Paul’s letter to the Romans is very much about being in right relationship with God. No matter what subject he is looking at, he connects it to our relationship with God and how it can be restored. But why? Why is this so important? Why not just live our nice, happy and good lives here and then be pleasantly surprised when we encounter a loving God in the afterlife? The problem is that humanity is broken. There are some significant problems with humanity and those problems must be fixed before we enter heaven. I must be clear here, heaven is not attained by discovering and applying a number of solutions to these problems. Heaven is gained through Jesus. However, Jesus is more than a ticket to heaven, Jesus is the solution to each of these problems. Salvation is still through faith, but that faith makes practical changes in our life. The question is: what are these problems? Where is humanity broken? In this passage, Paul gives us a snapshot of humanity. In this picture, Paul points out three points of exchange, three areas where humanity has exchanged what is right for what is wrong. This what we will focus on as we prepare for the Good News of how God repairs our brokenness.
Glory For Images
“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:22–23 NIV) A large part of what Paul says here concerns the role of creation. People often wonder how we can know that there is a God. We can know because God has made it clear through his creation. All things point to the existence of God. When we look at Genesis 1 and the creation, we see God pronouncing each stage as being good. We should agree with that. Look at the beauty of creation. Look at the provision within creation. Creation is such an incredible gift to us, something that is to be enjoyed. However, it is at the things that are most important that things go the most wrong. Here, Paul points to the problem of idolatry. As one brought up within Judaism, Paul was very sensitive toward idolatry. There are numerous passages in the Old Testament that condemn idolatry. We think of the event just after the exodus when Moses was on the mountain and his brother Aaron constructed a golden calf for the people to worship instead of the living God. Why was this so serious? Was it because these other gods were false gods and Israel’s God was the true God? Partially but there is more. Not only was it forbidden to worship the idols of the nations, it was forbidden to construct an image of Israel’s God to worship, even though he is a real and true God. The problem is the idol and not just the existence or non-existence of the god being represented. The problem is the blurring of the lines between the Creator and the creation. For some religions, this is an official position. Pantheism is the belief that all is god, that there is zero difference between creator and creation. Most times the problem is much more subtle. Notice the exchange that is taking place here. It is an exchange of the glory of God for mere images. What is being lost in this exchange is God’s glory. What is God’s glory? It is his worth, his praise, his value, it is what makes him worthy of worship and us unworthy of worship. The embrace of idols is not just a religious mistake, it is an attempt to sidestep the glory of God and to replace it with something smaller, weaker and more like us. Paul might have been thinking of the different pagan idols such as those of plants or animals but it goes much deeper. The best way to explain is to give a modern example. We do not struggle so much with idols of stone or wood used to represent pagan gods. But our idols are still something that comes from creation. What is our idolatry? Some idols could be money, talent, skills, possessions, career, land, family or even church. None of these things are bad in and of themselves. But the moment we have exchanged the glory of God for these things that ultimately come from God’s creative power, we have crossed the line. We have money, not because money is our god, but because God has given us the health and skill and opportunity in which we can make money. Money should not point to the power of itself but rather should glorify God. The same is true for all of these things. The brokenness of humanity, unfortunately, continually attempts to exchange the glory of God for these created things.
Truth for a Lie
“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1:25 NIV) Part of the problem with idolatry is the robbing of God’s glory. However, part of what is at stake is a forsaking of the truth. This is a key concept of biblical faith. There really is such a thing as truth. The things we do are not all about personal preference and taste. Our actions should be shaped by our understanding of the truth. The problem Paul focuses on here is the exchange of the truth for a lie. This is a challenge for our society which does not like absolute truth. So what if one person prefers to worship a banana instead of the God of heaven? If that person feels fulfilled in his banana worship, that should be good enough. But it is not good enough because it is not true. A banana is truly not worthy of worship and God truly is worthy of worship. Imagine two people who plan to go over Niagara Falls. One has a special barrel, specially designed by scientists, one that has gone over the falls with a dummy covered in sensors that measured the impact and determined the level of safety. The other person duct taped a few styrofoam coolers together. Both feel good about their chances of surviving the plunge over Niagara Falls. In this case: does truth matter? I am a Christian, not because it happens to work for me just as Buddhism might work for someone else or atheism for someone else. I am a Christian because I believe Christianity is true. I really believe there is a God, I really believe Jesus died for my sins and I really believe Jesus rose from the dead. It is not about how it makes me feel, it is about how Christianity lines up with reality. Jesus described himself in this way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV) Jesus is the truth and because of that, he is worthy of worship. There is a reason that we end prayers with ‘amen’. Amen means truth and when we pray, we pray to the true God who truly loves us, not to the imaginary entity that makes us feel good enough to endure another day. Humanity tends to exchange this truth for a lie. We need to hold on to the truth.
Natural for Unnatural
“Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.” (Romans 1:26 NIV) This passage could easily lead us off into a discussion about homosexuality. Paul does talk about homosexuality here but I believe his purpose is to use it as an example of something much more general. The first thing to note is that this is about behavior and lifestyle. Many people miss out on this. Some believe that God only cares about our belief system. As long as we believe in God and believe what Jesus did for us, we can live our life the way we want. But that is far from truth. God wants all of us, our thoughts, our feelings and our actions. This should not lead us into a legalism where there is a complex set of rules for every minor behavior. But we should understand that God has some fairly broad perimeters in which he expects us to live. These are not oppressive lifestyles that suck the joy and excitement out of life. In fact, if we lived according to God’s will we should be experiencing the maximum joy and peace available. This is what Paul means he speaks of what is natural. However, there is a human tendency to exchange what is natural for what is unnatural. This may be about our sexuality or it may be about any area of our lives. If God calls us to live generous lives and we choose to be selfish, then we have exchanged what is natural for what is unnatural. If God calls us to forgive and we choose to be bitter, then we have exchanged what is natural for what is unnatural. Sexual lifestyles are only the most obvious form of a problem that goes much deeper. Human tendency is to seek that which is unnatural and yet God calls us to hold on to what is natural.
Why do we need God to do something radical in our life? We need God because we are broken. We are broken in three ways. First, we tend to avoid giving God his proper glory. Second, we tend to embrace lies and falsehood, relying on what feels right rather than what is true. Finally, when it comes to action and lifestyle, we tend to cross God’s natural boundaries of life and live unnaturally. This is why we need Jesus. What Jesus does is that he sorts out our worship. Instead of looking to the physical things we can see, we look to the Creator who made all things. Instead of being deceived by lies, we are set free by the truth. Instead of seeking that which is unnatural, we discover the joy and peace that is found in God’s will for us. The Good News is that in Jesus, that which is broken can be made whole again.