Some Bad News, Some Good News (Romans 1-4)

Have you ever had somebody say to you, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news, which one would you like to hear first?”  With a show of hands, how many of you would rather hear the good news first?  OK, how many of you would rather hear the bad news first?  Research shows that most people would rather hear the bad news first.  “Let’s just go ahead and get it out of the way.” 

            And that’s what Paul does in the book of Romans.  He has some good news for us which he hints at in the very first chapter.  Several times, he makes reference to the gospel, and most of you know that the Greek word for “gospel” literally means “good news.”  So, in verse 1, Paul says he was “sent out to preach his good news [the gospel of God]” (Romans 1:1, NLT)

            But Paul also has some bad news for us – some really bad news.  We live in a world that’s filled with bad news.  Every day we are bombarded with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, injustice, drug abuse, oppression and so much more.  And there’s a reason for that.  There is so much bad news in this world because our world is caught in the grip of the power of sin, and sinful behavior always results in bad news. 

            So, here’s the bad news that Paul has for us.  In Romans 1:18 (NLT), “God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people…”

            Before Paul can give us the good news, he first needs to talk about the wrath of God.  Now it’s important that we understand why Paul does this.  It’s because we can’t fully appreciate the grace of God until we fully understand what we’ve done wrong and what we deserve as a result.

            And this is where I think we often make a mistake when we try to share the gospel with people.  We want to talk immediately about the “good news” without talking first about the bad news.  But good news isn’t good news to someone who doesn’t realize they need it.

            For example, suppose I were to say to you, “I’ve got some good newsfor you: Somebody has just paid a $1,000 speeding fine on your behalf.”

            You probably would react by saying, “What are you talking about?  That’s not good news: it doesn’t even make sense.  I don’t have a $1,000 speeding fine.”  So, for you, it’s not good news, it’s just confusing.  It might even be offensive to you, because I’m insinuating you’ve broken the law when you don’t think you have. 

            But suppose I put it this way: “Recently, a police officer clocked you doing 55 miles per hour through a school zone.  There were five clear warning signs stating that the speed limit was 20 miles per hour, but you went straight through at 55 miles per hour.  What you did was extremely dangerous, and there’s a $1,000 fine.  The law was about to take its course, when someone stepped in and paid the fine for you.  You are extremely fortunate.”

            Can you see that telling you precisely what you’ve done wrong firstactually makes the good news make sense?  If I don’t help you to understand that you’ve violated the law, then the good news will just be confusing; it might even be offensive.  But once you understand that you’ve broken the law, then that good news will be good news indeed.

            In the same way, if I say to a sinner, “Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins,” he’s not going to see that as good news.  In fact, it may seem to him to be foolish and offensive.  Foolish because it doesn’t make any sense.  And it’s offensive because I’m insinuating that he’s a sinner when he doesn’t think he is.  As far as he’s concerned, there are a whole lot of people far worse than he is. 

            But if I take the time to help this person to see exactly what he’s done wrong, to see that he has offended God by violating his law, then the good news of the fine being paid won’t be seen as foolishness, and it won’t be offensive, it will be what Paul refers to as “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16).

            So, before Paul begins his discussion of the gospel, the “good news”, he first paints an ugly, ugly picture.  Before we look at that, though, let’s take a look at this overview of the first four chapters of the book of Romans and then I’ll be back to first bring you the bad news and then share with you the good news.

            Watch VIDEO (Romans 1-4)

            Let’s pick up with our bad news in chapter 1, verse 18:

            “God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.  They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them.  For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”  (Romans 1:18-20, NLT)

            Paul says that there has been a universal revelation of God which has reached everyone, everywhere, in every age and time.  No one has ever lived without a knowledge of God, because God has made known his existence through nature, so there’s no excuse for not knowing God.

            But what has mankind typically done with this knowledge about God?  Verse 21,

            “Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like.” (Romans 1:21, NLT) 

            Paul says here what we see clearly all around us, and that is, that most people in this world don’t worship God.  Even those who say they believe in God, most of them don’t recognize God as the final authority for how they live.

            Then Paul says in verse 23, “Instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.”  (Romans 1:23, NLT). 

            Which is exactly what the people of Paul’s day had done.  They made idols, and then they called those idols their gods.   They basically said, “This is what I think God is like.  God is a creature that I can handle, or ignore, or become indifferent to, or come and beg some favors from.”  And that’s why so many people have rejected Christianity — they have this idea in their minds of what God is like and they have rejected that image as not being worthy of their worship.

            And here’s what happened as a result.  Verse 24,

            “Because they did these things, God left them and let them go their sinful way, wanting only to do evil.  As a result, they became full of sexual sin, using their bodies wrongly with each other…. 

            “Because people did those things, God left them and let them do the shameful things they wanted to do. Women stopped having natural sex and started having sex with other women.  In the same way, men stopped having natural sex and began wanting each other….

