Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Spiritual Warfare: Romans 1 & 2: Part IV

Ah yes, now for the uncomfortable part.  As a religious person--a first century Jewish person or a modern evangelical, Chapter 1 of Romans would allow me to tick off the boxes of "I don't do that" and "Wow, this is disgusting," "Yes, I am a spiritual giant."

Wrong response.  While certainly the pagan practices of the first century that Paul lists were very off-putting to the Jewish community, Paul could have stopped there and said, "Class dismissed."

But he didn't.  I think we sometimes substitute true righteousness in Christ with an outward show of outrage for unrighteousness.  We condemn those who egregiously sin and this makes us look more "spiritual."  In other words, how we respond to sin in others makes us look good.

But while Paul doesn't ignore the sin of the pagan community, he certainly isn't going to let us off the hook.  Why?  Because: 

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.” (Romans 3:11-12, quoting Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20)

So, he launches into Romans 2, targeting the rest of us:  we, who consider ourselves "good people."

Here is more of what he said: 

"But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God 'will repay each person according to what they have done.'  To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism." (Romans 2:5-11) 

Uh-oh.  We saw in the first verses of Chapter 2 that we who pass judgment on others are really condemning ourselves, because we do the same things.  And because of that, we deserve God's wrath just as much as "those people" do, for we are ignoring the mercy and grace He extended to us and how His kindness brought us to Him.

In other words, kindness leads people to repentance, not harsh judgment. Has anyone come to Christ after they were excoriated and judged without mercy?  They may have come to Christ in spite of having been so treated, but the harsh words and scornful looks didn't drive them to repent.  It hurt them, or caused them to seek solace somewhere else.  Why do people seek and create communities?  Because everyone wants to belong.  If the Christian community is Pharisee-like in its approach, people will swerve away from us and seek another group where they feel welcomed. 

I believe this is another way Satan deceives us.  First, we the "righteous" are deceived because we think we are good because of our efforts, not because of the grace and mercy given to us by Christ.  We gather with like-minded people who parade their scorn for sin as a sign of how spiritual they are and we go along with them.  

"Those people," who may have looked at Christianity for an answer to their longing and searching, were met at our door with scorn.  They then found another community for answers.  They are drawn even deeper into deception that this group will fulfill them.   

Paul doesn't mince words:  We will be repaid for what we have done, and anyone doing evil will face God and be answerable for it. Paul goes on: 

"For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (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. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:13-16)

Isn't that interesting?  It isn't just the "righteous" that have God's law written on their hearts--"those people" do too!  I have met non-believers who are kind, thoughtful, gracious and considerate.  I am sure Paul had met people like this as well.  He then met with some of his Jewish brethren and received an entirely different reception--one of criticism and scorn for bringing the Gospel in the first place and then offering it to all. 

God works in people even when they don't confess Him.  Think about yourself:  Didn't you feel His gentle pull long before you made a decision to follow Him?  It's called "prevenient grace."  It's God's drawing us before we even knew Him.  Jesus gives us a lovely definition:  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6:44) 

So by judging "those people," we are acting as if they are beyond God's loving, drawing reach, and are condemned right here, right now. 

Dusted and done. 

But isn't that, once again, Satan saying, "Did God really say..."?

We love to quote John 3:16, but let's go a little wider: 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God." (John 3:16-21)

People want to stay in the darkness for there they can sin and not be seen.  Adam and Eve hid in the darkness, but God went looking for them.

God see us and shines the light of His Son into our lives, for Jesus Christ is the Light.  God reveals the truth of Himself by His creation as we saw in Romans 1. Those who hate God suppress the truth and that leads to all sorts of darkness.  But just as the above verses say, Christ came to save the world--not a select few nor the ones who see themselves as good.  Everyone.  The Light reaches all, for He wants all to come to know Him.  

We can choose to believe in Christ or ignore Him.  But until we are dead, God's offer stands, even if we are in the darkness until the very last moment.  

Think of the thief on the cross.

I will give you a personal example: my dad.  He was one angry man.  His father had served in World War I.  He undoubtedly came home with mental health issues.  He may not have been the most demonstrative father--on his deathbed, my dad tried to hug him, and he pushed my dad away.  

My dad had a real problem with authority figures--he wanted the approval of those he respected and scorned those who had offended him in some way.  He would blow up at a moment's notice and rage on for awhile.

He was a salesman, and worked hard and yet thought so little of himself that he wouldn't demand to be better paid, probably fearing disapproval from his superiors.

After years of trying to find personal fulfillment in work, status, relationships and money, he was diagnosed with melanoma. That didn't bring him to God.  It just made him angry at his wife, the doctors and the life he now had to live as a cancer patient undergoing constant treatment.

One day, when he was in a skilled care facility, we were talking and he said, "I am afraid, Rhonda."  It was a moment when he showed humility in the face of death.  I told him he didn't need to be afraid and I wanted to pray with him.  He agreed.

My dad was my thief on the cross--humbled by what the near future held, he reached out to Jesus.

He's in heaven now, but if you had asked me if I thought my dad's life would end with him coming to the Lord, I don't know if I would have believed it, frankly.  

