Romans 1:18-32: A Pagan Party

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Scene 2: The Pagan Party is Underway

1. Overview

Once Paul has told us about himself, his readers and his message, he devotes the rest of chapter 1 to presenting us with humanity’s “problem” in four stages. These stages are fundamental to our understanding of Romans, as they reveal what happened in the heart of humans at the fall that took place in the Garden of Eden. We shall refer to them as the “4 R’s:”

  1. Revelation (1:18-20)
  2. Rejection (1:21)
  3. Religion (1:22-23, 25)
  4. Retribution (1:24, 26-32)

2. Characters
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3. Commentary

3.1 Revelation (1:18-20)

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18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 6.33.10 PMImagine walking into someone’s home and seeing a most magnificent painting. You will, most probably, ask: “Who did that?”

3.1.1 God Speaks Through Creation

God reveals His existence to us in the same way, through that which he has created. Theologians speak of God’s “general revelation”. By this they mean God’s revelation of himself in such a way that it is evident to everyone regardless of his or her beliefs or convictions.

Paul Arden’s little book God Explained in a Taxi Ride[1] presents all kinds of arguments for and against the existence of God, but concludes towards the end of the book that there must be a God because someone must have made the sunset!

In the verses quoted above, note the words “plain”, “clearly perceived” and “show”. Also note that only that which God has “shown” us about Himself is plain and “perceptible” to us.

This means that we can only know God to the degree that He reveals Himself to us. Without God’s revelation our ideas about him are pure speculation. Knowing God is something that starts with God, not with us. As the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth said: “God is only known by God.”

3.1.2 The Mystery of God

The following verses confirm how impossible it is for us to comprehend God without his aid:

“No one has ever seen God…” John 1:18 (Also in 1 John 4:12)

“…you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” Exodus 33:20

“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” 1 Timothy 6:15-16

“How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord…?” Romans 11:33-34

“No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” 1 Corinthians 2:11

This does not mean that God wants to hide himself. Rather, it has to do with the vast difference between God and us.

We shall say more about this at a later stage. For now, let us remind ourselves that God compensates for our inability to see or comprehend him by revealing himself to us, such as he has done through creation.

Throughout history God has also revealed Himself in many other ways: through angels, prophets, dreams, miracles, Scripture and, of course, ultimately through Jesus Christ. This is what we call “special revelation” (supernatural as opposed to natural revelation).

Special revelation is distinct from general revelation in the sense that it is given only to certain people at certain times. Yet it is similar in the sense that it is intended to provide human beings with an “image” of who God is.

3.1.3 Only God can Faithfully Represent God

The second of the Ten Commandments forbids us to make “images” of God. Such images are first formed in a person’s “imagination” (image-ination), and then sculpted or fashioned out of wood, stone, gold or whatever material the image-maker may choose.

Sometimes the images remain in the imagination, such as the many ideas that people hold of who God is and what he is like. Note that these mental images can be just as misleading as their sculpted counterparts!

We can now understand why God forbids us to make images of him. Because “God is only known by God”, God is the only who knows how to present himself accurately. And so any visible presentation of who God is, can and must be made by God alone.

Put differently, God is the only one who is allowed to present us with an “image” of himself. Romans tells us that he did this through creation, and that he did it so well that his “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived”. This was God’s chosen “image” to make himself, his nature and his power known.

Creation, indeed, is God speaking to us. As the psalmist David wrote:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the works of His hands. Day by day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

Reading the above, it is clear why we should rather not try and compete with God when it comes to portraying him through some or other image. The world’s greatest scientists cannot even make a small flower, let alone a rainforest, a star or the Milky Way!

[1] Paul Arden, God Explained in a Taxi Ride, Penguin Books, London, 2007

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3.2 Rejection (1:21)

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21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.


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The section to follow is one of the most important ones in our study of Romans. If we fail to understand what God had in mind when he created humanity, we will fail to understand what happened to us when we rejected God.

Here we will see what God’s eternal purpose with us as human beings has been from the beginning, and how we removed ourselves from this calling.

Humans were created to be carriers of God’s image and life as his sons. Herein is our identity, security, destiny, and, above all, our instinct to love, adore and worship God as our Father. Choosing against God leaves us with an aching void within, and an irresistible urge to discover or create some or other substitute on whom we can lavish our inborn urge to love and worship, and in whom we can trust for security and a sense of identity.

As the readings below and the rest of chapter 1 reveal, once the image of God was removed from our sights, the vacuum was filled by the “image of man” – an illusory idea of a deified super-self that is intended to satisfy our longings for wholeness, life, power and a certain future or destiny.

This idea, that a created being can be “as God” (in the sense of taking God’s place), originated in the heart of Satan (Isaiah 14:14), was injected into the human race in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:5) and has characterised the fleshly offspring of Adam and Eve ever since.

The results of this “exchange” were devastating:

Firstly, the worship of God was replaced by the worship of self. This shift took place in the heart of human beings.

Secondly, our foremost and most divine human characteristic, namely the impulse to love, was replaced by desire. This shift took place in the cognition and emotions of human beings. Whereas love seeks to give to others what belongs to the self, desire seeks to take for the self that which belongs to the other. These two forces are diametrically opposed, representing the difference between the character of God and the character of Satan. The book of Romans documents this shift and is dedicated in its entirety to God’s gracious intervention, through Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the curse of desire and to restore us unto himself and his character of love.

Thirdly, our behavior conformed itself to our desires. We began to live and act in accordance with the irresistible demands of our selfish desires. This shift took place in our actions, that is, the deeds done in the body.

3.2.1 The Purpose of Revelation: Knowing God

In order to understand what happened when we “rejected” God, we first need to consider an important question: Why “on earth” did God reveal himself to us?

We have already referred to the answer in our Revelation section (Romans 1:18-19). In verse 19 we read: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”

Note that “showing” precedes “knowing. The reason why God “shows” himself to us is so that we can “know” him. Verse 21 confirms this by saying that humanity “knew God” after he revealed himself to us.

From the beginning, God’s purpose with humanity has been to establish a relationship with us. But there was a problem: Verse 20 tells us that God’s attributes (characteristics) are invisible. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to realise that a relationship with an unseen being with an imperceptible nature is highly problematic!

