Series Part 8 – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration
Preached on February 22, 2009 in Manhattan, New York at Redeemer Presbyterian Church
1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? 5 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. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.”
Let’s continue in verse 12.
12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 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.
14 (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, 15 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.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?
22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? – Romans 2:1-2, 12-26
We’re trying to trace out the storyline of the entire Bible. We started in Genesis, where we learn what’s wrong with the human race, and then we’ve gone now to Romans 1–4, where we’re learning what Paul says God has done about it through Jesus Christ. We’ve been going through Romans, and here at the beginning of chapter 2, Paul does a turnaround.
It’s so surprising and shocking that if I begin to … I don’t even have to introduce too much introduction here. I will start to explain it, and it’ll draw us right in. Please see, however, this chapter talks about three things: the failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law and, therefore, the need for a regenerated, new heart.
1. The failure of religion
Paul starts this chapter by saying, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you … do the same things.” This only makes sense if you go back and see what was in chapter 1. Right? Because “the same things” refers to chapter 1.
If you remember, Paul has been talking about Gentiles, pagans, idol worshipers worshiping, bowing down to figures of wood and stone and metal, sexual orgies … That has all been in Romans 1. All of a sudden, Paul turns and says, “Hey, you out there listening, sitting in judgment, you do the same thing.”
Paul knew this letter was going to be read. This letter would’ve been read out loud to the Roman congregation, and who was in the Roman congregation? Gentile Christian converts and Jewish Christian converts. Who would’ve been out there sitting, thinking, “Oh yeah, those pagans, those orgies, that bowing down to worship idols … That’s just awful”? Who would’ve been sitting there condemning? Who would’ve been sitting there passing judgment on all of that? It would’ve been the Jewish Christians, but now keep this in mind.
In this case Paul is actually speaking to people who essentially represent anyone who’s religious, anyone who has tried very hard not to be pagan, not to have orgies, not to bow down to little figures of wood and stone. He says, “Hey, you people out there, you people who all of your lives have been trying to obey the Bible, all of your lives have been relying on obedience to the law and feeling pretty good about it, saying, ‘I obey the biblical law,’ you out there, when you condemn those pagans, you condemn yourself, because you do the same things.”
It’s very surprising, and how could that be? He was talking about orgies and bowing down to idols. How could he turn to the good, Bible-believing people who have been trying to obey the Bible all their lives and say, “You out there, smug people sitting around there saying, ‘Yes, that’s awful. That stuff is awful,’ you condemn yourselves because you do the same things”? How could that be?
If you go down a little deeper into the text, he actually talks about it. In verses 21 and 22, he says, “… you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?”
At that point the reason he’s saying, “You condemn yourselves,” is he’s talking to moral people, and he says, “Though you say publically you don’t commit adultery, a lot of you do commit adultery.” Any moral community, any church, any synagogue is going to have hypocrites in it, people who say, “This is what I believe,” but in private they’re doing the opposite.
That’s partly why he’s able to say, “Hey, you religious people, you Bible-believing, Bible-obeying people, looking at all these awful pagans out there, rolling in the streets together in their drunkenness and their orgies, you’re feeling superior to them. You’re doing the same thing.” Some of it is hypocrisy, but that’s not all he’s saying here, because then he says, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”
He’s talking to Jewish Christian believers as you can see from the title of the paragraph. This is completely inexplicable at first sight, because there is absolutely no record of Jews running a kind of operation where at night they would go out to temples and rob them and sell the idols on the black market. Is that what he’s talking about? There’s absolutely no evidence Jews did anything like that. What in the world is he talking about?
The answer is he must be talking metaphorically. By the way, he hints at that in verse 5, because when he says to them, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart …” this is something you could never tell by looking at it in English, but he’s using two Greek words that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament were always associated with idolaters.
What he’s actually saying is, “You’re religious, you’re obeying the Ten Commandments, and externally it looks like you’re complying with all the rules and regulations, but though you may not have idols of the hand, you have idols of the heart. You may not have idols you can pick up and move around, but you have idols in your heart.
You abhor idols, and yet essentially you’re no better than the idolaters, because though you’re obedient, the thing you really live for, the things that really give you meaning in life, the things you really are worshiping are career or achievement or power. Therefore, you stand condemned.”
How can he really say this, that the good, Bible-believing people are every bit as condemned, every bit as lost as the Gentiles and the pagans? How can he say that? We’ll get to that under point two, but first I’d like to stop. I want you to think about the amazing point one, because this is what he’s saying. He’s saying something that will show you, if we think about it, the unity of the Bible and the uniqueness of the gospel.
By the unity of the Bible, I mean this. If you were here in the fall, do you remember we talked about Jesus’ great parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15? We spent six weeks going through that parable, and in the parable Jesus gives us a father with two sons: a younger brother, who loves sex with prostitutes and takes away all the father’s money and squanders it … He’s materialistic. He’s licentious. He’s disobedient to the father.
Then he has a second son, and the older brother is very obedient and very compliant to the father and obeys everything the father says, and yet the point of the parable is they’re both lost. They’re both alienated from the father, and they both need salvation. That’s Jesus, but now here you have Paul. Paul is giving his greatest exposition of the gospel, and he’s saying exactly the same thing. In Romans 1 he’s talking about younger brothers. He’s talking about how they’re condemned.
He’s talking about how they’re lost, bowing down to idols of the hand, rolling around in drunkenness and sex. Okay, sin, the kind of sin everybody thinks of as sin, but now he turns to Romans 2. He says, “You elder brothers, you people who are trying so hard to be good and you think God owes you a good life because you’re so good, you are every bit as lost. You’re every bit as in need of salvation.” Isn’t that amazing? Paul is saying exactly the same thing Jesus was saying. Do you see the unity of the Bible?
Also, let me show you how unique the gospel is. For Paul to be saying, “You good people are condemned. You bad people are condemned. You’re all lost. You moral people, you immoral people, you’re all lost …” In the 1970s was this enormous best seller, as some of you may have heard. It has actually kind of passed into the language a little bit. It’s a book by Thomas Harris called I’m OK—You’re OK. It was a little self-help book. It was on the top of the New York Times best-seller list for two years.
In the 1990s a woman named Wendy Kaminer wrote a devastating critique of the self-help movement, and the name of her book was I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. It’s a tremendous critique. Basically, she shows how narcissistic the whole idea was.
