One of my favorite characters in modern fiction is the hero of a trilogy written by Dean Koontz. His name is Odd Thomas. In the second book Forever Odd, Odd has to deal with some very evil people. Throughout the book he is troubled by seemingly non-connected things and concepts—the existence of predatory animals, poisonous plants, natural calamities, and desert wastelands. At the end of the novel—he barely escapes with his life, he is shell-shocked and he finds himself in a conversation with his friends—the police chief of Pico Mundo, CA the chief’s wife and a couple of others. Here are just a few lines from the book:
I said, “Sir? You know what’s wrong with humanity?”
“Plenty,” he said.
“The greatest gift we were given was our free will and we keep misusing it.”
“You know what’s wrong with nature…with all its poisoned plants, predatory animals, earthquakes, and floods? ...When we envied—when we killed for what we envied, we fell. And when we fell, we broke the whole shebang; nature, too... When we fell and broke,” I said, “we broke nature, too. And when we broke nature, we broke time….Once there were no predators, no prey, only harmony. There were no quakes, no storms: everything in balance. In the beginning time was all at once and forever; no past, present, and future; no death. We broke it all...this world was a gift to us and we broke it. And part of the deal is that if we want things right, we have to fix it ourselves. But we can’t. We try, but we can’t.”
I started to cry. The tears surprised me. I thought I was done with tears for the duration.
Manuel put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Maybe we can fix it, Odd. You know, maybe.”
I shook my head, “No. We’re broken. A broken thing can’t fix itself.”
It becomes quite clear Odd Thomas is on to something. I think the apostle Paul would agree with him. In fact, Romans 1:18-32 seems to be in total agreement with Odd’s estimation of our problem. Listen to what Paul tells these Christians in Rome.
Paul is making his opening argument about the condition of mankind and he’s pulling no punches. Humanity is a mess. What happened? Although since creation God has been evident—man chose to be god himself. That was what happened in Eden. Man wanted to be the arbiter of good and evil. He decided to take God’s place in the cosmos—to rule his own life rather than to live according to the way God designed us. What happened? When man goes awry, nature goes awry. When man fell, he broke nature. This is dealt with more in detail in Romans 8. The point is man is out of sync with the way God designed him.
That’s why Paul begins with sexuality: homosexuality to be specific (but he doesn't limit it to homosexuality and lesbianism). It isn’t that Paul, as an orthodox Jew is disgusted by homosexuality, which was fairly acceptable in the Ancient world—including long term meaningful relationships. Nor is Paul suggesting that all those who are homosexual are necessarily guilty of the other sins listed or vice versa. He is not commenting on whether it is genetically determined or if it is a result of parenting or culture.
To Paul it is merely a demonstration of how God’s original design has gone awry—creation is out of sync.
Paul does not just deal with homosexuality. He deals with a variety of sins: evil done by the tongue, which includes gossip, slander, boasting, deceit; evil rooted in hatred: murder, malice, strife, heartlessness; and self-centered behavior: arrogance, intolerance, envy, greed and disobedience to parents. Folks who preach this text tend to focus on the sexual behavior and leave out the other sins; sins which Paul calls worthy of the wrath of God.
It is at this juncture where preachers tend to stop. They want to talk about how bad the world is and how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But if we stop here we’ve distorted Paul’s point. Paul doesn’t let us sit smugly and point at the world in condemnation while patting ourselves on the back. In 2:1-11 Paul turns his guns on the good moral folks who sit aghast at all of this sin going on...He concludes with: There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile…for God does not show favoritism.
Throughout the ages there were pagans and atheists who were also moralists. I think of the Philosophers A. G. N. Flew and Mortimer Adler who were either agnostic or atheist for most of their lives—but they were good, decent, and moral men. The Roman orator Cicero was considered a paragon of virtue. But here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter how good you are—you still are inconsistent. No one has a perfect record. You judge others? How can you? You are guilty yourself.
He continues in verses 12-16 to tell his readers if you sin apart from Mosaical Law you will perish apart from that law. If you sin under the law you will be judged by that law. Hearing the Law, possessing a copy of the Law, obeying some of the law doesn’t save you. Obedience is what counts. He then makes a little side trip in verses 14-15—so let me do the same.
Now I have to warn you, this one is a little complicated in that I have to refer to the original language—but it is necessary to the point.
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)
Most scholars have interpreted this to mean one of two things. Either Paul is speaking hypothetically: suppose there is a pagan who actually obeys the Law naturally, without ever hearing it—then his heart has become a law. However, it’s obvious no one is perfect so that’s not going to happen. Or perhaps Paul is saying there are pagans who actually do obey the law naturally and are saved. But that goes against Paul’s overall point that everyone is guilty and is thereby condemned.
