The Letter to the Romans
COLLEEN MOORE TINKER
9. God Is Faithful
In the first two chapters of Romans, Paul painstakingly shows that no human being in his natural state is considered righteous before God. Neither the Gentiles, who had the general revelation of God through creation, nor the Jews, who had the special revelation of God's words given through the law and the prophets, are righteous. No one has successfully honored God or kept his law by deciding to be conscientious. All are desperate sinners.
In chapter three Paul begins by summarizing his conclusions from chapters one and two, emphasizing God's intrinsic faithfulness in spite of humanity's mortal failure. The Jews, he explained in chapter two, are not considered holy or special on the basis of their circumcision as they had come to believe they were. Much like Christians who consider the public sign of baptism to assure their eternal fate, the Jews believed that as long as they participate in the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, they were God's people. What they and also many Christians today did not ask themselves was this: Am I surrendered to God? To I know him?
In the first few verses of chapter three, Paul recaps the advantages of being a Jew. In spite of their hard and unbelieving hearts, Jews, Paul explains, have many advantages. "They have been entrusted with the very words of God." (v. 2) Moses said to the Israelites, "What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?" (Deuteronomy 4:8)
The psalmist wrote, "He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws." (Psalm 147:19-20)
Stephen underscored this singular fact in his speech to the Sanhedrin before he was stoned: Moses "was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us." (Acts 7:38)
To be entrusted implies responsibility. The Jews not only had the general revelation of God, they had been entrusted with his own words. That trust made them responsible to protect, obey, and teach God's words to the world.
In Romans 9:4-5 Paul outlines the Jewish advantages. They are God's sons; theirs is "the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!"
In other words, God had sovereignly formed and chosen Israel as the venue through which He would reveal himself and salvation to the world. They were not special because they were Jews; they were special because God had entrusted them with the heavy responsibility of showing the world the truth about God's justice, mercy, grace, and promises.
The trust went to their heads, however. They began to feel entitled and privileged. They began to believe that God protected and provided for them because they deserved it. In spite of their advantages, Paul summarizes, many of them did not have faith.
In what, though, did they not have faith? They clearly believed in God and in his sovereign provision for them, even if their attitude was arrogant. In Romans 10:13-17 Paul outlines the answer to the possible argument that the Jews had never had a proper chance to really accept the gospel. He makes it clear that they heard the message. They had prophets who were sent to them, and ultimately Jesus, God himself, came to them and called them to salvation. The Jews heard the word of God throughout their existence as a people, but they were not saved as a whole because they did not have faith in the word of Christ. They heard the prophecies, but they refused to put their trust in the promised Redeemer, choosing instead to believe that their standing before God was their birthright. Ultimately, they refused to trust the living words of Jesus to them.
The author of Hebrews also parallels the historic Jews with the Jews of his day. They had all had the gospel preached to them, Hebrews 4:2 declares, but historically the good news was of no value to the Jews because they had not "combined it with faith". They took the promises as God's obligation to them instead of as a call to them to surrender to God.
By contrast, Paul affirmed the Thessalonians by saying he thanked God for them because they received the word of God not as the word of men but as it really was, the word of God! (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Hearing the truth does not guarantee that a person will embrace it. The Jews believed that God chose them; they believed that God would vindicate them and send them a redeemer. What they believed, though, was that their eventual victory was based on their own special status. They refused to let their hearts become involved with the God of their promises. They heard the words and understood they were chosen, but they stopped short of embracing the God who chose them. As a whole, Israel refused to hear in God's promises the certainty of spiritual newness. They heard "prosperity" and "political power", but they didn't hear "spiritual life". Even when Jesus came, the Jews refused to see in Jesus the fulfillment of their promises and prophecies. They refused to accept the truth that their Messiah would change them, not merely defeat their enemies.
They heard God's words, but they did not have faith in the true Redeemer promised to them from the call of Abraham. They refused to see that they needed new hearts; they believed only what their minds understood. They refused to surrender their hearts to their God and to know Him intimately. They heard the word without having faith in the truth the word contained. They honored themselves instead of honoring the God who called them out of themselves into surrender and intimacy.
Faithless Man, Faithful God
Even though humanity abandons faith, however, God remains faithful and truthful. Even if we are faithless, Paul declares in 2 Timothy 2:13, God remains faithful because he "cannot disown himself". This enigmatic statement begs us to understand exactly to what God is faithful, and what his faithfulness has to do with his disowning or not disowning himself.
