Sunday, August 17, 2014

God gets even

(18) For[1] the wrath [2] of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 

(19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

(21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves

(25) Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (28) And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Romans 1:18-31, ESV (except the capitalization of "Because" in verse 25). All emphasis my own.

Have a feeling this will be a long post. Really, you don't need to read it. But I need to write it. With a passage this large in front of us, it's almost impossible for it not to be. We are helped out, though, by three things: (1) I've already covered the issue of natural revelation and the issue of our dishonoring of God in previous posts. And I plan on taking up homosexuality in an upcoming post. So we shouldn't need to get sidetracked with those in this post. In this post, my main objective is to see the top-level perspective of Romans 1:18-31. We're just trying to get a 30,000 foot view of it.

In Greek, they tend to start out the text with the most important thing. And here, the defining characteristic is the wrath of God. (Verse 18 starts it saying "For the wrath [Gk. orge] of God is revealed from heaven...") So that's where we're headed.

Another of the main ideas that Paul is trying to communicate throughout this first part of Romans is the righteousness of God (see our post on verse 17). God does things justly. In fact, throughout this first section (1:18-3:20) where Paul is trying to show that everyone stands condemned before God, one of the things he keeps coming back to is that God is completely just in His judgment of us:

 - 1:20: "so they are without excuse"
- 1:27b: "receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error"
- 2:1a: "you are without excuse"
- 2:2: "God's judgment is always according to truth"
- 2:5: "God's righteous judgment"
- 2:6: "He will render to each one according to His works"
- 2:11 "For God shows no partiality [in judgment]"

So there is this legal dimension to what Paul is getting at. It's not just unbridled wrath with no constraint. God is showing "patience, forbearance, and kindness" (2:4a), and His judgment is always according to truth. Lex talionis.

This legal category of how God's wrath plays out is very important to keep in mind. Because where Paul takes the text is about to get really interesting. He starts to talk in vindictive terms.

Did you notice that in the text above, I added formatting to the text? The underlined phrases show what man's initial sin that dishonored God. We covered these last week. Basically, man spit in God's face. God showed Himself to us (unveiled Himself as it were, verse 19) and instead of being thankful, we dishonored (verse 21), turned our backs on Him (verse 25) and tried to forget Him (verse 28).

The question we left off asking last week was this: Does God let us get away with this? Does He let His glory lie in the dust and let His public shaming stand?

The answer (No!) comes in what you see bolded above. God responds with His wrath (verse 18) and this is seen not only in the legal, tit-for-tat, eye-for-eye judgmental sort of way, but also takes on vengeful, retributive sense.

God doesn't just get even, He gives them a taste of their own medicine. (I am indebted to Douglas Moo and G. K. Beale for pointing this out to me.) Look at the following pattern:

1:21 They "dishonor" God.

--> 1:24 "Therefore God handed them over... to the dishonoring of their bodies"

1:25 They "exchange" [Gk. metallassow / μεταλλασω] the glory of God for images

--> 1:26 "For this reason, God handed them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged [Gk. metallassow / μεταλλασω] natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.

1:28a: They didn't approve [Gk. edok(i)masan [3] / ἐδοκίμασαν] to to acknowledge God.

--> 1:28b "God handed them over to an disapproved [Gk. ad(o)kimon / ἀδόκιμον] mind.

The word for "handed them over" above is the same in all three sentences (παραδιδωμι) so the peculiar repetition is there in the original document (not just our English versions.)

They dishonored God, so God dishonored them.

They dishonored God by making an exchange. So He dishonored them with another exchange.

They disapproved God, so He disapproved them. [4]

God throws their sin back on them, so to speak. It's like when Haman gets hung in his own gallows (cf. Esther 5:14 and 8:7), and countless other great stories of revenge. God gets His satisfaction by pouring His wrath out on His enemies. This is how He restores His honor.

This is a great thing. How terrible it would be if God just let people dishonor His name. If He just let His defamation have the final say. God had to have the last laugh or He would look tiny and impotent. In some ways, He would be tiny and impotent. God's wrath being revealed from heaven is a good thing and, even if we don't understand this right now, someday we will. In heaven, we will go out and look on the dead corpses of our enemies (Isaiah 66:24) and rejoice that God got His glory (Rev. 16:7). God gets the last laugh.


That was a good way to end the post. So actually, that counts as the end of the post. But I wanted to answer a misconception about what I just posted. From the looks of Romans 1:18-32, it might look like the sin itself is the only punishment meted out to His enemies. And so some God-haters might actually respond to this as follows: 

"Hmm.. Well, that's not so bad actually. If I read this text rightly, it says that if I dishonor God, I will be given over to a host of other sins, like homosexuality, envy, etc. But what if I like my sin? This doesn't really seem like such a bad course. Tell you what God, I'll dishonor You, and You can just continue to give me over to more sins. Quid quo pro. Deal?"

