It hardly needs to be pointed out that American culture is morally adrift. Newsweek magazine referred to the question over values as “a deep, vexing national anxiety…about the nagging sense that unlimited personal freedom and rampaging materialism yield only greater hungers and lonelier nights.” Furthermore, “the acting out has been bipartisan. Self-actualizing liberals have been obsessed with personal freedom to the point of self-immolation; predatory conservatives have been obsessed with commercial freedom to the point of pillage.” One thing is clear, according to Newsweek’s Joe Klein: “Both these indulgences have run their course. The 30-year spree has caused a monster hang-over. There is a yearning for something more than the standard political analgesics." (1) Not to be outdone, Time’s former editor-in-chief, Henry Grunwald, complains that everyone is obsessed with freedom and rights when what we need is more responsibility. He even concludes, “Our view of man obviously depends on our view of God." (2)
Yet while evangelicals seem obsessed with reviving “Judeo-Christian values,” according to surveys most of them cannot name the Ten Commandments that they want to see mounted in public courtrooms and classrooms. (3) Furthermore, the same surveys reveal that regular church-goers do not differ significantly from the rest of society in their lifestyle. (4) What’s more, well-known evangelical leaders who inveigh against public immorality with more self-righteous than righteous indignation are all too often themselves exposed for their deviancy, fueling even greater cynicism in the service of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. In this situation, the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans have special relevance.
Denying God's Law: Gentile Suppression (License)
First, he aims the guns at the Gentiles: the Newsweek and Time audience (Rom. 1:18-32). Everyone knows the law, Paul says. No one can say that he or she never had a chance to respond to God’s revelation. Written on the conscience in creation, the law is natural to us. Reformed theology has identified this natural law with the covenant of creation (also known as the covenant of works). No one has an excuse, because everyone knows God’s moral will. This general revelation includes God’s existence, his creation of the world, and even “his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are,” by means of “the things he has made.” “So,” says Paul, “they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (vv 20-21).
Nevertheless, the ungodly willfully suppress the truth in unrighteousness (v 18). As Grunwald observed above, it all starts with God. To justify their immoral behavior, Gentiles invent a god who will not bring them into judgment. Attempting to eradicate every vestige of God’s revelation and his image in humanity, Gentiles transgress even the bounds of nature. Paul alludes to examples in verses 24-27, especially homosexuality. While the gospel—the good news of the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ—is utterly foreign to the natural person, the law is the most obvious and universally known fact of human existence. Nothing runs more against the grain of the way we were made—even against our biological design—than homosexual behavior. The most obvious dictates of reason must be suppressed, erased, ignored, and silenced. So when a people get to the place where their idolatry has run its course, not even natural, common-sense moral sensibilities hold sway. It’s not belief in God that is irrational; naturalism—worshiping the creation rather than the Creator—leads us finally to deny reason altogether.
Although homosexuality is a singular example of suppressing the truth that we know, Paul doesn’t necessarily single this out as the worst sin. In fact, he begins with idolatry (vv 22-23), which leads to ethical license (vv 24-25). Furthermore, along with homosexuality he mentions, “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vv 29-31). Gentiles should be able to recognize themselves somewhere (probably several times) on the list. In the current culture wars, however, Paul’s argument gets lost as one side focuses on the one sin that religious people find most offensive in others (at least publicly), while the other side either simply dismisses or twists these clear declarations.
Denying God's Law: Jewish Legalism (Hypocrisy)
But while the Jews in Paul’s audience were undoubtedly relishing the apostle’s description of Gentile immorality, the guns turn toward them next in Romans 2:1-29. The only thing worse than denying Judeo-Christian values, he says, is touting them while breaking them (vv 1-16). The Jews boast in being “a guide to the blind” while actually walking in darkness themselves, so Paul demands, “If you are sure that you are…a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, who teach others, why do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery?” The questions are obviously rhetorical: “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (vv 17-24). Their circumcision in which they boast has simply made them more accountable even than the Gentiles to keep the whole law (vv 25-29). The Jews are no better than the Gentiles before the searching judgment of the law. Everyone, “both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” and no one is righteous before God (vv 9-18).
All of this is meant to shut the mouths of the whole world as Jews and Gentiles together are made to hear the terrible sentence of condemnation (3:19). Only then can they hear together the good news that God has accomplished salvation for all who have faith in Christ. “For no human being will be justified in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (v 20).
