The general theme of Romans is succinctly stated in the maxim: “The just shall live by faith.” Paul’s cogent argument that we are “without excuse” is powerfully built in the last half of Romans One. I shall try to demonstrate his persuasive points in these next few paragraphs.
First Paul establishes that “men are without excuse” by depicting the downward spiral of sin. First he tells us that “their thinking became futile.” It is futile thinking which marks the beginning of the trek away from God. How many ways are there for modern man to engage in “futile thinking”? I wonder about our movement into the worship of nature and its mythical balance. Today we are more worried about our carbon production than we are about being judged by an angry God. The former is largely imagined while the latter is a coming reality. We are engaged in futile thinking when we imagine ourselves as saviors of the earth--it is we ourselves who are in desperate need of a Savior.
If “futile thinking” is the first mark of the sinful man, the second mark is “darkened hearts”. I see a connection here. Futile thinking would frequently lead to darkened hearts. People become captured by their vain imaginings and those imaginings bring about a heart which is darkened. I look at the wonders of creation, having gazed at the beauties of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. They make me see the Creator, but those with darkened hearts and vain imaginings only see accident and happenstance. I cannot look at a tree without wondering about the one who created it, but those who vainly imagine darken their own hearts. Paul tells us that they are “without excuse” because the Creator is plainly seen, “being understood from what is made”. They think they are wise, yet they are but fools, worshipping created things rather than the Creator.
Sexual impurity is the next result. Fools who pretend they are responsible to no one begin to act toward one another without righteousness. The loss of any righteous stance leads the sinner to sexual impurity, and Paul lists the worst outcomes of sexual impurity: women lust toward other women, and men lust toward other men. Such behavior comes from those who “do not retain their knowledge of God”. (Please scroll down to see Marriage Compact, written several years ago).
Those who leave their knowledge of God so willfully spiral yet further into sin and disobedience by developing “depraved minds”. The rest of the chapter lists the marks of the depraved mind:
“29They 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, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” I count 21 ways that depravity is counted here.
I can quite imagine the righteous man, indeed it is my tendency too, to read this list and become incensed at the wickedness of mankind, thinking foolishly that it is “those others” who engage in sin. The next verse especially seems to make me want to establish myself as different, better than ‘those sinners’.
32Although 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.
I find myself wondering about how other people have gone so far wrong, and in my suppositions I fall into Paul’s trap. Paul’s trap comes in the next verse, which is the first verse of the second chapter. When Bible scholars chopped the text up into chapters and verses they correctly saw verse one of chapter two as beginning a new thought; but it is also the summation of what Paul has been building. It is put there as a cold bucket of water to be tossed over the righteous head and awaken him to his dire need. I find myself a bit shocked in reading it, even after all these years of being a Christian, because it does point at my utter depravity.
1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
I, then, am guilty of the same things, the sexual sins, the list of 21 sins, the wickedness of futile thinking and darkened hearts. I think of Jimmy Carter who famously spoke of the lust in his heart, and I think of Bill Clinton who never quite acknowledged the lust of his zipper. Together they are both condemned. Moreover I am condemned right along with them. Jesus makes this explicit in his Sermon on the Mount, but Paul makes us see the three fingers pointing back at ourselves when we point our accusatory fingers and say “j’accuse”. The gospel has been magnificently explained as one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. I need to forever remember my own beggar status when I speak to others about unrighteous lifestyles. I definitely should not approve of such lifestyles, but if I lose sight of my utter wretchedness I risk losing not only my testimony, but also my very proper perspective. I am a sinner who is made righteous, and called to live by faith.