Lesson 5: The Gospel: God’s Power for Salvation (Romans 1:16-17)Related Media
James Boice wrote that these verses, Romans 1:16-17, “are the most important in the letter and perhaps in all literature. They are the theme of this epistle and the essence of Christianity” (Romans [Baker], 1:103). As you probably know, it was Martin Luther’s wrestling with and finally coming to understand verse 17 that transformed his life and led to the Protestant Reformation. So these verses have had an incalculable effect on world history and they will have a profound effect on your life personally if God opens your eyes to the truths in them.
Before we look at these verses in detail, we need to see the flow of Paul’s reasoning. He begins verse 16 with the word for, which connects it with verse 15. There Paul said, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Why? “For I am not ashamed of the gospel….” Why? “For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” How is this gospel the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes? “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” Is this a new idea that Paul thought up? No, he cites Habakkuk 2:4, “as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”
At the outset, we may wonder why Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” It is a figure of speech called litotes, where through understatement the affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary. For example, if you say, “he’s not a bad athlete,” you mean, “he’s a pretty good athlete.” So when Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel, he means, “I glory in the gospel. I’m proud of the gospel.”
But why does he express it this way? Well, there were many reasons that a first century Roman might feel a bit uncomfortable about this Jewish man coming to a sophisticated city like Rome to preach about a Galilean carpenter-prophet who was executed by the Roman government in the most humiliating manner possible, by being crucified. After all, this was Rome, the capital of the civilized world! Your message had better appeal to the educated or it won’t fly here! Your message needs to offer political solutions to the pressing needs of the empire or it will not gain a hearing here! It had better offer some answers to the massive problems of slavery, greed, lust, and violence, or the people in Rome won’t listen!
But Paul’s main message did not directly address these issues. His main message focused on the main need of every human being, whether the most religious Jew or the most educated, worldly, immoral Greek—the need to be reconciled to the holy God. How can I be right before God? As we’ve seen, Paul’s theme in Romans is God and the good news that comes from God, how sinners can be delivered from His righteous judgment and reconciled to Him. This is called salvation. Here Paul tells us…
Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must believe it and proclaim it boldly.
1. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
To proclaim the gospel boldly or unashamedly, we must believe it. But to believe it, we must understand it. The gospel is all about salvation. So I want to explore five statements about salvation that stem from our text.
A. Salvation is the main need of every person.
This anticipates the point that Paul makes from 1:18 through 3:20, where he shows that all have sinned and thus fall under God’s righteous condemnation. Because all have sinned, whether the religious Jew or the worldly Greek, all are alienated from God, who is absolutely righteous. Thus all are under God’s wrath, as Paul immediately explains (1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
Salvation refers to being rescued from God’s wrath and judgment that we deserve because of our sin. It means being delivered from the penalty of sin, which happens the moment we believe; being delivered from the power of sin, as we grow in godliness; and, being delivered from the very presence of sin when we stand blameless in His presence in glory (Jude 24). John Piper argues that Paul’s main focus here is this future aspect of salvation (see his sermons on this text on desiringgod.org). Salvation also has many positive aspects, such as enjoying a reconciled relationship with God (Rom. Rom. 5:1), and receiving all of the unfathomable riches of Christ (Eph. 1:3; 3:8).
But if we think that we need to “sell” the gospel by glossing over the negative aspects of salvation and focusing only on the positive side of it, we fall into the sin of being ashamed of the gospel. We do not need God’s salvation and Christ did not need to die on the cross if we’re all basically good people who just need a little encouragement to be right with God. We do not need a crucified Savior if our main need is to polish our self-esteem and learn some helpful hints for happy living.
We need a Savior who was crucified for our sins because we all by nature are ungodly rebels who are under God’s righteous wrath. This is offensive to the natural man, but if we pull our punches on this point, we miss the very heart of the gospel. The gospel is only good news to the person who realizes that he needs to be saved or he will eternally perish.
B. Salvation requires the very power of God.
The gospel does not tell people about the power of God. Rather, it is “the power of God for salvation.” This means that salvation is not something that sinners can attain by their own efforts or good works. If that were so, Christ did not need to die on the cross. Salvation is not a joint project, where God has done His part and now you must contribute your part. You may be thinking, “But don’t I need to believe?” Yes, as we will see in a moment, salvation is received and sustained by faith alone from start to finish. But saving faith, which includes repentance, is not something that sinners can produce on their own. It is the gift of God, so that we will not boast (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 1 Cor. 1:30-31; Acts 11:18; 13:48).
It is crucial to see that salvation does not depend on a human decision, but on the very power of God. It requires that God impart new life to a dead sinner, something that is impossible for men to bring about. When Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43), the bystanders may have thought, “Is He crazy? He’s speaking to a dead man who has been in the tomb for four days!” But the power of God through the word of Jesus imparted life to a dead man. The gospel is like that.
When the rich young ruler walked away from eternal life, Jesus commented to the disciples (Matt. 19:23, 25, 26), “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were “very astonished and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Jesus replied, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In other words, “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). It requires the very power of God. The gospel is not helpful advice that a person may decide to try out. It is the very power of God imparting new life and salvation to those who were dead in their sins and under God’s just wrath and condemnation. So, as Thomas Schreiner puts it (Romans [Baker], p. 60), “The preaching of the Word does not merely make salvation possible but effects salvation in those who are called.”
C. Salvation demands that the righteousness of God be upheld and applied to the guilty sinner.
In verse 17, Paul explains why the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed….” Before we go on, note that the gospel is not the result of the religious genius of Paul or the other apostles. Rather, it is revealed to us by God through His Son. In Galatians 1:15, Paul explains his own conversion by saying, “But when God who had set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me ….” So the gospel comes to us by revelation from God that centers in His Son.
Also, note (as Bishop Moule points out, The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 32), Paul does not lead off with the love of God in the gospel, but rather with the righteousness of God. Certainly, the gospel displays God’s love for sinners (Rom. 5:8). But the love of God is not a stumbling block or foolishness to sinners (1 Cor. 1:23). They rather like the idea! If God is loving, but not so righteous, then it’s easy to view Him as our good buddy in the sky. But the righteousness of God presents a problem, because we all know that we have sinned. If God is righteous and we are not, then we need a Savior.
But what does Paul mean when he says that in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed”? There are three main options. First, he may mean that God’s attribute of righteousness, the fact that He always does what is right, is revealed to us in the gospel. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], p. 298) strongly rejects this meaning here, because he says that then the gospel would not be good news, but rather terrifying news. But with some fear and trembling, I must disagree slightly with Lloyd-Jones. I agree that this is not Paul’s primary meaning here, but if a person has no concept of the absolute righteousness of God, then he does not understand his precarious and frightening position of being under God’s wrath as an unrighteous sinner (Rom. 1:18). So the gospel reveals God’s righteous character, which shows us our desperate need for salvation. It should drive us to the cross.
Second, by “the righteousness of God,” Paul may be referring to God’s saving power in being faithful to His covenant promises. The Old Testament often refers to God’s righteousness as His salvation of His people (Ps. 71:2; 98:2; Isa. 46:13; Schreiner, p. 66, lists many other references).
Third, by “the righteousness of God,” Paul is referring to the righteousness that comes from God, which He gives to those who believe. F. F. Bruce (Romans [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 73) argues that in the Old Testament, which forms the main background of Paul’s thought and language, righteousness is not so much a moral quality as rather a legal status. He says (p. 74), “God himself is righteous, and those men and women are righteous who are ‘in the right’ in relation to God and his law.” He adds,
When, therefore, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, it is revealed in a twofold manner. The gospel tells us first how men and women, sinners as they are, can come to be ‘in the right’ with God and second how God’s personal righteousness is vindicated in the very act of declaring sinful men and women ‘righteous’.
This third meaning is Paul’s primary thought in verse 17. The gospel reveals how sinners may be righteous or justified before God by faith. We know that this is his meaning by comparing the parallels between Romans 1:17 and 3:21-26. There we read,
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel in that He can grant right standing to sinners because His Son met the righteous requirement of His perfect Law and died to pay the penalty that sinners deserve. Thus sinners are not justified by their own righteousness by keeping the Law (gal. 3:11), but rather by God imputing the righteousness of Christ to them by faith. Paul states this plainly in Philippians 3, where he contrasts his former attempts to be righteous by keeping the Law with his present experience with Christ, where he says (Phil. 3:9), “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Salvation upholds God’s righteousness by applying it to the sinner who believes. That leads to the fourth point about salvation:
D. Salvation is by faith from start to finish.
Paul mentions believing or faith four times in these two verses: “to everyone who believes”; “from faith to faith”; and, “the righteous man shall live by faith.” If salvation comes through faith plus good works (as the Roman Catholic Church teaches and all of the cults teach), then it is not good news, because you could never know whether you have piled up enough good works to qualify. But if God declares guilty sinners to be righteous or justified the instant they believe, that is good news!
But, we need to be clear on several things here. First, saving faith in Christ is not a general belief that He is the Savior. The demons believe that, but they are not saved. Rather, saving faith has three elements. First, with the mind we must understand the content of the gospel: who Jesus is, what His death on the cross means, and that He was raised from the dead. Second, we must have a heart response to the truth of the gospel, where we agree that it is true and our agreement causes our hearts to be sorrowful about our sin, but also to rejoice in the free offer of God’s grace. Third, saving faith includes commitment to Christ, where we trust in Him and His death on the cross as our only hope of eternal life and we follow Him as Lord. Saving faith is not a work that we do, but rather simply receiving all that God offers to us in Christ. It is the hand that receives the free gift of God.
Second, we need to understand what Paul means by the phrase, “from faith to faith.” Commentators offer many different views, but I think Paul is emphasizing the centrality of faith in receiving the benefits of the gospel (Schreiner, p. 72). The NIV translates, “by faith from first to last.” We receive the gospel by faith and we go on living by faith.
This is supported by the fact that “believes” (1:16) is a present participle, bringing out the fact that saving faith is not a single event, but rather an ongoing, lifelong process. We are justified the instant we believe, but as we go on believing the gospel, God keeps revealing to us the fact that we have right standing before Him on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. Faith applies the imputed righteousness of Christ to us so that we increasingly rejoice in Christ alone as our only hope of eternal life. We never come to a place where we can trust in our good works as sufficient for or even contributing in any way to our salvation.
Third, we need to understand how Paul uses Habakkuk 2:4, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” He uses it partly to show that his gospel is not a new idea that he thought up. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk confirms the truth that righteousness can only be attained on the basis of faith.
Scholars debate whether the quote should be translated, “the righteous man shall live by faith,” or, “the one who is righteous by faith shall live.” The first view would emphasize that those who are righteous are characterized by a life of faith, whereas the second view would say that those who by faith are righteous shall live, which means, be saved. While there are impressive scholars on both sides, I think that in light of the context, Paul is using the quote to say, “The one who is righteous (justified) by faith will live, that is, be saved” (see Bruce, p. 76; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 71-72; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 76-79).
E. Salvation is individual and personal, not corporate and national.
Paul says that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” He could have said, “for the Jews [plural] first and also to the Greeks [plural],” but he put it in the singular. Salvation is an individual and personal matter. Being a member of the Jewish race will not get you saved, even though the Jews were God’s chosen people. Being an American or a member of a Christian family will not get you saved. You must personally believe in Christ.
By “the Jew first,” Paul means that the gospel came first in history to the Jews. God chose Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob as the race to which He revealed His salvation. It was through the Jews that the Savior came. Thus, as Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
But here Paul’s emphasis is on the universal offer of the gospel. It is for everyone who will believe. It is for the religious Jew who will believe and it is for the pagan Greek who will believe. None need be excluded. The good news is for you, whatever your background! Are you a self-righteous, religious, moral person? You must not trust in any of these things, but as a sinner receive the righteousness of Christ by faith. Are you an atheist or an immoral person or a greedy, cheating businessman? You must turn from these sins and cry out to God to be merciful to you, the sinner, and you will go home justified today (Luke 18:9-14). The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
2. Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must believe it.
I ask, “Have you believed the gospel?” Have you abandoned all of your self-righteousness and all of your good works as the basis for your standing before God and instead trusted only in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Do you believe this good news when you fail and Satan accuses you? On the basis of your right standing before God, do you daily battle against sin, so that your attitudes and behavior are progressively righteous? Is God’s power to save you from the power of sin evident in your relationships in the home?
3. Because the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we must proclaim it boldly.
I could develop an entire message on this point, but I’m out of time. But I ask, “Are you ashamed of the gospel?” Do you dodge warning people about the wrath of God, because that isn’t a popular idea? Do you avoid telling them about the shed blood of Christ as the only remedy for sin, because it sounds kind of primitive? Do you put a positive spin on the gospel, so that it sounds like a positive plan for how to have a happy life here and now? If so, you’re being ashamed of the gospel.
The gospel is the good news that God has revealed to us how we can be rescued from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:5-10). It is the very power of God to save everyone who believes, because in it God reveals how His perfect righteousness will be put to the account of the guilty sinner who trusts in Christ. I pray that we will understand the gospel, believe it personally, preach it to ourselves every day, and proclaim it unashamedly to this lost world.
- What are some reasons that you have been ashamed of the gospel in the past? How can you prepare yourself so that it won’t happen in the future?
- Why is it important to understand that salvation is not just a human decision, but requires the very power of God in imparting new life? What errors occur when we forget this?
- Why is it important to insist that justification means that God declares the sinner righteous, not that He makes them righteous? What implications follow from each view?
- What is the difference between genuine saving faith and superficial, false faith (believing “in vain,” 1 Cor. 15:2)?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 6: Is God’s Wrath Justified? (Romans 1:18-23)Related Media
Probably the most famous sermon ever preached in America was Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached at Enfield, Connecticut, July 8th, 1741. I had a college philosophy professor who ridiculed that sermon and the frantic response that many had to it that day. But, clearly, God used that sermon like He has few others!
To say that the concept of God’s wrath is out of sync with our modern world is to state the obvious. Even many who claim to be evangelicals object to and minimize any mention of God’s wrath. They may say that they believe it because it’s in the Bible, but they’re embarrassed by it. I’ve even heard of professing Christians who say, “I believe in a God of love, not a God of wrath.” Sometimes such people ignorantly imply that the God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath, but by the New Testament, He mellowed out to be a nice old guy! I’ve been told that Jesus was always loving and never judgmental. I always want to ask such people, “When was the last time you actually read the New Testament?”
Modern “seeker” churches have drawn huge crowds by never mentioning sin and judgment, and instead focusing on the more positive aspects of the gospel: “God loves you. He offers you an abundant life full of peace, joy, and love. He will help you with your problems. He wants you to be happy. Won’t you invite Him into your heart?”
But there is no mention of a holy God who is justified in His wrath against sinners. We’ve bought into the old liberal message, which theologian Richard Niebuhr once described (The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193, cited by Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People [Image Books, 1975], 2:249), “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
When the apostle Paul begins to expound on the gospel that he proclaimed, he does not lead off with the love of God (as we saw last time), but with the righteousness of God. When he elaborates further, he does not even then mention God’s love, but rather, God’s wrath. Modern critics would say, “Paul, you’re not going to win any converts by that approach! Lighten up! Maybe, much later, you can touch on that subject. But when you’re trying to win people to Christ, don’t mention God’s wrath!”
But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, leads off with (Rom. 1:18), “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” For links this to verses 16 & 17. If we’re going to understand why we need God’s power in the gospel and why we need His very righteousness imputed to our account, then we need to understand His wrath against our sin. If we’re not such bad folks and if we have enough good deeds to earn points towards heaven, then we don’t need God’s righteousness and Christ did not need to bear God’s wrath on our behalf. But if we are ungodly and unrighteous in God’s sight, if we have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, and as a result are under His just wrath, then we desperately need God’s saving power through the gospel!
Thus Paul begins a lengthy section (1:18-3:20) in which he sets forth in great detail the sinfulness of the human race. At first, he gives a general indictment, although the sins that he mentions (Thus Paul begins a lengthy section (1:18-3:20) in which he sets forth in great detail the sinfulness of the human race. At first, he gives a general indictment, although the sins that he mentions (1:23-32) may be more prevalent among the Gentiles. He moves on (2:1-16) to indict those who think that they are moral enough to commend themselves to God. Then (2:17-3:8), Paul turns on the Jews who pride themselves on having the Law, showing how they are also guilty before God. Finally (wing that the entire human race is justly guilty before God. Only at that point (3:21-26) does he come back and pick up the theme of 1:17, that the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ is available to sinners through faith alone.
In our text, then, Paul is showing why God is justified to inflict His wrath on the sinful human race, which shows why we need the gospel. We can sum up his message in 1:18-23:
God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself and have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator.
1. God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself (1:18-20).
Paul argues that God has revealed Himself to the human race, both through His wrath (1:18) and through His creation (1:19-20). But we have inexcusably rejected God’s revelation and instead have resorted to inventing gods of our own (1:21-23).
A. God reveals Himself through His wrath against human sin.
There is an obvious parallel and yet contrast between verses 17 & 18. In verse 17, “the righteousness of God is revealed.” In verse 18, “the wrath of God is revealed.” The phrase, “from heaven” adds weight to the revelation. This isn’t just an idea that popped into Paul’s mind. This is a revelation from heaven, that is, from God Himself.
When we think about God’s wrath, we need to get rid of any human notions of someone with a bad temper who flies off the handle over the slightest provocation. Rather, God’s wrath is a part of His holy nature. It is His settled, determined, active opposition to all sin. If God loves righteousness, He also must hate evil. If God were all love and no wrath, then He would not be God at all, because He would be unrighteous. We know this even on a human plane. If a judge was all love and hugs towards cold-blooded murderers or child molesters, he would not be a righteous judge. Even though our anger easily slips from being righteous to unrighteous, we all know that anger is the proper response to certain sins. In the same way, God would not be holy or good if He did not react to evil with wrath and righteous judgment.