If we do not understand the law, we cannot understand the gospel; nor are we trained in the wisdom that God has decreed for lives of gratitude in view of his grace. Thinking, like the rich young ruler, that we have actually followed God’s precepts from our youth, we look for other laws to fulfill and often these rules devised by human wisdom, without divine authority, become the genuine marks of Christian discipleship. Yet legalism is just another way of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, of setting the bar lower for ourselves, putting ourselves in the position of authority and power over our lives and the lives of others. We need to be freed not only from license but from legalism. This can only come when we have been taken into the custody of our Redeemer-King: liberated by his gospel and ruled by his law alone.
Affirming God's Law
Many of us were raised with the view that the law belongs to the Old Testament. While it is true that the Mosaic covenant, which included the moral law (Ten Commandments), civil laws, and ceremonial laws, dominates much of the first half of the Bible, the Abrahamic covenant—the covenant of grace—actually precedes it (Gen 15 with Gal 3:17-18). In fact, the gospel promise was given to Adam and Eve after the fall (Gen 3:15). The new covenant, in fulfillment of the Abrahamic blessing, does not exclude the law. Rather, precisely because its blessings are given to us based on Christ’s performance of its stipulations rather than our own and its curses are borne by Christ rather than by us, the law can actually be embraced now out of gratitude rather than out of fear or self-righteousness. Through Jeremiah, God announces that the “new covenant…will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers” at Sinai, “because they broke my covenant.” Rather, the new covenant will bring forgiveness of sin and, on that basis, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer 31:31-33). Already in the Old Testament, the law is upheld as the way in which the saved are to walk, not as the way of salvation. Only if we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone are we able to see the law as a friend rather than as our judge and executioner.
The Ten Commandments are preceded by the brief historical prologue that justifies God’s authority in this treaty: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex 20:2). God is represented here as the Great King who has just rescued a tiny, helpless people from the clutches of an oppressive regime. But this rescue does not leave them to themselves, to be invaded and tyrannized again sometime in the future. Instead, God himself assumes the reign of Israel as Redeemer-King. Israel didn’t “make Yahweh Lord”; rather, as Israel’s Lord he redeemed his people and now rules them for his glory and their good. The covenant relationship originates not with “We the people,” as in the U. S. Constitution, but with “I, the LORD your God who brought you up out of Egypt.”
This law that was written on the conscience in creation and on tablets of stone at Sinai first of all condemns every person, Jew and Gentile, “God-fearing American” and godless pagan. That which we know by nature we suppress in unrighteousness, in an effort to ignore the inevitable judgment upon our lives. Even as believers, we discover in Paul’s description both of Gentiles and Jews all too familiar remnants of the old Adam. Yet in Christ, that fear is removed. The law can no longer condemn those who are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. He has kept the law perfectly for us, in our place. However, the Lord who redeems is also the Lord who rules. The same salvation that removes the curse of the law in justification liberates us from the tyranny of sin and death. The Covenant Lord saves his sinful people from predators not to leave them on their own, but to take them under his care for the rest of their lives. Although we make only imperfect beginnings in holiness during our pilgrimage, it is all of our being (mind, heart, will, and body) that approves and even delights in all of God’s commands—for this too is the gift of God’s grace in the gospel of Christ. Having the law written on our hearts and having our stony hearts turned to flesh—all for the sake of Christ alone who bore our sins—we are finally able to rejoice in God’s commandments as the rule for loving God and our neighbors.
From this perspective, we can resist the Gentile enterprise of twisting, suppressing, and denying God’s moral will for humanity. We can offer explicit witness to the truth that God has made known to everyone. Yet because we are recipients of that other word—the gospel that reveals not only God’s eternal power and divine nature but his grace and mercy in Jesus Christ—we can no longer offer this witness from a position of moral superiority (which Paul identifies as hypocrisy). We speak the truth now, whether the law or the gospel, as fellow sinners who have been justified and renewed and are being conformed daily to the image of the only one who ever perfectly satisfied his Father’s will for his life and did so in our place. Who wouldn’t want to be ruled by this King!
1 Joe Klein, “Whose Values?” Newsweek, 8 June 1992, 19.[back to text]
2 Henry Grunwald, “The Year 2000: Is It the End—Or Just the Beginning?” Time, 30 March 1992, 74.[back to text]
3 George Gallup and James Castelli, The People’s Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 60. These statistics, of course, are dated, but biblical literacy continues to decline.[back to text]
4 George Barna and James Mackay, Vital Signs (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1984), 140-141[back to text].
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 5, Issue 1.
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