At the very beginning of the story of God's chosen people, He made a covenant with Abraham that seemed preposterous: Abraham would have a son even though he was very old and his wife Sarah was beyond childbearing years. In spite of their initial disbelief, Abraham and Sarah ultimately realized God's fulfillment of his promise to them. (see Genesis 17:19; 18:11-14) God was faithful to his covenant, his promise with the man he had chosen to father his people.
In Numbers 23:19 the reluctant prophet Balaam uttered these words of God to the Moabite king Balak, "God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" God put this message in Balaam's mouth (Num. 23:16), and it confirms that God is completely consistent and reliable; he does not go back on his word or change his mind. He is totally faithful to his promises and declarations.
Later in Israel's history, as Joshua faced his imminent death, he reminded the people that not one of God's promises had failed. He warned them, though, that just as God's promises had never failed, even so if they violated their covenant with God, he would bring on them all the evil God had promised if they disobeyed him. (Joshua 23:14-15) Deuteronomy 7:9-10 also carries a promise and a warning. God is faithful and will keep his covenant of love with those who love and obey him. He will, however, also in keeping with his covenant, repay those who hate him with destruction.
The psalmist also understood God's faithfulness to his requirements of obedience and to the consequences of sin. In Psalm 51:4 the psalmist says he has sinned against God, and he acknowledges that God is justified when he judges mankind. Along with their trust in God's faithfulness to his promises of blessing and loyalty, God's people also realized that God was faithful to execute judgment and discipline on those who were faithless. God's promises of cursing and destruction for those who chose to disobey were just as trustworthy as were his promises of blessing and mercy to those who loved Him.
In the New Testament God's faithfulness becomes more clearly understood. Jesus fulfilled many promises ancient Israel accepted by faith. Jesus repeated the promise that God is truthful and declared that he loves His Son and that He has placed everything into the Son's hands. Further, he promised that everyone who accepts the Son has eternal life. (John 3:31-36)
Paul asserted that God is faithful and will not allow his people to be tempted more than they can bear. Further, he says, God will provide a way for his people to escape their temptations. (1 Corinthians 10:13) He also said that God, in his faithfulness, will sanctify his people (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24) and will deliver them from evil men (2 Thessalonians 2:3).
The writer of Hebrews emphasized the timeless promise of blessings for obedience and judgment for disobedience. He challenges Christ-followers to persevere and reminds them that those who "shrink back" will be destroyed. Those who believe Jesus and live by faith, however, will be saved. (Hebrews 10:36-39) He further explained that such faith is possible because God is faithful. He illustrated this fact by referring to Abraham who, by faith, became a father because he considered God, who promised him a son, to be faithful. (Hebrews 11:11)
Peter gave us additional insight into God's faithfulness to his promises. We who are stuck in time often wonder when (or if) God will do what he said he would do. Paul reminds us that time is irrelevant to God and that what appears to us to be delay is really God's patience at work. He is not willing that any of us perish. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
The Bible is clear that God is faithful to keep his word, to defend and discipline his people, to perfect and protect them, to save them, and to destroy evil. The essence of God's faithfulness, though, is not that he merely has the power to keep his word. The truth of God's faithfulness is found in the phrase in 2 Timothy 2:13: "for God cannot disown himself." God is not primarily faithful to his word or his people; he is faithful to himself. All the other demonstrations of his faithfulness flow from one essential quality of God: he is ultimate. There is nothing over or beyond Him. Faithfulness is not a quality to which God must aspire. God IS faithful. As the ultimate authority of existence, he glorifies himself by his essential integrity. God is faithful to God, to Himself, and because of that singular fact, his promises are sure. This sovereign faithfulness assures that not only will God bless and sanctify his people, he will also judge and destroy evil.
As natural humans we have no ability to be consistently faithful because our spirits are dead in their original sin. We may desire and try to be faithful, but we cannot be so. As born-again Christ-followers, we have living spirits connected to the sovereign God. Because of the indwelling Spirit, we begin to be able to live faithfully, but that faithfulness is directly the result of God's faithfulness. Because He is faithful to himself, he is faithful through us.
Our integrity is always the outflowing of God's internal integrity. No matter how moral a person may appear, ultimately his word and commitments break down if he is not connected to the eternally sovereign, faithful God.
