Romans 2 Christians Living in a Romans 1 World

I have been wrestling lately with the intersection of Christ and culture.  Recent social and political events in the United States have challenged me to rethink what it actually means to be a “Christian” or an “American,” including how the two identities mix… or whether they are altogether mutually exclusive!  The issue is so immensely complex that my journey has only begun.  Yet through scripture, educational studies, and friendly dialogue with mature and contemplative individuals of all walks, God is working on me.  Bit by bit, He is increasing my understanding and changing my heart.

The group I attend weekly is studying the book of Romans.  Our most recent reading and discussion presented a unique challenge to 21st century Christians.  To provide some context, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome opens with the foundational idea that “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:23)  Chapter 1 starts with his condemnation of non-Jewish peoples, or the non-believers of his day, the men and women who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (1:25)  The parallels to our modern society are evident.  Then, so as not to inflate the egos of behavior-oriented, self-righteous Jewish readers, Paul unashamedly calls out their hypocrisy in Chapter 2 as well.  Here is a copy of Paul’s words to the Jewish audience (2:17-29):

17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

Now, what happens if make a few liberal substitutions to draw Paul’s message into our own cultural context?  Replace Jew with Christian, law with great commandment, and circumcision with baptism.  One of my group members did this and the outcome is quite compelling:

Now you, if you call yourself a Christian; if you rely on the great commandment and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the great commandment; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the great commandment the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you take advantage of others? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you lust? You who abhor idols, do you cling to your wealth, sports teams, or political party? You who brag about the great commandment, do you dishonor God by breaking the great commandment? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the non-believing world because of you.”

Baptism has value if you observe the great commandment, but if you break the great commandment, you have become as though you had not been baptized. If those who are not baptized keep the great commandment’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were baptized? The one who is not baptized physically and yet obeys the great commandment will condemn you who, even though you have the written scriptures and circumcision, are a violator of the great commandment.

A man is not a Christian if he is only one outwardly, nor is baptism merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Christian if he is one inwardly; and baptism is baptism of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the cultural markers. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

If this description at all fits me, you, or the local church it is time to wake up and seek a radical heart change.  Whether it is warranted or not, this is how the world perceives Christians: self-centered, hypocritical, idolatrous, fake people.  It should come as no surprise to find the type in our society; that is the nature of living in a Romans 1 world.  In fact, as Paul declares in Romans 2, no one is exempt.  Even the most obedient and faithful in Christ still sin.  ALL fall short of the glory of God.  But those moments should be the exception, not the norm.  In God’s kingdom, there is no room for carnal Christians.  The church cannot afford to present a non-believing world with such a false image of Christ.

Because we all have a fallen nature, it is dangerous to both identify with Christ and identify with American culture as though they were one and the same.  Rather, in faithful obedience, followers of Christ must seek inward transformation that so distinguishes us from the unrepentant world.  Most likely one part of that transformation requires a choice to discard one identity in favor of the other.

Scoop