But the sin lists in 1:18-32 are proleptic punishments. They are not the end of the story. Notice that Paul says God "hands them over". God is handing them over to a slave master (satan) who has them chained, gagged and shackled until their final execution. I love the way John Owen puts it: "he gives them up to one sin as the judgment of another, a greater for the punishment of a less, or one that will hold them more firmly and securely for that which they might have possibly obtained a deliverance from." [5] And not only that, but Paul explicitly says in the same passage (2:5) that there is a future judgment that is coming. When we see a prisoner on death row who deserved to be there, we say "he got what was coming to him", even if he isn't dead yet. Same sort of thing here. If we see a person infected with ebola, we feel intense compassion and dread for them, even if none of the symptoms have started to show yet. This is because we anticipate what is going to happen. But here, the sins are not just pointers to the coming judgment that is going to happen. They serve three purposes:

(1) They hold them as prisoners. (They are too enslaved to their sin and blind that they cannot repent and so escape the judgment of God, cf. 2:3-4.)
(2) The sins are a punishment in and of themselves. This is the straightforward interpretation of 1:18-32. (Sin is destructive and keeps the person from having the joy of having God be the center of their affections as He is meant to be.) In this way, they are prolepses of the coming judgment. Part of Hell will be the natural consequences of sin (but this is not all that Hell is said to consist of.)
 (3) The sins actually are actually adding to the horror of the coming judgment. Romans 2:5 says calls it "storing up wrath." Each sin adds more and more wrath to the anger of God that will some day be inflicted on them "on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed."

This is definitely a sobering post and I don't have much time to close it out with more reflective thoughts.

A brief note though: If all of this is new to you, don't take my word for it. Look over the verses I mentioned. Also, please do realize that while this is all completely true, it is not the end of the story. But.. what I've just written is absolutely essential to understanding any of the rest of the story.

Thank You God, for Your wrath.

[1] There is debate over what the "for" that starts out verse 18 is referring to. (a) John Piper and Douglas Moo think it is answering an implicit question that was raised by verse 17. In their view, when Paul says "for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith", maybe Paul was also intentionally raising the question of why it is necessary for the righteousness of God to be revealed. And then he answers that implicit question in verse 18. This seems a little far fetched. (b) Some people (this is the way I used to think) think it points back to verse 15. In verse 15, Paul has said he is eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome. Then in verse 18, he would be picking up this thought again. "I am eager to preach the gospel to you because the wrath of God is being revealed." But this is unlikely, since there are so many subordinate clauses in between verse 15 and verse 18. Paul says, "I am eager to preach the gospel to you for I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation... for in it the righteousness of God is revealed... for the wrath of God is revealed." It's very unlikely that, at this point in the game, he's referring all the way back to verse 15. (c) The most likely option, then, is that it is explaining the clause that comes right before it. Namely, verse 17, where Paul says that the righteousness of God is being revealed. But then that leaves us with an interesting question. How is that the wrath of God being revealed is an explanation for the righteousness of God being revealed? Mark Seifrid answers this conundrum well [Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 2007, page 611] by pointing out that most often, in the Bible, God's salvation is revealed through judgment. So why should we expect it to be different here. If we are biblically aware, and we hear that God's salvation and righteousness are being made manifest, we should be asking, "But where is the judgment on His enemies?" And Paul answers that question in the next verse (verse 18) by saying "for the wrath of God is being made manifest against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (i.e. His enemies.)

[2] "Wrath" is an unpopular idea anywhere, and academic circles are no exception. C.H. Dodd (academically active circa 1930-1960) tried to make a case that this was not the personal, vindictive wrath of God, but rather just the way nature naturally ran its course in the moral universe God created. Nobody really seems to care about the issue anymore because it's been answered so well by Leon Morris. Indeed, Douglas Moo only passingly referred to the idea in one sentence of his commentary. But pretty much everyone, when they talk about the idea of wrath in Romans, has to at least say what it's not thanks to C.H. Dodd. You can find a nice summary against Dodd's thesis in The Cross of Christ (2006 ed.), pages 105-106.

[3] Someone really needs to come up with an ISO 9 way of representing Greek. This is important for when you need to pass along text documents to other people and still retain the Greek transliteration. I have my own representation that you see above. Namely: (1) for accents, I enclose the vowel in parenthesis, (2) for "η", I actually type "ay", and (3) for "ω", I use "ow".

[4] Actually, the text, 1:28, leaves it passive. It just says that their mind was "disapproved." G.K. Beale says it was God that was disapproving them. But I'm not so sure this is set in stone here. It could also be that other people are disapproving their mind. This could be a sort of public humiliation that God is putting on them.

[5] Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers in Overcoming Sin and Temptation, 2006 ed. Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, pp. 88-89.

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