She says, “How in the world can you say this is mental health to say, ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ yet out there in the world there is all the blood of the innocent crying out from the ground for justice? There’s genocide. There’s terrorism. There’s all this awful stuff. How in the world can you say it’s the sign of mental health to go out into the world and say, ‘Everybody is okay. You’re okay. I’m okay. We’re all okay’? That’s silly. That’s narcissism.”
She just hilariously deconstructed it. About 10 years later, after she really showed how silly it is to say, “I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,” she came back with another book that showed she was a bit in a bind, because her whole point was, “Hey, with all the injustice, with all the innocent blood crying out from the ground for justice, how can you say everybody is okay?”
She came back with another book in which she was very critical of what she called the “hard right,” because she saw a lot of people saying, “Yeah, there is evil out there, and we have to bring back the death penalty. We have to go to war.” She suddenly saw all these people saying, “I’m okay, and the rest of you are no way okay.” In fact, that was the subtitle of her book. The New York Times gave the book a subtitle: I’m okay, and you’re nowhere near okay.
She says the trouble with that … She says, “ ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ was narcissistic. That’s narcissism, but to say, ‘I’m okay, and I have the truth. You all are evil, and I’m going to punish you,’ that’s how you get death camps. That’s how you get, ‘I’m the superior race. You’re the inferior race. I’m the superior person. You’re the inferior person.’ ”
She says that’s moralism, and that’s as bad as narcissism. Narcissism is, “We’re all okay. You’re okay. I’m okay,” and moralism is, “I’m okay, and you’re not okay.” Wait a minute. So she was just saying, “I’m okay. Everybody is okay,” is narcissism, but then moralism is bad. What’s left? There’s masochism: “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.” Of course, that’s not right. What’s left?
In the 1970s a minister and a great Bible teacher, who is now passed away, named John Gerstner, was speaking, and he referenced the book I’m OK—You’re OK. He says, “How does that compare to the message of the Bible?” Then he told a story. It was about the fact that he and his wife were on a trip to Asia. They were actually in Cashmere, and at one point they went on an excursion in a little boat. It was he and his wife and a boat man who didn’t know much English and his grandson.
On their way back from the excursion, as they were starting to near shore, they actually bumped another boat. When they bumped the boat, there was a fair amount of water that kind of splashed in and got everybody wet up to the knees. The boat man started getting very, very agitated, and John Gerstner said, “Okay, it’s a little bit of water,” so he said, “It’s all right. We’re okay. Don’t get upset. We’re okay.”
A couple of minutes later, the man was still getting even more agitated, and John was thinking he was very superior. He said this poor man either had an ego problem, or he … He said, “Don’t worry. We’re okay.” Then finally as they got almost to the dock, he got really agitated, and John Gerstner said, “We’re okay.”
The man looked up at him and said, “You not okay. I not okay,” pushed them out of the boat onto the dock, threw his grandson, jumped out onto the dock, and at that minute the boat was sucked down into the water and came up about six boats to the right on the other side. It turned out there had been a hole in the hull. The boat man had seen it. John Gerstner had not seen it, and if he had stayed in there one more second, they would’ve gone down with it.
Gerstner said, “I realize that’s the message of the Bible. I’m not okay. You’re not okay.” Do you realize what this means? It’s not the moralism of saying, “I’m okay, and you’re no way okay,” not the narcissism that says, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay,” not when there’s injustice out there in the world, and not the dysfunctionality, the masochism of saying, “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.”
No, what the Bible says is we’re all sinners. We’re all lost. Nobody has the right to look down at anybody else. We’re all in trouble. We’re all alienated from God. No one has the right to be trampling upon or exploiting anybody else. We all need God. I’m not okay. You’re not okay. If you don’t know that, you’re going to go to the bottom. That’s what’s so unique about the gospel. There really isn’t any other position like that, and it’s the right one. Why is it religious people stand condemned? The reason is, according to Paul, because of …
2. The terrible beauty of the law
What we see here, when Paul talks about the fact that judgment is going to be according to the law, is he shows us why nobody can stand in the judgment, no matter how religious and good you are. He shows us both the inwardness and the intuitiveness of the law. Let me give it to you here briefly.
A. The inwardness. Do you remember how I mentioned in verse 1 Paul actually says to the religious people, “You condemn all those Gentiles and those pagans out there for all those … But you do the same.” It says, “… you who pass judgment do the same things.” What are the things? They’re the things that are not on the page. They’re listed in the last verses of chapter 1.
He made a list of sins, and then he says, “You religious people do the same things.” What was that list? Here are some of the things on the list: evil, greed and depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice, gossips, slanderers, insolent, arrogant and boastful, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
If you look carefully, you’ll see almost all of these are not behavior but inner attitudes of the heart. Greed, envy, malice, insolent … By the way, that’s the Greek word hybris. Have you ever heard of that word? Arrogant, heartless, meaning not able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Ruthless, obviously meaning exploitative.
Here’s what Paul is doing, and this is very important. Paul does what Jesus does. When we read the law, “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal …” because we’re trying to justify ourselves, we actually read just the surface. We read only about the external behaviors. We see only the external behaviors, and when you go away from the law of God in the Bible, you can feel like, “I’m not so bad.”
What Paul does, and what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, is what we all should do. The law of God is getting at a kind of person, a kind of heart. When you read the law, you need to actually be reading through it, because the law of God is actually an outline of the kind of beautiful character, kind of incredibly beautiful heart we should have, and the law of God is getting at it.
It is absolutely wrong of us to read the law in the most self-justifying way. “Oh, I don’t kill. That’s one law I’m not breaking.” When you get to the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see Jesus does exactly what Paul does here. What does he do? For example … listen … Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount actually expounds the Ten Commandments but shows the kind of heart and the kind of spirit the commandments are getting after.
Let me just give you one case. Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I say unto you anyone who looks at another person and says, ‘Raca,’ has broken this commandment.” What does raca mean? Does it mean, “You fool. You imbecile”? Is it an insult? No, it’s actually a word that means nobody. It means, “You nothing. You nobody.”
What Jesus is saying is if you look at any other human being and feel like this person isn’t important … in fact, you can barely pay attention to them because they’re nobody … if you look down your nose at anyone and disdain them or are indifferent to them or don’t treat them with importance, he says that’s like breaking the commandment. How could that be like murder, for crying out loud?
