understood the things of God, we would know that there is no such thing as unconverted seekers. Thomas Aquinas was asked on one occasion why there seem to be non-Christians who are searching for God, when the Bible says no one seeks after God in an unconverted state.


Aquinas replied that we see people all around us who are feverishly seeking for purpose in their lives, pursuing happiness, and looking for relief from guilt to silence the pangs of conscience. We see people searching for the things that we know can be found only in Christ, but we make the gratuitous assumption that because they are seeking the benefits of God, they must therefore be seeking God. That is the very dilemma of fallen creatures: we want the things that only God can give us, but we do not want him. We want peace but not the Prince of Peace. We want purpose but not the sovereign purposes decreed by God. We want meaning found in ourselves but not in his rule over us. We see desperate people, and we assume they are seeking for God, but they are not seeking for God. I know that because God says so. No one seeks after God (pp. 89-90).

He is commenting on Romans 3:11, which says, “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”

God’s Wrath Against Fools

Romans 1:18-23

8/28/2010

Audio Version

How would you like it if someone committed a terrible crime against you, kidnapped one of your children, but was caught; he was put in jail, had his day in court, was found guilty by the jury, but then the judge said, “It would be inhuman of me to pass any sentence on this man. Judge not, lest you be judged, as Jesus said. Therefore, I will let this man go scot-free.” Would you respect such a judge? Let’s try a different analogy. Let’s say a young man and a young woman just got married. They are about to move into their house, when they find out that it is infested with mice, termites, roaches, and other vermin. The young man promises to get all these vermin exterminated, but never seems to get around to it. He thinks it is just fine for his new wife to live in such a house. Do any of us think that his love fore his wife may be somewhat less than he thinks it is? Let’s try a third analogy. Imagine that you are a British subject in the late 1930’s, and you have just heard that Hitler has invaded all of Czechoslovakia, and all of Austria, after promising that he would not. Your Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, keeps on saying that we must avoid war at all costs. But you know better. You know that Hitler is bent on world domination. What do you think of PM Chamberlain? Wouldn’t your respect for him go downhill fast? In all three of these examples, we have some kind of evil that needs to be answered, and in all three cases, the person who can do something about refuses to do so. This is wrong, is it not? We know in our heart of hearts that there needs to be justice done on the kidnapper, that there needs to be a vermin-free house if the wife is going to be happy, and that Adolf Hitler needs to be stopped. There is such a thing as righteous wrath. And yet, when it comes to God, all of a sudden we get cold feet in talking about His wrath. A great deal of modern Christianity would prefer never to talk about God’s wrath. “God is love,” we shout at the top of our lungs. That God would send anyone to Hell seems unthinkable to us. What Paul is telling us here, however, is just that: God’s wrath is always evident against unbelief, and He will continue to oppose sin forever. Our message then is about the wrath of God. What I hope to show is that rather than hate God for exercising His wrath, we should actually come to love God for showing His wrath.

The context here is very important for showing what Paul is saying. Particularly verse 17 is important, since there is a parallel there that we need to see. In verse 17, we see three elements: “in the gospel,” “righteousness of God,” and “revealed.” In verse 18, we see three parallel elements: “from heaven,” “the wrath of God,” and “revealed.” So in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. We saw last week that this righteousness is the gift of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain by faith alone. In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. But now, from heaven, the wrath of God is being revealed. What this tells us is that God’s love always has wrath as the flip side of it. Think about this for a moment, and it will make sense. How can God love us without hating our enemies? How can God love holiness and righteousness without hating wickedness? How can God love what is good without hating what is bad? The wrath of God should therefore make perfect sense to us, if we know God’s true character.

When it comes to wrath, however, we need to be careful to define it properly so that we do not get any wrong ideas about it. When we hear the word “wrath,” for instance, we tend to think of rage. We tend to think of a rage that is out of control and out of proportion. Neither is true of God. The wrath of God is His righteous opposition to all wickedness. And it is in perfect proportion, which is to say that God’s wrath is infinite, because any and all sin is infinitely heinous in the sight of God. So, there is no sin whatsoever in God’s holy wrath against sin.