But God overcame the problem by allowing the mystery of his power and beauty to be embodied in the created order, and so his characteristics were “clearly perceived!” Humans now had an “image” that they could look at, revealing God’s “nature” to them, and thus a relationship with God became a possibility. What it Means to “Know”

To appreciate the weight and wonder of this word “know,” as it is used in Scripture, we merely need to turn to the first recorded acts of intimacy between humans. Note the following references:

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain… Genesis 4:1

Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. Genesis 4:17

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth… Genesis 4:25

Similarly, when the angel appeared to Mary, and told her that she would conceive and bear a son, she responded by saying “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34 KJV)

When the Bible speaks of “knowing” in these verses, it clearly has more in mind than merely knowing a few (or a lot of) facts about a person. To “know“ is to become one with another person in the act of marriage, to share his or her being to such an extent that the two understandings are merged in a single consciousness – a unity of soul that far surpasses intellectual knowledge.

As Genesis 2:24 puts it: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

This “oneness” is so central to the relationship that God has designed it to be expressed in a physical form, namely the birth of a single human being whose design is as much a product of the father’s as it is of the mother’s – a perfect composite of both parents’ DNA in a single person with a single consciousness.

In each of the verses from Genesis 4, quoted above, two people came together in the covenant unity of marriage, and one person was the result.

Adam + Eve = Cain

Cain + his wife = Enoch

Adam + Eve = Seth

Thus, the metaphor of “one flesh” is given a physical form in the birth of a child, the product of the parents’ covenant love, oneness and “knowing” of one another.

As Malachi 2:15 puts it, in reference to a man and his “companion” and “wife by covenant:”

Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? Knowing God

The exception to the rule is the fourth reference to marital “knowing” mentioned above, that of Mary. In her case it was not Joseph + Mary = Jesus, but God + Mary = Jesus.

Indeed, Mary never “knew” a man, and so she was rightfully befuddled by the words of the angel. But the angel clarified this by telling her that the Lord was “with her” and that he had “favored” her. Her pregnancy he explained by saying: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:28,30,35)

This was a different type of union, a different type of “knowing,” and the result would also be different: “…the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (verse 35b).

Whereas Cain, Enoch and Seth represented the union between two human beings, Jesus Christ represented the union between God and humanity. Thus, he was called the Son of God as well as the Son of man.[1]

God “knew” Mary, and Mary “knew” God. Of course this “knowledge” had nothing to do with romance or sexuality, as we would think of it in human terms. Rather, it had to do with oneness – the merger between the divine and the human. In Christ the consciousness of God was fused with the consciousness of humanity, representing a new type of “knowing” and revealing an age-old mystery to humanity. The “Great Mystery” of Marriage

The idea of God entering into marriage with human beings was not a new one. For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of host,” God said to Israel in Isaiah 54:5. Many other passages in the Old Testament expound on this theme,[2] laying the foundation for the New Testament teaching on the subject.

Ultimately the church would be known as the “bride of Christ.” In Ephesians 5:32 Paul tells his readers that the correlation between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and the church is a “profound mystery.” He devotes verses 21 to 33 to unraveling the mystery, illustrating the many parallels between the two relationships, and even quoting Genesis 2:24:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

This is the heart of the mystery, and it “refers to Christ and the church.”

The parallel is obvious: Christ left his Father for the sake of finding an earthly bride and becoming “one” with her. This is the imagery we find right from the start of Christ’s public ministry.

As John the Baptist explained:

‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. John 3:28-29

Jesus himself said: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matthew 22:2). Speaking about his departure, he said: “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).

Similarly, Paul told the Corinthians: I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:2).

It should come as no surprise that the New Testament culminates with a great wedding feast where the marriage of the “Lamb” and his “bride” is celebrated (Revelation 19:6-9). This event closes the final chapter of the greatest love story ever told. Eve: A Type of the Church

The eternal marriage between Christ and his bride has been God’s purpose from the beginning, and herein is the “mystery” of Genesis 2:24 revealed.

Adam’s preceding words in verse 23, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man,” were prophetic. The formation of Eve was more than a mere provision of a companion for Adam. It was a stunning picture of the birth of the church.

Eve was “in Adam,” only to be taken “out of him,” with the express purpose of being united to him again, this time around in a loving and conscious relationship of reciprocal “knowing.”

Why was the separation necessary?

Even though the woman was “in the man” in the beginning, a relationship between them was impossible. He was regarded as being “alone”, which was “not good” (Genesis 2:18). The only suitable helpmeet, it turned out, was one that had not been “formed out of the ground” (2:19) but from Adam’s own bone and flesh. The woman had to come “from man” in order to be suitable “for man.”

Throughout all of the above, the mystery is revealed. The church, who was chosen “in him, before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), is presented “to himself glorious” in Ephesians 5.

The refrain of Ephesians, of course, is the term “in him.” The church is born from the spirit, not the flesh. She has her origin in Jesus Christ himself, making her the only suitable companion for him out of all creation. She was taken out of him, as it were, in order to become one with him.

Paul underscores this in his statement to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-17) Knowing Jesus Christ

With the above in mind, the word “know” takes on a whole new meaning. The Bible uses it to depict the covenant knowledge between two lives who have blended together as one. In such a relationship there is a reciprocal “revelation” of each to the other, a full disclosure, an “unveiling” without shame.

Indeed, this is what God had in mind with humanity: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

Of course this openness was hampered after the fall, but God’s intention with the covenant between the sexes did not change. Whilst the relationship between the husband and the wife was frustrated, their covenant remained sacred. They would still become one in their “knowing” of each other.

In the same way, that which was symbolized and foreshadowed by their relationship remained intact. The ultimate aim was that humans would be known by God, and know him in return. They were to become recipients of his divine life, partakers of his nature, and sharers in the knowledge of who he was.

“Knowing God” was never intended to be a heady systematic knowledge of propositional statements “about” God. Rather, it was to be enlightenment, reserved for those who were joined to God in a loving union of covenant loyalty and intimacy, regardless of their intellectual abilities.

This was the “knowledge” referred to by the prophets, Jesus Christ and the apostles. From them we learn the following:

  • The covenant between God and humanity cannot exist without it.[3]
  • Salvation is a practical impossibility without it.[4]
  • Motivation to live the “Christian life” is an absurd idea without it.[5]
  • “Spiritual warfare” is misdirected if it is not aimed at it.[6]
  • Prayers for fellow believers are inadequate if they do not include it.[7]
  • Knowledge of the Scriptures is insufficient without it.[8]
  • “Eternal life” cannot be understood apart from it.[9]
  • On the great Day of Judgment, it will serve as the criteria for judgment. Those who do not know God, and are not known by him, will be shown away from God (even if they did many fantastic things for God).[10]

Thus, we are dealing with a great and glorious eternal truth when we speak about God “knowing” us, and us knowing him in return.