Do you know what Jesus is saying? He’s saying murder is a tree. Trees grow from acorns (at least oak trees do). What is the acorn? What is the seed of the tree? What does murder start with? Superiority, hubris, arrogance, a disdain, a contempt, a treating a person not as a person but as a thing, looking down, using people.
He says the only difference between a murderer and you is unless you welcome every human being that comes into your life, every human being who is presented to you, unless you treat that person as infinitely valuable, unless you treat every person as a person of infinite value and worth, if you just disdain certain people, ignore certain people, just don’t even care about certain people, he says that’s a seed.
The only difference between you and a murderer is the murderous seed has been watered and fertilized. Therefore, the commandment of God is getting after someone who cherishes people, cherishes every person. Even the persons the world considers unimportant, of no consequence, you treat as if they’re kings and queens. That’s the kind of heart Jesus says the law of God is trying to get after.
Then he goes through all the … If you read the Sermon on the Mount, what does he say? You should be so honest that you don’t ever have to swear an oath. He says every yes and every no, every interaction should be as honest as if you had sworn on a stack of Bibles in a courtroom. Then he says you should be so loving that if someone wrongs you, you don’t just refrain from revenge.
You forgive them in your heart, and even when you go and confront them and even when you go and seek justice, you do it with no ill will at all, filled with love in your heart for your enemy. He says you should be so generous to the poor that you give and give and you don’t even care if you get any thanks. That’s all in the Sermon on the Mount. He says you should be so trusting of God you don’t worry no matter what the circumstance is.
Some years ago a woman who was teaching literature at a university decided to have all of her students read the Sermon on the Mount. None of them had, and half of them hadn’t even heard of it. It was all fresh for them. They read it, and they all absolutely hated it. This is a typical comment she got in the response papers. “I did not like the Sermon on the Mount. It made me feel I had to be perfect.”
They all hated it. They said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. Nobody can be like that.” Then she said, “That’s okay.” She listened to them, and then she asked them a question. “Aren’t these, though, the kind of people you want around you? Don’t you want people who are so loving they don’t resent and they’re never indifferent, so generous they’re always grateful? Aren’t these the kind of people you want around you? Aren’t these the kinds of things you want in other people and you demand of other people?” They all got very quiet.
In other words, “I’m very angry if you hold me to this standard. On the other hand, actually I hold everybody else to this standard.” Therefore, you’re condemned from your own mouth. That’s exactly what Paul is saying, because the law of God, if you learn how to read it, is after a kind of person, a kind of heart, a life of absolute beauty, not just the external behavior, but the heart, the motivation, the attitude. When we see that and we see how we really demand it of other people but we refuse to demand it of ourselves, we’re condemned.
B. The intuitiveness. It’s not just the inwardness Paul talks about here. Do you know what is so amazing about this middle section where he says, “You are condemned from your own mouth” and then down in verse 12, he says, “All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law. Indeed the Gentiles, who do not have the law, show they do understand something of the law, and they will be held accountable for that”? What is that?
Some years ago a man named Francis Schaeffer summed this up beautifully and said something like, “Do you know what Romans 2 is about? Romans 2 is about the invisible tape recorder. Romans 2 is saying even though you don’t know it, there is an invisible tape recorder God has put around everybody’s neck. No, you can’t feel it or see it, so don’t try. It’s there. Romans 2 says it’s there.
On judgment day all of a sudden you’re going to appear before God, and a lot of people are going to say, ‘I didn’t even know you existed. Wait a minute. You can’t hold me responsible for the law of God.’ Other people are going to say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of the Bible, but I’ve never read the Bible. You can’t hold me responsible for this law. I didn’t realize the God of the Bible is the real God. Okay, here you are, but you can’t hold me responsible. You can’t judge me for something I didn’t believe in.’
Then what is God going to do? He’s going to reach around the back. He’s going to unclasp, and he’s going to get off your invisible tape record. It’ll become visible, and you’ll say, ‘I didn’t see that there.’ He’ll say, ‘No, you couldn’t have felt it. It was invisible.’ Then he’ll say, ‘I want you to know I am the fairest Judge you could possibly imagine. I am not going to judge you according to the Bible because you didn’t know the Bible. I’m not going to judge you according to Christ because you never heard of Christ.
I’m going to judge you by your own words, because this tape recorder only recorded throughout your life whenever you said to someone else, ‘You ought’ or ‘You should.’ This tape recorder has only recorded your standards for the people around you. Therefore, I’m not going to judge you by anything other than the standards by which you judged people your entire life.”
Nobody in the history of the world will be able to stand in the judgment day, because you’re not going to even be able to stand before your own words, before your own standards. Therefore, we are all absolutely lost. Where is the hope? Is there any hope? Of course, the answer is yes. The failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law means now at the very end there’s a need for a new heart.
3. The need for a regenerated, new heart
Suddenly at the end, Paul begins to talk about circumcision. This is almost the end of the chapter. He says, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, it has no value. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirement, they will be regarded as though they were circumcised, will they not?”
Then he goes on. Let me read you the end. “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit … Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”
Here’s what Paul is saying. He is saying, “Do you know? You religious people …” Of course, in this case, the Bible-believing, religious people were Jewish Christians. He says, “Do you know? All of your life you’ve been trying to obey the law of God, and circumcision was a sign of being a Jew who was trying to obey the law of God. What you really need is circumcision of the heart. What you really need is a new heart, not obedience outwardly. You need to have a regenerated heart, or you will never, ever do what the law requires.”
Why does he bring up circumcision? What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal. When God entered into a relationship with Abraham, that was the first time God showed up and said to a man and his family, “I want to have a personal, intimate, covenant relationship with you.” As a sign of that relationship, he says to Abraham, “I want you to be circumcised.”
The circumcision was a sign of the relationship the way baptism is a sign of being in the church. Why circumcision, though? I think most people understand baptism, kind of like death and rebirth and the Spirit and all, but what was the symbolism of circumcision? I don’t want you to think about it too long, but that’s the point.
Why did God choose circumcision as a sign of this intimate, covenant relationship he had with Abraham? He said, “I want you to walk blamelessly before me, and if you walk blamelessly before me, if you follow my covenant, I will bless you. But if you disobey the covenant, if you enter into a covenant with me and then you go your own way and you disobey me, then you’ll be cut off from your people. You’ll be cut off from the Lord. You’ll be cut off from me.” That’s the natural punishment. Do you know what circumcision was?