Against whom is God’s wrath directed? Verse 18 tells us quite clearly. God’s wrath is directed against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice the terms here. Godlessness refers to people’s failure to worship God as they ought. Wickedness refers to their failure to love their neighbors as themselves. So God is angry against both vertical sin committed against God, and horizontal sin, committed against other humans. What is more, all their wickedness, both vertical and horizontal, is being used to suppress the truth about God. We need to mull this over for a moment. Sin suppresses truth. If people do not acknowledge God, or give Him thanks for their lives, it is because they are in the grip of sin. We must never think that natural man, in his fallen state, has the ability to think clearly about God. Natural man cannot do so. This is part of what we mean by total depravity. Sin corrupts every part of us, including our minds. Sin warps our thinking so that we get wrong ideas about God. We can see this even in our own lives as Christians. We are still quite capable of distorting God’s truth by our own sin. How many times do we rationalize sin? We do that because we do not want to stop sinning in that manner. So we justify our sin, even though we know that such sin is wrong. We try desperately to quiet that annoying conscience that keeps on pricking us, but we cannot quiet the conscience. The truth about good and evil is built into us. So, seeking to suppress it is a little like trying to press down on a powerful spring. The more you try to press it down, the more it pushes back against you.

What is this truth that Paul is talking about? It is the truth that God has revealed Himself as the all-powerful God in creation. Theologians call this general revelation. Now, general revelation does not tell us everything there is to know about God. We might get that idea from the passage, but we would be misinterpreting the passage if we did. Paul says “what may be known about God is plain to them.” Paul does not mean “everything that may be known about God.” Instead he means “what we can know about God from the creation.” This is clear from verse 20, where Paul says that the creation of the world demonstrates God’s invisible qualities, namely, His eternal power and divine nature. That is what has been revealed. Notice how oddly Paul phrases himself here. He says that God’s invisible attributes have been clearly seen. How can you see something that is invisible? The last part of verse 20 tells us: through what has been made. It is a bit like Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit in John 3. The illustration He uses is the wind. You cannot see the wind. It is invisible, since it is only air that is moving. But you can see what it does. So also, God’s nature is evident in nature. Examples are innumerable, but I will only mention one. The earth is exactly the right distance from the sun and from the moon. Any closer, and we would burn up, although we seem to have come close to that this week! Any further, and we would freeze to death, although again, we often seem to come close to that as well! The earth is spinning just the right speed for life to work. The moon influences the tides of the ocean just correctly. Everything on earth is exactly perfect for life, and there is no room for error. The idea that all these things came about by chance is simply ludicrous.

The fact is that there are no real atheists. Everyone knows that there is a God, and they know He is all-powerful and that He hates sin. They know that there is a judgment coming, which is why they are frantically seeking anything and everything to quiet that noisy conscience. They are without excuse. Many people want to know about the poor, innocent African tribesman who has never heard about Jesus. Is it fair for God to throw such a person into Hell? Well, no it wouldn’t be fair for God to condemn someone who is innocent. If the man is innocent. But are there any innocent African tribesmen? Paul would say no. All are completely without excuse. But we might object at this point and say, “But they haven’t heard the gospel? How can they be judged for rejecting Jesus when they have never heard of Him.” The answer to this is that they will not be judged for rejecting Jesus. They will be judged for rejecting God. They know about God from creation and from their own conscience. Just because they haven’t heard the Gospel does not mean that they have an excuse. It is humanity’s fault, not God’s fault, that the level of information needed to render us without excuse (general revelation) is not as much information as what we need for salvation (special revelation). The fact that any people at all hear about Jesus is pure grace from God. God does not owe everyone or even anyone a hearing of the Gospel message. Before Adam and Eve fell into sin, the revelation of God in nature was all that they needed. That was enough information. They had what they needed to obey God completely. After the Fall, however, they needed special revelation from God. They needed the message of salvation if they were to be saved. God graciously provided that in the Bible that gradually unfolded until it came to a climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

But what was people’s reaction to this information in creation? They rejected it by their sin. Look at verses 21-23. They all know God, but they refuse to glorify God, and they refuse to give God thanks. This is why the poor African tribesman is without excuse. On the information that he has, he needs to glorify God as God and he needs to thank God for everything that he has. He cannot do that in his fallen state. Instead, their thinking becomes futile, their hearts are darkened. They became fools, even in the very process of claiming to be wise. And they make a very terrible exchange: they exchange the glory of God for anything to put in God’s place. What a reaction! They get rid of their greatest good in order to worship what is clearly not God. They make idols, in other words. We may not think that these temptations are ours today, but they most certainly are. We may not worship birds and animals and reptiles, but we certainly worship humans! We love to worship ourselves. And those who worship nature are also on the rise. The whole “Mother Nature” movement is an idolatry of creation. Which is more glorious: the creation or the one who creates it? Surely it is the Creator who deserves all praise and thanks!