            “People did not think it was important to have a true knowledge of God. So God left them and allowed them to have their own worthless thinking and to do things they should not do.” (Romans 1:24,26-28, NCV)

            Three times in this passage, Paul says, “God left them and he let them do what they wanted to do.”  God says to us, in effect, “If that’s the way you want to live and you don’t want to listen to me, then go ahead.  I’m not going to stop you.”  God gives us the freedom to choose sin, but we need to understand that there will always be consequences.  In fact, part of divine judgment is God permitting people to go their own way and suffer the results.  God will always give you the right to make self-destructive and sinful choices. 

            And so, if we decide to live life apart from God, God will let us do that.  But what does life without God look like?  Verse 29:

            “They are filled with every kind of sin, evil, selfishness, and hatred.  They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, lying, and thinking the worst about each other.  They gossip and say evil things about each other.  They hate God.  They are rude and conceited and brag about themselves.  They invent ways of doing evil.  They do not obey their parents.  They are foolish, they do not keep their promises, and they show no kindness or mercy to others.” (Romans 1:29-31, NCV)

            Now, the point of this list is not to say that everybody who refuses to worship God will look just like this.  Rather, these are samples. These are the sorts of things that come about as a result of rejecting God, and the more God leaves a people to follow their own desires, the more their society will have these sins in greater and greater measure. 

            If we have a high murder rate, it is because we have turned away from God.  If our executives are greedy, it’s because they have turned away from God. If our politicians are deceitful, it’s because they have turned away from God.  If our favorite athletes are immoral and arrogant, it’s because they have turned away from God.  If we are untrustworthy and don’t keep our marriage vows, it’s because we have turned away from God.  If we are unloving and unmerciful, it’s because we have turned away from God.

            That’s the point of this list.  And living that kind of life will make a person absolutely miserable.  Folks, this is a depressing picture.  But it’s a picture of the world in which we live.  It’s a picture that describes some of our friends, many of the people we work with, many of our neighbors, maybe even some of our family members. 

            Now that Paul has painted this ugly, ugly picture, what is God’s attitude toward all this?  In verse 32, “…knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death…”

            And that, my friends, is some really, really bad news.  We need some good news.  Unfortunately, Paul’s not finished with the bad news yet.  So far, he’s only been talking about all those terrible people out there in the world.  But what about us?  We may have our faults, but at least we’re not like those people out there.

            You see, somewhere along the line, we picked up this idea that God grades on a curve.  That’s a term that’s familiar to high school and college students.  The idea behind it is that it doesn’t matter exactly what your grade on a test is.  What matters is how you did compared to everybody else.  So, you may have only scored an 85 on a test which would normally be a “C”.  But if everyone else in the class scored even lower than you did, then the teacher might grade on a curve and give you an “A” instead. 

            And I think most people in this world believe that God grades on a curve.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that most Christians believe that.  And the reason I say that is because I hear so many people say things like, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to heaven.  I mean, it’s not like I’ve done anything really bad like commit murder or commit adultery or get drunk.  I’m better than most of the people in this world.  I’m not half as bad as the people I work with, or the people I see on television.  I live a pretty good life.  I’m nice to people.  When you compare me to all the terrible people in this world, I look pretty good, so yeah, I think I’ll go to heaven.”

            Let’s be honest – you may not have actually said that, but can you at least admit that the thought may have crossed your mind?  Whether or not we believe that God actually will grade on a curve, there’s a part of us that secretly hopes that he will because when you take all the people in the world, we feel like we’re at least in the top 10% of the class.

            And there’s a part of us that feels a whole lot better about our own spiritual situation if we can point a finger at somebody else who we think is worse.  Think about the Pharisee who was praying in the temple in Luke 18 near a tax collector.  Remember what he prayed?  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” (Luke 18:11-12)

            God, you’ve got to admit that as long as I’m standing next to this guy, I look pretty good!  If you’re grading on a curve, I come out on top.  Look at how bad he is, look at how good I am!”

            And Paul knew that that’s exactly what we would all have a tendency to do.  In fact, some of you may have been feeling pretty good when I read through Paul’s list of sins in chapter 1sexual sin, selfishness, hatred, jealousy, murder.  All of these sins that those people out there in the world are committing. 

            And there’s a part us that wants to say, “Go get ‘em, Paul!  It’s about time somebody stood up and spoke out against sin!  It’s about time somebody said something about those adulterers and the homosexuals in this world.  Give them a good dose of fire and brimstone.  We’re right there with you!”

            Because it’s obvious to us that Paul is talking about those “bad” people, not good, moral, law-abiding, home-loving, family values, clean-living, decent people like us.  But chapter two of Romans is for those of us who liked chapter one a little bit too much.

            Because in chapter 2, Paul turns to us and he says, “You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse.” (Romans 2:1, NLT).