In those days you didn’t sign a contract to bind a contract; you acted out the curse. In other words, when a person would enter into a covenant with someone else, he might pick up some sand and he might drop it on his head and say, “If I don’t do everything I’m saying I will do today, if I disobey the covenant I just made you today, may I be as this dust,” or a person would cut an animal in half and walk between the pieces and say, “If I don’t do absolutely everything I have said today in this contract, may I be cut into pieces myself.”
What God was saying to Abraham was, “If you want to enter into a relationship with me, you need to be circumcised. That means you are admitting, if you disobey the covenant, you’ll be cut off.” Here’s my question. Did Abraham really obey the covenant? Did Isaac really obey the covenant? Did Jacob? Has anybody ever obeyed the covenant? Has anyone ever walked before God blamelessly? That’s the covenant.
No, of course not. Why in the world does God have any people at all? Why is there anybody called the people of God? Why is there anybody who God says, “You are my people, and I am your God”? How could anybody be in a covenant relationship with God? The answer is in Colossians 2, there is a little verse that almost always when you go by it … If you’re reading through Colossians, it’s one of those verses you read and you say, “What was that about?” and then you just go on. “I’ll ask Tim about it someday, but right now I don’t get it.”
In Colossians 2:11 and 12, Paul is talking about the cross. He’s talking about Jesus dying on the cross, and then he says, “In him you were also circumcised …” He’s talking to Gentiles, by the way, who weren’t literally circumcised. He says, “In him you were also circumcised … not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ …”
Here’s what he’s saying. On the cross Jesus was cut off. That’s why he calls it a circumcision. On the cross Jesus Christ said, “My God, my God, I can’t see you. I can’t feel you. Where are you?” Isaiah 53 says he was cut off from the land of the living. Why? He was getting what circumcision represented. He was being cut off. He was going under the knife. It was bloody. It was violent. He was getting the curse we deserve, because we can’t stand in the judgment. We can’t stand before the law.
That’s not all. It doesn’t just say he was circumcised on the cross. It says, “In him you were circumcised, not a circumcision made with hands,” he says, because the Gentiles weren’t. “You have a new heart. You have new life.” Why? “Because you’re circumcised with Christ.” What does that mean? It means now you stand in him in this way.
When you read the law properly, when you read the Sermon on the Mount, and you see what the law is getting after, the love, the peace, the generosity, the integrity it wants, instead of saying, “Oh my goodness! I hate this. I’ll never be like this,” instead realize what that is describing. It’s describing a person. Whenever you read the law of God and you see this incredible, perfect standard, do you know who it’s describing? It’s describing Jesus.
Don’t be crushed by the standard. See the beauty of Jesus. According to the Bible, when you believe in Jesus Christ and you give your life to him, then all of your sins and what they deserved are transferred to him. He’s cut off for you, and all of the beauty of his law-keeping, all the beauty of his life is transferred to you, and in Christ we’re told, “… there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus …” Once you understand that, it pricks the heart.
The idea of a circumcised heart is pretty weird. It’s quite a metaphor. It’s intimate and it’s tender and it’s scary. What it means is your heart of stone begins to be a heart of flesh, and you have a new attitude toward the law, because when you see God sent his Son to die so the requirements of the law were fulfilled, you never look at the law of God and say, “Oh, I’m saved, so it doesn’t really matter.”
The law is so important Jesus died to fulfill the requirements of the law. You don’t look at the law as a Christian and say, “It doesn’t matter how I live because, after all, I’m not condemned.” Jesus died because the law was so important, so you try like crazy to live according to the standards of the law. Yet when you fail, you don’t get crushed with guilt. You’re not crushed like, “Oh, what an awful person I am,” because you know what he did for you.
There’s this paradoxical attitude toward the law. We’re absolutely, fastidiously, diligently seeking to obey it and never crushed into the ground by it, nor hopeless when we disobey it. We get back up on the horse. It’s fascinating. In other words, we’re not saying, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay. After all, we can live any way we want,” or “I’m not okay. Everybody else is okay,” or “I’m okay, and you’re not close to being okay.” It’s none of those things.
“I’m not okay. You’re not okay. I’m no better than you. Yet in Jesus Christ I’m a beauty when God sees me. I’m beautiful.” As a result, I don’t judge anybody because God is the Judge. When somebody wrongs me, I leave that to God, and I forgive them. I don’t even judge myself. “Oh, how bad I am!” No, I’ve been judged in Jesus.
Don’t you see that at the center of your life ought to be Jesus Christ, the Judge of the earth but the Judge who was judged? If you bring into the center of your life the Judge of all the earth who was judged in your place, you have both a healthy respect for moral absolutes, and you know there’s right and there’s wrong. You know there’s injustice. You know it’s important to seek justice. You know it’s important to be a good person and a morally upright person.
On the other hand, you are not judgmental toward people. You forgive people. You’re not down on yourself, judging yourself when things go wrong. Oh, the uniqueness of the gospel! The uniqueness of a Christian! Bring the Judge who was judged in your place into the middle of your life. Let’s pray.
Thank you, Father, for giving us the bad news about judgment day, the bad news that no one can stand in the judgment, and the good news that your Son Jesus Christ was circumcised for us on the cross. He was cut off for us so now in him we have new hearts, and we thank you for all that.
Oh my word, Father, we thank you for it, and we ask would you please help us to live in accordance with it, to appropriate it, to have the joy and the poise and the power that would come with what we believe and what we know? We ask that you would grant it for Jesus’ sake. In his name we pray, amen.
SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration— PART 7
Preached in Manhattan on February 15, 2009
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 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 men are without excuse.
21 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. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 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 1:18-25
We’re in a series that’s tracing out the storyline of the Bible. We’ve said each week that the Bible is not a disconnected set of individual stories that each has a little moral to it. Rather, the Bible is primarily a single story that tells us, first, what’s wrong with the human race; secondly, what God has done about that in Jesus Christ; and thirdly, how it’s all going to turn out in the end of history.
We first started by looking at Genesis 1–4 to see the beginning of the Bible’s story about what is wrong with the human race, and now we’ve begun to look at Romans 1–4, where Paul gives us perhaps the single most comprehensive explanation of what God has done about our problem through Jesus Christ.
