Thursday, January 07, 2010

Salvation from futile thoughts and darkened hearts

In the second part of Romans 1, beginning at verse 18, Paul paints a picture a poisoned-by-sin humanity sliding inevitably (it would seem) toward death. It's the kind of passage that tends to be discreetly overlooked in the typical Evangelical preaching cycle.

I can understand that. It's not a pretty picture, and one might even suggest it is too bleak, too unremitting. But Paul is diagnosing a condition that has been brought on by the rejection of God. Rejecting his truth, they turn to their own hearts and minds for understanding. But here's the problem: their thoughts are "futile," and their hearts are "darkened." In this condition they pursue their own way, but it all leads (as Paul will note in a later chapter) to death. Paul sums up the condition in verse 32 here, at the end of a long litany of sin.  The people are:
foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Paul's word for all this is "unrighteousness," and my word for it, drawing from a theme I find running throughout Romans, is futility. It leads to death. It produces no life, no harvest, no good fruit. Without the merciful intervention of the rejected God, it will end in justified judgement and wrath from that same God.

You can't understand salvation Biblically if you don't get the seriousness of humanity's situation. But it is not a hopeless situation. By way of contrast, look at what Paul says in the first half of the chapter about the gospel:
  • He says that the gospel's purpose is to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of the name of Jesus, everywhere in the world (v.5)
  • He says that those who belong to Jesus are called to be saints (v.7)
  • He  expects that the preaching of the gospel in Rome will reap a harvest (v.13)
  • He says that the gospel is the power of salvation for those who believe (v.16)
  • And he says that in the gospel is revealed the righteousness of God (v.17)
Note the contrast between unrighteousness and futility, on the one hand, and faith in the gospel and a harvest of righteousness on the other.  From the former one would need to be saved (since "futility" implies you can't save yourself), and salvation, Paul says, is for those who believe the gospel.  The end result, the fruit, is righteousness, or as Paul says, "the obedience of faith."

So the key to this transformation from unrighteousness to righteousness, for Paul, is the preaching of the gospel, and the reception and believing of the gospel by those who hear it.  And it is clearly a continual need, even after the initial motion of believing, for does not Paul desire to reap of harvest among the Roman believers by preaching the gospel to them?  The obedience of faith is, apparently, something one grows toward, and the growth is engendered (watered?) by the continued reception of and trusting in the gospel.  By this means does growth in godliness continue.

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