Sunday, September 14, 2014

All manner of unrighteousness (Rom 1:29a)

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice."
- The Apostle Paul, Romans 1:29 (b)

This week, we'll go word-by-word through a short sentence of Romans 1: the first half of verse 29.  It's the opening of the vice list that forms the climax of Paul's entire argument in Romans 1:18-32, namely that all of mankind is justly under the condemnation of God.  This argument is so crucial to understand to where Paul is going to be going soon.  If you don't understand the bad news, you'll never understand the good news that comes later. [1]  Let's listen up as Paul painfully describes our state.

They were filled with all manner of
Notice that Paul says "filled with" in the passive tense.  The filling is happening to them.   It doesn't say that we filled ourselves with these things.  This is something God has done.  The idea of God being the creator of evil isn't new to the Bible.  It is found in Isaiah and other places. [2]

  • Greek: Adikia ἀδικία
  • Parallel vices: Injustice, wickedness
  • Obvious Examples:
    • Taking or giving a bribe
    • Overlooking the crimes of the guilty
    • Punishing the innocent
    • Perpetuation the corruption of "the system"

C.E.B. Cranfield describes this Greek word as the striking out against the just order of God.  So, a good enough parallel would be "injustice".[3]  Romans 1:29-31 is a long vice list of 21 sins, so it is no small thing that the word Paul chose to start out the list was "unrighteousness".  Paul is trying to point out (as he also does in 1:18) that God is just and righteous and that we are just the opposite.

  • Greek: Poneria πονερία
  • Rhymes with: gonorrhea
  • Obvious examples:
    • Sin [4]
Have you ever noticed that many of the words in this vice list are just the negation of something good?  "Un-righteousness" (a-dikia), "without-understanding" (a-sunetous), "without-faithfulness" (a-sunthetous), "without-affection" (a-storgous), "without-mercy" (a-neleaymonas).  This mirrors the way the Bible most often represents evil: as without that which is good. [5] According to the Bible, evil was not a part of the original "good" creation: it entered in later. Therefore, according to the Bible, evil is not a substance that exists independently on its own.  It is not an autonomous entity. [6] Evil is just the corruption of what is good.

Therefore, we might expect that the greatest evil should be derived from the greatest good.  Some theologians have recognized this and have deduced that since the greatest good is the gospel, therefore the greatest evils must be, or stem from, corruptions of that gospel.

This rings true even in our own experience.  All of our sins stem from false gospels.  As one example, I'll use one of the most common false gospels of our day: the prosperity gospel. The "prosperity gospel" teaches that you can can measure how much God is blessing someone's life by the amount of material health and wealth that person has.  We often look down our theological noses at those who hold that belief - but how many of us actually believe this in practice?  This leads us to the next word in the vice list.

  • Greek: Pleonexia πλεοξία
  • Parallel vices: Greed, envy
  • Obvious Examples:
    • Have you ever sat in church and seen another husband loving his wife well and thought, "Why don't I have a husband like that?  I deserve a husband like that."
    • Desiring the paycheck someone else has

As I was saying, many of us practice prosperity gospel ethics every day of our lives.  When we are confronted with someone who seems more "blessed" than we are (materially), why does it mess us up so much inside?  Maybe it's easy if it's a super Christian - someone you know is suffering anyways.  "Sure, let them have the riches; I know he's a worthy man."  But it really gets under our skin, doesn't it, when we see riches and honor given to worthless and wicked men.

But don't you see that this is a perversion of the gospel?  We are warned in the Proverbs not to envy a wicked man - "for the devious person is an abomination to Yahweh" (Prov 3:31-32).  The point of the wise parent in this verse is: these material possessions that you see are not the end of the story.  Don't be so deceived!  They will get what's coming to them.  There will be a day of reckoning when the righteous will receive honor and the wicked will only have the reverse - destruction of the honor they had and eternal dishonor.

But how often we don't trust God and instead measure our blessing in terms of the comforts and riches of this fleeting life.  God keep us from these tendencies.  This is why it so important for us to keep the gospel at the center.  Later on, in chapter 2, Paul will tell us that a key part of his gospel is that God has a day of wrath coming.  We need our eschatology to inform and comfort our hearts.

Malice / Murder / Maliciousness
But not only do we need it to inform and comfort our hearts - we need it to restrain them from evil.

In verse 29, "malice" follows "covetousness" and "murder" follows "envy".  This is probably intentional on the part of Paul. James 4:2 says "You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel."  [Envy and murder were also connected in several extra-biblical texts of the time; cf. Moo.]

How often have you wanted to inflict pain on someone else?  How often, when you are badly wronged by someone else, do you want to "get even"?  "Vigilante justice"; retaliation.  "I want them to experience as much pain as they caused me."  This is often, again, because we aren't trusting the Judge to truly get His vengeance in the last day.

The failure to trust that there will be a reckoning can often lead to a bitterness in us that turns into malice in general.  [ describe malice as "desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness."]


From this short text (1:29a), we get the "hard evidence" that proves the assertion of verse 28: we are depraved.  God has "given us over".  I think I will end this post with a fitting quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” [7]

[1] As John Owen has said: "As the world by its wisdom never knew God aright, so the wise men of it were always utterly ignorant of the "inbred" evil in themselves and others. [Yet] without a supposition of it, not any of [the benefits of Christ] can be truly known or savingly believed." (Indwelling Sin, introduction)

[2] For more on this, I recommend the article from Henri Blocher on Evil in the New Dictionary of Biblical theology.  A representative quote: "The Bible stands out among sacred texts for its preoccupation (some might say 'obsession') with evil... [yet] the very texts that portray God as the author of evil also declare his indignation against evil"

[3] For an excellent overview of what the Bible has to say about injustice, I recommend the relevant passages of Bruce Waltke's 2 volume commentary on the book of Proverbs.

[4] Henri Blocher: "If evil is perversion, its original locus is the perversion of freedom: the primary evil is sin."

[5] See ibid.

[6] Following Augustine here. "Every actual entity is good [omnis natura bonum est.] Nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity." - Augustine, Enchiridion, chapter 4 (link)

[7] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956.

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