At this spot in the text of Romans, we actually have something pretty interesting. If you’ve been with the series, we have Paul reflecting himself on Genesis 1–4. We have him looking back on all the things we’ve been looking at and summarizing what’s wrong with the human heart. Now all Scripture is equally true, and all Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally packed. This text is packed. There is more in it than we can unpack.
So, for example, the very first line introduces to us the idea of the wrath of God. A lot of people have questions about that. We’re going to wait for next week on that. Instead, what we’re going to look at tonight are the four things Paul says you can find in every human heart. If you look in every human heart, Paul says, reflecting on Genesis 1–4, you’ll find four things. Those four things are the knowledge of our God, the manufacturing of our idols, the hardening of our humanity, and the capacity for endless praise.
1. The knowledge of our God
Let’s start at the top of the text. The first thing we learn here, Paul says, is there is in every human heart the knowledge of God, because we’re told that what is so awful, what God is so angry at, is we suppress the truth. You can’t suppress something unless you have it. What do they have? What do we have? The truth. What is the truth? The truth is (and as you go through the rest of the little paragraph, it tells you), that basically down deep in our hearts, we know there is a God, and we know about his eternal power and divine nature.
In other words, regardless of what we tell ourselves or what we claim, every human being knows there is a Creator on whom we are utterly dependent and to whom we are completely accountable. His power … see? His nature … We know that down deep, but we suppress it. We repress it. The word there is we hold it down or hold it back.
That means Paul is saying two things about human beings. First of all, everyone does understand a great deal about truth. There is a lot of truth every human being knows about life, about reality. But we’re also told we hold down that truth. We repress it. Why? Well, here’s the big answer. The reason we repress the knowledge of the true God is, if you take a look down in verse 21, it says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him …”
I remember years ago, when I first started studying this passage, that sure sounded anticlimactic to me. “They didn’t give thanks? That’s it? That’s the problem? That’s the source of all the problems in the world, the evil, the misery, and suffering? We don’t give thanks?” You know, you think about when you were little, all the teachers and all the adults and all the parents were always saying, “Now, say ‘thank-you.’ Don’t take that without saying ‘thank-you.’ ” “Thank-you.” It just seems like courtesy, you know.
Is that it? That’s the problem with the whole world? Bad manners? Is that it? No. Let’s think about it for a second. Do you know what plagiarism is? We say, “That’s intellectual property theft, IP theft.” Yeah? But do you know what plagiarism is? Do you know why it’s so severely punished? Because it’s not giving thanks. In other words, it’s claiming to be self-sufficient, claiming that you came up with this, and not acknowledging dependence, not acknowledging the fact that you didn’t come up with that. You got it from over there. You’re dependent on this person.
Plagiarism is a refusal to give thanks, and therefore, it’s a claim to self-sufficiency when it’s not there, when it’s not true. Cosmic ingratitude, cosmic un-thankfulness, is living in the illusion that we are self-sufficient, that we can call the shots, that we decide what is right or wrong, that we decide how to live. We hate the idea that we would be utterly and completely dependent and, therefore, thankful to God for everything, because then we’d lose control. Then we’d be obligated. Then we couldn’t live the way we want, and we hate that.
Therefore, we’re told, because the sin in the heart makes us want desperately to keep control of our lives, and to live the way we want to live, we cannot acknowledge the magnitude, the size, the greatness, and how much we owe God, how dependent we are on him, how accountable we are to him, how much we should be living in thankfulness. We don’t want that, because that means to lose control.
Let me give you an example. Therefore we repress the knowledge of the real God. We may believe in God, but we don’t believe in the real God, the true God, because that means losing control. Example: Some years ago, I was listening to a minister teach on this topic. When I give you his illustration, you’ll know how long ago this was. He was saying the other night he had been watching television. He was watching David Frost on television. He saw David Frost interviewing Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was a very famous and activist atheist.
David Frost was arguing with her. She says, “Oh, there is no God.” He says, “Well, I think you can believe in God.” They went back and forth, and finally David Frost was getting kind of frustrated, so he did a modern thing. He solved the problem in the modern way. He took a poll of the studio audience. He said, “Now how many of you out there believe in God?” Almost everybody raised their hand, and he turned to Madalyn Murray O’Hair and said, “See?”
The preacher, the teacher who was teaching on Romans 1, said, “What a shame Madalyn Murray O’Hair missed … What an opportunity, what a chance she missed! What she should have done is say, ‘Excuse me. Can I take my own poll?’ She would have turned to the audience and said, ‘How many of you believe in the God of the Bible?’
She would have asked, ‘How many of you believe in the God who, when he comes down on Mount Sinai, comes down in lightning and deep darkness? How many of you believe in the God who is a consuming fire, who says, “No one can look upon the face of my glory and live”? How many of you believe in the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin”? How many of you believe in the God of the Bible? That God?’ Probably,” said the teacher, “very few people would have raised their hands, and then she could have just turned and said, rightly so, ‘I win.’ ”
Here’s why she would have been able to do that if she’d known. Romans 1 says the real God, not the liberal God or the conservative God … The liberal God is the God of love in the universe, you know, the spirit of love. Everybody loves everybody, so you basically can live the way you want. The conservatives say, “No, we believe there’s a God with moral absolutes, and if you really obey those absolutes, if you try really hard, then you know you’re one of the righteous people. Then you can please God. Then he will take you to heaven.”
Don’t you see? Both of those kinds of gods leave you in control. You know, a God who is just a God of love … you can live any way you want. A God who is a demanding God … if you obey him, then he’ll take you to heaven, and then you can know you’re one of the righteous people … that’s a God who owes you. You’re not losing control.
But this is the God of the Bible, the God who is a consuming fire, the God whom you can’t look upon and live, the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there’s no remission of sins.” This is the God who, if you relate to him, you have to relate to him on the basis of absolute grace, and therefore you owe him everything. You will be utterly thankful to him or not have a relationship to him at all. That God.
At the very end of that old movie The Bible in which you have Abraham and Isaac, and Isaac at the very end looks up at his father Abraham and says, “Is there nothing he cannot ask of thee?” And Abraham says, “Nothing.” That God. Nobody believes in that God unless by the power of the Holy Spirit your heart is regenerated. The Holy Spirit has to come in and intervene to let you believe in that God, because according to Romans 1, you can’t believe in that God. You suppress the truth about that God.
