Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Ignored, misunderstood and irrelevant

Ignored, misunderstood and irrelevant

Why we should not be ashamed of the gospel of Romans 1

Dear friends,

Quite often on Two Ways News, we start with some issue that’s current or that Phillip or I are particularly exercised by, and think through what the gospel and the Bible as a whole say about it. 

But it’s important to go in the other direction as well—to start with the Bible, and see what God is saying there, and let that set our agenda. In this week’s episode, we begin a little series where we’ll be doing just that, with the book of Romans as our point of departure, starting with Romans 1:1-16. 

It won’t be an exposition of all the verses, more of a discussion of the key ideas of the chapter and their implications. (If you’d like to hear a verse-by-verse exposition of the first half of Romans 1, here’s a sermon by Phillip on that section.)

I hope you find this new series encouraging, and very shareable with others.

Your brother


Ignored, misunderstood and irrelevant

Tony Payne: Before we leap into Romans, we've got to think what are the issues or problems in our minds as we come to this massive book–a central book of the New Testament that sets out the gospel of God, as Paul says. What sort of things should we frame the conversation around?

Phillip Jensen: Well, it's a combination of things. That is, you look at our world and it's a mess. You look at Romans, and what is the answer that it gives? The gospel of God is that Jesus was born of David's family, and is risen from the dead, and you think well…

TP: That's not what I was expecting.

PJ: Yes. So Jesus is the son of God in power, but what difference does it make when there's a war in the Middle East, there's a war in Russia, there's a war in Myanmar? When there are wars in our home life, domestic violence that's increasing, the unhappiness of life everywhere around us, the starvation that is happening in some parts of the population and obesity in other parts of the world. Paul has been appointed to preach this gospel to the nations, the one message for all the world. But what is it about?

TP: We’ll talk more about what the message is really about and how it is relevant, but a prior problem I have is that as I interact with people, they don't want to listen to it.

PJ: That is part of the problem, which I think comes to the fundamental problem of the world we call sin–that is rebellion against God. That rebellion against God is reflected in the sentiment “I don't want to listen at all. I don't care what God says. It's an irrelevance to me because I don't believe in God and I don't want God.” You see this when Jesus talks about the casting of the seed and some of them land on the rocky ground.

TP: The seed doesn't penetrate the rocky ground even a little bit. 

PJ: Yes, and it’s worse than that, in that there are people who actually do not want to hear what is being said.

TP: They will shut you down very quickly if you start to raise this because it's not part of the world they want to have. It's not part of the world they see. 

PJ: Yes. There's a fascinating quote a book by Thomas Nagel, which shows both the truthfulness of this great philosopher and also his untruthfulness at same time. Thomas Nagel is a philosopher in New York University, and one of the world's atheistic leading philosophers of the late 20th, early 21st century. And there's this quote where he says, “I'm talking about the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience being strongly subjected to this fear myself. I want atheism to be true, and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and naturally hope that I'm right in my belief; it's that I hope there is no God. I don't want there to be a God. I don't want the universe to be like that.”

TP: He's honest, isn't he? 

PJ: It’s terribly honest for a philosopher to say that his own prejudices are deciding how he wants to think. But then it's terribly dishonest at the same time to pretend that you are giving a philosophy of life when it's not philosophy. It's just sheer prejudice.

TP: It’s desire: I don't want it this way. We talk about motivated reasoning or confirmation bias, and all these kinds of ways in which the way we think about things is determined by what we want to be the case, by what we've already decided is the case, by what we're motivated to be the case. And this seems like a really powerful example of that.

PJ: The pretence of enlightenment, the pretence of a distance and dispassionate objective thought is exposed here in a way, because it never was objective. So there's the problem of not wanting it to be true, like it says in John 3:19 that people loved darkness because their deeds are evil, and they don't want to come into the light. 

TP: But also when you speak with people about the gospel–and Romans is about the gospel–you do also encounter not just an unwillingness, but also a profound misunderstanding of what the gospel is, which you have to clear up before you get to what it's actually saying. 

PJ: Yes. The gospel of God is about Jesus being descended from David and risen from the dead. That's the gospel. But if you go out into the street and ask the average Aussie what they think the Christian message is, they'll nearly always tell you it's about rules and regulations of morality. It’s religious morality whereby, if you keep the rules, you'll be rewarded, if you break the rules, you'll be punished. But you've got to really break it badly–you’ve got to be Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, or somebody like that to be punished, because generally, provided you're above average, you'll be okay. 

TP: And you'll receive a degree of peace about that. So one of the things that I keep encountering is this idea of the comfort of religion or that faith is a sense of peace and hope. And they may regard this as irrational or a leap in the dark on our part, yet they see it as at least a vaguely positive thing. They see it as us thinking there's something coming in the future that's going to fix everything up, and it's going to reward us or take care of everything. And the common sentiment I hear is “Well, that’s nice for you, I'm glad that gives you peace to have that hope. But really, I think you're dreaming.”