And remember: All of it could only happen as a result of God revealing himself to us!

3.2.2 Responding to God’s Revelation

This brings us to our next important question: How does God expect us to respond to his revelation? Put differently, what does it mean in practice to know him?

Verse 21 goes on to tell us: We were to honor Him with thankful hearts.

Our eternal calling can therefore be described by the following 3 words:

  1. Relationship (knowing God)
  2. Reverence (honoring God)
  3. Contentment (thanking God)

Graphically, we can portray it as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 2.26.46 PMThe first thing we learn from this that humanity’s calling was a responsive one. Each of our 3 terms above implies a human response to a divine initiative:

  1. I see God’s glorious magnificence in his creation, and so I learn about him.
  2. I see God’s power and sovereignty in creation, and so I honor him as the divine Origin of everything.
  3. I partake of the goodness of creation, and so I experience delight and satisfaction, and I thank God (More about this in a moment).

The relationship that God intended between Himself and humanity can thus be depicted in the following illustration, which we will simply refer to as “The Natural Order” (The symbol θ represents God, and is derived from the Greek letter Theta that is used to spell “Theos”, which is Greek for God):

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To emphasise the principle that God’s activity must always precede and inspire human actions, we can also depict the difference between God as “Creator” and humanity as “creation” as follows:

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This principle, that God must be first in everything in order for us to function optimally as human beings, is found throughout Scripture.[11] The Essential Aspect of God’s Revelation: Life

This brings us to another question: What was at the heart of God’s revelation? What was its essential component or element, and how did it communicate to us that God was “No. 1” and that we were “No. 2?”

The answer is not complicated. God did it by revealing himself as the source of life. The aspect of creation that turns it into a “picture” or “image” of the invisible God is life.

Creation teems with life, and this life can only be sustained if it is passed on from one “life-carrier” to another. Creation itself testifies to the fact that it cannot create its own life, but that it needs to receive it. Similarly, it cannot create another’s life, but it has to pass its own received life on.

So obvious is this principle that we have even made up a word that describes what happens when this chain of receiving life and passing it on is interrupted: Extinction.

The life force that sustains a species must be uninterrupted for that species to survive. The moment that a life-carrier is no more, the species ceases to exist. The Dinosaurs are a case in point.

Of course all of this raises a profound question: Where did the first life come from?

The Bible answers by telling us that life came from God, and that God did not get it from anywhere because he himself is life. Life is not something that God has, but hat he is.

This also means that he cannot loose it. God’s life has neither beginning nor end, and the adjective that the Bible uses to describe this quality is “eternal.”

Thus, the life force that we see operating around us, and inside of us, is something divine. No human has ever been able to replicate it. Scientists can build space rockets, but they cannot make a single little flower. The force of life is a mystery, and it can only be understood in the light of God’s pre-eminence and “eternal power.”

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The graphic above portrays what happened in the Garden of Eden, with the creation of the first human. God “breathed” his life into Adam, who was a mere vessel of dust without it.

The New Testament Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, and it means “breath.” Similarly, the Old Testament Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it also means breath. Thus, the “spirit” of a person is in reality nothing but the living breath of God residing inside the body of flesh.

From this point of view, the Holy Spirit can be understood as the “Holy Breath” of God that “fills” a person and unites him/her to God and his essence.

This combination of the dust of the earth and the living breath of God is described in Genesis as a “living soul,” a composite of created matter and the uncreated life of God.[12] Humanity’s First Response: Honor

The reason why the magnificent display of God’s life in its infinite variety of colors and species was intended to elicit a response of “honor” from humanity is self explanatory. Through it all God’s preeminence was revealed, along with our dependence.

The word “honor” in Greek is doxa, and it is oftentimes translated as “glory.” In its verb form (to “glorify” or “give honor to”) it literally means “to ascribe weight by recognizing real substance or value.”[13]

This should come as no surprise. Doxa refers to a manifestation of quality that evokes a good opinion. Thus, to “glorify” is to recognize and acknowledge true worth that has been discovered. It is to side with the “revealer” of the glory and to admit the real value of that which is revealed. Humanity’s Second Response: Thanksgiving

But what about thanksgiving?

Remember that God expected us to honor him, but also to be thankful in response to his revelation. These two actions lie at the heart of “knowing God,” and both are required.

To honor and acknowledge God, in response to the startling revelation of his preeminence in the chain of life, makes perfect sense. But how does that make one grateful?

The answer is as astonishing (if you think about it) as it is delightful: The Bible tells us that God not only displayed his life-force through creation, but allowed us to become partakers of it!

We have already alluded to this in our reference to Adam having “received” the life of God, but we have only done so to illustrate that God is “No 1” and that we are “No 2.” Yet there is more to receiving and partaking of God’s life than becoming mere symbols of his preeminence.

“Goodness” in Genesis 1

We see this when we consider the difference between the first and second chapters of Genesis, and the way in which the word “good” is used in them.

Genesis 1 narrates the revelation of God’s preeminence, and reveal him as “the beginning” or “origin” of everything that is alive, including the first humans. The chapter is all about God’s sovereignty and splendor, and it leaves the observer awestruck. It is here that one is moved to “honor” God and acknowledge his power and might.

We have seen that the Greek word for “glory” or “honor” refers to a manifestation of quality that evokes a good opinion. And indeed, throughout Genesis 1 we read that “God saw that it was good.” God’s glory was made known, and the first to affirm its superior quality was God himself. To “glorify” or “give honor” to God simply means to agree with God’s assessment that creation was indeed “good,” and to acknowledge him as the sovereign creator thereof.

The problem with the word “good” is that we tend to think of it in the light of its superlatives “better” and “best.” And so, when we hear it, it does not exactly conjure up images of pefection or utmost quality.

If someone says “Mike is a good mechanic,” or “That was a good burger,” we understand it as a statement of quality, but we also understand that there are better mechanics and better burgers around.