You may not believe in any God at all. That way you can live any way you want. Or you believe in God. In fact, most people believe in God, but they don’t believe in that God. They can’t believe in that God. They won’t believe in that God, because then they lose control. We can’t do that. We don’t want to glorify him as God. That means give him the significance he deserves and give him utter thanks, because then we’d be out of control.
Therefore, we all have the knowledge of God, but we suppress it. Do you know what this means? Here I’m going to speak to Christian believers. We have to realize what Solzhenitsyn said is true of everybody in a way. Solzhenitsyn has this very famous line where he says you can’t divide the world into good and bad people. Rather, “… the line dividing good and evil cuts through the center of every human heart.” Every human being is good and evil.
You know, Christians understand that, because Christians know even when you’re born again you have the new self and you still have the old self, and we feel that. But Paul is saying that’s true of absolutely everybody. Everybody is in the image of God. Everybody has the truth, and yet everybody has a deeply ambivalent relationship to the truth.
Therefore, the line between good and evil goes down the middle of every movie, every book, every work of art, because every human being knows a lot about the truth, and every human being is struggling and resists the truth. Therefore, every work of art, every cultural product, everything out there has remarkable mixtures. There’s a dialogue going on between the truth and falsehood in all human endeavor.
Therefore, Christians cannot just say, “Well, I only want to read Christian books and go to Christian counselors and Christian lawyers and Christian doctors, and all those other people out there are bad.” No, no. You don’t want to be like Salieri who’s sitting around saying, “Hey, I go to church. I pray. Why is this licentious person Mozart …” This is in the movie Amadeus. “… getting so many of God’s gifts? Why is such beauty coming into the world through him? I don’t understand it. I’m the good person. He’s the bad person. What’s going on here?”
James 1:17, says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights …” Every act of goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty, no matter who does it, is a gift from God, and everybody does them. So Christians need to not be so exclusive. They need to have critical appreciation of all the people around them and all the culture around them, yet at the same time knowing in all of our hearts there is this deep resistance to the truth. So you’re not naïve; on the other hand you’re not exclusive. So it’s a very important first point.
2. The manufacturing of idols
Now this is perhaps the central thing Paul is getting across. There’s a lot more we could say about it than we are about to say, but let me say this. First of all, he shows us here the inevitability of idolatry, because he says in verse 25, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …”
Notice “… they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …” There are only two options. You either worship the Creator, or you worship a created thing, but there is no possibility of not worshiping or serving anything, in spite of the fact that plenty of people say they don’t worship or serve anything. It’s impossible. Why? Paul says it’s impossible. If you do not worship the true God, and nobody does, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, then you have to be worshiping something else.
How could that work? Well, like this. Some philosophers and thinkers have said it this way. Human beings are telic creatures. Telic is from the word telos, which means purpose. In other words, human beings have to live for something. Human beings don’t live; they have to live for something. Something has to capture your imagination. Something has to capture the highest allegiance of your heart. Something has to be the resting place of your deepest hopes.
Every human being has to look at something deep in their heart, semi-consciously or unconsciously, and say, “If I have that, then my life is worthwhile. Then I have meaning in life. Then life will have been worth living. Then I’ll know I’m somebody. If I have that …” and whatever that is, wherever your hopes are, your deepest hopes, whatever your highest allegiance is, whatever your ultimate concern is, that’s what you worship.
That’s what worship is. Therefore, the inevitability of idolatry, because since none of us in our natural state actually worship the true God. We believe in God, but we believe in a kind of god who keeps us in control of our lives, as we just said. Then what we actually center our lives on, what we actually give our functional trust, our functional worship to, is always something else, whether it’s achievement, or money, or claim, or human approval, or comfort, or power, or approval, or control.
That’s the inevitability. But the second thing Paul shows is the incredible range of idols. Today if you talk about idolatry, almost immediately modern people say, “You mean worshiping statues?” Oh no. When Kathy and I first started coming up here to start the church, in 1989, we used to take trips up here every Sunday afternoon to meet with people and meet individuals. I remember one time we met somebody at a Thai restaurant.
Every week we used to take one of our three sons and leave the other two at home with a babysitter. That’s the parental philosophy “divide and conquer.” You leave two at home, have one … you know, we outnumbered them, so it always was better. But I remember my middle son, age 9, with the loud voice that only 9-year-olds can muster, walks into the Thai restaurant, sees the little statue and a candle lit in front of it, and says, “There’s idols in New York!” If only he knew … Because see, Paul in his writings … let me give you three examples … shows that anything can be, anything is an idol.
On the one hand, here he links idolatry to sexual lust, sexual desires. Now if this is the only place he mentioned idolatry and then he said sexual lust is an example of an idol, making an idol out of sex, romance, maybe even marriage, you say, “Well, he has sex on the mind.” But go to Colossians 3. There he calls greed idolatry, materialism idolatry, a love of money idolatry.
You say, “Okay, well, I can understand that. Sex can be an idol, money can be an idol.” Try this one on. In Galatians 4, he is talking to Jewish Christians who are sliding back into their belief that they need to adopt the Mosaic code, all the Mosaic laws, in order to please God. He looks to them, and he starts saying, “If you go back into that kind of moralistic religion, if you begin to think that obeying the Mosaic code and the law of God is going to get you into heaven and please God, if you go back into that kind of moralistic, legalistic religion, you are going into idolatry.”
Look, maybe you’ve heard of the idea that money can be an idol. Maybe you’ve heard the idea that sex can be an idol. Have you ever heard that church can be an idol? The law of God can be an idol. Your own moral efforts and your own moral rectitude can be an idol. Until you can see that, you don’t have a biblical understanding of what idolatry is, because idolatry is looking to something to give you the kind of hope, the kind of value, the kind of safety that only God himself can give you.
If you love anything more than God, if you rest your security in anything more than the providence and wisdom and sovereignty of God, if your imagination is captured by anything more than the greatness of God, if your value is rooted in anything more than the grace and love of God, if you love anything more than God, and you do, you are looking to a created thing to give you what only God can possibly give you. Therefore, you have set up an idol.
There are all kinds of idols. There are near idols and far idols. For example, you say, “Well, I’ve heard this idea that money is an idol.” Ah, okay. But why is money an idol? Some people, you know, make a lot of money, and you’d have no idea. They don’t spend it on themselves. They don’t spend it on clothes. Do you know why? Money for them is something they sock away, and they can’t give it away.
