Two Ways News
Two Ways News
He gets our sinfulness

He gets our sinfulness

But can we cope with him being angry about it?

Dear friends

We’re back with the our second excursion into the book of Romans, this time on the second half of chapter 1, with its very bracing discussion of human wickedness and God’s angry response to it.

When we were recording this episode, the internet was awash with people discussing the Super Bowl ad that featured foot-washing Christians accepting and loving the marginalized groups of our society, with punchline ‘He gets us’. I started our discussion by asking Phillip what he thought of it.

I hope you enjoying the conversation that followed.

Your brother


He gets our sinfulness

Phillip Jensen: Well, I am thankful to the group of people who put up an advertisement about Jesus in the commercialized world of Super Bowl ads. It was a brilliant ad in terms of its production value–intriguing and interesting, and turned out to be something different to what you expected.

It was a wonderful evangelistic opportunity, and you would think it is a wonderful evangelistic message as well, but frankly as a piece of evangelism, it was a dud. It was public relations, not evangelism. Just like apologetics, it was taking on a defensive stance and establishing that we are culturally, intellectually, and socially acceptable to the world’s views. And in the process, of course, it inevitably distorts the gospel. And what happens is that instead of being evangelism, it turns into accommodationism—it accommodates the message to fit the market. 

When the God we preach is only the God of love, then we’ve misled people. They will then ask us questions: “If God is the God of love, then why is there so much suffering in the world? Why are there so many problems in the world?” We must represent God as more than just a God of love, because one very important aspect of God's character and nature is that true love leads to anger and wrath. 

But public relations and apologetics do not want to talk about the angry God because that's totally unattractive and not what our society wants. It also brings in issues like justice and retribution and vengeance. Our society is more and more pushing for total inclusiveness, whereas an angry God of justice is not going to be totally inclusive. 

Tony Payne: Yes, it's hard to see an ad about “he judges us” or “he’s angry at us” rather than “he gets us”. That's probably not going to even be permitted to be played during the Super Bowl, let alone be made. I think I can see where this tangential interest might be tending towards Romans 1. 

PJ: Yes, the second half of Romans 1 is about the angry God, and you can't do an apologetic for the angry God because you've got to preach the angry God. So why do you think we don't like the angry God? 

TP: Well, I guess when I think about anger and our experience of anger, it’s associated with us feeling angry at people. It is often something that flares up, that is temperamental, which usually occurs because some need or wish that I have has been denied. That is human anger, an emotional response that comes out of frustration for not getting what we want. And it's hard to think of that being associated with God and say, “This is a wonderful characteristic of God.” Because of that, it is also hard to associate anger with a holy and righteous God. 

PJ: Yes, and especially when we've lost our temper, we don't stay with an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. We go way beyond that and we do terrible damage because we have lost control. But also, there's another aspect of anger that's bad in our society, which is: to be angry is to be judgmental. And judgmentalism is always hypocrisy. So we don't want a judgmental God. We don't want a temperamental God. We don't want a God who's lost control. And we don't want him to lash out in his frustration, because that's our knowledge of anger and that's what we see in ourselves, mostly. And yet there are also rare times when we don’t see it that way. 

TP: Yes, I think there are points in which even I, a sinful person, have been angry about something that I should be angry about. When my children get mistreated, for example. When my kids have got the wrong end of things and have been poorly and unjustly treated, I'm not calm and dispassionate about it. I get genuinely angry that this is not right and it should not be so. In fact, I don't think I would be a very good dad if I don't advocate for my children in those circumstances and stand up for them and say, “This is not right.”

PJ: Yes, if you love them you will be angry when they suffer unjustly. If you're not attached to someone or something, then yes, you will never get angry. You'll never suffer because you never love. You never care. Attachment is caring. God cares for his world. You care for your children. If you care for humanity, you can't read what Stalin did or what Mao did or what Hitler did without having a just and righteous anger. Because if you're not angry with it, you're accepting it. If you're accepting it, that means you don't love or even worse, that you don't have any morals. Now I have to pick on something like Stalin to be justified in my anger, because I too am a sinner. It's got to be something of that kind of enormity and magnitude of sin before there can be any sense of yes, I'm right to be angry without hypocrisy.

TP: For us as sinful people, to be sure that we're being righteously angry, we have to be sure that it's a great evil. But of course, God is different from that. And that takes us to what Romans 1 says about him.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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. 

