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The first section of Paul's epistle explains how man has renounced God's initial expression of grace and how this rejection has led to universal sin (Romans 1:1-3:20).
In the opening verses Paul greets his readers and establishes his credentials as an Apostle, he then summarizes the gospel and offers a blessing upon them. He states that his main objective in ministry is to preach the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, and that the gospel is God's power to save both of these groups since all are guilty of sin.
The Renouncing of Grace
Before we examine Paul's teaching on the universality of sin, we need to look at an opposing view called universality of salvation or by its more modern name, religious pluralism.
Universalism/Pluralism is a popular idea in today's religious world. It says that the love/grace of God ensures that everyone will be saved no matter what path they choose. The main tenets of this view are:
- All religions lead to God.
- Each religion is distinctive because of culture, geography and history, but all are capable of leading a person to God, and thus salvation.
- Some "Christian" pluralists teach that every religion is really a form of undeveloped Christianity that when mature will lead a person to Christ.
Several Christian groups have a similar version of pluralism and teach that all "Christian denominations" lead to heaven (but not all religions).
- These have the same pluralistic ideas but are restricted to Christiandom.
- They use the term "religious expression" in referring to other denominations.
Pluralism's ideas are easy to understand and are said to promote religious tolerance, but they have two major flaws:
1. They are illogical
It is illogical to think that God (who is perfectly logical) would give people different and even contradicting information about Himself and how to reach Him. For example, Eastern religions like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism do not see God as a unique individual spirit. They also teach that man can reach a state of completeness (nirvana or moksha) and union with the ultimate "life force" either through a cycle of reincarnation and personal effort, or a lifelong quest at acquiring special knowledge and insight through meditation and self-denial.
Here are other contradictory teachings about God from one religion to another: Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) teach that God is a conscious spirit being who will judge each individual person. Eastern religions see God as a force without personality or will whereas Western religions see Him as sovereign and intelligent. Eastern religions are inclusive, integrating various religious ideas into their belief systems. Western religions are exclusive, requiring adherence to only one religion.
The point here is that the information about Hinduism, for example, will not lead a person to the same God and result as the information about Islam or Christianity. A logical God, therefore, does not purposefully give conflicting information about Himself that, in the end, can only result in confusion.
2. The Bible does not support Universalism/Pluralism
The Bible, and especially the book of Romans, have a decidedly exclusive view of the Christian religion. The Bible assures all Christians that they are positively and completely saved forever, but it also emphatically declares that those who are not Christians will perish (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 4:12).
It is for this reason that the Christian religion was so despised in the beginning. At a time when all religions were inclusive (you could be a collector of gods and religions, the more the better), the Apostles appeared and said, "There is no other name under heaven... by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The disciples of Jesus were not martyred because Christianity was a new or different religion, they were persecuted because they dared to say that theirs was the only religion of the true God and all others were to be rejected.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains why this is so.
The Fall from Grace
Paul begins his message to the church in Rome by teaching them that mankind has fallen from God's grace and is in a state of universal sin. He explains that man began as good and was the recipient of God's grace in that he was placed at the head of creation, partook of the divine nature and was permitted to have an intimate relationship with God. This was God's initial expression of grace towards man. Through disobedience, however, man fell from or renounced this grace resulting in the condition (universal sin and lostness) that Paul outlines in the first three chapters of his letter.
He describes this fall by illustrating the process of sin itself and how it leads to judgment and death.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
- Romans 1:18
God punishes all those who refuse to accept and willingly suppress the truth (i.e. the truth that there is a God; that He can be known; that He is to be obeyed). This truth has such great evidentiary power that it has to be willfully suppressed in order to be denied.
19because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
- Romans 1:19-20
God/truth can be known in two natural ways: through a person's conscience and from the witness of the creation. Paul claims that every person can come to know God and His attributes through either or both of these means, and he concludes that they are so overpowering, no one can plead ignorance.
21For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
- Romans 1:21-23
Paul charges that instead of responding to a fundamental truth that he has always known, man has willfully chosen to ignore, refuse to honor or be grateful to God. This failing has naturally led man to the worship of baser things expressed in pagan religions, seeing in these a wisdom devised from his own mind. Paul finishes here by saying that instead of letting the truth emerge, man chose to pursue a course that would lead to his eventual destruction.
24Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
- Romans 1:24-25
Paul explains that God did not forcibly stop man from sinning, but instead permitted him to sin to his heart's content. In the final verses he then details some of the sins that this fall from grace eventually led to.
The Apostle is not describing a single person or nation here but the natural progression of a humanity that forsakes God. This progression includes:
- A refusal to acknowledge God.
- A refusal to respond to God with faith and thanksgiving.
- The subsequent creation of gods devised by humans in order to fulfill the human soul's need for the true God.
Downward Plunge into Active Evil
From a macrocosmic view of history, the devolution of sinful man proceeds as follows:
- A state of grace - man is created without sin, as head of creation living in harmony with God and the creation.