We only have time to look at a few of the biblical references to God’s wrath. Ignoring the many Old Testament references, the New Testament starts off with the ministry of John the Baptist, who tells his audience (Matt. 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Matthew 23:33, after pronouncing a series of “woes” on the Pharisees, Jesus thunders, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?”
In John 3:16, we have the marvelous verse, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” Oops! I left out something: “shall not perish”! Years ago, I conducted a funeral where they had printed up the little cards with John 3:16 as I just erroneously quoted it to you! I didn’t let it go! To perish means to come under God’s eternal wrath. In John 3:36 we read, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
In Ephesians 2:3, Paul says that we all (Jews and Gentiles) were “children of wrath,” a Jewish way of saying that we were characterized by being under God’s wrath. In Ephesians 5:6, he uses the same Jewish expression to say that “the wrath of God comes on the sons of disobedience” (also, Col. 3:6). In 1 Thessalonians 1:10 he says that Jesus “rescues us from the wrath to come.” In 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, he writes that God will deal “out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction ….” The entire Book of Revelation shows the many forms of wrath that will be poured out on sinners both before and after Jesus returns.
J. I. Packer (Knowing God [IVP], pp. 134-135) said, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.” A. W. Pink (The Attributes of God [Baker], p. 82) wrote, “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness.” So we cannot shove God’s wrath into the closet! R. W. Dale observed (cited by R. C. Sproul, The Cross of Christ Study Guide [Ligonier Ministries], p. 35), “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath, that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.”
Later (2:5), Paul acknowledges that a future day of wrath is coming at the final judgment, but here (1:18) he calls attention to the present revelation of God’s wrath (the verb means, “is being revealed”). What does he mean? If we look around, we can see God’s wrath in all of the effects of the fall, both on creation and on human misery and suffering. We see floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, and disease, which cause untold suffering and death. There are the more direct links between sin and judgment, such as STD’s and the AIDS epidemic on the sexually immoral, and the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol on addicts. We see the terrible effects of drunkenness and drug abuse in the home, on our highways, and in society at large. We see the devastating effects of war and terrorism. The list could go on and on.
Also, a glance through past history, both in the Bible and outside of it, shows the ongoing wrath of God. He destroyed the whole world through the flood. He poured out fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. He punished both Israel and Judah allowing invading armies to kill many and send others into captivity.
But the greatest example of God pouring out His wrath was when He put His own Son on the cross to bear our sins, so that He cried out in agony (Matt. 27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus’ terrible death shows that God cannot just brush our sin aside. His righteous judgment must be satisfied. As Paul argued with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:31), the resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness….” Woe to all who have not repented of their sins and trusted in Christ before that day! God reveals Himself through His wrath. Don’t miss it!
B. God reveals Himself through His creation.
Paul goes on to show another way that God has revealed Himself, namely, through His creation. Here Paul is referring to God’s general revelation in the created universe, not to His special revelation in His written word. Most commentators understand “His invisible attributes” to be a summary term that is further explained by the next two terms, “His eternal power and divine nature.” Anyone should be able to look at the vastness of the universe (even in days before there were telescopes!) and conclude, “God is amazingly, incomprehensibly, powerful! You don’t have to gaze into outer space—get caught in an exposed area in a thunderstorm and you will appreciate God’s power! Marla and I have had some terrifying experiences with that!
God’s “divine nature” refers to the sum of His attributes (S. Lewis Johnson, “Paul and the Knowledge of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra [Jan.-March, 1972], p. 69). This does not mean that we can learn as much about God through nature as we can through His Word. But, even so, men should be able to look at God’s creation and conclude many things about His attributes, in addition to His power.
John Calvin sums it up well (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 71-72), “His eternity appears evident, because he is the maker of all things—his power, because he holds all things in his hand and continues their existence—his wisdom, because he has arranged things in such an exquisite order—his goodness, for there is no other cause than himself, why he created all things, and no other reason, why he should be induced to preserve them—his justice, because in his government he punishes the guilty and defends the innocent—his mercy, because he bears with so much forbearance the perversity of men—and his truth, because he is unchangeable.”
It is important to recognize that God’s revelation through creation is not enough to save anyone, in that it does not reveal His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, apart from which no one can be saved (Acts 4:12). But it is enough to condemn everyone. By looking even at their own bodies or at the marvel of a little gnat that can fly, eat, and reproduce, people should bow in worship before God. But they don’t. They swat the gnat in annoyance and go on without a thought about the intelligence, power, and wisdom that it took to create a gnat, much less all of creation! They ignore the obvious fact that there is an all-powerful God and go full bore in their selfishness and sin, ignoring the obvious revelation of His wrath in the fact that they will soon die!
Two brief comments before I move on: First, in answer to the question that often comes up, “Will God judge the innocent heathen who has never heard about Jesus?” The answer is, there are no innocent heathen. All have sinned against the light that they have received and all will be judged accordingly (Matt. 11:20-24).
Second, I hope that you can see how utterly absurd and yet how widely destructive to people’s eternal destiny the belief in evolution is. It gives sinners a supposed escape from being accountable to God, as some prominent atheists have openly admitted. Although there is more than abundant evidence of an all-powerful Creator, evolutionists cling to the absurd idea that everything came out of nothing. At the root of their belief is not science, but immorality. They suppress the truth in unrighteousness. That leads to:
C. Sinners have inexcusably rejected God’s revelation of Himself, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.
Paul says (1:18) that God’s wrath is revealed “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Some commentators see these two words, “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness,” as being somewhat synonymous, repeated for emphasis. But others say that Paul is using them quite strictly to refer to “lack of reverence for God” (“ungodliness”) and “lawlessness or injustice towards our fellow man” (“unrighteousness”).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Gospel of God [Zondervan], pp. 355-359) argues at length that the terms refer to these two different aspects of sin and that Paul has put them in this order for an important reason: ungodliness is always the root sin and unrighteousness flows from it. Our first and basic problem is that we disregard and disobey God. This leads to our sins against one another. Ungodliness was the first sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This led to separation from God, which then led to alienation between them and eventually to the sin that caused Cain to murder his brother Abel.
The word “suppress” may mean to hold on to, or to hold down, which is the idea here. It implies that men knew the truth (note that there is such a thing as knowable absolute spiritual truth!), but they want to hold it down so that they can pursue their sins. Whether it is evolution denying God as the Sovereign Creator, or philosophy speculating that we cannot really know God at all, or psychology telling us that we are not responsible for our problems (psychologists don’t like the word “sin”!), these are all ways of pushing God away from us so that we can be our own lord. “So that they are without excuse” is probably a purpose clause that means, “Sinners cannot plead ignorance as an excuse” (Johnson, p. 69). God has posted huge warning signs with flashing lights, namely, His ongoing wrath and His magnificent creation. If sinners drive past them over the cliff, they only have themselves to blame.
So, Paul’s first point is: God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have sinfully rejected His revelation of Himself. I can only comment briefly on his second point and its implications:
2. God is just in pouring out His wrath on the human race because we have worshiped the creature rather than the Creator (1:21-23).
Paul makes five points here:
A. People knew God generally through the revelation of Creation.
Paul seems here to be interpreting human spiritual history in light of the fall (Johnson, p. 72). Verse 21 does not mean that men knew God in a saving way, but rather that they had a general sense that He exists. In The Institutes (ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press], 1:3:1), John Calvin asserts that all people have an awareness of God. He says, “There is no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.” As Paul has just shown, God’s creation makes His attributes evident within all people, until they suppress it. There is also the universal presence of the conscience (2:15).
B. People did not glorify God or give thanks.
This is the root sin: Although people know about God, they do not give Him His proper glory and they do not express thanks to Him for His many undeserved blessings. We could easily develop an entire sermon or two here, but let me apply it directly: It’s easy to sit here and shake our heads at the heathen, who have no concept of glorifying God or giving thanks. But do I glorify God for His goodness and mercy and grace? Do I give thanks to God for His many blessings that He showers on me every day?
C. As a result, the foolish hearts of sinners were darkened.
Paul also refers to this in Ephesians 4:18, where he describes “the Gentiles” (pagans) as “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” When Paul says, “their foolish heart was darkened,” he is referring to their entire inner life, including their intellect, emotions, and will (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 85). To be in the dark refers to total moral and spiritual blindness. Only God can shine His light into such dark hearts (2 Cor. 4:4-6).
D. As a result of darkened hearts, sinners profess to be wise, but are fools.
Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10), those who do not fear God or bow before Him as God profess to be wise, but are fools (Ps. 14:1). “Fools” does not refer to mental deficiency, but to spiritual and moral deficiency. Turning from the revelation that God has given of Himself in His wrath and in creation, sinners plunge into futile speculation. As a philosophy major at a secular university, I know of no better description of godless university professors than Romans 1:21 and 22. The final result is:
E. This foolishness is exhibited by worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.
Rejecting God does not lead to atheism, but to substituting the glory of the one true God with manmade idols “in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Man didn’t begin with idolatry and polytheism and work his way up to monotheism. Man began by knowing the one true God, but when he suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, he falls into the supreme foolishness of creature worship (Isa. 44:9-20).
I’ve seen idolatry of statues and sacred cows in Asia. I’ve observed people worship the creation here in Flagstaff. But it never ceases to amaze me, as I’ve said before, that here in a university town, we have a store that has stayed in business for many years by selling nothing but idols! It’s as if the idols of self, sex, money, and power were not enough! We’ve got a store selling just about any conceivable idol that you could see worshiped in India or Nepal or Thailand! Idolatry is really stupid, but, I should add, there is real power in idolatry—but it is demonic power, not God’s power.
So, is God just in pouring out His wrath on those who have rejected His revelation of Himself, who turn instead to worship the creature rather than the Creator? When you stand before Him, do you have any chance of winning your case? Only if by faith you stand there covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ!
- Does the concept of God’s wrath offend or embarrass you? Why? Examine your reasoning and motives.
- Some have said that things like the AIDS epidemic and other catastrophes cannot be God’s judgment because the innocent suffer along with the guilty. Why is this faulty reasoning?
- There is an organization that purports to be evangelical and yet is dedicated to “theistic evolution.” Why is this not a biblical option?
- Why are “glorifying God” and “giving thanks” such fundamental issues? How can we practice these qualities more faithfully?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 7: Going Down, Down, Down, Part 1 (Romans 1:24-27)Related Media
If you were born after 1970, you may not realize how drastically America and the West changed during the 1960’s. I grew up in the 1950’s watching TV shows like “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best,” all of which depicted the typical American family. The father wore a suit, supported the family, and was looked to as the head of the home. The mother wore a dress, prepared the meals, and dispensed wisdom to the kids to help them navigate life’s normal struggles. There was not a hint of sexual immorality, whether with the parents or kids. A kiss between a teen boy and girl was about as far as things went for the kids. There were no references to drugs. It was pretty radical when Ricky Nelson formed a rock band, even though their music was pretty tame compared to today’s standards.
When I was in high school, the word “gay” meant, “happy.” I did not know what homosexuality is until somewhere around ninth grade. Back then, it was a gross put-down to say that a guy “sucked” (that is the origin of that term; I wince when I hear Christians use it). I didn’t know what a condom was until I was in junior high. In my high school, a few of the kids smoked marijuana, but they were not in the “in” crowd. Using more potent drugs was pretty much unheard of.
I do not watch any of the current TV sitcoms. I’m probably a rare American, in that I’ve never watched an episode of “Cheers” or “Seinfeld” or other shows of that genre. But from reading reviews I know that on such shows, sex between unmarried partners is openly accepted, graphically talked about, and sometimes portrayed. Homosexuality is now accepted as normal. A popular show features housewives who are desperately looking for happiness by being unfaithful to their marriage vows. A current movie preaches that children raised by homosexual couples are just as emotionally healthy and normal as other children are.
We’ve gone down a long ways from the 1950’s! Some would say that because of these flagrant sins, America is on the brink of God’s judgment. But Paul would say, “No, America is already under God’s judgment.” When a society flaunts and gives hearty approval to such sins, even applauding them as right, it shows that God has already given that society over to impurity, to degrading passions, and to a depraved mind.
Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 87) explains Paul’s purpose in our text:
It is sometimes objected that this is not a balanced picture; the pagan world could do better than this. Of course it could, and Paul shows us something of this in the next chapter. But here he is not trying to picture the total scene. He is pursuing his theological purpose of showing that all people are sinners. In pursuit of this aim, he concentrates on that part of the picture which is relevant…. It is Paul’s purpose to show that [sin] exists, and that it exists universally. Wherever pagans are to be found, the kinds of sin of which he speaks will be found also.
Paul’s point in Romans 1:24-32 (we will only go through v. 27 this week) is:
When people reject God and exchange His glory for the worship of the creature, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences.
As we saw last week, Paul is showing how the wrath of God is being “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). One aspect of God’s wrath is to give sinners over to their lusts, so that they experience the inevitable, horrible consequences of sin. That is to say, sin itself is its own punishment! People think that sin will bring them fulfillment and happiness. It may feel good in the short run. But God has designed His moral laws so that if you break them individually or if a society casts them off collectively, those laws turn around and break you! It’s like the law of gravity: you can break it, but then it breaks you.
We might wonder when this divine judgment of giving people over to their sin took place. Is Paul describing the fall? Or does he have in mind the demise of certain cultures, such as Sodom and Gomorrah? Or is he talking about individuals who go so far in sin that God gives them over to their sins? Probably he is referring to all of the above.
At the fall, the human race was cut off from fellowship with the holy God and plunged into sin. We all are born in sin, alienated from God. We are by nature spiritually blind, children of wrath, and under God’s just condemnation. We are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because by nature we are sinners. Unless we are born spiritually by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will pursue a course of sin. Some are restrained from sinning more than others. But all people apart from God’s grace in Christ, have cast off the living and true God and have embraced whatever false gods they think will bring them happiness. So in one sense, this applies to the entire human race, born in sin.
But on another level, it applies to particular cultures down through history. At the Tower of Babel, proud sinners defied God, bringing down His judgment by confusing their languages. Sodom and Gomorrah were so corrupt that God rained fire and brimstone on them as an example to others of His wrath against sin. When God told Moses and Joshua to destroy the Canaanites, it was because over four centuries, they had filled up the measure of their sin (Gen. 15:16). Ancient Greece and Rome had their times of glory, but idolatry and immorality brought them down. And so it has been down through history. When a people abandons God, at some point God abandons that people.
This is also true on the individual level. All people without Christ are in sin, but when an individual brazenly turns his back on the light that God has given him and goes full bore into a decadent lifestyle, it shows that God has given him over to his lusts. If he keeps going in that direction, he may eventually cross the point of no return, where he is so hardened in sin that he is beyond the hope of salvation!
Paul here makes two main points: (1) The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25). (2) When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32). He shows this judgment three times by stating, “God gave them over” (1:24, 26, 28). First, God gave them over to impurity; second, He gave them over to the degrading passions of homosexuality; third He gave them over to a depraved mind, expressed in all sorts of socially destructive sins.
1. The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25).
“For they exchanged the truth of God for the [lit.] lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Verse 25 explains the reason that God gave people over in their lusts to impurity (1:24), to degrading passions (1:26), and to a depraved mind (1:28) by basically repeating the truth of 1:21-23. Because people did not honor God or give Him thanks, their foolish hearts were darkened. Their foolishness led them to exchange the glory of the incorruptible God for idols.
“The truth of God” refers to the truth that He has revealed about Himself and about all things. God is not a projection of our ideas or a figment of human imagination. God is. He exists in and of Himself and He has always existed outside of time before He spoke the universe into existence. Our knowledge of Him can only come through His revelation of Himself, which is centered in Jesus Christ His Son and contained in the Bible. As we saw in 1:18 and 20, God reveals Himself generally through His wrath against sin and through His creation. But to know specifically who God is and how to be saved, we must have His Word. Contrary to the postulates of postmodernism, this truth about God revealed in the Bible is knowable and absolute.
But sinful men exchanged this truth of God for [lit.] “the lie,” which refers to the lie of idolatry. In 1:23, sinners exchanged the glory of God for idols. Here, they exchange the truth of God for the lie, that we can worship things other than God, all of which are mere creatures, not the Creator. It is the lie that any creature can live independently of God as “self-sufficient, self-directing, and self-fulfilling” (John Witmer, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:443). As a result of exchanging the glory of God for idols and exchanging the truth of God for the lie, God gave these sinners over to degrading passions, so that they exchanged their natural sexual orientation for that which is unnatural (1:26). The word “exchange” implies that if you cast off God, you will serve idols.
The important thing to see is that there is this cause and effect relationship. The root cause is the sin of rejecting the truth of God, resulting in worshiping the creature rather than the Creator. By referring to God as the Creator, Paul takes us back to the opening statement of the Bible (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Bible does not debate the point or open it up for discussion. Rather, the Bible asserts that God created everything and that He did it by speaking it into existence (“God said,” Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26; Ps. 33:6, 9). This asserts His sovereignty over everything. It means that as creatures, we depend totally on God and must be subject to Him. He is the only true God and He made all things for His glory.
Thus when Paul mentions God as the Creator, he almost uncontrollably adds, “who is blessed forever. Amen.” It’s as if he wants to clear the foul air after referring to men worshiping and serving the creature (H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 50). Blessing, extolling, or glorifying God forever and ever is the reason that He created us. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism). He is in fact blessed forever, whether we acknowledge Him or not (Rom. 9:5). Thus the root sin is when we turn from God and replace Him with the creature. Idolatry is the sin of worshiping anything in place of the true God.