There is a third way to read this that is not evident in our English translations. In the original the word “by nature” does not appear after the word “do”. It appears before the word. To put it simply it can just as easily read: When Gentiles who do not have the law by nature, do the things required by the law they are a law for themselves. In other words these Gentiles are not part of the Covenant between Israel and God. In verse 27 he says something similar: The one who is not circumcised by nature (NIV uses the word "physically" but the word is the same word translated "by nature") and yet obeys the law will condemn you…
Who is this person? Verse 29 makes it clear the uncircumcised is circumcised in the heart by the Spirit. In verse 15 the one who obeys the law has the law written on his heart. Paul is speaking of Gentiles who are Christ followers. I can go into more detail but let it suffice to say Paul throughout this text is alluding to Ezekiel 36 and even quotes from the passage in verse 24. Ezekiel 36 talks about how God will replace the heart of stone with a new heart. God says: “I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” He is talking about the Messianic kingdom. Paul is giving them a hint as to what is going to come up later in the book. Remember there is an issue between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Paul is letting the Jewish Christians know there are people who are not obeying Mosaical Law but are still in relationship with God. He will develop that argument more fully in chapter four.
Paul then continues his original argument in verse 17. If you think you’re better than those pagans are: think again. You moralistic pagans, you sin too. Now you who are part of God’s covenant people, the Jews, if you think you are better off because you have the law: think again.
Paul is not saying every Jew is guilty of the crimes listed in vv. 17-24. Nor is Paul saying the Jews are legalists who think they can earn their way to heaven. The issue is: the Jews are using the law as a means of demarcation. If you are circumcised you are in—if you are not then you are out. But Paul says: "Wait. The issue is not circumcision, nor is the issue you have the law. The fact there still are those who disobey the law indicates you have nothing about which to brag!"
Mosaic Law is not doing a great job of making the Jews closer to God. In fact, the main symbol of relationship with God (circumcision) has been misused to alienate other people. The truth is, circumcision doesn’t make people closer to God at all! It doesn’t mark the Jews as God’s special people because no one is consistent in obedience. Even circumcised people do bad things!
It’s at this point we go back to Manuel Nunez’ word to Odd Thomas and Odd's response:
“Maybe we can fix it Odd. You know, maybe.”
“No. We’re broken. A broken thing can’t fix itself.”
That’s Paul’s point, isn’t it? Humanity is broken—it is out of sync. When humanity is broken, it takes the world with it. Furthermore, no matter how hard we try—we can’t fix ourselves. Not by self-centered living, not by moralistic living, not even by following rules. We are broken and we can’t fix ourselves.
But Paul doesn’t leave us hanging. At the end of chapter two he holds out hope—hope we will explore further next week. He speaks of the Spirit of God doing something to the heart of man. He calls it a circumcision of the heart. Even Gentiles have hope. They can find God is writing his law on their hearts. They discover, even though they cannot become Jews—God can make them covenant people and he can change them from the inside out. And such a man doesn’t receive praise from men—doesn’t need it. God will praise him.
So, what difference does this make in our lives? How should this affect us? First off, I think this text tells us we had better be very careful how we treat other people. Especially broken people who have been scarred by the world. Especially people who are labeled “sinners” by religious people. Can we condemn sin and yet still love people who sin? Can we look at other sinners with humility and a spirit of love? You may disagree with me on this—but one of the biggest compliments I received was about 16 years ago.
The compliment came from a couple of lesbians.
I was attending a seminar —it was not a religious conference so there were folks from all walks of life. I had a chance to spend time with two ladies who were lesbians. We talked, and I asked them if they could accept me even though I saw their life style as objectively wrong. There was a lot of discussion—and it was quite friendly and civil. Two days later they told me they would never have a problem attending any church where I served. Why? They felt that certainly such a church would still treat them with dignity, even though the church believed they were wrong—even though the church could not condone their life styles.
We have to exhibit a spirit of humility and love.
Secondly, this passage should demonstrate how serious and destructive sin is. Because of it, God’s wrath is being poured out. It doesn’t matter if you’re an idol worshipping pagan, a moral-upright citizen, or even a religious person. Sin has messed up our world—it has seriously put our world out of sync. The world has been broken—and we are responsible for that. Because of sin—people hate each other, wars take place, people are murdered, lives are ruined, and even the creation—nature—is flawed. From now on, when we consider sin, we must never look at it as something that is inconsequential. This passage tells us, we must take it seriously.
Finally, this passage gives us hope. Sin ultimately doesn’t have to destroy us. Even though we cannot claim perfection, even though we are broken and flawed—even though we can’t fix ourselves—there is still hope. God has stepped in and provided a way for transformation. He can and will fix us. The one who made the world—the one whose creation we have broken, is willing to come in and fix our brokenness. We just have to trust him.
Who would realize the main character of a Dean Koontz novel would be so accurate? When we fell, we broke the world. We can’t fix it because we’re broken. But praise God he can and will fix it—beginning with any person who will trust in him.
So may you come face to face with your brokenness. May you recognize how much you need God’s healing touch in your life. May you give yourself over to him, allowing him to set you back in sync with his purposes. And may you allow him to make you into his tool in setting the world back right.