However, in the Bible the word is often used not as a degree of comparison but as a statement of incomparable quality, such as when Jesus said “No one is good except God alone.”[14]

It is in this sense that we should understand its use in Genesis 1. Here we are confronted with a type of goodness that is so unique that it stands in a class of its own, a goodness that cannot be understood by grading it against other levels of lesser or greater goodness.

Certainly one cannot descibe creation in terms of “better” or “best,” for that would imply that there are other creations around to compare it with. But God does not compete, for there is simply no one to compete with. And so he uses descriptive terms that cannot be understood by comparing them to other descriptive terms. God’s adjectives are in a class of their own.

This is exactly why God referred to himself as “I am” and “I am the great I am,” when asked by Moses, “Who should I say has sent me to you?”[15]

From these words we learn that there is no description sufficient to define God, and that God can only be compared to himself.

And, as we have seen, even in those instances where a word such as “good” is used to refer to God, it has a meaning that is infinetely different to our understanding of goodness as a mere degree of quality amongst others.

“Goodness” in Genesis 2

When we turn to Genesis 2, we run into the word “good” again, but with a difference.

The first reference is negative: God saw that it was “not good for man to be alone.”[16] But then it becomes positive: God responds by creating a partner for Adam, and thereafter we read that “God saw that it was very good.”[17] Thus marriage is created as something good.

Secondly, we read that all the trees in the garden were “good for food.”[18]

Whilst the fruit-bearing trees and the marital union between the sexes were already created in Genesis 1, and included in the references that “God saw that it was good,” Genesis 2 goes deeper into these stories and expand on the implication of their goodness.

Here the goodness of God is not just observed but experienced. Marriage and food were created for the man and the woman, and through them the objective goodnesss of God became a subjective and experiential reality.

As we find in Genesis 1, the core aspect of this revelation of God’s goodness has to do with life, but here it is not just a revelation of life that is at stake, but a participation in life. The only way that the man and the woman could sustain the sovereign gift of life breathed into them by God, was to continue partaking of it as it had been deposited into creation.

We can say that the life in the trees had to be continuously deposited into the man and the woman to keep them alive, thus reinforcing the truth that they were not only dependent on God for their birth but also for their survival. God was both creator and sustainer, and the point had to be reinforced on a daily basis.

The same principle applies to the “goodness” of marriage. The survival of the species was as dependent on the marital union as it was on nutrition. Marriage also has to do with a “transfer of life,” and through it the received life of God could be passed on to the rest of humanity, reinforcing with every single birth the truth that life is a gift that is traced back to God.

Thus, the two symbols that would continue the revelatory work of Genesis 1, for all of Adam and Eve’s progeny, were food and marriage. Through them we could all participate in God’s life and pass it on to others. The very parents who were responsible for the birth of a child were responsible for feeding the child, thus becoming an image and a model of God the Father who birthed us and sustains us.

This means that the goodness of God was no longer a theological abstraction or a mere “absolute truth.” We could now “taste and see that the Lord is good.”[19] The greatest satisfaction and ecstacy experienced by humans were reserved for the adventure of participating in the life of God, and joining him in passing it on to others.

This association is so strong in the human psyche that most people, when asked to describe their idea of a “perfect evening,” would do so by making food and romance its central themes (“a candlelight dinner with the woman of my dreams,” or something similar).

Indeed, the imagery reaches its final conclusion and ultimate maturity in the great wedding feast described at the end of Revelation. Here we find the two life-symbols combined in a single term. A marriage that is celebrated by eating and drinking!

Revelation ends where Genesis begins: In the garden of God’s life, where we will know as we have been known, and where all the prophetic dreams will find their ultimate fulfillment. Here marriage will be an everlasting reality,[20] and fruit will be yielded each month.[21] Thus life will be eternal.

The Irresistibility of our Desire for Life

The word that best captures these two experiential encounters with God’s life is “delight.”

In the Hebrew Old Testament the term “to delight in” is closely associated with the concept of “desire,” namely an all encompassing yearning for that which has been identified as having greater value than anything else.

Thus, desire is an anticipation of the delight of life, and can rightly be described as an appetite. This overwhelming urge to become partakers in the divine cycle of God’s life, and to experience satisfaction as the primary signal that life has been transferred and received, is an irresistible force in the human constitution.

God designed us in this way, and the reason is simple: We were intended to partake of his divine life and to share in his nature. Honoring the supremacy of life, and enjoying our participation therein, is what we were created for. This design manifests itself as a hungering and thirsting after him, with an intuitive anticipation of the satisfaction and contentment that will follow once we are filled with his life.

Anthropologists and psychologists refer to humanity’s most basic need as our need for survival, which manifests itself in two primary ways: The need for air, water and food, and our so-called “sexual instinct.”

Even here the pattern repeats itself. We are “breathers” by nature. Every moment of our existence is a simulation of our creation, with the breath of life entering into us. Every hunger pang is a confirmation that we need a continuous impartation from the God of life to exist. Every yearning for romance is a reminder that we were never intended to enjoy our God given life by ourselves, but to share it with another and pass it on to others.

The force of our desire for God is irresistible. We may not link our most basic human instincts to our need for God, but that is exactly what they are telling us. Even when we reject God, our passion for him will not be affected. Whilst we may deny him intellectually, our passions for him will rage on within us and clinch the debate with every breath, every meal and every romantic notion.

And so we see how “glory” (the manifestation of that which has true worth) and “goodness” (the immeasurable quality of that worth) inspire “honor” (the reverential awe in the atmosphere of glory) and “thanksgiving” (the gratitude that flows out of the delight that comes with partaking in the goodness of God’s life).

The conclusion of our “revelation triangle” above is therefore quite simple: True worship can only take place where there is both “honor,” inspired by awe, and “thanksgiving,” inspired by delight. To have the one without the other would not do. Awe without delight leads to dread, and delight without awe leads to sensuality. But when both are present, God’s revelation of life is appreciated exactly as he intended it to be.

Corrupting the Message of Life

If this is true, and if we are dealing with the great mystery of what it means to be “human” here, then it should come as no surprise that the great enemy of God would do everything in his power to destroy this message proclaimed by God’s two primary “life symbols.”

And indeed, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul told Timothy that a demonic deception would infiltrate the church of Jesus Christ and pose as the real thing:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5

Note the references to food and marriage, and note how Paul sets the record straight by identifying them as God’s “creation,” calling them “good” and linking our involvement with them to “thanksgiving.”