In America, we do not see blatant idolatry as frequently as you see it in Asia or Africa. Most Americans do not set up statues and pray to them or offer incense or gifts before them. But there are many other forms of idolatry in America. If you “use” God for what He can give you and then “set Him back on the shelf” until the next time you need Him, you’re doing the same thing that idolaters do with their idols. They use the idols when they need them to achieve their own purposes. They are not usually subject to the idols to follow their commands. Self is really the root idol. Self uses the idol to get what self wants.
We can fall into idolatry of things that otherwise are good. Some people in effect worship the family. God gives us our families and they are good in their proper perspective. But if we rely on the family in place of God, so that we can only find fulfillment and happiness in our families, we have fallen into idolatry and are not following Jesus as Lord (Luke 14:26). Material possessions are a good gift from God and it’s not wrong to enjoy such things (1 Tim. 6:17). But if we put our hope in things or in our investments and not in God, we have fallen into idolatry (Luke 12:16-21; 14:33). Vocations, entertainment, sports, computers, TV, and many other things can dominate our lives and become idols, taking the place that God alone deserves. This is the root sin: rejecting the truth of God and worshiping the creature instead of the eternally blessed Creator. “Amen” means, “So be it!”
2. When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32).
Three times Paul says, “God gave them over”: First (1:24), to impurity; second (1:26), to degrading passions (homosexuality); third, to a depraved mind (1:28). We find a similar expression in Psalm 81:12, where God responds to Israel’s disobedience by saying, “So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, to walk in their own devices.” (See, also, Acts 7:42.) They abandoned God; God abandoned them. The phrase means that God took His hands off their lives and delivered them over to their sentence, where sin takes its own ugly course.
It does not in any way imply that God causes people to sin. But neither is God merely passive. Rather, as Frederic Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 107) says, “He positively withdrew His hand; He ceased to hold the boat as it was dragged by the current of the river.” Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 111) goes a bit farther: “God does not simply let the boat go—he gives it a push downstream.”
Parents sometimes get to this point with a rebellious child. You say, “Do what you want and you will pay the consequences of your actions.” Maybe you help him carry his duffel bag out the door. The father of the prodigal son did this with the boy’s outrageous request to get his share of the inheritance before the father’s death. He gave him what he wanted, and let him squander it all and end up in the pigsty. It reminds me of Psalm 106:15, where in response to Israel’s demand for meat in the wilderness, it says, “So He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (NASB, margin). Sin is its own punishment!
Today we can only look briefly at the first two sections.
A. God gives sinners over to sexual impurity, resulting in the dishonoring of their bodies (1:24).
“Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” Paul is referring to sexual lusts. God designed sex as a good gift, but He clearly commands that it be restricted to monogamous, heterosexual marriages. In that context, the sexual union glorifies God as it expresses exclusive love between a man and a woman and is an earthly picture of the relationship between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:31-32).
Outside of that context, if we engage in sexual behavior, we dishonor our bodies and defile ourselves with impurity, a word used of decaying matter, like the contents of a grave (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, NASB [Nelson Bibles], p. 1661). Paul says that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one flesh with her, but in so doing, he defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in believers (1 Cor. 6:16-19). He gives us a godly perspective of how to use our bodies when he concludes (1 Cor. 6:19b-20), “You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”
Sexual lusts begin in the heart (Mark 7:21-23). If we do not judge lustful thoughts on the heart level, sooner or later we will face the temptation to involve our bodies. Does it feel good at the moment? Yes, of course, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But it leads to your being enslaved by sin. Since sex outside of marriage is outside of the context for which God designed it, it never completely satisfies. It leaves you empty and broken.
Before I leave this point, let me say to the men, especially: If you are enslaved to pornography, you have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. You are worshiping the creature, not the Creator. Viewing pornography weakens your resistance to an actual sexual encounter, which Satan will bring your way. If you yield to that, you dishonor your body, defile yourself, and start on this downward cycle. If you are married, viewing pornography sabotages your marriage. Jesus warned that if you do not take radical action (pluck out your eye, cut off your hand) to rid yourself of the sin of mental lust, you are on your way to hell (Matt. 5:27-30)! I would not have said it so harshly, but Jesus did and He is Lord. So you don’t want God to give you over to that sin! Get help if you need it, but judge lust before it judges you!
B. God gives sinners over to homosexuality, resulting in them receiving the due penalty of their sin (1:26-27).
We live in a time when the homosexual community has so strongly influenced our godless culture that if you stand against it and say that it is sin, you are labeled as an intolerant bigot. They have skillfully portrayed it as a “human rights” issue, so that those who oppose it seem anti-American. But God’s Word is not tolerant of homosexuality or ambiguous about it: it is clearly sin (Gen. 19:4-5; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Judges 19:22-23). Paul elsewhere includes it in lists of sins (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).
But why does Paul focus on homosexual relations here? Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 94) explains,
Probably because it functions as the best illustration of that which is unnatural in the sexual sphere. Idolatry is “unnatural” in the sense that it is contrary to God’s intention for human beings. To worship corruptible animals and human beings instead of the incorruptible God is to turn the created order upside down. In the sexual sphere the mirror image of this “unnatural” choice of idolatry is homosexuality.
Paul uses unusual Greek words for “male” and “female” here, which are elsewhere used in the creation account. His point is that homosexuality for either sex goes against God’s intention in creation (Schreiner, p. 95). Just looking at how men’s and women’s bodies are designed should prove that point!
Paul says (1:27) that homosexuals receive “in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” The error is not an inadvertent mistake, but rather the rejection of the true God for idols (Schreiner, p. 97). Paul may mean that being delivered over to homosexuality itself is the penalty. Contrary to the word “gay,” homosexuals are disproportionately unhappy people. Those who attempt to live in committed homosexual relationships have a three to four times greater dissolution than that of heterosexual married couples. They experience much higher rates of domestic violence than opposite sex couples do (these statements documented in an email from the Family Research Council, Aug. 10, 2010). The Journal of Human Sexuality (Vol. 1, p. 93, National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, 2009) concludes with regard to homosexuals, “No other group of comparable size in society experiences such intense and widespread pathology.”
Is AIDS God’s judgment on homosexuals? If you mean that each person who has AIDS got it from sexual sin, the answer is no. Babies get it from their mothers and patients get it from tainted blood transfusions. But when God sends a temporal judgment due to a nation’s sin, such as war, famine, natural disaster or disease, the so-called “innocent” suffer along with the directly guilty. The fact is, if there were no sexual promiscuity, especially homosexuality, there would be virtually no AIDS. There is an obvious, direct correspondence between practicing homosexuality and AIDS. So in that sense, it is God’s judgment against that sin.
Are homosexuals born that way? There is no scientific evidence to date to support that claim, although researchers have desperately been looking for it. But even if the inclination is genetic, it still is sin to practice it. Some may be genetically prone to heterosexual lust or to anger or alcohol addiction, but these are still sins. Even if we are genetically predisposed to a sin, we are responsible before God if we yield to that sin.
The good news is, Jesus came to deliver us from our sins. Paul includes former homosexuals in Corinth when he wrote (1 Cor. 6:11), “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” That can be your testimony, too, if you will trust in Christ.
- What are some forms of American idolatry? How can we guard ourselves from idols (1 John 5:21)?
- Some organizations are committed to recovering the values of our Christian heritage in America through legislation. Is this the right approach? Will it help? What else is needed?
- Can a person whom God has given over to his sins be saved? When has he crossed the line of no return?
- Can a truly saved man be “addicted” to pornography? Consider Matthew 5:27-30 in your answer.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 8: Going Down, Down, Down, Part 2 (Romans 1:28-32)Related Media
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote (Life Together [Harper & Row], pp. 118-119), “The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is.”
We are studying the apostle Paul’s penetrating analysis of sin that runs from Romans 1:18 through 3:20. He is showing why all people, no matter how good they may seem outwardly, need the gospel (1:16-17), namely, because all have sinned. Thankfully, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. So God’s only solution for the devastating effects of sin on the human race is the gospel, that Christ died for our sins and that He gives His righteousness to all who believe in Him.
Last time, we saw that the main theme of verses 24-32 is:
When people reject God and exchange His glory for the worship of the creature, God gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences.
In these verses, Paul develops two main ideas:
1. The root sin is to reject the truth of God and to worship the creature rather than the Creator (1:25).
2. When people reject God, He gives them over to their sins and the horrible consequences (1:24, 26-32).
Three times Paul repeats the frightening phrase, “God gave them over”:
A. God gives sinners over to sexual impurity, resulting in the dishonoring of their bodies (1:24).
B. God gives sinners over to homosexuality, resulting in them receiving the due penalty of their sin (1:26-27).
Both of these judgments deal with sexual sins. We saw that sin is its own punishment. It promises freedom, but it enslaves. It entices us by making us think that it will bring happiness and fulfillment, and for a short time, it is pleasurable (Heb. 11:25). But the long-term effects of sin are devastating. It dishonors our bodies, defiles our conscience, destroys loving relationships, tears apart families, eats away at the foundation of society, and results in God’s temporal and ultimately eternal judgment.
John MacArthur (gty.org/Resources/Sermons/45-15_ Abandoned-by-God-Part-2) cites Thomas Watson, who said, “Sin puts gravel in our bread and wormwood in our cup.” Commenting on the phrase, “God gave them over,” MacArthur continues (ibid.),
And so man is turned over to the law of his own sinfulness and its compounded consequences.
And people really don’t like it. They run off to the psychiatrist, the psychologist, the analyst. They run off to take a vacation to try to forget. They travel. They entertain themselves. They drink. They take drugs. They seek alleviation of the consequences of sin every way possible. But have you noticed how utterly impossible it is? In fact, the highest suicide rate in America among any profession is that of psychiatrists who not only can’t help people but can’t help themselves. And this is the judgment of God upon them, that there is no way out of the inevitable consequence of their sinfulness. There’s no alleviation. There’s no freedom from the bondage. There’s no limiting of the pain. There’s no easing of the guilt because they’re turned over to wrath. And so it is the divine act of judgment on them that they are doomed to compound their sinfulness and have to endure all of its consequences.
With that as a review and introduction, we continue our study by looking at Paul’s third example of God giving sinners over:
C. God gives sinners over to a depraved mind, resulting in lives full of evil and its consequences (1:28-32).
If Paul had stopped after verses 24-25, many of us could think, “Preach it, brother! Hit all those sexually immoral people! I’m glad that I’ve never fallen into adultery or gross sexual sin!” And, if he had stopped after verses 26-27, many more could say, “Yes, Paul—give it to those homosexuals! They need to hear about God’s judgment on their sin.” We smugly would be thinking, “I’m glad that I’ve never desired to practice that sin!”
But Paul doesn’t stop there! He keeps going by moving from the area of sexual sins to that of relational sins. While some of them, like murder or being a hater of God, sound extreme, before we congratulate ourselves on never doing these sins, we need to remember Jesus’ teaching, that if we’ve ever been angry with our brother, we have committed murder in God’s sight (Matt. 5:21-22). If we do not put God in first place in every area of our lives, and honor and obey Him as He deserves, we really hate Him (Rom. 8:7; John 14:15). So as we work through Paul’s long list of sins that mark those whom God has given over to a depraved mind, if we’re honest we will recognize that he is describing our sins. Thus we need daily to apply the gospel to our hearts.
Paul traces four steps in the downward spiral:
(1). Sin begins when we deliberately shut God out of our lives (1:28a).
“They did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer….” As we saw last time, “they” can refer to the entire human race after the fall. On another level, it refers to certain civilizations that have turned their backs on God. Or on an individual level, it applies to those who go headlong into sin. “God” is in the emphatic position in the sentence, indicating that it was no less than God, the Creator (1:25), whom they no longer saw fit to acknowledge (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 93).
The Greek word translated “see fit” means to approve by testing. It was used of testing metals like gold to see if they were genuine. So Paul means that these sinners tested God and concluded, “He’s not real.” And so they rejected Him. Maybe they prayed and asked God to spare the life of a little child or a loved one, but that person died. Maybe they asked Him to deliver them from some problem, but things only got worse. So they concluded that God must not be genuine. They shut Him out of their lives.
At the root of this is that they were sitting in judgment on God. He was on trial and they determined that He is a phony. So rather than seeking to know God and submit to His ways, as revealed in His Word, they did not see fit to hold Him in their knowledge. They thought, “If God is like that, if He doesn’t relieve my suffering, then I don’t want to know Him.” So they cast Him aside like fool’s gold. They shut Him out of their lives.
That is always the first step in sin: Rather than submit to God by obedience to His Word and by persevering through trials, we turn our backs on Him. We decide that we know better than He does about how to be happy. So we move ahead without God.
(2). Sin becomes entrenched when God gives us over to depraved minds (1:28b).
“God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.” As we saw last time, God’s giving sinners over to the consequences of their sin does not imply that He is in any way responsible for their sin. Rather, He lifts His restraining hand and perhaps gives them a gentle push out the door, saying, “If you want to sin, go for it!” He consigns them to their self-willed rebellion, with all of the horrible consequences. Sin is its own punishment, as we will see again in verses 29-31.
There is a play on words in the Greek text here. Just as sinners tested God and rejected Him, so God gave them over to minds that were tested and found false. They did not see fit to acknowledge God, so God gave them over to unfit minds. William Newell (Romans Verse by Verse [Moody Press], p. 34) renders it, “And just as they did not approve to have God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a mind disapproved of Him.” It means that “their minds became quite unable to make trustworthy moral judgments” (Morris, p. 94). “Those things which are not proper” refers to “that which is offensive to man even according to the popular moral sense of the Gentiles, i.e., what even natural human judgment regards as vicious and wrong” (H. Schlier, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel [Eerdmans], 3:440).
All sin begins in the mind or heart. Jesus said (Mark 7:21-23), “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” Many of these sins that Jesus lists overlap with Paul’s list here. But the point is, sin warps our thinking so that we do not see it from God’s perspective. We begin to think that sin is not so bad, because it will get us what we really want in life. So we justify ourselves and blame others.
For example, maybe you start thinking, “I deserve a better wife than this nagging, complaining woman that I live with. I’m a good man. I’ve treated her right, but all I get is griping.” At this point, in your mind you are not acknowledging God and His Word, which tells you to love your wife sacrificially and help her become holy. When you do that, you’re a sitting duck for Satan to bring along a kind, understanding woman at work, who is divorced from her abusive husband. She’s looking for a good man just like you! So you fall into adultery and divorce. It all started in your mind.
So sin begins when we deliberately shut God out of our lives. It becomes entrenched when God gives us over to depraved, spiritually unfit minds.
(3). Sin expresses itself in all sorts of ways that damage interpersonal relationships (1:29-31).
The manuscripts behind the King James translation add the word “immorality” after “unrighteousness,” but it is probably not in the original text. Paul has just dealt with immorality in 1:24-27. So the list contains 21 different sins. Paul has many other such lists (Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:10-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 4:19, 31; 5:3-5; Col. 3:5, 8; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; 6:4-5; 2 Tim. 3:2-5; Titus 3:3). He isn’t saying that every sinner is guilty of every one of these sins, but rather that the human race is guilty of sin in thought, word and deed. The list contains representative examples. All of the sins except for “haters of God” are relationally destructive sins. When we practice them, our families and our entire society suffer.
A cursory reading of terms like “envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, and slanderers” reminds us “that evildoers are not just one happy band of brothers” (Morris, p. 96). Sinners are out to get their way, even if it means destroying the reputation or even the lives of rivals who get in the way.
The first four terms come under the description, “being filled with,” and are general words for sin: “unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, and evil.” Then Paul says, “full of,” followed by five terms (in the genitive), “envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice.” Those terms, “filled with” and “full of,” indicate that these sinners did not just have a slight tendency or inclination towards these sins. Then there are 12 words (in the accusative, in apposition to “they”). The last four words in this group (1:31) all begin with the Greek alpha-privative, which negates the word it is added to. The NIV tries to capture this in English with, “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Let’s look briefly at each term (following the NASB):
*“Unrighteousness”—is a general term for sin. William Barclay (The Letter to the Romans [Westminster, revised], p. 34) says that this word refers to “the man who robs both man and God of their rights. He has so erected an altar to himself in the center of things that he worships himself to the exclusion of God and man.”
*“Wickedness”—This word often is used to describe Satan, the evil one, “who deliberately attacks and aims to destroy the goodness of men.” It refers to “the active, deliberate will to corrupt and to inflict injury” (Barclay, ibid.).
*“Greed”—“means the inordinate desire to have more. It is selfishness unlimited…. This covetous person pursues his own desires with a complete disregard of the effect on other people. He does not care about others but is a complete egotist” (Morris, p. 96).
*“Evil”—“is the most general Greek word for badness. It describes the case of a man who is destitute of every quality which would make him good” (Barclay, p. 35). The scale of his life has tipped toward the worse.
*“Envy”—Aristotle distinguishes “envy” from “jealousy.” He says that jealousy is the desire to have what another man possesses, without necessarily bearing a grudge against him for having it. But envy wants to deprive the other man of the desired thing more than to gain it for oneself. Xenophon said, “The envious are those who are annoyed only at their friends’ successes” (D. H. Field, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown [Zondervan], 1:557).
*“Murder”—Envy often results in murder (Mark 15:10). As we’ve seen, Jesus extended this sin to being angry with someone else (Matt. 5:21-22). So the seeds of murder lie in all of our hearts.
*“Strife”—is “the contention which is born of envy, ambition, the desire for prestige, and place and prominence” (Barclay, p. 35). All of these sins stem from selfishness.
*“Deceit”—is the word used for bait for fishing. It refers to any deliberate attempt to mislead someone for your own advantage. Morris observes (p. 96), “There is nothing straightforward about sin, and sinners do not hesitate to deceive one another if their purposes can be advanced.”