Do you know why? Because money is their way of keeping control of the environment. It’s their way of saying, “I have this money, and therefore, I can handle what comes. I’m secure. I have control over my world.” Instead of prayer, instead of God, it’s money. That person doesn’t spend the money on him or herself at all. They just have to know it’s all there. They can’t give it away. Why? Because of the idolatry of control. “I have control of my life, and the money gives me that control.”
Other people take the money and they spend a lot on themselves. You can see it. They look beautiful, and they live in beautiful places, and they hang out with beautiful people. Why? Because for them, money is a way of getting on the inner ring. Money is a way of getting human approval. “If I have human approval, then I know who I am. Then I feel significant and secure.” So the money is actually an easy-to-look-for idol, but underneath there are deeper idols.
Everything is an idol. Everything can be an idol. Everything serves as an idol. If you are a Christian believer, it means you may have had the back broken of your idols, and when you gave yourself to Christ you understand something about who he is. He comes into your life, but you have the new self and the old self, and the old self is still beholden to idols. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re completely beholden to idols, and therefore, everybody in this room has a problem with it.
Do you know what your idols are? Do you know what your near idols are, your far idols are? Unless you do, Paul says you don’t even know your own heart at all. You don’t know anything about your heart. You haven’t begun to understand yourself. So in the heart is the knowledge of God. In the heart is the manufacturing of idols.
3. The hardening of our humanity
The third thing that’s going on in every human heart, and linked very much to idolatry, is the hardening of our humanity. One of the great themes of the Bible throughout, from Old to New Testament, is that idolatry leads to a heart of stone, to dehumanization. Over and over again, we’re told if you worship idols, which are things, rather than the living person of God …
If you worship things rather than the person of God, instead of a person, you’ll become a thing. You will become hard. You will become as blind as the idol. You will become as deaf as the idol. You will actually become less and less of a human being, less and less personal, more hardened in heart, more blind.
There are hundreds of these references, but here’s one. Psalm 135. “But their idols are silver and gold … They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear … They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
Now Paul is basically working that out, because when he says we’re all guilty of idolatry, then he goes along and says our wills, our minds, and our emotions are slowly being eroded. They are slowly being taken over, and we are becoming less and less human and less and less personal all the time.
Look, first of all, he says whatever you worship (this is down in verse 25) you serve. That word serve means you are a slave to it. Think about this. Well, I know this is hard because we’re also blind and futile in our thinking, and we’re in denial. But think about this. Whatever is the most important thing in your life, whatever is the thing about which you say, “Boy, because of that, I’m happy. Because of that, I have meaning in my life …” You have to have that. You have to. If you don’t have that, life is over. Hope is gone. Your very identity falls apart.
Therefore, there’s no freedom about that thing. There’s no choosing about that thing. Human beings can choose. But you’re more like an animal who is operating on instinct. Or you’re more like a robot that has to do what it’s programmed to do. You have to have it. You’re driven. So your will is beholden.
Secondly, your mind. See, up in verse 21 it says because they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him, their thinking became futile. Then of course, even down in verse 25 it says, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie …” All addicts … and that’s what we’re talking about, you know. Idolatry is a form of spiritual addiction. All addicts … all … are actually in denial.
You see, I don’t know where you are. I don’t know what you thinking right now. But if you say, “I don’t see any idols in my life right now,” you’re an addict, and you are in denial. You say, “Well, yeah, of course, that is pretty important to me.” You have no idea how important it is, because you don’t want to see. Alcoholics say, “I can control it.” That’s what an alcoholic is. An alcoholic says, “I can control it.” They can’t, but they think they can.
There’s something in your life that you look at like that. Idols weave a delusional field, a field of denial, around them, so you always minimize their impact on you. In other words, you have eyes, but you don’t see. The longer you worship the idol, the more you have eyes that don’t see, just like they have.
Last of all, your hearts are darkened. Not only is your will beholden and your mind made futile and deluded, but then it says in verse 21, “… their foolish hearts were darkened.” Most of all, it says, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts …” Now if you’ve been around Redeemer, you’ve heard this before. The Greek word that is translated here desire shows up every place that idolatry shows up in the New Testament.
It’s the word epithymia, which actually means an epi-desire, like an epicenter. It doesn’t mean sinful desire. That’s not the best way to translate it. Sometimes they try to translate it as lust, but lust of course just means sex, so that’s not a good translation. There’s no good English translation, so I’m going to tell you what it is.
Idolatry creates super-desires. Burnout-level, over-the-top, uncontrollable desires. Inordinate desires. Over-the-top desires. You not only are driven to have it, but if anything gets in your way, there is paralyzing anxiety, not normal kinds of worry. There is paralyzing, debilitating guilt, not normal kinds of regret. There is paralyzing, debilitating bitterness, not normal kinds of anger.
Therefore, you are more and more like an animal, or more and more like a robot, following your program, and less and less like a human being. You say, “How does that work out?” Well, let me read you from a manuscript that I was working on with somebody about idolatry. Listen carefully.
“Anxiety is idolatry mapped onto the future. Anxiety becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose my highest value, my functional meaning in life, is politics, either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Then when my party experiences a great defeat, I don’t experience just glum disappointment, but I’m shaken to the depths. I want to leave the country, and I’m too furious to speak to anyone who voted for the other side.
Guilt is idolatry mapped on the past. Guilt becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose I value a happy family. Therefore, my performance as a parent is valuable above everything else. Then if my daughter goes wrong or has great problems, I am not just sorrowful and grieved, I am stricken with neurotic guilt. I cannot forgive myself. I hate myself. I may become suicidal.
Lastly, anger and bitterness is idolatry mapped onto the present. Anger becomes pathologically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value. Suppose my career is the measure of my worth as a person, and someone at work is harming it. I won’t just be angry. I will be so deeply bitter and capable of doing things to this person that I may blow up my career more thoroughly than that person ever could.”
Do you see what’s going on? Or what if you make your moral rectitude into an idol? Remember, like in Galatians 4? What if you really believe that because you’re a good person, you’ve tried very hard, God owes you a good life. Then when difficulties come, sorrow is pathologically intensified into absolute bitterness against God and life itself and it poisons your ability to ever enjoy life ever again, because you deserve better than this? Don’t you see? Idolatry dehumanizes you. If you worship a thing instead of the living person of God, you’ll become less and less a person and more and more a thing.