PJ: Yes, and also, if it's been organized, it's hypocritical. 

TP: Organized religion–one of the worst things you could possibly do.

PJ: If you have personal faith, then we’ll live and let live. But if you're part of organized religion, then you are teaching rules and regulations that you're not keeping but that you're imposing upon other people. But when the secrets are out, when the journalist speaks truth to power, they will show that you are actually a complete hypocrite because you're not keeping the very rules that you're imposing upon other people.

TP: Yes, and that's the very familiar trope in our culture, in television and in movies. The Christian person, especially the Christian minister, will very often turn out to be the hypocrite, the abuser, the one who states these things publicly, but not only does not do them himself, but uses his position and those rules as a way of controlling others and actually getting what he wants. So it's a cover and a mechanism for the exercise of your own desires and power. And that's a very common way of seeing religion generally, but also specifically in our culture of Christianity.

PJ: Yes, it's an awful thing, really.

TP: I guess the other objection or the other obstacle to get over, as we work through Romans and bring the message of Romans to our world, is this common sentiment in our culture that if something is old, it's therefore irrelevant. If something is new and current, then it must be right. And Romans is very old; it is one man writing to a group of Christians in a city nearly two thousand years ago. That's also an issue, isn't it?

PJ: Yes, that's right. And so what's this got to do with solving our problems of domestic violence or war or poverty or illness or famine or overpopulation or climate warming? I mean, there's just so many problems that fill our newspapers and television and our conversation all the time. And you think he was descended from David? What has this got to do with anything to solve the problems that we have at the moment? We have housing problems here in Sydney, we have growing mental illness amongst young people. What does this gospel got to do with anything in life? Could it possibly make any difference?

TP: Well, gospel simply means ‘a great announcement, a big piece of momentous important news’. So it could make a difference if that news somehow diagnosed or touched upon our deepest problems, the thing that is at the heart of all these various kinds of awful things that you've spoken about. 

PJ: And that's right, you've used the word ‘diagnosis’, which I think is the key word. The symptoms of my disease are what take me to the doctor. But while the doctor must address my symptoms, mainly the doctor’s job is to diagnose the disease that gives rise to those symptoms. Just addressing the symptoms will not solve the problem. So there are many symptoms in the world, like war, divorce, poverty, overpopulation. But what is the disease that has given rise to these symptoms? There's nothing wrong with trying to address symptoms, but you'll always have new symptoms coming until you actually address the disease. And so what is the right diagnosis of humanity's problems? And how does Jesus resolve those problems?

TP: This reminds me of the famous quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He was a great Russian dissident and writer. In the period from the Russian Revolution onwards, from the 1920s right through to the 1960s, tens of millions of people were imprisoned by the Organs, as they called it, by the apparatus of the Soviet State, by the secret police, the NKVD, by all these different bodies. They were arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, and sentenced to time in the Gulag (labor camps). Five years, eight years, ten years, twenty years… and tens of millions of innocent people were put through that ‘meat grinder’ or ‘sewerage system’ as Solzhenitsyn calls it. 

Solzhenitsyn himself went through the grinder, survived it, and famously documented it and wrote about it. And as a Russian–a deeply patriotic Russian–he was horrified by what his nation became, and by what was done, and his great aim in life was to expose what was done. But what was so powerful about it was that he saw underneath into the problems of the human heart. His famous quote from The Gulag Archipelago that you often hear in sermons is “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. It's a great line, and it was part of a passage where he's asking, why did we do this to each other? Why did certain people end up becoming members of the secret police and the service and doing this to their fellow Russians? It wasn't that all the bad people went into that, and we were all the good people. Because we're all good, and we're all bad. 

And the problem underneath it all was theological. Here’s another, longer quote from Solzhenitsyn: “Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia. ‘Men have forgotten God. That's why all this has happened’. Since then, I've spent well nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution. In the process, I read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat, ‘Men have forgotten God. That's why all this has happened’.” 

PJ: An extraordinary statement, isn't it? And it was from a man who was in the midst of it. He saw it firsthand like you and I mercifully haven't. And he lived on. I think he died about 2009 at a great age. 

He sees that the diagnosis is significantly more important than just the symptoms. I mean, the symptoms were appalling the way these people were treated in the Siberian salt mines. But the problem lies in the human heart. And the problem of the human heart is to forget God. If you forget God, then indeed, you lose that sense of what ultimately is the right and what is the wrong, let alone be able to be changed by God into the right. And so the problem of relational failure with God is the diagnosis of the Bible. And it's a diagnosis of the Bible that Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and pouring out of His Spirit, actually addresses because he changes people. And if you change lots of people, you then change society. So our society keeps on thinking it will fix up the problems by more legislation, or by putting more in the curriculum of our public schools. But neither of those things actually solve any of the problems because at best, they're addressing the symptoms. But they're not even doing that very well, frankly, because law never does that well. 