*“Malice”—is “conscious and intentional wickedness” (Morris, p. 97, citing TDNT, 3:485). Aristotle defined it as “the spirit which always supposes the worst about other people” (Barclay, p. 36). It is the opposite of biblical love, which thinks the best about others unless there is solid evidence to the contrary (1 Cor. 13:7).
*“Gossips”—is literally, “whisperers.” It refers to the one who likes secretly to spread malicious stories about others. Since he speaks in secret, the one whom he speaks against cannot defend himself, since he doesn’t know about the falsehood being spread.
*“Slanderers”—refers to someone who openly speaks evil against someone, intending to hurt his reputation.
*“Haters of God”—This is the one term directly aimed at God, not at others. He sees God as “the barrier between him and his pleasures” (Barclay, p 37). God is out to spoil his fun.
*“Insolent”—“refers to a lofty sense of superiority out of which the insolent person treats all others as beneath him” (Morris, pp. 97-98). This person is “so proud that he defies God.” He is cruel and insulting (Barclay, p. 37).
*“Arrogant”—is the word used three times in Scripture when it says that “God opposes the proud” (Prov. 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). It refers to a man who has “a certain contempt for everyone” except himself (Barclay, p. 37).
*“Boastful”—came from a word meaning “wandering.” It referred to wandering merchants who would make extravagant claims for their products that could not be substantiated (Morris, p. 98).
*“Inventors of evil”—are not content with usual ways of sinning, so they invent new, outrageous sins that push the limit.
*“Disobedient to parents”—This sin strikes at the heart of family solidarity. “It implies a lack of gratitude and a contempt for family authority” (Morris, p. 98).
*“Without understanding”—refers to those who act stupidly, especially in the moral realm. They do not fear God, which is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10).
*“Untrustworthy”—refers to those who break covenants. They don’t keep their word. They don’t do what they promise and then they make up excuses for why they didn’t do it.
*“Unloving”—means “without natural affection.” It refers to parents who do not love their children or to children who hate their parents or to brothers and sisters who fight with each other.
*“Unmerciful”—refers to someone lacking compassion and kindness for others. Morris says (p. 99), “It is significant that, in an epistle that will stress God’s mercy throughout, the list of vices should be rounded off with ‘merciless.’ This is the very depth of evil. The person who shows no mercy can scarcely go lower.”
Paul isn’t saying that every society is marked by being full of all of these sins. So what’s his point? John Piper answers (desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/BySeries/2/1056_The_Perils_of_Disapproving_God/), “The point, I think, is to give us enough examples to show that virtually every form of evil has to do with God and comes from failing to know him and approve him and love him above all things. In other words, he gives us a sweeping array of evils to waken us to the fact that the ruin of any area of life is owing to the abandonment of God.”
But we haven’t hit bottom yet! Paul adds one more point:
(4). Sin reaches its depths when sinners not only practice sin, but also heartily approve of others who practice sin (1:32).
“And although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” What a description of our society! People know God’s moral standards through conscience or a general sense of right and wrong. Maybe they know about the Ten Commandments. But even though God’s Word threatens eternal death for those who break these commandments, these sinners cast off all restraint. They thumb their noses at God as they revel in their sin. And they’re happy to see others sinning. It helps ease their guilt.
The whole “gay pride” movement is a flagrant example of those who not only engage in sin privately, but openly boast of it and encourage others to do it. I recently heard of another example on NPR. It told of a computer dating web site that is devoted to helping married people who want to commit adultery link up with others who want to do the same! The owner of the site defended it as providing a service for those who were unhappy!
The danger of these lists of sin is that we read them and think, “I’ve got my faults, but thank God I’m not that bad!” But these verses should cause us all to examine our hearts and to fear sinning. W. H. Griffith Thomas wisely wrote, (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 75), “The possibilities of evil in the human heart apart from divine grace are as real as they ever were, and no one who knows the plague of his own heart will ever dare to say that even these depths of evil are impossible, apart from the restraining influence of the grace of God.” These verses should cause us to examine whether we are truly living for God’s glory or whether we may be substituting something from the creation (ourselves, our possessions, some other person, etc.) in the place that only belongs to the Creator.
If all we had were these verses, it would be a hopeless and depressing picture. We can try to pass legislation to promote morality, but such legislation is of limited value. The sins in these verses go down to the heart level; so we need a heart solution. The only solution is the gospel that changes our hearts (1:16-17). God’s wrath is against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (1:18), but, thank God, Christ came to die for the ungodly and unrighteous (Rom. 4:5; 5:6-8)! Romans 1:18-32 shows that God’s wrath against our sin is justified. We all deserve His judgment. But they also lead to the good news, that God has provided the righteousness we need in Jesus Christ (1:17; 3:21-26). And, this gift of righteousness is not given to those who try really hard, but rather to those who trust in Christ.
And so I conclude by asking, “Have you trusted in Jesus Christ to save you from God’s wrath?” And, “Are you applying the gospel to your daily life so that you overcome these sins that characterize the world without God?”
- Can genuine believers be given over to a depraved mind or does this only refer to unbelievers? See 1 Cor. 2:16.
- Why is it crucial to understand that sin begins in the mind (or heart)? How does this relate to building a strategy for overcoming sin?
- Go over the list of sins and ask, “Which ones am I most prone to commit?” How can you plan not to do it?
- Discuss: Are Christians giving hearty approval to sin (v. 32) when they enjoy watching sexual or violent scenes in movies?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 9: The Damnable Sin of Self-Righteousness (Romans 2:1-5)Related Media
Waiting for his first orthodontist appointment, a 12-year-old boy was a bit nervous. He was completing a patient questionnaire and apparently had high hopes of winning the dentist’s favor. In the space marked “Hobbies” he wrote, “Swimming and flossing” (Reader’s Digest [Aug., 1994], p. 112). That humorous story reflects how we all want to portray ourselves to others as better than we really are. We all want to make a good impression!
But when we do that, we’re forgetting something important, namely, that “all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). God knows the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb. 4:12). Someday we will stand before Him to give an account of our lives. So we must judge our sins on the thought level. And especially we must be on guard against the damnable sin of self-righteousness.
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul indicts the Gentiles (mainly) for their many sins: idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexuality, and a long list of destructive relational sins. Being a Jew and a former Pharisee, Paul knew that his fellow Jews would be sitting on the sidelines, cheering him on: “Give it to those pagan sinners, Paul!” They smugly would be thinking, “Thank God that I’m not like those awful Gentile sinners” (Luke 18:11).
So in chapter 2, Paul begins to zero in on the Jews. He does not begin directly (he doesn’t address them directly until 2:17), which has led to a lot of debate about whether he is addressing the moral Gentile or the Jew in these opening verses. It really doesn’t matter practically, but I think he is using the same indirect approach that the prophet Amos uses (Amos 1 & 2), where he begins by condemning the foreign nations around Israel. Just when the Jews are cheering him on, he moves in to hit them with their sins. (See, also, Nathan with David, 2 Sam. 12:1-7.)
From his own pharisaical background Paul knew that self-righteous people tend to justify themselves by blaming others. Self-righteousness is a very difficult sin to get people to see and condemn in themselves. But it’s a serious, damnable sin because it keeps people from seeing their need for the gospel. It believes the lie that we can be good enough in ourselves to qualify for heaven. Thus we don’t need a Savior who died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. “Maybe really gross sinners need a Savior. But me? Hey, I’m a basically good person! God wouldn’t judge a good guy like me, would He?” Or, would He?
If you’re tired of hearing about God’s judgment, I’m sorry, but clearly it’s a major theme of our text. Paul refers to “the judgment of God” in 2:2, 3, and 5, plus he refers to condemning yourself (2:1) and “storing up wrath for the day of wrath” (2:5). So it’s hard to dodge Paul’s message:
If you do not repent of your self-righteous hypocrisy, you are storing up wrath for the day of judgment.
I was going to say “we” instead of “you,” but I changed it because Paul does. In chapter 1, he speaks of “they.” But in chapter 2, he directly addresses his reader as “you.” He’s going from preaching to meddling! He knows that it is easy to be blind to this deadly sin of self-righteousness, so he reaches out, grabs us by the lapels, shakes us a bit, and says, “I’m talking to you! Listen up!” He makes four points in his indictment. I’m going to follow Paul by using the more direct “you” instead of “we.”
1. You are prone self-righteously to judge others for the very same sins that you commit (2:1).
“Therefore, you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.”
It is difficult to understand the connection of “therefore.” Probably it refers back to the overall theme of 1:18-32, that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Therefore, when seemingly moral people condemn other sinners, but then it comes out that they are practicing the very same sins, it renders them without excuse before God. By practicing the same sins, Paul probably is not referring to the more outwardly flagrant sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and homosexuality (1:24-27), which are not so common among religious people, but rather to the relational sins (1:29-31), of which we all are guilty.
Paul is pointing out how prone we all are to condemn others and justify ourselves, even though we’re guilty of the same sins that we’re condemning in others. I read about a man who was a Republican Party chairman of a county in Florida who sued a former GOP county executive committee member for defamation because he sent out a letter to state party officials accusing the chairman of having been married six times. The chairman called the charge “unconscionable,” and stated that the correct number of marriages is five. He declared, “I believe in family values” (in FlagLive [12/29/05-1/4/06]).
We need to understand that Paul isn’t condemning the act of judging others per se, in that he expects his Jewish readers to agree with him that the sins of the Gentiles (1:24-32) are wrong. The problem with judging others is when you secretly engage in the same behavior that you openly condemn. When a pastor berates sexual immorality from the pulpit, but then it comes out that he secretly looks at porn, he has condemned himself. When a politician postures himself as standing for family values, but it comes out that he snuck off to visit his mistress in South America, he has condemned himself.
Probably one of the most frequently used, but misapplied, verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” If people would keep reading, they would see that in verse 6 Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs or to cast our pearls before swine. He was not talking about literal dogs and swine, but rather about people who are dogs and swine. To obey that verse, you have to judge whether a person is a dog or a swine. Then, in verse 15, Jesus warns about false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. You have to judge carefully to conclude, “This isn’t a sheep—this is a wolf masquerading as a sheep!” The point is clear: if you don’t make correct judgments about others, you’ll be eaten by wolves! Also, Paul tells us that we are responsible to judge those in the church who profess to be believers, but who are living in sin (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
So in Romans 2:1, Paul is not saying that it is wrong to judge others. Rather, he is saying that it is wrong self-righteously to judge others, while at the same time you’re practicing the sins that you’re judging. We could come up with more, but let me give you five marks of a self-righteous hypocrite by which to evaluate yourself. (If you apply these to your spouse, then you are one!)
(1) A self-righteous hypocrite judges the sins of others while overlooking his own sins. As Jesus says (Matt. 7:5), “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Someone has defined a hypocrite as the guy who complains that there is too much sex and violence on his DVD player! (Reader’s Digest, Oct., 1991, p. 183; I changed VCR to DVD.)
(2) A self-righteous hypocrite judges others based on selective standards, not on all of God’s Word. One of the most helpful chapters for understanding the sin of self-righteousness is Jesus’ indictment of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. The Pharisees picked out certain parts of the Law and prided themselves on their obedience, but they neglected the weightier parts of the Law (Matt. 23:23). They tithed their table spices, but they neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They invented loopholes around keeping the Law. They said that if you swore by the temple, you were not obligated to keep your word, but if you swore by the gold of the temple, you were obligated (Matt. 23:16-21).
We laugh at how stupid that sounds, but many Christians do the same thing. God’s Word tells us that God hates violence (Ps. 11:5) and that we should not even talk about immorality, impurity, or greed (Eph. 5:3). We should be innocent in what is evil (Rom. 16:19). But somehow it’s okay to fill our minds with TV shows and movies that are filled with profanity, violence, and sexual immorality. The self-righteous person picks parts of the Bible that he likes and prides himself on keeping those parts. And he condemns as “legalists” those who seek to obey all of God’s Word.
(3) A self-righteous hypocrite is more concerned about external conformity than with true, inner godliness. Jesus said (Matt. 23:28), “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” The Pharisees were concerned that they not defile themselves for the Passover by going into Pilate’s Gentile court (John 18:28) at the same time that they were seeking to crucify the innocent Lord Jesus! Self-righteous hypocrites want to keep up outward “Christian” appearances, but they don’t judge their own sins on the heart level. They put on the happy Christian face at church, but use abusive speech with their families at home.
(4) A self-righteous hypocrite is not interested in helping others grow in godliness, but only in gaining a following. Jesus said (Matt. 23:13, 15), “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” They didn’t care about the people or their hearts before God. They just wanted to gain followers so that they looked good.
(5) A self-righteous hypocrite justifies himself by comparing himself with others or by blaming others for his own sins. Jesus told the parable of the proud Pharisee who went to the temple and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). He wasn’t comparing himself with God’s Word, which condemns pride. Rather, he was comparing himself with others who, in his mind, were worse than he was. In his mind, he kept some of the Law; the tax collector didn’t keep any of it. So, on the curve, he is accepted by God, while the tax collector is rejected. But, God doesn’t grade on the curve!
This is the most common problem that I encounter when couples come to me for marriage counseling. It is also the biggest hurdle for them to get over. The husband says, “I know I’m not perfect, but I work hard to provide a good living for this woman, but all I hear is griping. When I come home after a hard day’s work, I deserve some time to watch a ball game, but she harps at me about disciplining the kids or fixing something around the house.” He justifies himself and blames her.
She does the same thing: “I’m not a perfect wife, but I work hard to make a good home for him. I do all the shopping, cook the meals, do the laundry, clean the house, and take care of the kids. All I want is a little love from him. But he just comes home and ignores me and the kids. He yells at us to be quiet. He gets mad if supper isn’t ready on time. He expects me to respond to him in the bedroom and gets upset when I’m too tired.” In her mind, she’s doing the best that she can do. The marriage problems are his fault.
They are both passing judgment on one another, while each of them is doing the same things that they are blaming their spouse of doing. If each of them would stop blaming the other and justifying himself or herself, they would see dramatic improvement in their marriage. So Paul’s point is quite practical: You are prone self-righteously to judge others for the very same sins that you commit.
2. Self-righteous hypocrisy brings you under God’s judgment (2:2-3).
“And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?”
Verse 2 literally reads, “the judgment of God is according to truth upon those who practice such things.” He means “that God’s judgment against sin is fully in accord with the facts, that it is just” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 131). Paul’s hypothetical Jewish reader that he is addressing would have agreed that God’s judgment is according to the truth.
Where he would have disagreed is with Paul’s assertion that God’s righteous judgment falls on the Jews just as it falls on the Gentiles. In other words, the Jews claimed special status before God because they were His covenant people. They believed that if you were a Jew living in Palestine, you were treated as if you kept all of the commandments and were guaranteed of the life to come (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ [Eerdmans], p. 5). But Paul applies God’s just judgment to Jew and Gentile alike and says, “If you judge others for the very sins that you commit, you’re guilty in God’s court of justice.”
At this point, Paul isn’t pointing to God’s revealed Law as the standard for judgment, although he could have done so. Rather, he is saying that if a self-righteous person judges someone else for a sin that he himself is practicing, he will not escape God’s judgment. If you condemn someone else for lying to you, but then you lie to someone else, you’ve just condemned yourself. If you berate someone who stole from you, but then you cheat the government on your taxes or steal something from your employer, you will not escape from God’s judgment. Of course, Paul is not saying that you’d escape God’s judgment if you lie or steal without judging others for those sins! Rather, he is showing that all of us have violated our own standards by doing the very things that we condemn in others. And so we are guilty before God.
3. The riches of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience should lead you to repentance, not to presume on His grace (2:4).
“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”
In verse 4, Paul “introduces a rhetorical question that brings to light the false assumptions of the person who is addressed in v. 3” (Moo, p. 132). Paul is saying, “If you think that you can get away with sin because God is kind, tolerant, and patient, you’re greatly mistaken! His kindness should lead you to repentance, not to self-righteous complacency. If you go on sinning, presuming on His grace, you’re only storing up wrath for the day of judgment (2:5).”
God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience overlap somewhat, but have different nuances of meaning. His kindness points to the many good gifts that He bestows on this rebellious human race. He gives us air to breathe, food to eat, homes to live in, families that love us, beautiful scenery to enjoy, and bodies and minds that (for the most part) function as they are supposed to. He treats us far better than we deserve.
God’s tolerance points to the fact that He does not strike us dead instantly when we defiantly sin against Him. How many times we have known what is right and deliberately disobeyed! God could have struck us dead on hundreds of occasions and He would have been perfectly just, but He did not. He is tolerant.
God’s patience is similar to His tolerance. The word literally means “long on wrath,” or slow to anger. He gives us opportunity after opportunity to repent, without inflicting judgment.
God doesn’t just trickle these benefits on sinners. Rather, He gives them richly. But the problem is, sinners mistakenly think that because they experience all of these blessings and God’s judgment has not hit them yet, He must think that they’re okay. They won’t face His judgment, because they aren’t really bad sinners, like the pagans that Paul has just described in chapter 1. But Paul says, “If you think that God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience mean that you will escape His final judgment, you’re in big trouble! God is kind, tolerant, and patient so that you will repent!”
Thus, you are prone to self-righteously judge others for the very sins that you commit (2:1). Such self-righteous hypocrisy brings you under God’s judgment (2:2-3). Don’t mistake God’s kindness to mean that you will escape His judgment. He is only giving you time to repent (2:4). Finally,
4. If you do not deal with your hard, unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for the coming day of God’s judgment (2:5).
“But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
Frederic Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 116) captures the grim irony of Paul’s words, “Every favor trampled under foot adds to the treasure of wrath which is already suspended over the heads of the impenitent people.” James Boice (Romans Baker], 1:220) pictures it as a miser who for years stores his horde of gold coins in the attic above his bed. It’s his treasure. But then one night, the weight of all that gold breaks through the ceiling and comes crashing on his head, killing him. He thought he was storing up treasure, but he was only adding to his own judgment.