Unrighteousness Highlights God's Righteousness
Our unfaithfulness and unrighteousness underscore God's sovereign righteousness. The Bible emphasizes the contrast between God and humanity and puts to rest the notion that we can understand Him because we understand ourselves. Romans 5:8 explains that God demonstrated his love for us while we were sinners by sending his Son to die for us. He did not send his Son as a reward or consequence for our obedience; he sent him while we were sinners. Jesus' death, in other words, is not useful to us only after we give up our sin, as many of us suspected in the past. On the contrary, Jesus' death is what makes it possible for us to give up our sin, and his death was an act of love from our internally faithful God who loved us while we were in rebellion against him.
Other texts also emphasize God's sovereign righteousness in contrast with our human unrighteousness. John 3:16 declares that God sent his son to die so none of us would have to perish. Galatians 3:13 explains that Christ became a curse for us and thus removed the curse of the law that condemned us to death. 2 Corinthians 5:21 dovetails with the Galatians text; God made Jesus, who had no sin, to be sin for us that we, in Christ, might be the righteousness of God. The text does not say he made Jesus take sin upon himself but be sin, so in Christ we could be the righteousness of God.
Peter also declared that Jesus Christ died once for all of us, "the righteous for the unrighteous", to bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18) John also stressed that Jesus' laying down his life for us demonstrated what real love is. Real love is not that we loved this generous God, but that God loved us and sent his only Son to be an atoning sacrifice for us. (1 John 3:16, 4:10) What God has done for us is inexplicable in human terms. No person could love like God loves or could even want to love like that. God is God, and we cannot understand or explain him in human terms. He sets the standard for all existence, and only when we humble ourselves before his sovereign power and holiness and death and resurrection do we begin to reflect him. Only when we surrender ourselves does His Holy Spirit make us His and transform us increasingly into the righteousness of God.
All creation is for the purpose of glorifying God. Even our sin and unrighteousness emphasize the perfection of God. This fact, however, does not lead to the conclusion that God should treat our sin gently because we've made him look good. Such reasoning springs from our sinful natures and misses the point: we cannot bargain with God regarding our salvation or our judgment. God is God; our inherent falleness is in no way virtuous or noble. We cannot justify our sin by claiming it enhances God's righteousness. Such a claim denies the fatal wound of separation from God in our dead spirits.
Arrogance Against God's Judgment
God is the righteous judge of all creation. We stand condemned before him in our natural state. If we try to justify our sin, we are arrogantly blaspheming God's holiness and his right to judge the earth. We deserve to receive the condemnation of our righteous judge.
God's right to judge has been clear from ancient times. No matter how advanced or clever humanity thinks itself to be, our race has never been able to escape God's judgment by rationalizing or out-smarting God. Genesis 6:6-8 says God was grieved that he had created mankind, and he resolved to destroy the race-except for a small remnant: Noah and his family. Humanity had become so evil that God judged the world and essentially started over. He made the sovereign decision to destroy the products of evil in the world and to wipe out the depraved humans who were perpetuating not only extreme self-centeredness but were also, apparently, corrupting the race by making alliances with evil spiritual powers. God-and only God-had the authority to make such a decision.
Years later when God told Abraham he would destroy Sodom, the wicked city where Lot lived, Abraham pleaded with God to save it. He declared to God that he knew God would not kill the righteous with the unrighteous or treat them alike. (see Genesis 18:25) God did not spare Sodom, but he did arrange for Lot and his family to escape. Abraham knew that God had the sole right to execute judgment, but he also had the confidence in God to know that his judgment would be just.
Much later, Jephthah, the unlikely leader whom God had selected to lead Israel against the Ammonites, reasoned with the king of Ammon. He told him he was wrong to wage war against Israel, and he pleaded for him to let the Lord who is the Judge decide the matter. (Judges 11:27) Although Jephthan had been cast out of his father's family, still he honored God as the sovereign judge between men and nations.
In the middle of his suffering Job said he could not dispute his God; he could only plead with his Judge for mercy. (Job 9:14-15) The Psalmist also affirmed that God was his shield, the righteous Judge who expresses his wrath daily. (Psalm 7:10-11) Again in Psalm 94:1-3 he calls on God the Avenger and pleads with him to judge the earth and to pay back the proud with what they deserve.