PJ: It's interesting, isn't it? It’s not just that we're naughty or immoral. It's that we have a wilful ignorance of God. Ignorance itself is excusable; for example if I don't know the name of my next door neighbour, well, I don't know their name. It isn't my fault. But when I do know my next door neighbour and see him coming, but then turn my back on him and walk away, that's rude. If you don't know God–if you can't know God–well, you could be excused for not knowing God. But if you do know God, and you turn your back on him, that's rude. And that's the nature of sin. That's the heart of sin–to know that God is God, and yet assume that you are god instead and to reject him as being God. It is the intentional rejection of the truth.

TP: It's interesting, that word ‘suppress’, which means to have something and yet to hold it down. They do have this knowledge of God, but in having it, they push it down and reject it. 

PJ: Yes, it's like holding down a big balloon under the water. You can't keep it under because it's trying to rise up. Bits of it keep on popping above the surface of the water as you try and hold down more and more of this big balloon under the water. 

TP: Yes, even the overt atheists who deny the possibility of God and therefore of there being any real purpose or meaning in the world, keep living and speaking as if there is meaning and purpose to be had in the world and in their lives. They can’t help seeing that the world is a certain way, even though they keep denying it. It's like what it says in Romans: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

And verse 21 says, “They became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Before that, Paul talks about not being ashamed of the gospel, whether to barbarians or to Greeks, and how the righteousness of God is revealed to all, to Jews and to Greeks. I wonder, when he mentioned those who claimed to be wise and became fools, was he referring to everyone or specifically thinking of the Greeks who were the intellectual class of society at the time? 

PJ: Well, I would think he is especially thinking of the Greeks because they are amongst the ones who claim to be wise, especially compared to the barbarians. Even the label ‘barbarian’ shows that they believed they themselves were not barbarians. The Greeks certainly prided themselves on their ‘sophia’, their wisdom. It reminds me of a quote that's often attributed to Chesterton:

“You know, when men stopped believing in God, they don't believe in nothing. They believe in anything.” 

There is the folly that flows. And of course, that's what we see today. We see the New Age believers who think using crystals or sitting under pyramids can actually change your life. And you see during those New Age conferences, thousands of people turn up to use the latest means of getting in touch with some degree of the supernatural, and rejecting God in the process. They do not want the God of love, who is therefore just and angry with our sinfulness. 

So God is angry with human sin, and human sin is more than immorality; it's the rejection of God. That rejection of God is what leads to immorality. When sin is simply immorality, then morality might somehow fix humanity. But no, the basis of our immorality is that we've rejected God, and so we've got to get back to God whom we know. But we don't want to know because we don't like what that may mean for our autonomy. 

TP: So God's judgment or anger against this unrighteousness is revealed, in a sense, through giving us what we deserve and handing us over to the consequences of the rejection and suppression of the truth of him. And that leads to all kinds of folly and stupid beliefs–back then with the Greeks it was idolatry and the attempt to represent God through statues of birds or something. It's also reflected in being given over into a life of unrighteousness and immorality–that is the consequence of God's judgment on our unbelief.

PJ: Yes. God, unlike humans, is just in his anger. He is slow to be angry. He is patient in his anger. That is the righteousness of God. Whereas human anger, the Scripture says, is the wrong kind of anger because it's contaminated by our sinfulness.

But God gives people what they deserve, that is, he gives us what we asked for. You can't complain when you're given exactly what you've asked for. If we want life without God, God gives us life without God. He doesn't completely remove himself from us, otherwise we'd be dead immediately, but he does give us up to living the life we want, to live our way. And that's where freedom and slavery come in. Our freedom from God is actually our slavery. It's like the train that is free from the rails to plough its way across the field. Yes, it's free from the rails, but it's not going to go very far.

TP: Once it's stuck, it's stuck. And that's what slavery is. Having rejected God for our own desires and being given over to the consequences of our own desires, we find ourselves trapped in not only a worldview but a way of living that's dysfunctional and destructive, because in the end, it's a way of living that denies the Creator. As Romans 1:24-32 says:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 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 dishonourable 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.

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. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

PJ: Now, the problem for that passage for us today is that our intellectual community, our “Greeks” you might say, has approved of homosexuality and lesbianism. And this widespread approval has meant that the Christian attitude to this behaviour has received widespread criticism. We are seen as oppressive and evil because of oppressing people in their natural instincts and desires. And so it's a passage that people are embarrassed about. But it's not a passage about the worst sin in the world that God is angry with. It's a passage about God's judgment, letting people have their own head, letting people follow their own desires. And frankly, in our society, that's exactly what's happened. Turn your back on God, and you'll start accepting immoral behaviour, which itself is destructive because it's unnatural. When you deny the creator, you will deny your creation and you no longer live in accordance with what is true. We see it on this issue, the idea that I can identify myself as a woman or a man in a way that is contrary to my actual DNA. 

