‘Just Meddling?’ – Romans 1:28-32
By: Alistair Brown
Recently I heard a story which I’m sure is as old as the hills. Here’s my version of it.
A congregation is choosing its new pastor, and they’re at the final stage when they hear the nominated candidate preach his trial sermon. Wisely or unwisely, the preacher looks to score some points by denouncing sin.
In the strongest terms the preacher condemns those who spend their time and money on drinking and gambling. “Oh good…” whispers one older church member to everyone around. “Now he’s giving it to them!”
Maybe the preacher hears and he turns up the heat. He condemns those who run around with women they’re not married to, committing adultery and betraying their vows.
“Oh that’s right…” comes the elderly church member’s voice again. “That’s good. He’s really laying into the sinners now.”
Even more encouraged, the preacher condemns those who are envious and spiteful, who gossip and criticize others, speaking badly about them behind their backs.
“Now, now…” comes the elderly church member’s voice. “That’ll not do. Now he’s not preaching; he’s just meddling.”
Like all good stories, it has some truth about it. It’s almost believable. And the issue it raises – about what we regard as real sins or mere trivialities – is central in the last few verses of Romans 1.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
For the third time Paul uses the phrase “God gave them over…,” in other words, God giving people what they have shown they want. Earlier he has written some severe comments about their choices of idolatry and immorality. Now he reaches his third category, and it’s a miscellany of many sins of attitude or action.
1. The worst judgment anyone can make.
A goalkeeper in a top level soccer match had the ball safely in his hands. He looked downfield to throw the ball to one of his players – saw one of the forwards running into a good position – and the goalkeeper pulled back his arm to hurl the ball straight to the feet of the forward… Except, as he threw it, the goalkeeper held on to the ball a fraction too long. Instead of propelling the ball down the field he hooked it backwards and right into his own goal. One-nil for the other team! The goalkeeper had the ball for his side, but he didn’t retain it for his side. He gave it away.
About all those who reject God, Paul says: “they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God” (Rom. 1:28). They had that knowledge. They knew God. But they set that knowledge aside. They didn’t retain it.
Why does anyone do that? Why give away what you know about God? Some have only a basic understanding of God, such as those who look at nature and realize there must be a gloriously creative God (as Paul describes earlier in the chapter, verses 19-20). Others have a very developed knowledge, perhaps taught by their parents and nurtured by a good church, but they let it all go and live as if they had never known Jesus.
Why do that?
There will be many reasons.
– For some it’s arrogance, sensing no need of God, very sure they can be completely in control of their lives or destinies.
– For some it’s laziness, investing no time in their relationship with God. Their neglect gradually diminishes their knowledge until they finally give up on God.
– For some it’s blame or anger. Life has brought trouble or grief, and God is their scapegoat for, after all (they say), surely he could have made things different. Either God doesn’t exist or God is not good, so they walk away.
– For some, God doesn’t give them what they want. God is their magic genie, who is supposed to pop out from wherever he hides and grant them their wishes. When he doesn’t he’s no use to them.
– For some, God is inconvenient. If they acknowledged him they’d have to obey his commandments and they don’t want to do that. Their lifestyle choices are not those God would allow, so God is put out of the way so they can get on living their lives as they please.
Among those who seemed to find God inconvenient were Frank and Terry. Both were employed in full time Christian ministry. Frank fell in love with more than one woman other than his wife, and lost his pastoral role. Terry travelled the country telling people about Jesus, until he set up home with a secret girlfriend and then, inevitably, all his evangelistic work went away. As well as a similar catastrophic mistake, what Frank and Terry have in common is that later both of them spoke publicly and strongly against Christianity. God had become inconvenient for what they wanted to do, so they blatantly and strongly rejected him.
It’s the worst judgment anyone can make: to know God – his greatness, his mercy, his grace, his promises – and then not to think it worthwhile to live close to this God and instead abandon him. Maybe it’s arrogance, maybe laziness, maybe anger. Maybe they don’t get what they want from God or what they really want has no place for God. Whatever the reason, God is pushed aside.
So, Paul says, God then gave them over to the alternative: to a depraved mind, and so “they do what ought not to be done” (v. 28).
Their choice is very sad and serious: letting go of the knowledge of God is the worst judgment anyone can make.
2. The worst assumption anyone can have.
There are twenty-one negative attitudes or actions listed in verses 29-31.
Lists of sins like this were not unusual in the ancient world. Non-Christian writers had their catalogues of vices as well as evangelists for the gospel. In the Greco-Roman world, they spoke to crowds immersed in immoral, selfish, or violent cultures, and denouncing sin highlighted behavior unacceptable to God as well as teaching behavior which God would approve.
In the list in Romans 1, many words are predictable, such as “evil,” “depravity,” “murder,” “deceit,” “God-haters,” “arrogant,” “inventors of ways of doing evil,” and so on.
These are things any preacher – like the one giving his trial sermon – might denounce as behavior wholly unacceptable to God.
But there are other words there too, the kinds of things not so often thought to be ‘real sins’, things the church member in the story thought the preacher was “just meddling” by talking about them.
Many don’t think of “envy” as much of a sin. Wishing you had someone else’s great gifts or even their top-of-the-range car doesn’t seem such a big deal.
Then there’s “strife.” Many churches have lived with strife for decades, perhaps for generations. They have church members who won’t speak to each other.
