After reading Romans 1 and 2, you might wonder what possessed me to encourage you to expect good news.
Paul didn’t mince his words when describing the desperate spiritual condition of both Jew and Gentile, did he? Perhaps you noticed how he opened his letter, describing himself as Jesus’ “servant” and Roman believers as those who are “called to belong to Jesus Christ,” who are “loved by God” and “called to be saints.” Considering this “servant” was once the church’s dreaded enemy and that God’s love overflowed the borders of Israel to reach all the way to Rome—there is some encouraging good news in 1:1 and 1:7, but it’s easy to miss.
The Bad News That’s Actually Good News
It’s even easy to gloss over Paul’s thesis statement of good news in 1:16-17 and focus on all that bad news about “being given over to…” and “having no excuse…” and “the judgment of God.” But here’s where God’s version of good news and our expectations diverge. This “bad news” doesn’t seem like good news, but it really is. It’s good news because Paul’s vivid description of humanity’s lostness forces us to look outside ourselves for help. It forces us to despair and then it prepares us to receive the help that only comes through the powerful gospel of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
In your reading this week, you’ll find that Paul begins chapter 3 in much the same way that he ended 2, just in case we didn’t get the message. Here’s how he sums up his theme: “None is righteous, no not one” (3:10). Better read that again. None is righteous, no not one. Paul’s point is that as nice as your neighbor or your boss or your little children may seem, outside of Christ,they are not righteous.
He continues, “…no one seeks for God.” Many of us would nod in agreement to that proposition, but still say things like, “Amy is such a nice girl; she’s really seeking God; she’d be such a good Christian. I know she’ll find him.” Here’s the bad/good news: We aren’t righteous. We don’t obey. We aren’t seeking God. “There is no fear of God” before our eyes (3:18). Paul demolishes our delusions of goodness. We’re lost. But God is on a mission to save. And that’s the best news ever.
Paul goes on to say “…by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (3:20). And this is the beginning of the good/good news because it teaches us that our okay-ness before God, our righteousness or justification, is not something we can accomplish. So we can stop looking inward, making resolutions, or searching for those illusive eight secret steps to perfection. We can stop trying to earn something from God by our work and look to him for mercy alone. At least that’s what you’d think these verses should do. But do they?
The Power of the Gospel
It seems we all have an intractable belief in our own ability to save ourselves. So when we read Romans 1:16-3:20 we assume God must be talking about those people out there—those bad people, those idolaters, those Pharisees. We skip right over the part about God’s power needing to save us through belief in the gospel. We think because we’ve believed the gospel we don’t need it any more.
That’s exactly where Paul takes us in our reading this week: to the good news of God’s mercy. He turns this corner beginning in 3:21, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:3:21-22). What do we have to do to have God’s righteousness? We have to believe. And even that’s a gift he promised to give us (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We need his power to believe the gospel; to believe that we’re as lost as he says we are and as loved as he says we are; we need his grace to continue to believe it over and over again. So, as you read over Romans 3 and 4 this week, look for the bad/good news and the good/good news. The bad/good news will tell you what you’re unable to do and begin free you from your inner slave-driver. The good/good news will tell you what he has done for you in the gospel and free you to trust in him no matter how much bad news you see in yourself. Enjoy.