In the second half of chapter 1, Paul describes the life of those who live apart from God. He notes that nobody really has an excuse – God’s given so many hints of his existence that to not worship him is a morally culpable action. But, writes Paul, God is not one to force himself on us. When we abandon God, God lets us. He abandons us to our shameful desires and our foolish thinking. The result: unholy lives. We endure the penalty of our sin. And we become horrible people. Sinners rotten to the core, even encouraging sin in others.
Of course, Paul is painting in broad brushstrokes. There are many “nice” people who aren’t God-followers. But the broad picture is always valid: when we abandon God, he doesn’t cling to us.
Many in Paul’s audience, reading this last bit of chapter 1, would have been getting a smug, arrogant look on their faces. They were Jews. They were “God’s people”. They were the goodies. But Paul, in chapter 2, is very quick to remind them – and us – of the truth: for us to point the finger at the “baddies” is for the pot to call the kettle black. I in myself am just as sinful as the next person. Yes, God is patient and kind and tolerant with me – but that doesn’t mean he approves of the sin in my life. It just means that he’s giving me a chance to turn away from my sin and towards him.
Says Paul to those who felt self-righteous: your stubbornness is doing you no good. There is a day coming when God will judge us all according not to our heritage but according to our deeds. So your ancestors were Jewish, writes Paul – so what. Just cause you’ve got the law means very little – do you actually keep it. That’s what counts.
On that day of judgement, the fact that I come from a long line of Christians will mean nothing. The question is this: is my following Jesus more than just lip service? Does following Jesus in my life actually involve – gulp – following him?
And yep – I can put on a good show. But what’s happening on the inside? Am I doing it for the glory and praise of other people – or the glory and praise of God. Am I trying to impress people, or am I truly following after Jesus. Because God’s not going to just tick off a series of “did enough” boxes on judgement day. He’s going to be looking at our secret life – the person that we really are.
A true Jew – and Christians, Paul is going to remind us, are grafted in to the Israelite nation – os one whose heart is right with God. It’s not about ticking off the boxes – obeying God’s laws to the letter. It’s about a heart that has been changed by God’s Spirit – a heart that seeks God’s praise above all other.
Father, I know the temptation to be a self-righteous legalist. I’m so good at pointing out the sin in others. But I also know that the very same sin lurks within me. Sometimes it lurks deep – but more often than not its very close to the surface – sometimes even on the surface. Thank you for your patience and kindness and tolerance. By your Spirit, please keep changing my heart. Make it, I pray, that my following you is real. That it’s not about looking good but being bad; I want to be like your Son. I want my inner, secret life to match my life that’s on display. I want to know more of you and your power.
Thank you for saving me. Thank you for loving me. Please don’t stop your work in me. Keep me humble, I pray. Make me aware of my sin; but keep me ever more aware of your forgiveness and your love. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have saved me. Save me.