It is here that we find our first definition of religion as a false form of spirituality: It always underplays the role of God’s life in us, and always overemphasizes human ingenuity. And so it portrays allegiance to God as duty instead of delight, as a “taste not, touch not”[22] code instead of a loving response to a God that has been identified as infinitely good, both in his creative initiative and delightful dealings with us.[23]

3.2.3 The Eternal Purpose: Sonship

This brings us to God’s “eternal purpose” with humanity, and to the ultimate “life-symbol” chosen by him to accentuate all of the above and bring it together under a single overarching theme: Sonship.[24]

In Luke’s gospel Adam is referred to as “the son of God.”[25] Thus, the idea of sonship coincided with the creation of Adam, and preceded the mandates to eat the fruit of the trees and to become fruitful and fill the earth.

But it was even older than that. God’s purpose, that he should have many sons and daughters, originated in eternity past and predates the creation of the world. And so we refer to it as the eternal purpose.

The two books in the Bible that expound this theme are Romans and Ephesians. In both letters we find the words “purpose” (Ephesians 1:9, 11; 3:10; Romans 8:28) and “predestined” (Ephesians 1:5, 11; Romans 8:30). Both books reveal the mystery of humanity in an astounding way, clarifying God’s eternal purpose with us along with our eternal pre-destiny:

He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. Ephesians 1:4-5

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Romans 8:28-29 Created in His Image

As we have seen, the “responsive” nature of humanity is evident from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. There we read that God created the first human beings in his own “image” and “likeness” (verse 27).

This correlates with the passage from Romans 8, quoted above, where we read that we were “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

But what does this mean?

Note that these two words are generally used to refer to photographs, portraits, statues and mirrors. What they have in common is that they all depend on and point to an original model.

From this we learn that God created us for the purpose of being seen in us. It may sound slightly impersonal, but the relationship between God and humanity could very well be described as that of the “master” and the “mirror”. Like a mirror, our reason for being was to be found in the act of reflecting the glory and pre-eminence of our master.

It was for this reason that all humans were created, and it ties in perfectly with our discussion of honor and thanksgiving. We were intended to experience God’s eternal power and authority, to find our delight, enjoyment, pleasure, satisfaction and contentment in him and him alone, and to worship and love him as a result.

The reverential obedience of humanity is the greatest evidence that God’s authority has been perceived and understood, and the accompanying delight, expressed in gratitude, is the greatest evidence that God’s goodness has been tasted.

Thus, the peace and wholeness experienced by the creature is nothing but a reflection – a testimony – of the harmony and perfection that exists in God alone. Put differently, the ultimate way to perceive God’s wholeness and be aligned with it, is to experience it as a subjective personal wholeness – a deep sense of emotional security and joy in the knowledge of God and his sufficient provision. And so we can say that God’s perfection is best expressed in humanity’s contentment.

This is how we were to reflect God’s “invisible attributes.” God revealed himself to us in order to further reveal Himself through us! As the crown of God’s creation, we were intended to be an extension of God’s self-revelation through nature. His life was intended to be lived through us and so made manifest.

God could be “seen” through that which He had created in day 1 to 5, but that was nothing in comparison with the way in which he would be seen through that which He had created in day 6! The Son as the Image of the Father

This brings us back to the issue of “sonship.” To be a “son” is to carry the image of the father, and to let the father be “seen.”

But it also encompasses the other life themes that we have explored thus far: To be a son is to be a living manifestation of the covenant knowledge that dissolves two lives into one. It is to be a primary life-recipient of the father, to carry his life within, and to possess the ability to pass it on to others.

And, of course, the 3 callings of humanity that are outlined in verse 21, are all included in “sonship”:

  1. The child learns from the father’s instruction and get to “know” and love the father.
  2. The child “honors“ the father by obeying and respecting him.
  3. The child enjoys the father through his presence and provision and is “thankful”.

As you will notice, in the context of a loving father-son relationship, these are not duties but spontaneous responses to the goodness of the father!

God’s purpose has always been to have an offspring that would be born from his seed, carry his life within them, live by that life, resemble him as his image, be sustained and provided for by him, be instructed and trained by him, obey him and learn from him, be protected by him, call him “Father,” love him and be loved by him (most important of all) and ultimately inherit his riches and glory.

3.2.4 Choice: The Two Trees in the Garden The Tree of Life

The imagery of life-conveying trees culminated with a single tree that stood in the middle of the garden – the tree of life. What set this tree apart from the other trees was the nature of the life imparted by it. Its fruit could make one “live forever.”[26]

What we learn from this is that God had an aim with his creation that went beyond the joys of eating, drinking and marrying, and even beyond the honor and thanksgiving that were inspired by them. As wonderful as these gifts were, the life imparted through them was physical and provisional – a mere sample and foretaste of the unchanneled spiritual life that was to be found in God himself.

Likewise, the intended responses of honor and thanksgiving were mere shadows of the worship that would accompany the discovery of, and participation in, the pure unmediated life of God.

Even marriage between the sexes was intended to be temporary, a shadow and type of an eternal marriage between God and humanity.[27] The day would come when the life of God would no longer be mediated, but poured into humanity by God himself.

As mentioned before, this would be the day when the marital act of “knowing” would no longer take place between a man and a woman, but between humanity and God. Thus, the glorious revelation of God in and through creation would be superceded by an unveiling of God that would trump all previous “knowledge” of God.

To understand this, consider a statement in the gospel of John’s opening verses: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”[28] Here we see that “life” comes with its own understanding, which happens to be a lesson taught by creation itself: None of God’s species had to be technically “schooled” in order to learn how to be who they already were. God’s life force would implant it in them, leading to an instinctive grasp that would defy intellectual understanding or education.

This was what the tree of life symbolized. It represented a participation in the nature of life that would lead to an inner revelation and enlightenment. Two awarenesses would become one in a covenant union of reciprocal knowing.

As said before, to “know“ is what happens when two lives come together as one and share their being to such an extent that the two understandings are merged in a single consciousness – a unity of soul that far surpasses intellectual knowledge.[29]

This was God’s intention, to pour his life into us and unite us to him as “partakers of the divine nature,”[30] and here was a tree that symbolised this intention. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

But there was also another tree: The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From this tree they were forbidden to eat.[31]

Note that whilst the tree of life represented “knowing God,” the other tree represented “knowing good and evil,” thus moral knowledge.