It’s the same for the self-righteous person who presumes on God’s kindness and patience. He judges others, but does not judge his own sin. He goes on in his pride, thinking that his outward righteousness is amassing a great treasure in heaven. But, actually, he is amassing a “treasure” of wrath for the judgment day!
Note that Paul isn’t talking here to idolaters or to the sexually immoral. He’s talking to the moral, religious person. Also, the day of wrath points to its certainty. There will be a day of wrath for those who have not repented of their sins, especially the sin of self-righteousness. It’s on God’s calendar. “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness …” (Acts 17:31). Since it is absolutely certain, we need to be ready for it. How?
The problem that we’ve got to deal with is our hard, unrepentant hearts. The word “stubbornness” (NASB) comes from a Greek word from which we get our word sclerosis. It means spiritual hardening of the heart. Repentance (2:4) is a change of heart and mind that causes us to turn from sin to God, not just outwardly, but on the heart level. It includes sorrow for our sins and the resolve to turn from them. We don’t just do it once, when we come to Christ. Rather, it is the ongoing mark of true conversion. True Christians habitually judge their own sins on the heart (or thought) level, based on the standards of God’s Word. That includes the damnable sin of self-righteousness, which stems from pride. True Christians are marked by broken and contrite hearts before God (Ps. 51:17).
A man complained about the amount of time his family spent in front of the TV. His girls watched cartoons and neglected schoolwork. His wife preferred soap operas to housework. His solution? “As soon as the baseball season’s over, I’m going to pull the plug” (Reader’s Digest, June, 1981, p. 99). How easy it is to fall into this deadly sin of self-righteousness!
God’s solution is to deal with our sins on the heart level before Him. Come to Christ and confess your sins, turning from them, and He will forgive and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Spend time daily in His Word. It’s like looking in the mirror and applying soap and water to the dirt in your soul. Don’t play games with God. His kindness should lead you to genuine, ongoing repentance.
- How open and honest should we be in sharing our own sins? Where do we draw lines of privacy?
- Why is judging others sometimes both necessary and right? When is it wrong? How can we know the difference?
- Some hesitate to confront another Christian who is in sin because they don’t want to be judgmental. Is this right? What biblical principles apply? See 1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26.
- Should Christians watch movies that contain profanity, violence, and sex scenes? Where do we draw the line? What criteria should we apply?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Ancient Words, Ever True?Related Media
Whenever I hear the opening lines of Michael W. Smith’s song, “Ancient Words,” I am always moved: “Holy words long preserved /for our walk in this world. / They resound with God's own heart. / Oh, let the ancient words impart.”
Being aware of God while gazing on the ocean is all well and good, C.S. Lewis noted,1 but if you want to go anywhere on that sparkling sea, you must have a map. Going somewhere with God is no different. In His case, though, the map is not made of symbols, but of words—ancient words.
Why any words at all, though? Isn’t experience with God enough? As the songwriter says, “You ask me how I know he lives: He lives within my heart.”
Experience has its place (Paul used his own dramatic Damascus Road encounter as evidence for skeptical Jews), but it also has its liabilities. Lots of people have spiritual experiences. Any Mormon can tell you of his experience with Jesus, the created spirit brother of Lucifer. Jehovah’s Witnesses experience the incarnation of Michael the Archangel. New Ager’s experience Jesus the Ascended Hindu Master.
Each has an experience, but each can’t be right. Which is the true Jesus? What objective authority separates wheat from chaff? Classically, Christians have turned to details recorded in Scripture as authoritative, objective grounds for truth. God has spoken in the ancient words of the Bible.
The Fingerprints Of God
Hundreds of places in the Old Testament we find the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord,” or its equivalent. The writer of Hebrews affirms, “God…spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1).
Jesus and the Apostles constantly affirm the authority of the Old Testament with the simple statement, “It is written....” The words of a text are attributed equally to the writers (“Moses said…”) and to God (God said…”). Paul reminds us that all Scripture is profitable precisely because it is “inspired” (theopneustos, “God-breathed”), the very counsel of God.
Of course, just claiming it’s so doesn’t make it so. How do we know? Do we have any evidence God has spoken in the Bible?
The challenge can be reduced to a simple question: “What kind of book is the Bible?” I submit there are only two plausible answers. The Bible is merely a book by man about God, or it is a book given by God through man, to man.
If the first, then the Bible is a record of human wisdom marked by human limitations. That’s all.2 If the second, then God is the ultimate author and His word is the last word. Further, being essentially a supernatural book, it would likely bear supernatural marks, God’s fingerprints in a sense.
Do we have any good reasons to think God has spoken supernaturally in the Bible? Or have men merely opined? The way to answer this question is to look at the book itself. I want to offer six reasons I think the Bible is God’s book, six evidences of supernatural authorship conveniently paired with parts of the hand so you won’t forget. 3
For the first evidence, think “pinky—prophecy.” The Bible has fulfilled prophecy—detailed, precise, predictions relating to individuals and entire empires given with hairsplitting accuracy.
Daniel gives prophecy so exact it reads like history written after the fact. For one, at the threshold of the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years of Babylonian captivity for Judah (Jer. 29:10), Daniel is given the amazing “70 weeks” prophecy. Identifying the specific time of Messiah’s advent and subsequent execution, it was fulfilled in the exact 173,880-day time period he predicted (Daniel 9:24-25, cf., Luke 19:41-44).4
There were dozens of specific prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life alone.5 His own prediction that the temple would be destroyed stone by stone (Luke 21:5-6) was dramatically fulfilled 40 years later when Roman legions under Titus razed Jerusalem.
Is fulfilled prophecy sufficient in itself to make our case for divine authorship? Maybe not for some. Even so, it’s an important piece of a cumulative case for the Scripture’s Divine authorship. Chalk up one for the supernatural side.
The Ring Finger
A wedding ring, symbolic of marital unity, reminds us of the second evidence for the Bible’s supernatural origin—a remarkable unity of purpose and plan despite its diverse origins.
The Bible consists of sixty-six books written by forty or more authors from diverse backgrounds (rabbis, warriors, shepherds, kings, historians), in a diversity of conditions (dungeons, deserts, battlefields, palaces, pastures), on a diversity of controversial subjects, over a fifteen-hundred-year period of time.
The Bible doesn’t read like sixty-six different stories, though. Instead, a profound harmony of perspective is woven through the account from Genesis to Revelation as God progressively unveils His rescue plan for fallen creation.
No individual writer understood the plan completely. Each in his time, as if guided by an unseen hand, added his piece to the puzzle. Later, at the advent of Christ, all the pieces come together, revealing the full picture of God’s strategy for salvation that had been unfolding for ages.6
This remarkable continuity defies naturalistic explanation. Chalk up two for the supernatural side.
The Large Finger
The largest finger brings to mind the Bible’s ability to address the big issues of life in a coherent way that’s also entirely consistent with our deepest intuitions about reality. Simply put, the worldview of the Bible makes sense.
First, the fundamental questions vexing mankind for millennia are all confronted in Scripture: What is life’s meaning? Who is God? What does He want? What makes man special? Why is there evil? What went wrong? How can we fix it?
Second, we are all intuitively aware of certain unavoidable facts. The universe is filled with order, meaning, and moral significance. Man is a unique creature, distinct from all other living things in his transcendent nobility, but is deeply damaged and morally broken, plagued by guilt he desperately tries to suppress.
The biblical worldview takes each of these things seriously. The universe is filled with order, meaning, and morality by a holy Creator who made us for friendship with Him. Yet we rebelled against our Sovereign, severing that relationship, damaging our own souls, and crippling the created order.
Evil is the wreckage left behind by our rebellion. Man is noble because he bears God’s image. Man is cruel because he is fallen. He feels guilty because he is guilty. Though our hearts long for restoration, reconciliation, and forgiveness, our wills remain defiant. Only God can rescue us.
Deep inside we already know most of these things. The Bible simply connects the dots, then offers the sole solution to the central problem. The problem is personal guilt that comes with rebellion. The solution is forgiveness that comes with surrender, what the Bible calls “repentance.”
The Bible has supernatural insight. Its assessment of the problem and its antidote for the cure both resonate with our deepest longings, and also fit our common-sense intuitions about the world and ourselves. Chalk up three for the supernatural side.
The Index Finger
The index, or “pointing,” finger reminds me that the Bible points to history for verification. It’s a reliable, detailed record from the distant past of events that have profound spiritual significance. This is important for two reasons.
First, a book allegedly given by God must get its history right. And it does.7 Menahem Mansoor, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has affirmed, “Biblical archaeology’s greatest significance is that it has corroborated many historical records in the Bible.”8
David Ussishkin, Jewish professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, acknowledges: “In general, the evidence of material culture fits the biblical account beginning with the period of the settlement of the tribes of Israel in the land of Canaan and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel.”9
Archaeology and the biblical record fit hand in glove. The trade journal Biblical Archaeological Review demonstrates this time and again. No other religious book can summon historical evidence to support its unique theological claims.10
The New Testament documents are the best historical documents of the ancient world when approached using the standard cannons of historical research untainted by naturalistic (anti-supernatural) presuppositions. There are five reasons historians take the New Testament material seriously.11
First, the accounts are early. As ancient records go, the narratives were written very close to the events they report.
Second, multiple, independent, primary source documents verify each other. In addition to the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the writings of Peter and Paul, 17 secular references12 along with prodigious archaeological evidence further corroborate the canonical accounts.
Third, the New Testament documents include details of eyewitness testimony: times of day, weather conditions, local customs, names of provincial rulers, and other minutia characteristic of authentic accounts.
Fourth, the Gospels include embarrassing details. Jesus’ disciples are petty, slow to understand, arrogant, and unfaithful. Peter denies Christ; the rest flee. Women, disrespected in the ancient world, are the first to witness the risen Christ. Why include these unflattering details if the Gospels are works of fiction?
Fifth, there was no motivation for the writers to deceive. Those who lie, do so out of self-interest. A testimony that brings torment, torture, and execution is not likely to be fabricated. The earliest disciples—those who were in a position to know the truth—signed their testimonies in blood. Peter wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). His claim fits all the facts.13
In the most successful work of history in history, The Story of Civilization, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Will Durant writes:
Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that many inventors would have concealed. No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them….After two centuries of higher criticism, the outlines of the life, character and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.14
“But isn’t the Qur’an historically accurate?” I am asked. Possibly, but that alone is not adequate to show supernatural authorship. Something more is needed, which leads to the second point: Unlike the Qur’an, the Bible is a record of supernatural events.15
The historical documents of the Gospels not only record Jesus’ claim to be God. They also faithfully document the miracles and resurrection from the dead that substantiate this claim. Jesus’ acts of power give His words tremendous authority (John 20:30-31).
If these things really happened, then Jesus is no ordinary man, and the book He endorsed as divine is no ordinary book. History itself is our ally, here.
In a dramatic reversal of New Testament scholarship over the last 50 years, the majority of scholars—even secular ones—now affirm four facts of history. One, Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross and was buried in a tomb. Two, the tomb was empty Sunday morning. Three, numerous people (including skeptics like James and Saul) experienced what they thought was the resurrected Jesus. Four, belief in the resurrection launched the early church.16
What historians do not agree on is what best explains these four facts of history. But there aren’t that many options. No explanation fits the evidence better than the one given by those previously gutless disciples who now put their lives on the line for this testimony: He who was dead is alive. He has risen.
The Bible records supernatural events in history to support its claims. Chalk up four for the supernatural side.
“Thumbs up” was the emperor’s sign that a gladiator had won the right to live to fight again. It reminds me that the Bible supernaturally changes people’s lives in deep, profound, and irreversible ways.
This is the acid test of God’s influence on revelation, its ability to dramatically transform. Whether old or young, rich or poor, learned or illiterate, noble or of mean birth, regardless of culture or country or era, the Bible has a revolutionary impact on those who heed its counsel.
And it’s promised in the text: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature. The old things passed away. Behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). When people consistently obey this book, something radical happens, both to individuals and to whole cultures.17
Yes, people can change on their own. However, obedience to Scripture changes us in ways we could never have accomplished by ourselves (we’ve tried). The Bible has a supernatural impact in human lives. Chalk up five for the supernatural side.
The clenched fist reminds me that the Bible is a fighter. It has demonstrated remarkable survival through time and persecution.
Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Matt. 13:31). Isaiah wrote, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Is. 40:8). In prison himself for the Bible’s testimony, Paul promised, “The Word of God cannot be imprisoned” (2 Tim. 2:9).
No other book in history has seen such concerted attempts to obliterate it—both externally (through destruction) and internally (through criticism)—to no avail. No other book has been printed as much, translated as much, read as much, or quoted as much as the Bible. No other name has been written about as much, pondered as much, sung about as much, or recognized as much all over the globe as the name of Jesus.
The Bible’s obituary has been written many times, but it refuses to stay in the grave. It remains today the best selling book of all time. If this book had not been the book of God, men would have destroyed it long ago. This defies a naturalistic explanation. Chalk up six for the supernatural side.
A Verdict And A Confession
The Bible has the stamp of the supernatural: supernatural predictions, supernatural unity, supernatural insight, a reliable record of supernatural events, supernatural impact, and supernatural survival.
Does this prove the Bible is God’s book? That depends upon what you consider proof. It’s always possible to be mistaken, but I have built a cumulative case here. Our claim is reasonable. Christians do have compelling evidence for the divine authorship of the Bible.
But now I’m going to confess something surprising: These persuasive evidences have almost nothing to do with why so many people around the world are convinced that the words of the Bible are also God’s own words. It certainly isn’t why I believe.
I came to believe that the Bible was inspired the same way most Christians do. I encountered the truth firsthand and was changed. Without really being able to explain why, I knew I was hearing the words of God and not just the words of man.
Consider this question: When Jesus addressed the multitudes, did He routinely give six compelling reasons to believe His words before actually speaking them? No. He simply began to talk and people marveled, even His detractors.
Soldiers sent to arrest Jesus returned empty-handed. Why had they disobeyed orders? They had listened. “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks,” they said (Jn. 7:46). Jesus didn’t start with reasons why people should believe His words. Instead, He let the words do the work themselves. And His words worked because they were the very words of God.
If you really want to know if the Bible is God’s Word, read it. Let Jesus speak for Himself. There is a powerful role the Spirit plays that is hard to describe, and is therefore difficult to explain to others.
For one, it is personal, subjective. Two, it’s non-rational. In a sense, we are not persuaded, as such. We are wooed and won over, and that’s very different from weighing reasons and coming to conclusions. Note, I didn’t say it was ir-rational, but non-rational. God uses a different means to change our minds about the Bible.
Even so, the reasons given above are still vital. Here’s why: The objective reasons are important to show that our subjective confidence has not been misplaced, that what we’ve believed with our hearts can be confirmed with our minds. The ancients called this, “Faith seeking understanding.”
When you start giving people reasons to change their minds—to believe in the Bible, for instance—their first instinct is to resist, to keep on believing what they’ve always believed. It’s human nature.
Offering good reasons is a fine approach. I do it all the time. In this case, though, skeptics will find the reasons more compelling if something else happens first. It’s best if they first listen.
If you want people to believe in the Bible, encourage them simply to listen to Jesus for a while, then have them draw their own conclusions. Most people respect Jesus. They’ve just never listened closely to what He’s said. They’ve never allowed His words to have their impact.
Don’t get into a tug-o-war with skeptics about inspiration. Instead, invite them to engage the ideas first, then let God do the heavy lifting for you. The truth you’re defending has a life of it’s own because the Spirit is in the words. Once others have listened a bit, any further reasons you give for biblical authority will have the soil they need to take root in.
If all the evidence—subjective and objective—shows that God has spoken in the Bible, then our appropriate response is to bend the knee. Our beliefs bow to revelation, because God Himself is the best the authority to tell us what is right and true and good.
When God speaks, our opinions are silenced. The ancient words are the final word—“ancient words, ever true, changing me, changing you.”
2 Of course, even if the Bible were entirely man-made, that wouldn’t by itself undermine the Bible’s message. There are millions of books not penned by inerrant hands that overflow with truth—even spiritual truth (Christian bookstores are filled with them). Though I believe in inerrancy, I don’t need inerrant Scripture to substantiate Christianity. Christianity stands or falls not on inerrancy, but on facts of history pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth. If the salient events recorded in the Gospels actually happened, then the claims of Christ are fully justified and Christianity is on solid ground.
3 Some might object that proving the Bible with the Bible is circular. But this is not so in our case. If our method subtly presumed the thing we were trying to prove—the divine inspiration of the Bible—that would be circular. But it does not. Instead, we’re merely looking to the text for evidence of Divine authorship. This is not circular.
8 Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1995, 29.
9 Ibid., 32.
10 This connection can be overstated. Piecing together hard data from thousands of years ago is difficult, and archaeological evidence is especially vulnerable to bias in its interpretation. Old Testament scholars of the “minimalist” school, for example, characteristically refuse to accept any biblical account without independent corroboration, a virtual impossibility when dealing with texts this ancient and not a demand made on other texts. Even so, a very strong case can be made for the correlation of biblical historical claims and archaeological evidence. An even-handed approach using the standard criteria of historiography minus naturalistic bias yields high marks for the Bible as an historical source. McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999) covers this ground thoroughly.
12 Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 108.
13 See also Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).
14 Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 557.
15 By the way, these are accounts, not “Bible stories.” They really happened.
16 See Habermas and Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, chapters 3 and 4, and William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, third edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 349, 361-389.
17 See “Christianity’s Real Record” at str.org. See also Alvin Schmidt, Under the Influence—How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) and Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).