- A theological fall - man disobeys God and, as a result, his knowledge and relationship with God are compromised.
- A philosophical fall - man fulfills his need for knowledge and God with ideas and gods of his own making.
- A moral fall - man changes the original moral order imposed on him by God replacing it with one of his own design.
This process is cyclical in nature as mankind goes from one stage of devolution to another until God interrupts the cycle with a period of renewal and revival through the power of His Word, Spirit and church. God has done this throughout history in order to prevent the total corruption and destruction of mankind similar to events in the world that preceded the great worldwide flood (Genesis 6:5).
The purpose of these interventions by God is to preserve man until both the first and second coming of Christ can occur. The first coming, to allow Jesus to complete His saving work on the cross. The second coming will be His return at the end of the world to judge all men and usher in the new heaven and earth where the saints will live with Him eternally. God will not allow man's self-destructive bent to interfere with or sabotage His eternal plan of salvation for those who believe.
The Bible, as well as secular history, record some of these "interventions" throughout history. For example:
- God promising salvation to Adam and Eve and denying them access to the tree of life as protection (Genesis 3:24).
- Seth renewing man's worship to God after Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:26).
- God preserving eight people through the world wide flood that killed all living humans (Genesis 6:8).
- God choosing Abraham to begin the nation through which He would send the Savior (Genesis 12:1-12).
- God preserving the first century church through Roman persecution (Book of Revelation).
- The city of Jerusalem and Jewish nation destroyed in 70 AD liberating Christianity from Jewish persecution.
- The Protestant Reformation providing the Bible to the masses thus ending Catholic domination (1500-1700s).
- The Restoration movement returning the church's focus to the New Testament for its life and practice (1850s+).
We also see this cycle at work in modern times as well. The theological fall came with the rejection of Bible inspiration and authority in many mainline denominations during the last 75 years. This onslaught was spearheaded by scholars of the "higher critical" method who rejected the inspiration of the Bible seeing it simply as a historical and literary document (historical/literary criticism). These in turn influenced writers, ministers and church leaders to reject Bible authority and rely more on social/psychological/historical sources for teaching about ministry, church life and moral issues (e.g. some Lutheran churches now ordain active homosexuals as ministers because they no longer consider the Bible as an inspired authority on this issue).
The philosophical fall began when nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers established "relativism" as the new basis for thinking about ourselves and our world. Relativism has many variations but basically it says that there are no absolute truths in ethics and that what is morally right or wrong varies from person to person. In other words, the only rules that one is bound by are those one creates for himself or agrees with. In this system of thought the ability to choose trumps God's commands, and social laws become valid when they have been chosen by the majority since they have no value in themselves. Government and law are very important in a relative world because these are the tools used to establish what a society should be.
As a result of the philosophical fall we are currently experiencing the moral fall of the West. This is evident as we see homosexual groups promote their lifestyle to children in schools, government representatives openly use their positions to benefit themselves at the cost of the people they serve, and God's name publicly blasphemed before millions in the media day after day without outrage in response or efforts to stop it. We are witnessing the moral fall of our society when the nation whose motto is "One Nation Under God" now pours adulation on liars, thieves, fornicators, and God haters embodied by many of our popular entertainers and athletes who publicly act this way without shame. When this type of systemic immorality becomes clear and visible to all, two possible scenarios are near:
- Complete moral failure leads to destruction (as it has in the past – flood, Sodom and Gomorrah). However, this time the destruction of the material world will be complete and will signal the return of Jesus and the end of the world (II Peter 3:10).
- We are near another one of God's "interventions." This would be seen in the working of the Holy Spirit strengthening the church to grow along with a renewed fervor for holy living and service to Jesus by His disciples. This would not simply be a revival of religion in general (not greater Islam, etc.) but the dynamic rise of the church that belongs to Christ.
This cycle of devolution continues throughout history even to this day and it seems that Paul was aware of this historical phenomena as he delineated man's historical fall from grace in the book of Romans.
Beginning in chapter 1 of Romans, Paul describes how man has fallen from grace and how all humans are caught up in this cycle in one way or another. In chapters 2 and 3 he goes from a macrocosmic (big picture) historical view of this cycle to a microcosmic (detailed) view of the same thing. From the moral history of mankind to the workings of sin in the heart of each individual man, and the results of this not only in the history of nations, but also in the lives of individual people, Jews and Gentiles alike.
The lesson for us is that this cycle continues, and each of us is caught up in it despite our advanced technology and global world view. In the end, there remains only one name under heaven by which we can be saved, Jesus Christ, and the "power of the gospel" is as powerful today as it was when Paul penned these words over 2000 years ago.
When we study the book of Romans we are handling the power that can lead us to a state of grace or ignite a period of grace for the whole world! Such is the power of the gospel that Paul speaks of in Romans 1:16.