It is clear that this tree was not intended to convey life, for God said: “The day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” This was not only a tree that represented the absence of life, but also a definite choice for that absence, along with the disastrous and permanent consequences of the choice, namely death.

The reason why it was called the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and not simply the “tree of death,” lies in what has been said above: God never intended humans to live by rules alone, that is, a code of conduct that is externally enforced and that can be categorized in neat categories of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”[32]

Such a necessity would be a sure sign that the “light of life,” referred to by John in John 1:4, was sadly absent in the interaction between God and humanity. Jesus himself said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[33] To the Pharisees he said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”[34]

The point is that a mere objective standard of moral conduct, no matter how profound in its distinction between what is “good” and “evil,” is insufficient without the revelational life of God. Thus, once the life of God is removed from the equation, the only thing that is left is a dead system of “do’s” and “don’ts,” a legalistic code of conduct that has an appearance of wisdom and moral superiority, but with no divine substance.

Knowledge without life would be like the body without the spirit. This is what God was saying through the symbolism of the two trees.

The one principle that remains clear through all of the above is that we were created to utterly depend on God. He is the source of both our being and our understanding. To the very degree that our physical existence depends on a continuous life impartation from God, our cognitive functioning depends on a moment-by-moment revelational impartation from him.

In this way the divine “will” is transplanted in us, so that we will as he wills, even if we do not always possess perfect clarity of understanding as to the why of God’s will.

Indeed, this is what it means to be led by the Spirit, and not by the written code, as we will see later.

3.2.5 Rejecting God’s Life

The moment that the first couple decided to choose for the wrong tree, they willingly chose against God’s life-giving power, and death entered the world in a devastating way.

As one would expect, the force of death immediately manifested itself in the very symbols that God chose to portray life: Food, marriage and even creation itself.

The free gift of God’s life as manifested by the trees in the garden became inaccessible. In the place thereof, the man now had to produce his own food “by the sweat of his face”[35] and his eating would henceforth be “in pain.”[36] Life no longer flowed naturally and unhindered from God to humans.

Similarly, the marital union that was intended to serve as a channel of God’s life and produce an offspring, was severely affected. The “giving of life” through the birth process, leading to the infant’s first “breath,” would also take place “in pain”[37] and became something dreadfully difficult.

Again, life no longer flowed naturally and unhindered.

And then there was creation itself, the magnificent display of God’s life in all its diversity. The ground was “cursed” and would produce “thorns and thistles.”[38] Botanists generally understand thorns to be manifestations of “stunted growth.” And, of course, thorns are notorious for causing pain.

Here, too, the flow of life had become obstructed, with painful consequences.

But most of all, the ultimate symbol of God’s divine life, namely the tree of life, given for the nourishment, sustenance, revelation and delight of humanity, was made inaccessible:

Therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. Genesis 3:23-14

The man and the woman would be reminded of the tragic implications of their choice for the remainder of their lives. The greatest blessings that God had bestowed on them was now felt to be a curse, and the reason was obvious: The man and woman had chosen to take responsibility for their own life by rejecting God’s free gift of life.

The two trees in the Garden of Eden were symbolic of two lives: The life of God, and the life of humanity independent from God. A choice for the one meant a choice against the other, for the two stand diametrically opposed.

This means that Adam and Eve’s choice for “self” was an active choice against God. In choosing against God, they chose against their origin. They chose against the notion that they were dependent for their life on a source outside of themselves. They chose against their beginning, and so they chose for independence.

And, of course, they chose against the joy and delight of being filled by the life of God.

If the “natural order” of creation is depicted in Fig. 1 below, and man and woman’s choice against God and for the self in Fig. 2, then the outcome of that choice could not be depicted in any other way than in Fig. 3:

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 7.37.07 PM

The man and woman were now “independent”, and at this point something happened that would alter their self-consciousness (their sense of self) forever. At the very moment that God was “erased” above the line, the man and woman no longer viewed themselves in the light of, or subject to God.

And so we read that “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (verse 21b). Having lost the life of God, they lost the light of life, and began to walk in darkness. They could no longer see or know God, and so their humanity was no longer defined by God’s pre-eminence.

The disappearance of God’s life and light had a further consequence: Humanity no longer reflected God in the way that they were intended to, and so they no longer fitted the description of “image and likeness”. In this way they lost their “glory” and “radiance”, as we shall promptly see, and also their sense of identity as a “son” and a “daughter” of God.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 7.48.14 PM

The serpent’s words “you will be like God” were indeed fulfilled, but with a nasty twist. Humanity became like God in the sense that they no longer had an origin.

Being without an origin or beginning works perfectly for God, as he is indeed the divine origin behind everything. But it did not and could not work for humans, as they were designed to be dependent on God!

The first “life exchange” had now taken place: Humanity exchanged the life of God for their own lives. With reference to our Life Exchange Graphic, we can portray this cataclysmic shift as follows:

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[1] The term “Son of man” regularly refers to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. See Matthew 16:27; 24:30; 26:34, Revelation 14:14, etc.

[2] See, for instance, Jeremiah 3:20 and 31:32, Hosea 2:7 and the entire Ezekiel 16.

[3] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34

[4] And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

[5] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish… Philippians 3:8

[6] We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,… 2 Corinthians 10:5

[7] I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him… Ephesians 1:16-19

[8] You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. John 5:39

[9] And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

[10] On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:22-23

[11] For example:

  • Abel’s offering, which was the first acceptable offering ever made to God, came from the firstborn of the flock (Genesis 4:3-5).
  • Proverbs tells us that we are to honor the Lord with the first fruits of all our increase (Proverbs 3:9).
  • The Israelites were to bring a sheaf of the first fruits of the harvest to the priest (Leviticus 23:9-10.
  • The Lord told Moses to consecrate all the firstborn among the children of Israel to him (Exodus 13:1-2).
  • Every firstborn male from among the Israelites’ animals was to be set aside for the Lord (Exodus 13:12).
  • The first city that the Israelites invaded was Jericho, and so God told Joshua that all the silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, were holy to the Lord and should go into the treasury of the Lord. Later on they were allowed to keep some of the plunder, but Jericho was seen as a “first fruits” city (Joshua 6:19).
  • Joshua made it clear that Jericho was not to be rebuilt, and that God would punish the person doing so by taking his firstborn – thus reinforcing the principle in the life of the one disregarding it (Joshua 6:26). The prophecy was fulfilled when Hiel of Bethel decided to rebuild Jericho during the time of King Ahab’s reign in Israel (1 Kings 16:34).
  • Israel was called God’s “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22).
  • The Egyptians, who did not acknowledge the pre-eminence of God, had their firstborn taken from them as the last and ultimate sign of God’s sovereignty (Exodus 12:29-32). This was a fulfilment of the words ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:22-23). Here, too, the principle was reinforced in the life of the one disregarding it.
  • Jesus Christ is referred to as the “firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), the “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5) and the “firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
  • Believers are referred to as the “assembly of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23.
  • Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1-7).
  • The early Christians gathered and broke bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

[12] Genesis 2:7

[13] James Strong, Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), s.v. “glorify.”