            Paul says, “I want to talk with you about the problem of sin and about how all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  The problem, though, is every time I bring up the topic of sin, you want to sit back and judge everybody else instead of looking into your own life.”

            And let’s be honest, judging others is an easy way to feel good about ourselves.  Standing next to all the Mussolinis and Hitlers and Stalins of the world, we can go to God and say, “Look, Lord, compared to them, I’m not too bad.”

            The problem with that, though, is that God doesn’t grade on a curve.  God doesn’t compare us to them.  He compares us to him.  And so, in chapter 2, he turns to the “good”, moral people and he says, “I don’t care how good you think you are.  You can never be good enough to be right with God, not even close.”

            In the second half of chapter 2, Paul says if you’re feeling pretty good about yourself because you have a religious heritage and you go to church three times a week and you know the word of God by heart and you observe all the right rituals, well, that’s not going to make you right with God either.

            And just in case there’s still some misunderstanding, Paul concludes by saying in chapter 3, “There is none righteous, no not one.  There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.  They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

            And then in verse 23, he’ll say it again, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

            And, then we’re reminded of how Paul finished out chapter 1, “…knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death…” (Romans 1:32)

            So here we are, left with some really bad news.  You want to go to heaven, but you can’t do it.  You want to be holy and godly and righteous, but you can’t do it.  We need to raise the same question that Job raised in Job 9:2.  He asked the question, “How can a man be righteous before God?”  How can a sinful human being have a right relationship with a God who is perfectly holy, infinite and mighty?

            And fortunately, Paul is now ready to give us some good news.

            Verse 21, “But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago.  We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.” (Romans 3:21-22, NLT)

            Those first two words in verse 21 are extremely important.  They mark a transition in this book. Up to this point, it’s been sin and ugliness and hopelessness and darkness and despair and hell and damnation and judgment.  And man is standing in the courtroom of God’s judgment and he has no defense.  He’s guilty of sin and there’s no amount of good deeds he can do to undo the mess he’s made.

            “But now…”  When man comes to the limit of what he can do and he realizes he can’t be right with God, then God moves in with the righteousness that comes from above.  Only God can make a man right with him.  Man can’t do it on his own. 

            God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago.”  God’s plan was prophesied all through the Old Testament.  In fact, one of the purposes of the Old Testament was to show men that they couldn’t be righteous by their own power.  The laws of Moses were never given as a means of achieving righteousness, but only showed the impossibility of man living up to it. 

            The commandments, the rituals, the sacrifices and godly principles taught in the Old Testament were given by God.  But they could never remove sin, forgive sin, atone for sin, or make a man right with God – no matter how zealously and sincerely a Jew tried to abide by them.

            What the Old Testament did do was to point to a coming Messiah – Jesus — who would make a way for us to be right with God.  And so, Paul says is the key to being right with God is placing our faith in Jesus Christ.

            Now, true, biblical, living faith is a lot more than simply making a verbal statement that we believe in Jesus.  True faith is placing oneself in submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ.  But those who come to Christ in faith will find salvation.  And Paul says, this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.”  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a murderer, prostitute, thief, rapist, homosexual, religious hypocrite, false teacher, pagan or anything else – if you come to Christ in true faith, you will be saved. 

            Just as no one is good enough to be saved, no one is so evil that he can’t be saved.  In God’s eyes, there is no distinction.  Everyone apart from Christ is equally sinful and rejected by God, and everyone who is in Christ is equally righteous and accepted by him. 

            In verse 24, Paul says we are “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)

            Justified is another word used to describe the fact that we are right with God.  Have you ever heard that being justified means that God treats us “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned?  I’ve heard that before, in fact I’ve probably taught that a few times, but I think now that it’s not exactly accurate.

            The word “justify” actually means “to cause someone to be righteous.”  You see, God doesn’t just say – “I’m just going to pretend you’re righteous.”  No, God makes us righteous.  Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 

            God actually makes us righteous.  It’s a transformation.   The perfect righteousness of Jesus is given to you, and your imperfect record of sin is given to Jesus.

            And why in the world would God do that?  Paul says we are “justified by his grace as a gift.”  God didn’t pay the price for our sins because he had to, and it certainly wasn’t because we deserved it.  It was a gift of grace.  God did it because of his great love for us.  But why would God love us so much if we are so unworthy?  Why would he give us something that we don’t deserve?  And the only answer that I can come with is the same reason those of us who are parents love our children even when they mess up, and we give them what they need even when they don’t deserve it.

            And so, we come to God guilty as charged, none of us deserving of what he offers, but willing accept the gift that he extends us by grace.  There’s a reason we call it amazing grace!  Because it is a gift of love that we will never be able to deserve or even understand.  And all we need to do to receive that gift is to put our faith in Jesus Christ and follow him.

            I told you there was some good news here in Romans! 

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