The Canaanites: Genocide Or Judgment?Related Media
The assault on theism by the so-called “New Atheists” has principally focused on three areas. People like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have argued, broadly, that reason is on their side, science is on their side, and morality is on their side.1
One justification for the atheists’ claim to high moral ground is what seems to them to be the patently immoral conduct of the God of the Old Testament. According to Richard Dawkins, for example, God is not only a delusion, but a “pernicious delusion”:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.2
As an aside, it seems ironic that an atheist who denies the existence of objective morality can overflow so readily with moral indignation. But that’s another matter. The deeper concern is that this challenge needs an answer, not so much for hardened atheists like Dawkins (who are unlikely to be satisfied with any explanation), but because atheists are not the only ones troubled.
Say It Ain’t So
Though many parts of Dawkins’s charge have been answered by thoughtful Christians, certain passages in the Old Testament even give believers pause. Like these:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you…you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them…. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. But thus you shall do to them: You shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deut. 7:1-5)3
Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20.16-18)
Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Sam 15:2-3)
Strong words. Reading them brings to mind horrible terms like “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” Could this command really come from the God of all grace and mercy, the same God who, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, “became flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14)?
Maybe not, according to some.
But Did He Mean It?
Authors like philosopher Paul Copan (Is God a Moral Monster?) have argued, somewhat persuasively, that taking these commands entirely at face value would be to misread the genre. God gave the directives, to be sure (the Jews hadn’t thought this up on their own), but one must accurately understand God’s intention before he can accurately assess God’s commands.
First, the wording should be understood in the context of ancient Near Eastern military narrative, the argument goes. Ancient writings commonly traded in hyperbole—exaggeration for the sake of emphasis—especially when it came to military conquest. The practice is evident throughout battle reports of the time. “Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric,” Copan writes, “was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia B.C.” 4
Therefore, phrases like “utterly destroy” (haram), or “put to death men and women, children, and infants”—as well as other “obliteration language”—were stock “stereotypical” idioms used even when women or children were not present. 5 It decreed total victory (much like your favorite sports team “wiping out” the opposition), not complete annihilation.6
Second, Copan argues, women and children probably weren’t targets since the attacks were directed at smaller military outposts characteristically holding soldiers, not noncombatants (who generally lived in outlying rural areas). “All the archaeological evidence indicates that no civilian populations existed at Jericho, Ai, and other cities mentioned in Joshua.”7
Third, on Copan’s view the main purpose of the conquest was not annihilation, but expulsion—driving the inhabitants out—and cleansing the land of idolatry by destroying every vestige of the evil Canaanite religion8 (e.g., “You shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.” Deut. 7:1-5). Further, this process would be gradual, taking place over time: “The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You will not be able to put an end to them quickly, for the wild beasts would grow too numerous for you” (Deut. 7:22).
Finally, the record shows that Joshua fully obeyed the Lord’s command:
Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded…. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses. (Josh. 10:40, 11:15)
Still, at the end of Joshua’s life it was clear that many Canaanites continued to live in the land, left to be driven out gradually by the next generation (Josh. 23:12-13, Judges 1:21, 27-28). According to Copan, if Joshua did all that was expected of him, yet multitudes of Canaanites remained alive, then clearly the command to destroy all who breathed was not to be taken literally, but hyperbolically.
If these arguments go through—if God did not command the utter and indiscriminate destruction of men, women, and children by Joshua’s armies, but simply authorized an appropriate cleansing military action to drive out Israel’s (and God’s) enemies—then the critic’s challenge is largely resolved, it seems.
It’s quite possible, then—at least according to some thoughtful observers—that the “genocide” charge is based on an inaccurate understanding of what the text actually means. But not everyone agrees.
Yes, God Meant It
Researchers like Clay Jones see it differently.9 He understands these passages principally in terms of judgment, not displacement. Even if some hyperbolic and stereotypical language is in evidence, still there’s no escaping the implications that a major incentive for the conquest was judgment. Note:
“It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you…” (Deut. 9:5)
“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled.” (Lev. 18:24-25)
“When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations…because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you.” (Deut. 18:9, 12)
God was angry. Indeed, He was furious. And with good reason. Even by ancient standards, the Canaanites were a hideously nasty bunch. Their culture was grossly immoral, decadent to its roots. Its debauchery was dictated primarily by its fertility religion that tied eroticism of all varieties to the successful agrarian cycles of planting and harvest.
In addition to divination, witchcraft, and female and male temple sex, Canaanite idolatry encompassed a host of morally disgusting practices that mimicked the sexually perverse conduct of their Canaanite fertility gods: adultery, homosexuality, transvestitism, pederasty (men sexually abusing boys), sex with all sorts of beasts,10 and incest. Note that after the Canaanite city Sodom was destroyed, Lot’s daughters immediately seduced their drunken father, imitating one of the sexual practices of the city just annihilated (Gen. 19:30-36).
Worst of all, Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. There was a reason God had commanded, “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech” (Lev. 18:21 NIV):
Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death….And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.”11
A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.12
Archaeological evidence indicates that the children thus burned to death sometimes numbered in the thousands.13
The Canaanites had been reveling in debasements like these for centuries as God patiently postponed judgment (Gen 15.16). Here was no “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser” (to use Dawkins’s words). Instead, here was a God willing to spare the Canaanite city of Sodom for the sake of just ten righteous people (Gen. 18:32), a God who was slow to anger and always fast to forgive (note Nineveh, for example).
But is there not a limit? Indeed, what would we say of a God who perpetually sat silent in the face of such wickedness? Would we not ask, Where was God? Would we not question His goodness, His power, or even His existence if He did not eventually vanquish this evil? Yet when God finally does act, we are quick to find fault with the “vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser.”
The conquest was neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide. God cared nothing about skin color or national origin. Aliens shared the same legal rights in the commonwealth as Jews (Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:22, Deut. 10:18-19). Foreigners like Naomi and Rahab were welcome within their ranks.
God cared only about sin. The conquest was an exercise of capital punishment on a national scale, payback for hundreds of years of idolatry and unthinkable debauchery.14 Indeed, God brought the same sentence of destruction on His own people when they sinned in like manner.
In the process of executing His sentence against the Canaanites, God would be cleansing the land of every vestige of their debased religion (e.g., tearing down the high places) to establish a land of spiritual purity and religious truth so God’s strategy to save all the nations of the world could go forward (Gen. 12:3).
God’s rescue plan to save mankind depended on the theological purity of Abraham’s seed, Israel. The cancer of idolatry needed to be cut out for the patient—God’s plan of redemption—to survive. Syncretism with pagan religions would have corrupted Israel’s theological core. By purging the land of this evil, God ensured that redemption—forgiveness for the evils of any nation—would be available in the future for people of every nation.
Unfortunately, instead of completing the conquest of Canaan and driving its people out as commanded, the Jews capitulated (Judg. 1:28-33). Blending in with their enemy’s godless culture, they quickly were corrupted by it:
The sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites…took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. The sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. (Judg. 3:5-7)
Before long the Jews had adopted all the degrading and detestable habits God had condemned Canaan for in the first place.15 The book of Judges—a record of the “Canaanization” of Israel—ends on this sinister note: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Eventually, the same judgment that fell on the debauched Canaanites, fell upon the corrupted Jews for the very same reasons.
Many balk, though, at the suggestion that non-combatants—women and children—were among the victims. This is partly because they assume the conquest was primarily a military action—combat. It was not. It was principally a sentence of judgment, with the punishment carried out by Israel’s army against the entire Canaanite people.
Characteristically, God deals not with individuals, but with nations as a whole when grand designs are in play. Since Canaanite sin was regular and systematic—the entire adult population participated in the idolatrous system—God judged the entire nation. Women were no less guilty than men, and in many cases they were the principal instigators.
When a community sins, there are consequences for every member of the population, even children. When Israel did evil and God brought famine and drought, adults and children suffered alike. Every act of corporate judgment sustains collateral damage.
Without question, the Canaanite adults got their just deserts. Regarding the children, I personally take comfort in the fact that, on my view, those who die before the age of accountability are ushered immediately into Heaven.16
But there is another reason God seems justified in taking any life—even “innocent” life—anytime He wants.
It’s always a good idea when fielding any challenge to try to get specific about the specifics. What exactly is the skeptic’s complaint here? If the conquest took place as the narrative describes, what precisely is evil about the destruction of the Canaanites? Was it evil for God to command it, or was it evil for Israel to obey it?17
It certainly seems that if God does exist, and if He were to have morally sufficient reasons for decreeing the destruction of a group of people, then the means by which he carries it out would be somewhat inconsequential. Whether God chose famine, wild beasts, pestilence, or sword (Ezek. 14:12-23), if the authority to destroy is there, then the means of judgment is incidental. Thus, if it was right for God to command the conquest, it seems right for Israel to obey the command.
But was God right? I’ve already shown that if God needed morally sufficient reasons for killing the Canaanites, he had them in abundance. However, if God is God, does He even need to justify what He does with His creation? Does God need to give a reason to build up or to tear down, to plant or to uproot? (Jer. 45:4) Does God need to answer for taking the life of any person, even an innocent one?
When Job lost everything dear to him, he did not rail against God, but worshipped Him saying, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Reflecting on the sovereignty of God, the Apostle Paul asked, “Does not the potter have a right over the clay?” (Rom. 9:21)
If this approach seems a bit severe, let me make an observation.
When people argue against capital punishment, they often form their appeal this way: “Capital punishment is wrong because man should not play God.” The same sensibility is reflected when people argue that cloning is suspect because the right to create life is God’s alone, not man’s.
I don’t think these arguments themselves ultimately succeed (that is, the morality of either capital punishment or cloning must be decided on other grounds). Still, I think the intuitions they trade on are sound.
Making life and taking life are the appropriate prerogatives of God. He has privileges that we do not. Though we shouldn’t play God, certainly God can play God, so to speak. Just as the owner has latitude the hired hand does not, the Creator has freedoms creatures do not share.
That’s part of what we mean when we say God is “sovereign.” The Maker has complete authority over what He has made—not simply in virtue of His power (omnipotence), but in virtue of His rightful ownership. Everything God created is His. He can do as He likes with anything that belongs to Him—which is everything.
Appealing to the sovereignty of God is not meant to silence opposition with a power move (How dare you question God!). Rather, it’s meant to put the issue in proper perspective. God has full and appropriate authority when it comes to issues of life and death. Being the Author of life, He has the absolute right to give life or to take life away whenever He wishes.
The Heart Of The Problem
Put another way, God is God and we are not. He is not to be measured by our standards. Rather, we are to be measured by His. And that brings us to the root of our difficulty with God’s judgment of the Canaanites. The heart of the problem is the heart, ours.
In a certain sense, the lesson of the conquest is a simple one: God punishes evil. For many in our culture, though, the Canaanite offenses simply are not offensive. “Divination, sexual adventure, adultery, homosexuality, transvestitism, all evil? Please.”
Virtually every crime on the Canaanite rap sheet is common fare in our communities or can be found one click away on the internet. Children are not being torched on church altars, to be sure, but thousands die daily in abortion clinics sacrificed (literally) to the gods of choice and convenience.
There’s little doubt the wording in God’s commands regarding the conquest includes hyperbole. This is true of every narrative, ancient and modern. But literary devices are always meant to clarify meaning, not obscure it. God’s clear message was that punishment was coming, and it would be poured out with a fury upon all the inhabitants of a corrupt nation that had reveled in its debauchery for centuries.
This was not carte blanche for genocide or ethnic cleansing, but rather a directive limited in time to the conquest, limited in scope to the Canaanites, and limited in location to the Promised Land.
Yes, Joshua claimed he “finished” the job, though Canaanites remained. In light of all the details in the account, though, clearly the conquest wasn’t complete, only Joshua’s portion. He’d been completely faithful to do everything he could do on his watch (and here I think Joshua was using hyperbole, too). He then passed the baton to the next generation who was to follow his faithful example and finish the task.
In the process of judging, God would be cleansing, clearing out a safe place for truth to flourish so that Israel might rise up as a “kingdom of priests” to the nations, bringing the blessing of Abraham to all peoples—Jew and gentile alike.
It may turn out, though, that this explanation—or any explanation true to the text—is not going to satisfy the belligerent skeptic. People like Richard Dawkins and other critics “playing at omniscience”18 are simply ignorant of the deeper designs in play.
Further, since we’ve all been “morally velocitized” by our own depravity, any response by God that takes sin seriously will seem inordinate to us. In fact, the temptation is strong even for Christians to sanitize the account so that God looks less extreme. “Most of our problems regarding God’s ordering the destruction of the Canaanites,” Clay Jones writes, “come from the fact that God hates sin, but we do not.”19
Atheists read the account of Canaan’s conquest and sniff with moral indignation at the suggestion a holy God could be within His rights to destroy the Canaanite people along with their culture. I suspect, though, that Jones has a more accurate assessment:
We do not appreciate the depths of our own depravity, the horror of sin, and the righteousness of God. Consequently, it is no surprise that when we see God’s judgment upon those who committed the sins we commit, that complaint and protest arises within our hearts.20
1 I responded to each of these points in issues of Solid Ground for May, July, and September 2008, and in STR’s The Ambassador’s Guide to the New Atheists (str.org). [https://secure2.convio.net/str/site/Ecommerce/1001549571?VIEW_PRODUCT=true&product_id=7621&store_id=1161]
2 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 31.
3 All scripture citations taken from the NASB unless otherwise noted.
4 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?—Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 171. [http://www.amazon.com/Is-God-Moral-Monster-Testament/dp/0801072751/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353265120&sr=8-1&keywords=paul+copan]
5 Copan, 175-6.
6 See also Deut. 2:34 and 3:6.
7 Copan, 176.
8 Ibid., 181, 178.
9 Clay Jones, “Why We Don’t Hate Sin so We don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi n.s. 11 (2009): 53-72. [http://www.clayjones.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/We-Dont-Hate-Sin-PC-article.pdf]
10 This may explain God’s command to destroy even domestic animals. “No one would want to have animals around that were used to having sex with humans.” Jones, 66.
11 Jones, 61.
12 Ibid., see footnote.
13 Ibid., 62 see footnote.
14 In the case of the Amalekites, God’s judgment was for their unprovoked ambush of His people when en route to the land (1 Sam. 15, Deut. 25:17-19).
15 See also 2 Kings 17:16-17.
16 For more on this issue, see Ronald Nash, When a Baby Dies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999). [http://www.amazon.com/When-Baby-Dies-Ronald-Nash/dp/0310225566/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353029388&sr=8-1&keywords=when+a+baby+dies]
18 Peter J. Williams.
19 Jones, 53.
20 Ibid., 71.
“Misquoting” Jesus?, Answering Bart EhrmanRelated Media
In Misquoting Jesus, the New York Times bestseller subtitled The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, author Bret Ehrman fires a shot meant to sink the ship of any Christian who thinks the New Testament documents can be trusted. Here it is:
What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways….There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.1 [emphasis in the original]
Ehrman is right on the facts, as far as they go. There are 130,000 words in the New Testament, yet the surviving manuscripts (the handwritten copies) reveal something like 400,000 individual times the wording disagrees between them.2 Indeed, Ehrman points out, the manuscripts “differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are.”3
Further, Bart Ehrman is an accomplished scholar with impeccable bona fides. He co-authored The Text of the New Testament (4th Edition)—an academic standard in the field—with Bruce Metzger, arguably the greatest New Testament manuscript scholar alive at the time.4
The Washington Post says Misquoting Jesus “casts doubt on any number of New Testament episodes that most Christians take as, well gospel.” Publishers Weekly promises that Ehrman’s arguments “ensure that readers might never read the gospels or Paul’s letters the same way again.”5
Which, of course, is exactly what Ehrman wants. Misquoting is the kind of what-they-don’t-want-you-to-know exposé that has become popular in recent years. Ehrman “exposes” discoveries that sabotaged his own “born-again” faith while a graduate student at Princeton, leaving him with the agnosticism about God he now embraces.6
Has the Bible been changed over 2,000 years of copying and recopying? Ehrman answers, “Yes, significantly.” Worse, the massive number of alterations make it virtually impossible to have any confidence of reconstructing the autographs.
Without the original renderings, there is no inspired text. Without inspired Scripture, there is no orthodox Christianity, only a jumble of spiritual ideas about Jesus expressed in a diverse body of conflicting texts that have tumbled down to us through the corridors of time.
Is this skepticism justified? Simply put, no. In spite of Ehrman’s credentials, his who-knows-what-the-original-text-said view is not the majority opinion of textual scholars. This includes Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s mentor, to whom he dedicated the book. The reasons for this confidence are based in the nature of the reconstructive task itself.
Reconstructing Aunt Sally’s Recipe
A manuscript is a hand-copied text. For the first 1500 years after Christ, all copies of the Bible were reproduced by scribes who did the best they could—in most cases—to faithfully transmit the text. Inevitably, mistakes happened which were then compounded geometrically when the flaw was copied, spawning multiple copies with the same error in subsequent generations of texts.7 Some changes, it seems clear, were intentional and even theologically motivated.
Given that history, it’s hard to imagine how an original can be restored. The uncertainty, though, is based on two misconceptions by the rank and file about the history of the communication of ancient material like that found in the New Testament.
The first assumption is that the transmission is more or less linear—one person passing the message on to a second who gives it to a third, etc., leaving a single message many generations removed from the original. Second, the objection assumes oral transmission which is more easily distorted and misconstrued than something written.
Neither assumption applies to the text of the New Testament. First, the transmission was done in writing, and written manuscripts can be tested in a way oral communications cannot. Second, the transmission was not linear, but geometric—e.g., one letter birthed 10 copies which generated 100 and so on.
Let me illustrate how such a test can be made. It will help you see how scholars confidently reconstruct an original from conflicting manuscripts that are centuries removed from the autograph.