[14] Luke 18:19

[15] Exodus 3:13-14

[16] Genesis 2:18

[17] This sentence actually appears in Genesis 1:31, but only after it is mentioned that “God created them male and female” in verse 27.

[18] Genesis 2:9

[19] Psalm 34:8

[200] As opposed to earthly marriage that is temporal. See Mark 12:25.

[21] Revelation 22:2

[22] Colossians 2:20-23 refers to this distortion of spirituality. The whole passage reads as follows: If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

[23] Of course Romans turns this caricature of spirituality right around by devoting its first 12 chapters to the restoration of God’s life in us before telling us how to behave.

[24] The term “son” and its derivative “sonship” are used inclusively for both sons and daughters, as this is the way in which the Bible uses it.

[25] Luke 3:38

[26] Genesis 3:22

[27] Mark 12:24

[28] John 1:4

[29] This does not mean that “truth” has no objective or absolute character, and that it depends entirely on the subjective sensibilities of a person. The accusation that references to “inner enlightenment” is a sure route to a dangerous type of “mysticism,” “existentialism” or “New Age” spirituality, as well as to moral relativism, is false. God gave his spoken and written word “outside of us, ”along with his living word “inside of us,” and the one cannot exist without the other. Many of the greatest schisms in the history of the church can be traced back to a refusal amongst Christians to acknowledge that revelation is both objective and subjective.

[30] 2 Peter 1:4

[31] Genesis 2:16-17

[32] Genesis 3:22 makes it clear that God possessed the knowledge of good and evil. The reason why this is not a problem can be explained as follows: If God alone is good, then it follows naturally that God alone knows goodness. The absence of goodness is what we call evil, and so it also follows naturally that God alone knows evil. Hence, the knowledge of good and evil is restricted to the very being of God, which means that all moral authority resides in God alone. Furthermore, God himself is life, and so the relationship between life and knowledge is indissoluble in the nature of God. The knowledge of good and evil was prohibited, not because it is something bad or corrupt, but because it is intrinsically sovereign and thus off-limits. Satan knew this, and so he offered the knowledge of good and evil as the charm that would make the humans “as God.” This was not a lie, for God confirmed after the fall that they had become “like one of us, knowing good and evil.” However, without the life of God the stolen godhood was nothing but a delusion of grandeur and independence, and herein was the deception.

[33] John 8:12. The “light of life” is also referred to in passages such as Psalm 56:13 and Job 33:30.

[34] John 5:39-40

[35] Genesis 3:19

[36] Genesis 3:17

[37] Genesis 3:16

[38] Genesis 3:17-18

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3.3 Religion (1:22-23,25)

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22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things… 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

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In spite of the devastating consequences of death, humanity’s reason for being did not change, and neither did their most basic inclinations. Human beings were still:

  • dependent on an image of God that could reveal God’s divine power and invisible attributes to them, such as creation had done,
  • designed to hunger and thirst after God and experience the satisfaction that results from being filled with God’s life,
  • designed to conform to the image and likeness of God, or, as we put it, to function as a mirror for their master,
  • designed to be a part of God’s family as sons and daughters of God, and as brothers and sisters of one another.

3.3.1 The Great Exchange

This explains the message of verses 22-25, namely that humanity’s “rejection” of God involved much more than simply denying or dismissing him. Rather, it had to do with an exchange. Something was given up in order to gain something else, in the same way that one would exchange an unwanted gift for cash at the return counter of a department store.

In this case, the “glory of God” was exchanged for “images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles,” and the “truth about God” was exchanged for a “lie.” In short, worshiping the Creator was exchanged for worshiping the creature (verse 25).

We learn the following from these verses:

  • The human need to honor something or someone remained intact.
  • The human need to believe in something was not affected.
  • The human need to worship remained exactly as it was before the fall.

The “fall” of humanity should thus not be understood as humans rejecting the idea of a god, but rather as humans exchanging one god for another. Humanity did not become less spiritually minded. They simply changed the object of their spirituality. Whilst they became “Godless,” they certainly did not become “godless.”

As we have seen, humans were created to love and worship God in response to his goodness revealed through creation, and through their participation therein. Thus, they were designed to be worshipers, and that is what they remained throughout the ordeal described in the previous section. Their spiritual inclinations did not disappear, but were redirected to a different object of worship: Themselves.

Why themselves?

In viewing themselves as beings without an origin, source or beginning, the man and woman no longer fitted the description of “image” and “likeness,” and their actions were no longer “responsive”. Thus, the only way that they could make sense of themselves, and, in the process, answer all the great philosophical questions, namely “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?” was by beginning with themselves, and using themselves as a frame of reference.

According to Paul, humanity’s focus shifted from the glory of God to themselves and their environment, that is, the created order. Note again verse 25: “…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

The place that was reserved for God alone was usurped by humanity. Whereas God was the object of worship, knowledge, reverence and gratitude, humanity became that object. Our “God-awareness” was replaced by “self-awareness”. God was no longer on the throne of our hearts. We were.

Through the lenses of their own independence, the man and woman could do nothing but conclude that they were their own beginning and their own end, their own alpha and omega.

In choosing against their origin they themselves became their origin, and so stole not only the place of God but also the functions and titles of God: Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 9.28.33 PM The Birth of the Idolatrous Self

The impact that this shift had on our understanding of God was monumental: Whereas we were intended to understand ourselves in the light of God, we now understood God in the light of ourselves. Once we no longer had access to God’s self-revelation, the only resources that we had left for comprehending God were ourselves and our own imagination.