Even the non-Christian world criticizes churches for being full of “gossips” or “slanderers.” In several churches I’ve known people who all too easily fitted the words “insolent” or “arrogant” or “boastful.” And too many who didn’t keep their word, or showed little love for others, and were anything but merciful to those around them. All these would be covered by words in verses 29 to 31 of Romans 1.
Most Christians I know would denounce anyone who started worshipping other gods.
A lot of Christians I know would pass a serious judgment on anyone who fell into sexual sin.
- Very few Christians I know would say anything negative at all because someone put all their energy into gathering wealth. “Greed” isn’t seen as much of a sin. Plenty would want the millionaire to be on the governing group of the church hoping they tithe their millions for the church.
- Very few Christians I know would say anything to the person with the sharp tongue, who spreads rumors which may or may not be connected to truth.
- Very few Christians I know would correct the boastful; more likely they’d offer congratulations on their ambition.
Compared to the ‘big sins,’ these ‘little sins’ don’t seem to matter.
That was not Paul’s view. He writes: “those who do such things deserve death” (v. 32). Paul put all the supposedly big and supposedly little sins in one list, because all of them amount to behavior that falls short of God’s standard. God does not differentiate like we do.
I remember reading how a western visitor to an Asian church witnessed two pastors fighting before the service. Apparently each believed they were the appointed preacher for that morning. They started arguing, the argument got more and more heated and eventually fists started flying.
When the dust settled the visitor explained his shock at what he’d seen to a senior elder of the church. The elder didn’t justify the behavior of either pastor, but he added: “You are so upset that these pastors fought, but you tolerate people who show jealousy or boast of their own talents or gossip about the faults of others. To us these are serious wrongs in their hearts, and they matter more than one argument that went too far.”
Challenging words. It may be that the worst assumption anyone can have is that their bad behavior is small stuff, things of no great consequence to them or to God. Someone says: “No violence. No murder. No immorality. So I’m okay.”
‘Not at all okay,’ Paul replies. His logic? If God sets the high jump bar at five feet, and one person jumps only two feet he fails; another jumps three feet and he fails; you jump four feet but you fail too. The result is the same for all of you because the bar was at five feet. No matter that some did better than others, all of you knocked the bar down.
“Besides,” Paul might say, “you didn’t really jump higher than they did. You just fell short in different things than they did.”
The obvious sins and the not-so-obvious sins are all in his list in Romans 1, and no-one dare assume some sins don’t matter.
3. The worst vote anyone can cast.
Paul brings this section to an end in a very sad way. He describes those who know that rejecting God leads to death, but still they choose that way and applaud others who make the same choice. “They not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (v. 32).
It sounds crazy:
- They know God’s way.
- They know that abandoning God’s way is the route to death.
- Nevertheless they choose to go their own way.
- They encourage others to live the same, evil way as they do and face the same, dreadful consequence of death.
Crazy though it may be, most of us do take comfort from the sins of others. Why? Why do we somehow feel better if others share the same wrongs as we have in our lives?
There are at least these two reasons:
1) Because there is comfort in knowing others are just as bad. Joe plays golf, but not very well. Joe steps on the tee, lines up his drive, but his ball slices way off to the right into a large pond. There’s a big splash and the ball disappears forever. ‘How embarrassing,’ thinks Joe. ‘My playing partner, Bob, has seen me make a mess of the shot. Bob thinks I’m terrible and he’ll tell everyone else in the clubhouse that I’m terrible.’
Now it’s Bob’s turn to play. Bob lines up his drive, but his ball also slices way off to the right and into the pond. Splash! And his ball disappears forever. Joe smiles quietly, and inside here is what he’s thinking: ‘Bob did it too! He hit his ball into the same pond. So he can’t think I’m terrible if he does the same thing. And because both of us are just as bad, there’s no chance he’s going to say anything about any of it back at the clubhouse!’
There is great comfort when others do equally bad things as we do.
2) Because when others do the same wrong things, we come to believe nothing better than that can be expected. If no-one jumps much over three feet, then what’s the point of setting the bar at five feet? No-one is going to get that high. It would be better simply to move the bar down to three feet, because that is all that could ever be expected of anyone.
We see people all the time with the same sins, same shortcomings, as we have. Part of us disapproves their actions – of course. But part of us is comforted. They fail too. And over time we lower the bar. ‘No-one does better than I do,’ we say to ourselves, ‘so why should I beat myself up for failing and why should I even make myself try to live rightly? This is just how life is.’
But it’s not how life should be. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he said he beats his body into shape so he can run the race well which God puts before him. (1 Cor. 9:24-27) He didn’t surrender to his weaknesses. He didn’t give up on the race. He didn’t settle for less than God’s best in anything.
The worst vote any of us can cast is to approve the sinful behavior of others so you feel better about doing the same things. It leaves both them and us on the road to death.
Later in his letter to the Romans, Paul describes bad news and good news.
The bad news is that everyone, with no exceptions, is under a death sentence (Rom. 3:23). The good news is that the death sentence can be lifted. Paul writes: “What benefit did you reap… from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Rom. 6:21-23).
Paul is very clear. To reject the knowledge and ways of God is to find yourself on the path to death. But rather than denying that judgment, or feeling better by enticing people onto the same deadly path, far better to receive God’s gift of life through Jesus Christ. No one need die while God offers life.
The second half of chapter 1 of Romans is sobering. God does not ignore sin, and the consequences of setting your face against God are serious. But Paul has not failed to stress that the gospel “is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). There is hope. There is mercy. There is grace. God is good to those who will take the hand he stretches out to them.