One last thought:  Satan wants us to believe that the way someone is now is the way they will be in the future.  Wrong.  Consider ducks in the water:  They glide smoothly, seemingly unaffected by anything around them. But look below the surface:  They are paddling like mad.

People may be swimming smoothly on the pond of life, uninterested in spiritual things, but underneath, God is working to gently bring them to Himself.

I am grateful to a brother in the Lord who just preached this as a message.  He exhorted us to keep praying for those who are lost, even if they seem unaffected by your prayers.  We must trust that God is working below the surface. 

He did with us; why not them? 

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Romans 1 & 2: Spiritual Warfare, Part III

It would so easy to just stop at Romans 1.  We could look around with great pride and check off all the things we don't do on Paul's mapping of a society steeped in sin and celebrating the darkness.

But that is exactly what Paul is trying to avoid in Chapter 2.  Here we go: 

"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?  Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:1-4)

Uh-oh.  Paul's previous verses are not a free pass for those of us who do not battle with such sins to stand in judgment of those who do.  Someone could say, I don't battle with same-sex attraction, and I have no compassion on those who do.  I have the right then to pass judgement, because the Bible says it's wrong.  

I don't deal with disobedient children, or feel envy or greed, so I look down on those who do.      

But Paul doesn't allow us to stand there, haughtily condemning and judging.  Why? He says, "for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things."

Whoa.  "The same things"?  We may not do all of those things, or some of those things, but we do fall into sin.  

How many pastors condemn homosexuality, and yet have a porn problem?  No, they themselves do not feel a same-sex attraction, but they have a lust problem that drives them to addictively access porn, and commit adultery in their hearts.  

How many pastors condemn pornography and gay marriage, and yet are divorced?  They justify why their marriages failed, constantly deal with blended families and hostile stepchildren, yet extend no mercy or patience with those who have tried to create a new kind of family.    

Paul, like Jesus, is not minimalizing sin. Sin means "missing the mark" and Jesus saw that mark being missed all the time as He ministered: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matt. 15:19-20).

It's not just sin itself that Jesus and Paul are focused on; how do we, as fellow sinners and members of the human family, deal with the sin and the sinner?  God's judgment is based on "truth"--His standards, His character and His design for us.  But our judgment is based on us--our truth, our standards, our character and how we think the world should act (like us, of course!)

Judgment is a serious thing.  No "mere human being" can look in and see all of what is going on in a person's heart. But then Paul turns the tables and says we who do the same things as those we judge are going to come under God's judgment as well--we are not perfect and our condemning attitude brings us right in front of God's throne.  The focus is now on us: "Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?"

So, if He extends His kindness (He relentlessly pursued and still pursues us), forbearance (He paid our debt in Christ and loved us while we were yet sinners) and patience (days, months, years, decades--how long did He wait for us to grasp His offer of eternal life?) then that is way we came to repentance.  That is God's method.  

That is the very method Paul is advocating here and what Jesus modelled:  It is kindness that leads people to repentance, not condemning them, berating them and all the while hiding in our own sin, compromising our witness and making us like the Pharisees.

We all know how Jesus felt about the Pharisees.

How does this tie into spiritual warfare? 

Sin is Satan's playground.  He invites you in with promises of fulfillment, happiness and your every expectation being met.  He lures you in deeper to those things that are so promising!  It is only after a while you notice the barbwire fence around the playground. 

Pride, too, is the position we stake in defending God's law, but has Satan's fingerprints on our hearts.    We are saying, in essence, we have arrived spiritually and now can look at others with a discerning eye. We can see their behavior and know Scripture well enough to load our Bible 45's and shoot with accuracy. 

It's the spiritual equivalent of the gunfight at OK Corral:  We are the righteous lawmen who are going to bring to justice those bad guys who break the law with seeming impunity.  If there are bodies on the ground, so be it:  If we hurt those we condemning, well at least they know the truth.  



The OK Corral of this world is littered with those who receive judgmental glances, harsh words and a sense they could never live up to the holy standard set before them, all done by Jesus' lawmen, who stood behind a sheriff's star and never saw any contradiction between how they lived their lives and who they viewed others. 

What if we just preached the Word in our services--the loving and edifying passages as well as those that convict us of our sinful predicament, and let the Holy Spirit do His job?  God's Word does not return void, and the Holy Spirit is consummately more qualified to show us and convict us of our need for Jesus.

I can tell you that you are wrong.  Only the Holy Spirit can go deep into your soul and stir you to see your sin for what it is:

"But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you." (John 16:7-14)

The Holy Spirit works in us and in "those people."  If we are refreshing rain and not thunder and lightning, wouldn't we be attractive to those who thirst and live in the desert? 

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Spiritual Warfare: Romans 1 & 2, Part II

So, let's sum up the previous blog:  Paul is following the trajectory of when a people ignore God: "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles." (Rom. 1:21-23)

So, a people's thinking becomes futile (useless, unable to reach the truth) and their hearts are darkened (for the pure in heart see God; so, the opposite is true: they don't see God).