Here, then, is the flow of Paul’s thought through the passage: the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all sin. The sin of humanity tries to the suppress the truth about God. But this truth is clearly revealed in creation in such a way that all are without excuse. But sin in the hearts of human beings will do everything to avoid that terrible truth of God’s wrath and judgment. Therefore they will worship anything and everyone before they will worship God. But their denial of the truth does not make the truth any less true, does it? The wrath of God is coming whether or not we acknowledge it or not. I remember a coyote-roadrunner cartoon where coyote was in a stationary railroad car, and a train was coming to smash the railroad car. He didn’t have time to do anything or get out of the railroad car. So he simply drew down the curtain so that he couldn’t see the train coming. Of course that didn’t stop the train from hitting the railroad car at full force. It was a feeble attempt to deny the truth. And that is what all attempts to deny God’s judgment are: feeble! God is coming to judge the living and the dead, and His wrath will be poured out against all evildoers!

So why should we love God for His wrath? What sense does that make? It makes sense to love God for His wrath because God has poured out His wrath on Jesus Christ in our place! Jesus Christ was called a fool. He became “foolish” in our place, as it were. It is very foolish to want to take on oneself the divine wrath. But Jesus wanted to do just that because of His love for us. You see, the good news of salvation doesn’t mean anything without the bad news that God’s wrath is directed towards us. In the good news, Jesus diverts God’s wrath from falling on us, so that it falls on Him instead. Going back to the coyote-roadrunner cartoon for a minute, it is as if we are coyote, waiting for the train to come and hit us, but before it can hit us, Jesus Christ comes and quickly builds a fork in the tracks (after all, anything is possible in the cartoon world, isn’t it?). He builds this fork and the train goes on the fork instead of hitting us. But Jesus does not get out of the way of the train, which then hits Him will all the force in the world. Can’t we see then, that the wrath of God is also in a sense God’s love? God cannot love us without hating our sin. And God wants to show us just how much He loves us by diverting His wrath from us so that it lands on Jesus Christ. And then, at last, we can come back to the one who is preparing a house for us. We wouldn’t want the new heavens and the new earth to have any blemish or sin or evil of any kind, would we? The wrath of God is so complete and total, that there will be no evil left. If God’s wrath were even slightly less powerful than it is, we might justly fear that there would be evil in the world that God is preparing. But be thankful that God’s wrath is so complete that all evil will be eradicated, and we will have no fear of evil ever again. So be thankful for the wrath of God. It is God’s holy anger against sin. And it is the flip-side of God’s love for us.

This has several implications for us beyond what we have already said. First of all, it has great importance for our evangelism. We may think that we should not start with the wrath of God in evangelism. However, if people don’t know that there is a problem, they will never flee to the solution, will they? How can people be saved if they don’t think that they need to be saved? Saved from what, after all? Paul starts his entire gospel of salvation by speaking about the wrath of God. We may not downplay or ignore what Paul has done here. And it is a good model for us to follow.

Secondly, whenever we sin, we are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This is just as possible for Christians to do, as for non-Christians. What are we suppressing? We are suppressing that voice of conscience that tells us that what we are doing is wrong. We need to listen to that voice of conscience.

Thirdly, we need to glorify God and give Him thanks. If we do not glorify God by worshiping Him, and if we do not thank Him, then we are worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. We are worshiping ourselves. We will become darkened in our thinking. We must not think that these things could not happen to us because we are Christians. Sin has all sorts of effects in our lives, far beyond what we even imagine. And it is very foolish indeed to underestimate sin’s power in the life of even a believer.

And fourthly, we need to see God in what He has made. Every little flower that opens, and every bird that sings. God has made them, every one, and He made their tiny wings. He is as evident in the petals of a flower as He is in the most powerful hurricane. God’s work is everywhere, and He is everywhere working! We need to see Him at work. God’s amazing love for us is demonstrated in that He rules every particle of this universe all for our benefit, so that we could have a beautiful world in which to live. Small thanks to God if we never worship Him, or are lax in our worship, or our thanks! Worship Him and give Him thanks, yes, even for His wrath!

« Older entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 336 other followers