4. The capacity for endless praise
How will we escape? I told you this is a packed text. This text is like an arrow. If you really listen to it, this text is like an arrow in a bow, and the bow is bent. The bow is really bent. How are we going to escape? Here’s what you have to do. Admittedly, the text doesn’t tell you much about it, because what Paul’s going to tell you God has done about it comes later on in the next chapters, especially chapters 3 and 4. But there’s a hint here, especially at the very end, when it says we “… worshiped … created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
Think with me for a second. The first thing you have to do, if you want to escape the idols of your heart and the hardening that comes with them, is you have to really not waste your sorrows. You have to make good use of your disappointments. There has never been a better time than now. There have never been more disappointments in New York City than now.
Why? Well, here’s why. It says in verse 24, “Therefore God gave them over …” To what? Now don’t forget what the right translation is. God gave them over to the strongest desires of their hearts. The worst thing God can do to you, and the most just form of punishment God could possibly give you, is to give you over to the strongest desires of your hearts. In other words, let your wishes come true. That’s the worst thing God could possibly do, and the most fair thing.
Oscar Wilde, of all people, said, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” You think about that. It’s right out of Romans 1. When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers. Oscar Wilde knew that when he got the things his heart most wanted it was the worst possible thing for him, because our hearts are disordered, our hearts have idolatrous desires. They have epi-desires, over-desires.
The worst thing God could possibly do is give you what you want, give you over. You know, the word give over is actually a word that means surrender to your enemies. That’s an amazing verse. Paul is saying your enemies are the strongest desires of your heart, the idolatrous desires of your heart. The worst thing God could actually do is give you a good life, let everything happen the way you want it to happen.
Richard Baxter, the old seventeenth-century Puritan, has a section on particular kinds of spiritual problems, and he has a frightening section which he wrote in the 1650s or 1660s on if you set your heart on money and you actually get it, how horrible that is for you spiritually. He says, for example, if you set your heart on money and you actually make it, several things happen.
One is you, first of all, mistake wealth and savvy and skill and smarts for character, because you’re smart and you’re savvy and you’ve made this money. You want to believe it’s because of your character. So you mistake wealth and savvy for character. Then the rest of your life, you make all kinds of terrible choices in relationships, because you’ll mistake wealth and savvy for character, and it’s not true.
You’ll also become very proud. He says wealthy people believe they’re smart about every area, they’re experts on everything. He says everybody sees it and everybody laughs at it, but nobody can say anything because of your power, which makes it impossible for people to tell the truth. He goes on and on and on and says the worst thing that could possibly happen is to set your heart on money and get it.
But it’s really true about anything. Kathy and I, before we were married, had really good prayer lives. Neither of us really thought we were going to get married to anybody. We got married, and without our knowing it, our prayer life kind of went into the toilet. Why? Well, why do you have to pray to God when all you could do is just call on the phone?
John Newton said the worst thing about a good marriage is the problem of idolatry. For many years, we had no idea how poor our prayer life was because we had made idols out of each other. We didn’t see it that way. We didn’t understand that. But when sickness came, when bad sickness came to both of us, we realized our prayer life was nothing like it should have been. The best thing that happened to us was our idols were in jeopardy. It gave us a prayer life back.
The best thing that can happen, according to Oscar Wilde, is God not answering your prayer. At that time, and only at that time, do I begin to see this anxiety I’m feeling, this guilt I’m feeling, this anger I’m feeling … it’s pathological. It’s not caused by the circumstances. It’s caused by my over-trust in things, my looking to things to give me what only Jesus can give me. It’s only in bad times that you will ever see your idols. It’s the only opportunity you have … briefly, when bad times come … to get on top of them.
Then besides making good use of your troubles, the second thing you have to do is learn to do what the angels do, which is endlessly praise. See, the only way to get your hearts to stop worshiping other things is to worship the right thing. Who endlessly praises God? The angels. In 1 Peter 1:10–12, we read, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets spoke of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. They spoke of the things that have now been told to you by those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit, into which things even angels long to look.”
The phrase long to look … It says here the angels long to look at the gospel. They long to look at Jesus dying for us. They long to look at the glory of it and the beauty of it and the wisdom of it and the love of it. They can’t get enough of it. Do you know what that phrase long to look is? It’s the word epithymia. It’s the word that’s usually translated lust. The angels lust after the gospel. What does that mean?
Here’s what it means. The deepest passions of angels’ hearts are satisfied by looking at the love and the beauty and the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Reveling in it, rejoicing in it, singing praise … It wasn’t even for them. See, when the deepest passions of your heart are satisfied by praising and adoring Jesus Christ, then all other passions are put in their place.
You can look at approval, and you can look at romance, and you can look at all these things you wish you had, and you can say to them, “I can live without you, because I have Jesus Christ. If I can’t live without you, I’ll never be able to live safely spiritually with you. Therefore, don’t you tell me how to live my life. Don’t you push me around. Don’t you inflict anxiety and guilt on me.”
You can spit in the world’s eye, if you have learned, like the angels, to look at the gospel and be so moved by his love for you and love him for his love for you, especially when you realize this word … It says God gives us over to our strongest desires, but do you realize in Romans 8 it says God gave him over to die for us? And in Ephesians 5 it says Jesus Christ gave himself over to die for us.
When you see Jesus Christ giving himself over to his enemies to die for us, out of love for us, to pay for our sins, nothing else will take functional control of your heart. If you see him giving himself over for you, you will not be given up and given over to your lusts, to your idols. Learn to sing the praises of the one who died for you. Here’s actually a hymn that was written many years ago about this very subject by William Cowper.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
Thank you, Father, for being the one God who, if we get you, will satisfy us to the bottom, and if we fail you, will forgive us. If we live for our career, our career can’t die for our sins. We pray, Father, that you would help us to rest in the beauty of what Jesus Christ has done. Teach us how to praise you endlessly, especially for your gospel grace.
As we do it, as we sing your praises, and as we think about what you’ve done, our hearts will heal. We’ll get from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We’ll become more and more personal. We’ll be more and more free to live our lives instead of being driven by fears and guilt and anxiety. Oh, Lord, give us the lives that are possible if we love what your Son our Savior has done for us, Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, amen.