Tom Holland’s book Dominion illustrates the same point from the other side of things. He’s a historian who's really interested in the ancient world. And he's noticed that the ancient world is very different from the modern world. The ancient world was hostile to human development, good and the desire for flourishing. It was a violent place. But Holland says, my ethics are not those. My morality is not that which the ancient world had. What has happened between the ancient world and today, that our whole value system has so radically changed? And his answer is: Jesus was descended from David. Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s all about Jesus that human hearts have been so changed to the point that society has been changed, so that we now value caring for the weak and the vulnerable and looking after people equally and caring for justice to be established.

TP: It's not what the Spartans did! 

PJ: No, and it’s not what the Romans did. It's not what the ancient world did, not what the Egyptians did. 

TP: It’s not what anybody did. That’s his point in Dominion. There is no philosophy, culture, religion, nothing anywhere in the world that has the values that we in the West take for granted, such as that every individual person has dignity and importance, purely on the basis that they are a human being created in the image of God. Nobody else believes that. 

PJ: And that has come out of this gospel of God being preached and then being put into practice. And it's not just that this has happened over two thousand years, it's still happening today. And so the relevance issue is massive, provided you stop looking at symptoms and ask for the diagnosis of disease, the corruption of the human heart–my heart, your heart, everybody's heart. 

TP: It might be a useful thing at this point to actually read those first few verses of Romans. 

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,  which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David[b] according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians,[d] both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

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. 

PJ: See, Paul is the messenger of this worldwide singular gospel, the one message for all mankind. He hasn't shown up in Rome yet. And so he's writing to say, “I do want to come and I'm planning on coming. I've often intended to come.” And then it seems that he's answering an objection that people may have. He's very good at preaching the gospel amongst the back blocks of Turkey, amongst the barbarians. But Rome–Rome is the center of the universe. 

TP: It's the place of culture, the centre of the intellectual world. It's like preaching everywhere else in Australia, but avoiding Sydney or avoiding Melbourne or avoiding the big cities.

PJ: Yes. And so he's saying, “No, I'm not ashamed.” You would never be ashamed in front of a barbarian or amongst the foolish. But amongst the Greeks, amongst the Jews, amongst the wise of this world, you may be tempted to be ashamed of a silly message. But he says, “I'm not ashamed of this message.”

TP: Can I ask you something? He says Greeks there, but he's going to Rome. So why does he say ‘among the Greeks’? Why isn’t he saying ‘among the Romans’? 

PJ: Because even a Roman knows that to speak Greek is a matter of civilization, a matter of learning, a matter of education. Greek was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world. It was the language of learning and scholarship. And so he is not ashamed of the intellectual leadership or cultural leadership of the world. The gospel is not to be ashamed of, he said. Because actually, this message, this declaration, is the power of God for the salvation of people and for the righteousness of God. The power of God is actually in this message which changes the world. Two thousand years later, a man who doesn't believe the message can historically write it up in that book Dominion. But he's right. It has changed the world. And we can say, yes, it's changing me right now. 

And so one of the problems we have in our world today is, I think Christians are ashamed of the message. I think the pressure for the preacher is to speak about domestic violence or to speak about hunger or to speak about the Israeli and Gaza war at the moment. In other words, to speak about the symptoms. And yes, they are symptoms, there's nothing wrong with addressing them. But you can keep on addressing symptoms yet you’re never going to change the world. But if you speak about the human heart and how it can be transformed by this message of Jesus' death and resurrection, then you'll change the human hearts and the society.

TP: I don't know if you've ever had this experience, Phillip. Have you ever had a lingering medical symptom that no one can get to the bottom of, and it goes on and on and on. And one day you go to the doctor–this has happened to several friends and relatives of mine–and you finally discover that you've actually got something seriously wrong with you. And your immediate reaction is… relief. Because at last, someone has told me what's wrong with me. And maybe then something can actually be done about it.

PJ: And we thank the doctor warmly … for telling us that there’s really something wrong! 

TP: Yes, even when sometimes the accurate diagnosis of the problem is a much more painful and serious problem, because that is obviously the first step to treatment. And this is what the book of Romans does for us in proclaiming the gospel of God; it addresses this most serious problem.

PJ: Yes, the second half of the chapter really starts pulling out the right diagnosis of the problem.

TP: Yes, while this first half tells us that we shouldn't and could never be ashamed of the answer of the ‘treatment’–if we can even reduce the Lord Jesus Christ to a treatment–this announcement of who he is and what he has done, because it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.


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