Pretend your Aunt Sally learns in a dream the recipe for an elixir that preserves her youth. When she awakes, she scribbles the complex directions on a sheet of paper, then runs to the kitchen to mix up her first batch of “Sally’s Secret Sauce.” In a few days, she is transformed into a picture of radiant youth.
Aunt Sally is so excited she sends detailed, handwritten instructions to her three bridge partners (Aunt Sally is still in the technological dark ages—no photocopier or email). They, in turn, make copies for ten of their own friends.
All goes well until one day Aunt Sally’s schnauzer eats the original script. In a panic she contacts her friends who have mysteriously suffered similar mishaps. The alarm goes out to the others who received copies from her card-playing trio in an attempt to recover the original wording.
Sally rounds up all the surviving handwritten copies, 26 in all. When she spreads them out on the kitchen table, she immediately notices differences. Twenty-three of the copies are virtually the same save for misspelled words and abbreviations littering the text. Of the remaining three, however, one lists ingredients in a different order, another has two phrases inverted (“mix then chop” instead of “chop then mix”), and one includes an ingredient not mentioned in any other list.
Do you think Aunt Sally can accurately reconstruct her original recipe from this evidence? Of course she can. The misspellings and abbreviations are inconsequential, as is the order of ingredients in the list (those variations all mean the same thing). The single inverted phrase stands out and can easily be repaired because one can’t mix something that hasn’t been chopped. Sally would then strike the extra ingredient reasoning it’s more plausible one person would mistakenly add an item than 25 people would accidentally omit it.
Even if the variations were more numerous and diverse, the original could still be reconstructed with a high level of confidence with enough copies and a little common sense.
This, in simplified form (very simplified, but you get the point), is how scholars do “textual criticism,” an academic enterprise used to reconstitute all documents of antiquity, not just religious texts. It is not a haphazard effort based on guesses and religious faith. It is a careful analytical process allowing an alert critic to determine the extent of possible corruption of any work and, given certain conditions, reconstruct the original with a high degree of certainty.
This last point raises the key question of this entire discussion: Regardless of the raw number of variants, can we recover the original reading with confidence? The answer to that pivotal question depends on three factors. First, how many copies exist? Second, how old are the manuscripts? Third, what is the exact nature of the differences (the variants)?
How Many And How Old?
If the number of manuscripts available for comparison are few and the time gap between the original and the oldest copy is wide, then the autograph is harder to reconstruct. However, if there are many copies and the oldest ones are closer in time to the original, the scholar can be more certain she has pinpointed the exact wording of the initial text, for all practical purposes.8
To get an idea of the significance of the New Testament manuscript evidence, note for a moment the record for non-biblical texts. These are secular writings historians rely on for all their data from antiquity that have been restored with a high level of confidence based on available textual evidence.9
Josephus’ first century document The Jewish War survives in only nine complete manuscripts dating from the 5th century—four centuries after they were written.10 Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome is one of the chief historical sources for the Roman world of New Testament times, yet, surprisingly, it survives in only two manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages.11 Thucydides’ History survives in eight copies. There are ten copies of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, eight copies of Herodotus’ History, and seven copies of Plato, all dated over a millennium from the original. Homer’s Iliad has the most impressive manuscript evidence for any secular work with 647 existing copies.12
Note that for most ancient documents only a handful of manuscripts exist, some facing a time gap of 800-1500 years or more. Yet scholars are confident they have reconstructed the originals with a high degree of accuracy. In fact, virtually all of our knowledge of ancient history depends on documents like these.
The Biblical Manuscript Evidence
The manuscript evidence for the New Testament is stunning by comparison. A recent count shows 5,500 separate Greek manuscripts.13 These are represented by early fragments, uncial codices (manuscripts in capital Greek letters bound together in book form), and minuscules (small Greek letters in cursive style).
Among the 2,795 minuscule fragments dating from the 9th to the 15th centuries are 34 complete New Testaments.14 Uncial manuscripts providing virtually complete New Testaments date back to the 4th century and earlier. Codex Vaticanus is likely the oldest, dated c. 325-350.15 The magnificent Codex Sinaiticus, dated c. 34016, contains half the Old Testament and virtually all of the New. Codex Alexandrinus contains the whole Old Testament and a nearly complete New Testament and dates from the mid-5th century.17
The most fascinating evidence comes from the fragments. The Chester Beatty Papyri contains most of the New Testament and is dated mid-third century.18 The Bodmer Papyri II collection, whose discovery was announced in 1956, includes most of the first fourteen chapters of the Gospel of John and much of the last seven chapters. It dates from A.D. 200 or earlier.19
The most amazing find of all, however, is a small portion of John 18:31-33, discovered in Egypt. Known as the John Rylands Papyri and barely three inches square, it represents the earliest known copy of any part of the New Testament. The papyri is dated at A.D. 117-138 (though it may even be earlier),20 showing that the Gospel of John was circulated as far away as Egypt within 40 years of its composition.
Keep in mind that most papyri are fragmentary. Only about 50 manuscripts contain the entire New Testament. Even so, the textual evidence is exceedingly rich, especially when compared to other works of antiquity.
Two other cross-checks on the accuracy of the manuscripts remain: ancient versions (translations) and citations by early church Fathers known as “patristic quotations.”
Early in the history of the Church, the Scriptures were translated into Latin (10,000 copies exist21). By the 3rd and 4th centuries the New Testament had been translated and reproduced in Coptic and Syriac, and soon after in Armenian, and Georgian, among others. 22 These texts helped missionaries reach new cultures in their own language as the Gospel spread and the church grew. Translations help modern-day scholars answer questions about the underlying Greek manuscripts.
In addition, there are ancient extra-biblical sources—catechisms, lectionaries, and quotes from the church fathers—that cite Scripture at great length. Indeed, the patristic quotations themselves include virtually every verse in the New Testament.23
I want you to notice something here. The chief concern Bart Ehrman raises regarding the biblical texts—the massive number of variants—can only arise with a massive number of manuscripts. Scholars universally consider this a virtue, not a vice—good news, not bad—because the condition causing the problem is the very condition providing the solution. The more manuscripts available for comparison, the more changes that will likely appear, but also the more raw material to use for comparison to fix the problem the variants pose.
This mountain of manuscripts gives us every reason to believe the originals have been preserved in the aggregate. No missing parts need be replaced. We have 110% of the text, not 90%.24 The real question is this: Do we know how to separate the wheat from the chaff to recover the original reading? That depends entirely on our last question: What is the nature of the variants themselves?
Those Pesky Variants
According to manuscript expert Daniel Wallace, “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.25 Note that any difference, no matter how slight, is added to the total count.
What exactly are those differences? They can be divided into two categories: significant variants and insignificant ones. An insignificant variant has absolutely no bearing on our ability to reconstruct the original text. The meaning remains the same, regardless of which reading is the original.
For example, well over half the variants (yes, more than 200,000) are spelling errors,26 due either to accident (the ie/ei mistake is as common in Scripture as it is in our own writing), or different choices of phonetic spelling (kreinai vs. krinai). A host of others are immaterial differences in abbreviation or style (a definite article appearing before a name—“the James”—omitted in another because it adds nothing to the meaning).27
Clearly, some insignificant variations are theologically important. The rendering in the KJV of 1 John 5 (the Comma Johanneum) appearing to echo the Trinity is about a significant doctrinal issue, but clearly this variant is not in the original so it creates no textual concern. It appears in only a four manuscripts, the earliest dating from the 10th century (four others have it penciled into the margin by a scribe),28 and is almost universally acknowledged to be a corruption. Further, the doctrine of the Trinity does not rely on this text, but is verified by many other passages not in question.
A similar problem occurs with thousands of other variants that appear in only one manuscript (“singular readings”). These obvious mistakes are easily corrected.
Here’s how Wallace29 sums up the variations:
- Spelling differences or nonsense readings (e.g., a skipped line)
- Inconsequential word order (“Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ”) and synonyms
- Meaningful, though non-viable variants (e.g., the Comma Johanneum)
- Variants that are both meaningful and viable
Wallace’s last category constitutes “much less than” 1% of all variations.30 In other words, more than 396,000 of the variants have no bearing on our ability to reconstruct the original. Even with the textually viable differences that remain, the vast majority are so theologically insignificant they are “relatively boring.”31 These facts Ehrman himself freely admits:
Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort of another.32
Wallace’s fourth category—those variants both meaningful and viable (in a textual sense)—is the only one of any consequence. “We are talking here,” write Kostenberger and Kruger, “about a situation where there are two (or more) possible readings, and the evidence for each reading…is relatively equal.”33
Here the analytical skills of the professional textual critic are applied to weed out the most unlikely variants. She has at her disposal a specific set of rules—the accepted canons of textual analysis—that enable her to resolve the vast majority of conflicts to recover the original with a high degree of confidence.
Ironically, this is precisely the point Ehrman unwittingly demonstrates as he closes out his case against the New Testament documents.
Ehrman’s “Top Ten”
On the final page of the paperback edition of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman lists the “Top Ten Verses That Were Not Originally in the New Testament.” It serves as his parting salvo, but in reality proves his entire thesis false.
First, I immediately recognized six of the ten citations, and in every case my own Bible translation (NASB) makes a marginal note that these verses are not in the earliest manuscripts. No surprises here.
Second, one third of Ehrman’s “Top Ten” list actually is in the New Testament, after all. Luke 22:20, 24:12, and 24:51b are, in fact, questionable in Luke. They do appear, however, almost word for word in uncontested passages (respectively, Matthew 26:28 and Mark 14:24; John 20:3-7; Acts 1:9, 11).
Third, nothing of theological consequence is lost by striking any of the variants Ehrman lists, even the long ending in Mark (16:9-20) or the engaging but likely non-canonical account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11).
Finally (and most damaging), Ehrman’s list proves just the opposite of what he intends. For all his hand wringing that the original text is lost forever, his list itself demonstrates it’s possible to recognize the most important spurious renderings and eliminate them.
Ehrman’s own works (Misquoting and also The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) prove that the text-critical methods mentioned above—the very methods he uses to critique the New Testament—are adequate to restore the original reading. It is proof that the massive number of variants do not interfere with our ability to recapture the original, but instead the rich manuscript evidence we possess allows us to weed out the vast percentage of variants. Otherwise Ehrman would not be able to say with confidence his “Top Ten”—or any other verses—are not in the New Testament.
This is a fact he acknowledges (again, ironically) in another work. Compare the pessimism of Misquoting Jesus with the optimism expressed in Metzger and Ehrman’s The Text of the New Testament:34
Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic compares numerous scriptural quotations used in commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament. [emphasis added]
Bart Ehrman has two books with his name on them that give the exact opposite impression.35 And both were published the same year (2005).
What can we conclude from the evidence? Virtually all of the 400,000 differences in the New Testament documents—spelling errors, inverted words, non-viable variants and the like—are completely inconsequential to the task of reconstructing the original. Of the remaining differences, virtually all yield to a vigorous application of the accepted canons of textual criticism.
This means that our New Testament is over 99% pure. In the entire text of 20,000 lines, only 40 lines are in doubt (about 400 words),36 and none affects any significant doctrine.
Scholar D.A. Carson sums it up this way: “What is at stake is a purity of text of such a substantial nature that nothing we believe to be doctrinally true, and nothing we are commanded to do, is in any way jeopardized by the variants.”37
Our chief question has been, “Can we reproduce the original New Testament to a high degree of certainty?” Even Bart Ehrman, in spite of himself, demonstrates we can.
1 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus—The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, first paperback edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 7, 90.
2 Daniel Wallace, “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation,” bible.org (http://bible.org/article/number-textual-variants-evangelical-miscalculation).
3 Ehrman, 10.
4 Bruce Metzger passed away in 2007.
5 Both quotes can be found on the back cover of Misquoting Jesus.
6 Ehrman, 7, 257.
7 When a large number of manuscripts exhibit the same “signature” pattern of variations, they are referred to as a text family or a “text type,” e.g., the Alexandrian Text, the Western Text, or the Majority Text (aka the Byzantine Text, the underlying manuscript family of the KJV).
8 Kostenberger and Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 205. Sufficient certainty is the goal, not absolute certainty.
9 Very minor differences in number appear in various catalogs of these documents, but these are accurate enough to make our point.
10 Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History? (Ann Arbor: Vine Books, 1986), 45.
11 Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 405.
12 Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 34.
13 Kostenberger and Kruger, 207. The number of manuscripts is continually increasing as more are discovered.
14 Geisler & Nix, 402.
15 Ibid., 391.
16 Ibid., 392.
17 Ibid., 394.
18 Ibid., 389-390.
19 Metzger, 39-40.
20 Geisler and Nix, 388.
21 Kostenberger and Kruger, 208.
22 Barnett, 44.
23 Metzger, 86.
24 Daniel Wallace, “The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical?,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 1991, 169.
25 Daniel Wallace, “The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation.”
26 Daniel Wallace, “Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?,” http://bible.org/article/what-we-have-now-what-they-wrote-then.
27 Kostenberger and Kruger, 215-217.
28 Ibid., 219.
29 Daniel Wallace, “Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?”
31 Kostenberger and Kruger, 226.
32 Ehrman, 55.
33 Kostenberger and Kruger, 225.
34 Metzger and Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 126.
35 To be fair, this portion was undoubtedly authored by Metzger. Nonetheless, the ironic conflict remains.
36Geisler and Nix, 475.
37Carson, D.A., The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 56.
No “Lost” BooksRelated Media
Has archaeology unearthed ancient biblical texts that cast doubt on the current canon of Scripture? Is it possible that Christians don’t have the true Bible?
Browsing through the religious section in your local bookstore, you’re likely to stumble on a handful of titles that suggest the discovery of “lost books” of the Bible. Generally, these represent works that were “politically incorrect” according to the theological notions of the time. Branded as spurious by early church leaders, they were discredited and destroyed. Luckily, a handful of copies survived. Archaeologists have rescued these previously “lost books” of the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas [image attached to email], unearthed in the Nag Hammadi library in Upper Egypt in 1945, would be an example.
Invariably, this sends a jolt through the system of the conscientious Christian. Could it be that archaeology has unearthed ancient biblical texts that cast doubt on the current canon of Scripture? Is it possible the Bible that Christians have is incomplete?
It may be hard to believe, but this question can be answered without ever reading any of the books in question. No research needs to be done, no ancient tomes addressed, no works of antiquity perused. Curiously, the entire issue can be answered by a close look at one word: Bible.
The Bible Divine
The whole question of alleged lost books of the Bible hinges on what one means by the word “Bible.” It can only mean one of two things, it seems to me. There is a religious understanding of the word, and there is a more secular definition.
When one asks an Evangelical Christian what the Bible is, he’s likely to say simply, “It’s God’s Word.” When pressed for a more theologically precise definition, he might add that God superintended the writing of Scripture so that the human authors, using their own style, personalities and resources, wrote down, word for word, exactly what God intended them to write in the originals. This verbal plenary inspiration is a vital part of the Christian definition of the word “Bible.”
The key concept for our discussion is the phrase “exactly what God intended them to write.” This is a critical element of this understanding of “Bible” is the idea that God was not limited by the fact that human authors were involved in the process.
A common objection to the notion of inspiration is that the Bible was only written by men, and men make mistakes. This complaint misses the mark for two reasons.
First, it does not logically follow that because humans were involved in the writing process, the Bible must necessarily be in error. Mistakes may be possible, but they’re not necessary. To assume error in all human writing is also self-defeating. The humanly derived statement, “The Bible was written by men, and men make mistakes,” would be suspect by the same standards. The fact is, human beings can and do produce writing with no errors. It happens all the time.
Further, the challenge that men make mistakes ignores the main issue—whether or not the Bible was written only by men. The Christian accepts that humans are limited, but denies that man’s limitations are significant in this case because inspiration implies that God’s power supersedes man’s liabilities.
A simple question—Columbo style—serves to illustrate this: “Are you saying that if God exists, He’s not capable of writing what He wants through imperfect men?” This seems hard to affirm. The notion of an omnipotent God not being able to accomplish such a simple task is ludicrous. If, on the other hand, the answer is “No, I think He is able,” then the objection vanishes. If God is capable, then man’s limitations are not a limit on God.
The divine inspiration of the Bible—if we can offer good reasons the Bible was from God to begin with—automatically solves the problem of human involvement. If God insures the results, it doesn’t matter if men or monkeys do the writing, they will still write exactly what God intends. That is part of what it means for the Bible to be divinely inspired.
The important thing for our purpose here is not to defend the notion of divine inspiration, but to understand that God’s authorship and supernatural preservation are necessarily entailed in the first definition of the word “Bible.” The Bible is the 66 individual books contained under one cover that are supernaturally inspired by God, and are preserved and protected by His power. On this understanding, man’s limitations are irrelevant.
The Bible Secular
The second definition of the word “Bible” is not religious, and therefore assumes no supernatural origin for the Scripture. This view says that while Christians treated the Scriptures as divinely inspired, they were mistaken. The Bible merely represents a human consensus, a collection of books chosen by the early church to reflect its own beliefs.
A book that didn’t make the cut was rejected for two basic reasons: Early Christians couldn’t trace authorship to an Apostle or eyewitness accounts, and the theology differed from what had been handed down from the Apostles. Christianity is no different from other religions that have collections of authoritative writings. Even individual professions identify certain books—"bibles," if you will—as official representations of their respective fields. The Bible, then, is in that category—merely a collection of books chosen by the early church leaders to represent their own beliefs.
So we have two possible meanings for the word “Bible,” a supernatural one and a natural one. Either the Bible is divinely given and divinely preserved—the conservative Christian view—or it’s merely a human document representing the beliefs of a religious group known by the label “Christianity”—the view of just about everyone else. Given either of these two definitions, could any books of the Bible be lost?