I can end up living contrary to my nature, to my creation, which is what Romans 1 says will happen if we turn our back on the creator.  And you'll notice at the end of the paragraph, it's not just sex, for there's that long list of things that now happen, including disobedience to parents. 

TP: To disobey your parents who gave you life and cared for you and to whom you owe a bond of loyalty and honour and obedience is to deny the way the world is and the way the world was created.

PJ: Yes. And salvation takes you back to the truth of creation, whereas rebellion against God takes you away from the truth of creation. 

TP: Now, let's come back to where we started with evangelism, apologetics, and accommodationism. How does all that we've been saying relate to that? How do we teach and preach and deal with this as we interact with people? 

PJ: Firstly, accommodationists don't like Romans 1 because it gets in the way of cultural acceptance. So they have several different strategies, depending on their theological flavour. In the extreme versions, they will say this whole passage needs to be reinterpreted. Paul didn't mean what we think he means by those verses that he's talking about—it was about a particular sexual deviation that was around in the first century Greek world, and has nothing to do with homosexuality or lesbianism today. It's a desperate argument; no one has ever thought that was the case until accommodationists wanted to make it acceptable.

Another argument is claiming that the Bible is wrong and that we don't have to pay attention to it. After all, the Bible is written in the language and culture and context of the Greeks. We live in a different language and culture, and so the Bible is irrelevant to us. 

TP: Even though the Bible at this point is criticizing the Greeks and Greek culture in as vicious a fashion as you possibly could. It was as countercultural to Greek culture and to its time as you could imagine, and yet we think we can consign it to the cultural waste bin of the first century. 

PJ: Yes. And they omit the wrath of God and the anger of God from the gospel. They just whizz past this passage as quickly as they can and head towards selectivity, like the ad. Jesus did wash the feet of his disciples, but he didn't come into the world to wash feet; he came into the world to save sinners. He came into the world to die on the cross. 

TP: In fact, if you read John's Gospel and those next few chapters, you'd understand what the washing of the feet really meant–it ultimately prefigured him laying down his life for his friends. 

PJ: Yes. So, many times they don't deny Romans 1. They just constantly preach love and acceptance without mentioning that this is unacceptable behaviour that flows from the wrath of God on human sinfulness.

TP: That's denial by omission, isn't it?

PJ: Yes, very much so. On the other hand, the gospel way of preaching is to acknowledge the sinfulness of sin. And the gospel preacher can do it, not because he is sinless but because he's forgiven. We know the price that God paid for our sins to be forgiven, and so though we are deeply ashamed of our sinfulness, we are now also free to face up to our true sinfulness, to recognize ourselves in this passage. Therefore to accommodate the message means you no longer preach the message.

TP: And it's not a better message either. It's a message that leaves us where we are; to say “he gets us” simply affirms us and what we’re already doing, and shows that he's happy to leave us exactly where we’re at and make us feel good about what we’re already doing, which is just the thinnest of veneers over the problems and dysfunction and degeneracy that we all experience in our own lives, in a variety of different ways. 

PJ: Yes, it allows me to continue to reject God and continue to live as I want in sinfulness. And therefore we experience the foretaste of the judgment of God. There is a bigger judgment that Romans 1 talks about, but we will get to that later on in the next chapters. 

TP: Now, Phillip, we've talked a lot about God's anger in this passage and the consequences of it in our lives, but we haven't said very much at all about what is probably the most famous verse in this chapter, which almost acts as a heading, telling us what to expect as the rest of the argument unfolds in Romans: 

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

PJ: You’re right, it's a great summary verse. But to understand it properly, we would need to keep reading. So hold that thought. 

But first we need to understand the wrath of God. The wrath of God comes out of his righteousness. The verse also explains his righteousness and what he's done in his righteousness. In Romans 2 we are going to go through a bit more on God’s anger, and in Romans 3 and 4 we are going to see more about the righteousness of God and the faith that is mentioned in that verse. So hold that thought; it's coming. 

Bringing us back to the Super Bowl ad, some Christians made another ad in response, with the theme “Jesus saves us”, in which they got all these people who were former prostitutes, former drug addicts… and the last one was a former lesbian activist. Her name is Rosaria Butterfield, and this is what she says: 

I was 35 year old, called myself a lesbian, and worked as an activist and English professor in New York, when I first encountered Romans 1. After many years and much struggling, God used the words of Romans 1 as he led me to repentance and faith. Through the crucible of conversion, I learned that the central thrust of this passage requires eyes of faith. As I'm typing these words today, having now walked with my Lord and Savior for twenty-one years, Romans 1 continues to impact my life. 

The suppression of truth does not enlighten your mind, but the acknowledgement of the truth of God does. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


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Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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