No Good News Without Bad News
It doesn’t take a keen observer to see that the North American church as a whole has drifted away from confronting people about their own sinfulness. This missing confrontation is seen in both seeker sensitive evangelism and ear tickling preaching, and as a result, the message of the guilt and disobedience that we carry apart from Christ has slowly drifted off of the radar.
Unfortunately, this is a tragedy for all parties involved. This tendency towards sweeping sin under the rug is one of the ways that we can lose a biblical focus of what the gospel really is, and we are all prone to this danger. We are unable to save ourselves from the reality of sin and we have no opportunity to make ourselves righteous by our everyday deeds. It is when we begin to feel the weight of our desperate situation in relation to God that the good news shines brightest. Hearing of our own guilt and sin before God is essential in having a clear and sharp gospel focus.
The apostle Paul made sure that the believers in the church at Rome knew the weight of sin. The flow of the book of Romans dictates this truth. After making a few opening remarks and stating a tremendously powerful gospel summary (Rom. 1:16-17), the body of the letter begins by making sure that everyone knows that they are guilty.
In the second half of the first chapter, Paul goes on to describe the ways that a godless society shows their sin amidst their rejection of God. From denying His presence through the character of creation to worshipping images of man, birds and animals to expressions of homosexuality, this group does not have an innocent leg to stand on before God. At the time of his writing, Paul would undoubtedly have had Gentiles in mind in this portion of the letter.
Yet the sinful condition wasn’t limited to the Gentiles. Knowing the Jewish community and the self-righteous tendencies that rise up in peoples of all nations, Paul made sure that the Jews recognized their own guilt too. I can imagine what was going through some of the Jewish Christians’ minds when they first heard this letter. It would have been incredibly difficult not to look down their nose at the godless Gentiles as Paul exposed their sin for what it was. Inwardly they might have been cheering Paul on as he shared the Gentiles’s shortcomings!
However, the Jews would soon receive the same verdict as the Gentiles. In the next section, Paul exposed the sin of the Jews. The Jews were privileged to have been in a special relationship with God since the nation was born during the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And yet, even during a casual scan of the Old Testament, you can find places where the Jews committed all of the sinful acts that Paul had just accused the Gentiles of committing. Worse yet, the Jews had done all of these deeds despite being in a covenant relationship with God and having access to His law. Paul does not simply display the guilt of previous Jews, but he also exposes the attitude of self-righteousness that was present in the church at the time.
Then, as if anyone had the ability to escape Paul’s sentence of guilt from the first and second chapters, he paints the darkest picture yet at the beginning of third chapter. He writes that “both Jews and Greeks are under sin, as it is written: none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:9b-10). When the church in Rome would have received this letter, the church would have been a mixed bag of backgrounds and races, and nobody would have been feeling great about what they could bring to God.
Yet, this is one of the central pieces of the gospel. Whether an unbeliever hearing the gospel for the first time, or a mature Christian being reminded of the gospel, all need to hear of their sin and brokenness apart from God. This truth must also be coupled with the fact that this desperate situation is not something that we can climb out of on our own. The depth of humanity’s sin before God means that it would take a miracle for a sinful human to ever be righteous before God.
Thankfully, this is a miracle that God is in the business of doing. The second half of the third chapter is a turning point in Romans. Paul moves on to speaking of the universal sinfulness of mankind to explaining the great act of God in taking those very same, sinful people and making them impeccable by placing the righteous of Jesus upon them. The realization how badly we need God to cleanse us of our sin makes the truth of the gospel that much sweeter. Some have called justification “God’s work of righteousing the unrighteous,” and it is a major part of the miracle that takes place when one repents and believes wholeheartedly in the gospel.