No Lost Books
Start with the first meaning, the supernatural definition of the Bible. Is it possible that books could be lost from a Bible of this sort? The answer is certainly no. Remember, on this view God Himself is supernaturally preserving and protecting the integrity of His work.
Regardless of whether the Christian claim about inspiration is accurate or not, it is obvious that on this definition it is not possible God would misplace His own book. The “lost books” thesis would thus be reduced to, “Certain books that almighty God was responsible to preserve and protect got lost.”
This is silly. The view makes God both almighty and inept at the same time. If the Bible is in fact the inspired Word of God, then the power of God Himself guarantees that no portion of it will ever be lost. There will always be a fully adequate testimony of His Word in every generation.
Could there be lost books given the second definition? What if Christians are wrong in attributing God’s stewardship to the Scriptures? What if the Bible ultimately turns out to be merely a product of human design? If that’s the case, then the term “Bible” refers not to the Word of God (the first definition), but to the canon of beliefs of the leaders of the early church (the second definition). Is it possible that books could be lost from a Bible of this sort?
The answer again is certainly not. The “lost books” thesis would be reduced to this: “Early church leaders rejected certain books as unrepresentative of their beliefs that they actually believed reflected their beliefs.’
If the Bible is a collection of books the early church leaders decided would represent their point of view, then they have the final word on what is included. Any books they rejected were never part of their Bible to begin with, so even by the second definition, “lost books” of the Bible would be a misnomer.
Consider this scenario. You decide to write a book about your personal beliefs drawing from stacks of notes containing reflections you’ve collected over the years. After recording the ones you agree with, you discard the rest. Later, someone rummaging through your trash comes upon your discarded notes. Could he claim he’d stumbled upon your lost beliefs?
“No,” you respond, “these were not lost. They were rejected. If they were really my beliefs, they’d be in the book, not in the garbage.”
It’s ironic that “lost books” advocates often point out that rediscovered texts were missing because the early Church Fathers suppressed them. It’s true; they did. Critics think this strengthens their case, but it doesn’t. Instead it destroys their position by proving that the “lost books” were not lost but discarded, rejected as not representative of Christian beliefs. Therefore, they did not belong in the Christian Bible. If they never were in the Bible in the first place they couldn’t be lost from the Bible.
Another approach to Scripture is worth mentioning. Some academics, like those of the Jesus Seminar, reject the idea that the Bible has supernatural origins. Since the Bible is just man’s opinion anyway, why not have a recall vote? Amend the text to fix what is now considered defective or out of step with the times.
Such a reshuffling of the biblical deck—tossing out some books and including others to reflect what the church currently believes about spiritual truth—is certainly an alternative on a naturalistic view of the Scripture. If the members of the Jesus Seminar want to include the Gospel of Thomas in their bible, they’re welcome to. Keep in mind though, they would not be restoring a “lost book” of the Bible, but merely redefining the canon to fit modern tastes.
Regardless of how you view the Scripture—as supernatural or as natural—there is no sense in which there could be lost books of the Bible. If the Bible is supernatural—if God is responsible for its writing, it’s transmission, and its survival—then God, being God, doesn’t fail. He doesn’t make mistakes, He doesn’t forget things, and He’s not constrained by man’s limitations. God can’t lose his lessons.
However, if the Bible is not supernatural—as many will contend, especially those who claim to have found lost books—one faces a different problem. By what standard do we claim these are bona fide lost books of the canon of the early church? If, from a human perspective, the Bible is that collection of writings reflecting the beliefs of early Christianity, then any writings discarded by the church fathers are not books of their Bible by very definition.
Has archaeology unearthed previously unknown ancient texts? Certainly. Are they interesting, noteworthy, and valuable? Some. Are they missing books of the Bible? The answer is no. Two thousand years later, the rediscovery of something like the Gospel of Thomas may be archaeologically significant. It might be a lost book of antiquity, a great find, even a wonderful piece of literature.
But it is not a lost book of the Bible.
Jesus, The Recycled RedeemerRelated Media
There is a reason the ancient historical accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth do not start with the phrase, “Once upon a time….” On the face of it, the authors did not appear to be writing fairytales for future generations, but rather detailed accounts of the extraordinary events in the life of a particular Jewish carpenter who actually changed the course of history.
The opening words of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life are especially clear on this point:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea….
In John’s account we find two striking claims that bookend his record, the first found in Chapter 1 and the last in Chapter 20:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Many other [miraculous] signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
Each of these ancient “biographies” of Jesus—along with the only other accounts that give any breadth of detail about the Nazarene (Matthew and Mark)—proceed in the same fashion.
First, the authors are clearly aware they are relating a remarkable story about a remarkable man who did remarkable things. Second, it is just as clear they were convinced the events in their accounts really happened. These were not sacred stories of netherworld gods and ethereal, supernatural heroes, but reports of actual historical events involving flesh and blood people with their feet firmly planted on terra firma.
The Gospel writers intended to report history, not mythology. Their accounts include the vivid detail of an observer who had witnessed the events personally, or a chronicler who had obtained the information from people who were actually there. Yet they are not merely reports, but arguments meant to persuade, citing evidence to prove their claims.
These facts on their own don’t make the accounts true, of course. But they do seem to place these writings in a class of ancient literature that doesn’t allow them to be dismissed for frivolous reasons. Yet this is exactly what has been happening.
“Once Upon A Time…”
The internet is littered with allegations that the historical records of the life of Jesus of Nazareth are examples of a kind of religious plagiarism, a mere rehashing of dying-and-rising-god fictions of ancient mythology, a recycling of common details found in dozens of mystery religions in the ancient world around the time of Christ.
Simply Google Mithras, Dionysus, Osiris, Adonis, or Isis and you will be buried in an avalanche of “evidence” linking the divine teacher from Galilee with a host of characters allegedly manufactured from the same mythic material. The most well-known attempt is a flashy “documentary” called Zeitgeist—The Greatest Story Ever Sold that has gone viral on the web.
According to “Zeitgeist,” ancient hieroglyphics tell us this about the anthropomorphized Egyptian sun God, Horus:
Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis, Mary. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east which, in turn, three kings followed to locate and adore the new-born savior. At the age of 12 he was a prodigal child teacher. At the age of 30 was baptized by a figure known as Adep, and thus began his ministry. Horus had 12 disciples who he traveled about with performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water. Horus was known by many gestural names such as “The Truth,” “The Light,” “God’s Anointed Son,” “The Good Shepherd,” “The Lamb of God,” and many others. After being betrayed by Typhon, Horus was crucified, buried for three days, and thus resurrected.
“Many other gods,” “Zeitgeist” claims, “are found to have the same mythological structure”:
Attis (1200 B.C.)—Born of a virgin on December 25th, was crucified, was dead for three days and resurrected
Krishna (900 B.C.)—Born of a virgin with a star in the east to signal his birth, performed miracles, died, and was resurrected
Dionysus (500 B.C.)—Born of a virgin on December 25, performed miracles like turning water into wine, was referred to as “the King of Kings” and “god’s only begotten son,” died, and was resurrected
Mithras (1200 B.C.)—Born of a virgin on December 25, had 12 disciples, performed miracles, was dead for three days and resurrected, was known as “the Truth” and “The Life,” and was worshipped on Sunday
Osiris, the husband of Isis in the Egyptian pantheon, is another popular contender for a dying and resurrected god. The broad claim, simply put in the words of Sir Leigh Teabing in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, is, “Nothing in Christianity is original.”
This is a taxing topic because of the sheer volume of alleged comparisons advanced by skeptics. The process is complicated by the many variations of these ancients myths generated in their retelling.
Books like Ronald Nash’s scholarly The Gospel and the Greeks or Lee Strobel’s popular work The Case for the Real Jesus spend time answering the particulars. In the interest of space, I want to advance a general response to this broad challenge to the reliability of the canonical accounts of Jesus’ life.
In general, the dispute entails a factual claim—certain mythical accounts that predate the Gospels contain elements matching the details of Jesus’ life—and a logical/literary claim—the existence of the older accounts proves that the account of Jesus is myth as well, being cobbled together with bits and pieces of these old stories.
There are at least three significant problems with this argument that should be enough to silence it forever. The first two speak to the factual claims. The last—and most decisive—addresses the logical assertion.
First, the fact is that the “facts” listed above are almost all false, nearly to the point of embarrassment. Here are a few examples:
There is no record Osiris rose bodily from the dead. Instead, he became a god of the netherworld. As one put it, Osiris is not a dying god, but a dead god, always depicted as a deceased, mummified king. He may be “alive” in the spirit realm, but this would be true of anyone passing into the next life who’s physical body lies decaying in a tomb. Indeed, Egyptian religion had no concept of resurrection, only of immortality beyond the grave. These are two entirely different concepts.1
Horus was not born of a virgin, but was the son of Osiris and Isis (not Mary). Horus never dies, so he could have no resurrection, though in his union with Rah, the sun God, one could say he “dies” every night and is “resurrected” every morning. Clearly, though, this is no help to the copycat messiah crowd.
Neither the Bible nor Christianity claim Jesus was born on December 25th, so any parallels with ancient myths are completely inconsequential. The date was chosen by emperor Aurelian in the third century.
Mithras was not born of a virgin, but emerged from a rock, and there is no textual evidence of his death, so there could be no resurrection.2 Mithras was a god, not a teacher, so he had no disciples.3
There is no evidence of an account of a bodily resurrection of Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation.4
There is no evidence for a virgin birth of Dionysus.5
Krishna was his mother’s eighth son, so his virgin birth is unlikely. 6
The dating of many of the dying-and-resurrecting-god myths is the second obstacle. Here’s the problem. It is axiomatic that the recycled version must appear in history after the one it allegedly came from, not before. However, many mythical accounts of dying and rising gods actually postdate the time of Christ:
There is no evidence of the influence of Mithraism in the Roman Empire until the end of the first century A.D.7
The sacrifice of a bull by some Mithraists allegedly mimicking the substitutionary atonement of Christ first shows up in the second century A.D. 8
The four texts that cite the resurrection of Adonis date from the second to fourth centuries A.D.9
The account of the miraculous birth of Zoroaster dates to the ninth century A.D.10
The most academically exhaustive work, a ponderous study entitled The Riddle of Resurrection by Tryggve Mettinger, concludes that even though some myths of dying and rising gods may predate the Christian era, the claims made regarding Jesus of Nazareth are distinct from them in three critical ways.
First, Jesus was a flesh and blood human whose resurrection happened in history at a precise topographical location on earth. Second, the mythical “resurrected” deities were invariably tied to the seasons of the agricultural cycle, “dying” and “rising” repeatedly every calendar year, while Jesus’ resurrection was a one-time event unrelated to seasonal changes. Third, Jesus died as a vicarious sacrifice for sins. There is no evidence of such an atonement in any other accounts.11
Mettinger sums up the evidence this way:
There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions.12
A Skunk In The Woodpile
In his work, The Gospel and the Greeks, Ronald Nash offers a handful of suggestions to protect the novice from being misled by dubious factual claims.13
Check the evidence in the primary sources. Don’t settle for a website citing a website that cites a website. Web postings often run in a circle, with each site quoting others without ever citing a primary source document (an original rendering of the ancient myth itself). Try to get as close to the original source as you can to reduce the chance that “facts” got distorted in the retelling. Make sure your evidence comes from an established authority in the field who has access to the original material.
Check the dates. Be sure the original records (not the original myth) predate the accounts that allegedly borrowed from them. Even ancient tales get amended over time.
Determine if the parallels are really parallel and significant. Similarities are frequently overstated or oversimplified. Many are inconsequential, like the claim ancient gods were born on December 25th. Some accounts trade on the kinship of phrases like “birth of the sun” vs. “birth of the son.” This word play only works, though, when rendered in English, a language that developed millennia after these events.
Beware of Christian language and terms being read back into the ancient account. Some refer to the death of Osiris as his “passion,” employing Christian terminology to imply a similarity that doesn’t exist. Any death can be called a passion, even when the passions themselves are wildly dissimilar. Also, no one should be impressed when Egyptian sun gods are called “The Light.”
As it turns out regarding the factual claims, once the primary sources of the ancient myths are consulted, a host of alleged similarities turn out to be fictions. The parallels remaining are usually far too general to be significant. Further, the dating of many of the ancient records completely undermines the argument because the stories appear too late in history to have any influence on the Gospels.
But that’s not the worst of it. Even if the characterizations of the myths were accurate—that Mithras was born of a virgin, and Osiris was resurrected from the dead, and Horus had a dozen disciples, and Dionysus turned water into wine, and Attis was crucified—there is something else fundamentally wrong with the Zeitgeist challenge. Even if the facts were accurate, it proves nothing. Here’s why.
A Titanic Coincidence
In 1898, Morgan Robertson published a novel entitled Futility. The story was a fictional account of a transatlantic voyage of the cruise ship Titan traveling between England and New York. The largest vessel afloat displacing 45,000 tons, the Titan was considered virtually unsinkable. Yet in the middle of the night in April, with three massive propellers driving the ship forward at the excessive speed of 25 knots, it collided with an iceberg and sunk. Since the number of lifeboats was the minimum the law required (though twice that was needed for its 3,000 capacity), more than half of its passengers perished.
Fourteen years later in April, the world’s largest luxury liner with a displacement of 45,000 tons—the indestructible Titanic—departed from England on a transatlantic voyage to New York. In the middle of the night, the Titanic’s triple screws drove the ship at the excessive speed of nearly 25 knots into an iceberg and sunk. Since the Titanic was fitted with less than half the number of lifeboats needed for its 3,000 capacity (the minimum the law required), more than half of its passengers were lost.
This real-life coincidence makes a crucial point. Regardless of the similarity between two accounts of different events, the second cannot be summarily dismissed as an invention simply because the first turns out to be fiction. Whether or not the details of the Titanic’s disaster are accurate is determined by its own body of evidence, unrelated to the fictional story of the ill-fated Titan that came before.
This is a critical procedural point, one best described by C.S. Lewis:
Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.”…Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself....If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain…how I came to be so bad at arithmetic...but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely mathematical grounds....In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.14 [emphasis in the original]
Lewis’s insight applies to our challenge. Remember the claim in question: Ancient myths explain the origin of the Jesus myth. The second false account was inspired by the first ones. Do you see the misstep? The New Testament account is presumed false; then the ancient accounts are invoked to explain the fiction. The argument of Zeitgeist turns out to be circular, assuming what it intends to prove.
Imagine introducing yourself to a stranger and sharing bits of autobiography only to be labeled a liar and an imposter. His evidence? In the past three months, 12 other phonies tried to pawn off the same story on him. When you offer identification, he ignores it. He’s already assumed you’re a fraud like the rest, no matter what bona fides you produce.
In addition to being offended, you’d probably be mystified. Clearly, he can’t prove you are lying about your identity by citing others who lied about theirs. No imposter of the past could logically foreclose on the possibility that you might be the genuine article. That must be decided on separate grounds. To paraphrase Lewis, one has to show that a person is lying before it makes any sense to speculate on where the lie came from.
In the same way, one first has to show that Jesus is a fiction before he starts explaining how the fiction came to be. Even if someone produced a thousand parallels with Jesus from the writings of antiquity, that alone would not prove He was just another phony. If the similarities were remarkable, it might raise eyebrows (“Not another one”) and invite a closer look. But it would do nothing on its own to disqualify Christ. Only shortcomings with the specific historical evidence for Jesus can do that.
The Zeitgeist approach is an evasion, not an argument. It is not good enough to assume Jesus is a myth and then speculate on the genesis of the error. The primary source historical documents about Him—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—must be dealt with first, not dismissed with misleading talk about alleged literary relationships with ancient dying and resurrecting gods.
Jesus, Man Of History
Professional historians do not believe the New Testament account is merely a retelling of an ancient myth. Though not endorsing every detail of the Gospel records (most academics reject the supernatural elements for philosophic reasons), scholars both liberal and conservative overwhelming agree that Jesus of Nazareth was a man of history.
Will Durant, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, co-authored with his wife the most successful work of history in history, the 11 volume The Story of Civilization. In “Caesar and Christ,” in spite of the “many suspicious resemblances to the legends of pagan gods,” Durant concludes:
Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that many inventors would have concealed. No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of higher criticism, the outlines of the life, character and teachings of Christ remain reasonably clear and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.15
The challenge in Zeitgeist is why we should consider the stories of Mithras, Horus, Attis, and the other pagan mystery saviors as fables, yet treat as factual a similar story told of a Jewish carpenter.
The answer is simple: There is no good evidence for the authenticity of any ancient mythological characters and their deeds, but there is an abundance of such evidence for Jesus. And if the historical documentation for the man from Nazareth is compelling, then it doesn’t matter how many ancient myths share similarities.
The Apostle Paul readily acknowledged that if Jesus’ resurrection was a myth and the witnesses were trading in lies, then Christians were a pitiful lot (1 Corinthians 15:19). And fools too, I might add, because it cost many of them their lives.
Nothing in the Zeitgeist recycled redeemer theory, however, suggests Christians have misplaced their confidence. The skeptics’ facts are unreliable and their thinking is unsound, so their challenge is doubly dead.
According to their own testimony, the New Testament writers were not following “cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). They were testifying not to myths, but to “sober truth” about events that had “not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:25-26):
What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also (1 John 1:1-3).
1 Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 2007), 163, 177-8.
2 Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks—Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134, 137.
3 Strobel, 172.
4 Nash, 129.
5 Strobel, 180.
6 Ibid., 182.
7 Nash, 138.
8 Strobel, 172.
9 Ibid., 177.
10 Ibid., 182.
11 Tryggve Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection—“Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International: 2001), 221.
13 Nash, 249-51.
14 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 272-3.
15 Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 557.