The author of Hebrews affirms this powerful, timeless identity of God as Judge. In Hebrews 12:22-24 he wrote that, unlike Moses who trembled when the approached God's presence on the mountain, we have come fearlessly to the heavenly Jerusalem, to God the judge of all men, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. The author of the book recognized a difference between our relationship to God the judge now and to humanity's relationship to Him before the cross. Before, no one could freely approach the sovereign judge without fear of death. Now, in Christ our mediator, we can fearlessly approach our judge.
Jesus' death does not make God any less the judge of the universe. It does, however, make us uncondemned before him if we accept his death as ours. If we attempt to justify our sin for any reason, we have failed to acknowledge our true condition, and we deserve to be condemned.
The arrogance behind attempts to justify ourselves is a denial of God's sovereignty. The reality of what Jesus' death accomplished for us is that when we accept it, we are no longer slaves to sin. Our spirits come alive and unite with God through the indwelling Holy Spirit. That makes us slaves to God instead of slaves to sin. Even though we are left with our sinful flesh, our spirits are new creatures. As long as we were under the law, we were slaves to sin. As soon as we accept Jesus, however, we are no longer under the law but are risen to a new life in Christ. (see Romans 6:1-4, 14-18)
Further, God's sovereign calling is responsible for everyone on earth. We have no business questioning those whom God accepts as his own, and we have no business bargaining with God about our own sinful condition. He formed each of us differently for different purposes, and it is not ours to question why. He knew from creation those who would be his and those who wouldn't. He hardens people's hearts and he softens them. Ultimately, God is totally sovereign over all the universe, and when we try to justify our sin by making excuses for ourselves, we are in rebellion against God's sovereign judgment and holiness and love. (see Romans 9:19-24, 8:30)
God is asking you to surrender everything in your life to him. He is asking you to give up your identity as a sinner, as an addict, as a wounded person, as a justifiably angry person, as an unrealistic optimist or pessimist, as an anorexic, as a lazy person, as a shy or frightened person, as a controlling person, as a critical person-whatever it is you do because "it's who you are", God is asking you to release your claim to that. Instead, he is asking you to accept your identity as his child. You cannot hold two identities at once. You cannot be both an alcoholic and a child of God. You cannot see yourself as both a lazy person and a child of God. You cannot hold onto your identifying shyness or secret fears and simultaneously claim to be God's child. You can only have one identity.
God is asking you to claim your identity as a new person born into his family as your sole identity. That means you must be willing to release to him completely all identifying thoughts of who you see yourself to be outside of "child of God".
Accepting your reality as a child of God, provided, of course, that you have accepted Jesus' death as yours and accepted his life as his gift to you, does not mean all struggle with your previous identity will cease. It does mean, however, that you will no longer "see" yourself as whatever it was behind which you formerly hid. You will give God permission to deal directly with those fears, those compulsions, those control issues, those stress responses when they confront you. Instead of automatically rationalizing your habitual behaviors and thoughts and responses, you will instead think, "I am a child of God, not lazy, (or anorexic, or addicted, or angry, or fearful, or blaming)"
You will give God permission to reveal to you the hidden hurts and wounds which have driven you to your habitual behaviors, and he will heal them as he reveals them. When you can accept the reality of your identity as a child of God, you will be able to release your compulsive attempts to control your circumstances. You will be able to ask Jesus to enter the memories he brings to you and to heal the wounds they have made in your heart. You will be able to directly face him when you are confronted with your habitual behaviors or temptations, and you will be able to ask him to enter your struggle and to replace your desire to indulge yourself by exerting his sovereign, faithful love and strength in your heart instead. You will be able to ask him to reveal to you the truth behind your compulsive hears or behaviors, and you will be able to ask him to heal you of those underlying causes.
When you accept your new identity as God's child, your struggle will cease to be with your sin. Instead, at the point where you formerly struggled, you will simply surrender to him, and you will ask him to show you his will at that moment. You will realize that your sin no longer owns you; Jesus does, and where sin's ownership made you a prisoner, Jesus' ownership sets you free.
Praise God that he who is faithful to himself indwells you. Praise him that his internal faithfulness will also be the source of your own faithfulness. Praise him that he is faithful to complete what he has already begun in you. Praise him that your name has been written in his book of life from the creation of the world!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands,
CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted August 14, 2003.