Now comes the slow spiral downward.  I find it interesting that Paul is writing to a Gentile church and not sugar-coating his message. He is calling out why Christ is necessary:  He died to save sinners.  Lest the Roman church thinks they are not "like those people," he reminds them that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  All members need the power of the resurrection, so they may live reflecting the mighty work of God in their lives.

The deeper the sin, the mightier the testimony of God's working in the lives of individuals. Jesus is central to everything Paul will say: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.'” (Rom. 1:16-17)

Then Paul launches into how depraved humanity really is--and the evidence for the Fall is everywhere.  But, and this is key, because salvation in Christ has been revealed and His power through His resurrection has been made known, no one is now without excuse to continue in the old ways.  

So, those who suppress the truth of the reality of the Almighty God, whose creation speaks of His love, power and lordship over creation, and then make an idol and ascribe to it divine power--Paul has zero tolerance for such folly.  

Wickedness suppresses the truth, for it models an utter disregard for God and His standards. We don't just break the Law by ignoring our consciences that bear God's moral imprint, but we celebrate breaking it and encourage others to do so as well. 

Idol makers need priests who want to fill temples with graven images.  Priests need worshippers to fulfill the "demands" of the idols: practices that are immoral and self-centered, laced with fear of reprisal if the rituals aren't followed.  Worshippers need to keep coming back to the temples, to fulfill obligations and put money in the temple coffers, keeping the temple and priests operating. It's cycle of greed parading under a false spirituality.  

This system, fostered by the wicked on the unsuspecting crowds who are equally wicked in choosing a lie, ignore the truth about God--the One who reveals Himself through the majesty of creation: "since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." [emphasis mine] 

Idolatry is a reinvention of God.  His qualities, His commandments, His love for humanity are lost, and are replaced with a god who demands fear, sacrifice, devotion, and practices that are against God's design for His children.  His commandments that we love one another as brothers because He is our Father, are subsumed under a self-centered approach to divinity.  Worshippers are taught to do for the god so the god will do for them.  If gods don't reciprocate, it is the fault of the worshipper, and back to the temple they go.

The priests of these temples use fear and mystery to ensnare and imprison God's children in an never-ending cycle of fear and immoral practices. The worshippers enjoy the mystery and hidden knowledge and pride themselves on being good followers of the religion. These practices damage their souls and make it harder and harder to see the One true God. 

That is how the truth is suppressed: by misrepresenting God, His character and His commands.  Sound familiar? Think of what Satan said to Eve: "Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God really say, "You must not eat from any tree in the garden”'?

And a moment later, “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:1, 4-5) 

Exactly: "No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons." (1 Cor. 10:20)

So, if idol worship is really demonic, then no wonder the Gentiles are so deceived.  The "gods" promise enlightenment, but deliver deception.  

Thus, Romans 1 chronicles a people who are operating in that deception.  So now, as a direct consequence, their behavior mars the image of God in which they were made: "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen." (Rom. 1:24-25)

Sexual desire and temptation is never far away from our fallen flesh.  Satan loves the debauching of the innocent--it traumatizes the soul of a person. Innocent once lost is hard to overcome, and like our first parents who lost their innocence, the return to the garden is impossible.  Hence, the cross:  Jesus' sacrifice reopened for us the fellowship with God and His creation.   

God gives us the gift of sex, and we remake it to where we are in the center, and the sole purpose of our lives is to be happy in the pursuit of the flesh. 

Sin means missing the mark, and Paul's words show how we miss the mark: "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error." (Rom. 1:26-27). 

Love is replaced by self-serving lust. But let's keep going.  Paul doesn't stop with sexual sin, but sees a whole constellation of sin that results when we make God in our own (fallen) image and how it misses the mark (i.e. sin): 

"Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God" = I don't need God and His narrow, out of date rules; I know what's best because I am enough. 

"[S]o God gave them over to a depraved mind" = I pursue what I want because I am unhappy; society must revolve around me,and moral consequences? None, because there is no moral law.  I am the law. 

"[S]o that they do what ought not to be done" = I will have no competition against my pursuits: no laws, no intolerance and nothing that impedes what I want.  
"They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity" = I am the measure of all things--if I don't see it as wrong or as a problem, then it isn't.    

"They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice" = Get out of my way.  I do what I have to do, and if anyone disagrees or contradicts me, beware.  I will shut you down. 
"They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful" = Don't bring up God to support your arguments, for you are stupid and way out of touch with a progressive society.  I speak out all the time against those who question me, but you must remain silent.  

"[T]hey invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents"  = I know what I am doing, what I am feeling and my parents have no understanding, so I do not listen to them.  I listen only to those who understand me and want to help me find my true self. 

"[T]hey have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy" = Why should I?  It's about me, and my perspective.  Don't try to step in and change me--leave me to pursue my truth!  If you question me, I will have no mercy on you--you don't deserve any. 

"Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." = We will overcome opposition to our plans by any means necessary, and guess what?  We are succeeding in ways unfathomable even 10 years ago!  We are picking up speed to recreate ourselves and our society in our image. Woe unto to you if you get in our way. 

Welcome to now.

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