Ironically, whereas we were created in the image and likeness of God, we now created God in our image and likeness. Our gods became nothing but projections of our own sensibilities, and so we assumed the role of creator and our gods became our creations. Hence we fashioned them to look like us.

As the prophet Isaiah famously commented on the folly of idolatry

The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on washes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” Isiaiah 44:12-20

Isaiah explains how humanity reversed the “natural order” of God’s creation. Graphically, we can portray this sad state of affairs as follows:

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This is exactly what the serpent had in mind when he said to Eve: “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes autonomous knowledge (I can choose for myself), whilst the tree of life symbolizes God’s knowledge revealed to us (God knows what we need and provides it).

The result was devastating. Instead of knowing God relationally, we were left with something called “religion”: The worship of a god or gods based on our own intellectual understanding, moral aptitude and “mediatory efforts” (interpreting and approaching God through the mediation of people as a direct result of the reversed order depicted above).

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Humanity no longer knew God “immediately”, but “mediately”. The image of a human being, along with his/her ideas and efforts, became the path to God. The work ethic that infiltrated the world through the curse (“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”) also became the basis of religion.

“Finding God” now became a matter of human ingenuity. As it is often said: “Religion is humanity’s search for God, but Christianity is God reaching down to humanity.” Human Relationships Destroyed

Not only was the communion between humanity and God destroyed, but also between human beings. This is evident from Genesis 4 onwards. Our inability to relate to God, coupled with our obsession with self, made it impossible to live in harmony with fellow human beings. We will say more about this later. When the Son Loses the Image of the Father

The comic strip “The Story of I,” on the next pages, explains in a nutshell how the “great exchange” influenced our eternal purpose as sons and daughters of God.

This “exchange” was never God’s will, and it explains why Romans is all about a “life exchange.” The “life exchange” that was spoken of by Jesus Christ and Paul is nothing but a correction of an earlier “life exchange,” effected by us as humans.

We rejected the life of God, which was symbolized by the tree of life, in exchange for human autonomy. This “life of I” is no life at all but death, and was symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

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The implication of all this is quite astounding: The gospel of Jesus Christ challenge us to “lose our lives.” What this actually implies is that we must come to terms with the fact that our “real” lives have already been lost in Eden. What we are called to “lose” for Christ is not something substantial, but really an illusion that we created to cope with the unimaginable horror of our own mortality and the power that death has over us.

In the absence of the Father’s life, we are forced to either turn back to him or create some or other “counterfeit life” that will enable us to effectively deny death.

That is what the following comic is all about:

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3.3.2 “I Am” versus “I Will:” From Beholding to Visioneering

There is one extremely important implication to the shift from the “image of God” to the “image of l” that we need to look at before we can move on to our “fourth R.”

As you have seen above, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is usually not our photo albums (representing the past) or mirrors (representing the present) that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealized future self.

Our past and present selves are simply too real (and oftentimes embarrassing!) to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mold the image of I. This is the only place in the human make-up where we can have complete artistic license and autonomy, and where we can apply our imaginations free from those things that have cast our past and present experiences in concrete. And so we use it to create an idealized future inhabited by an idealized self.

All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider where the “imagining” of a future, improved “self” began. It started in Eden, and note who inspired it: The first “motivational speaker” in the history of the universe was a serpent!

Satan convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. (You guessed it: SuperEve!) By doing so he managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfill your destiny.”

The difference between Eve as God made her, and “imagined Eve”, was monumental. The first was real, the second was a fantasy. The first existed in the now, with everything that she needed to simply “be.” The second existed as an idolized projection of the future, with a need for an intervention of sorts to bridge the gap between the “I am” as God made me and the “I will” of the autonomous, egotistical self. The first was created for contentment and thanksgiving, the second was infested with desire.

Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast between these words…

  • I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
  • I am the bread of life. John 6: 35, 48
  • I am the light of the world. John 8: 12, 9:5
  • Before Abraham was, I am. John 8: 58
  • I am the door. John 10:9
  • I am the good shepherd. John 10:11
  • I am the resurrection and the life. John 11:25
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life. John 14:6
  • I am the true vine. John 15:1

…and these ones:

“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart,

I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God

I will set my throne on high;

I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.’

But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”[1] The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”.

And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting, and, ultimately, love with desire.

Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”

And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”[2]

The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol.[3] Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.

The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name, an identity and a dwelling for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world. We will return to this in Romans 2’s “Habit 3: Pompous Presumption.”[4]

3.3.3 Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions

The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?

This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.”[5] This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”[6] In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring. [7]

Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”[8]

Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”

But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”[9] In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”[10]

The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.

If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become.” As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.

Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.[11] Indeed, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works.[12]

These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”.[13] They also should prompt us to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. As the prophet Isaiah warned:

But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword.[14]

[1] 1 John 3:8

[2] Genesis 3:5

[3] With reference to Isaiah 14:15. Sheol is the place of the dead and represents Satan’s punishment and eternal destiny. God said that Adam and Eve would “surely die” if they ate of the tree, and in Romans 6:23 we read that “the wages of sin is death.” Thus, Adam and Eve suffered the same destiny as Satan, and God’s words were fulfilled.

[4] See page 65

[5] Matthew 26:39

[6] Philippians 2:6

[7] We are getting slightly ahead of ourselves by discussing the work of Jesus Christ here. As you will see, Romans culminates with the example of Jesus Christ whom we are called to emulate (chapter 15:3-12). The reason we discuss his work here is to provide a comprehensive picture of the demonic “I will”, birthed from worshiping the image of self, versus the divine “I am”, birthed from the contentment and rest that is to be found in beholding the Father’s image.

[8] Matthew 4:9

[9] John 6:38

[10] Matthew 6:10

[11] 2 Thessalonians 2:4

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2:9 – Note that the Satanic attitude is a composite of pride and rebellion. 1 Samuel 15:23 calls it the sin of “witchcraft,” in reference to Saul who disobeyed God and set up a monument for himself (verse 12).

[13] A focus on “tomorrow” is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20

[14] Isaiah 65:11-12

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4. Retribution (1:24, 26-32)

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24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves… 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

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We now come to a fascinating development in Romans’ first chapter, and one that is often overlooked by Bible students.

To appreciate this, consider the following question: What do you think of when you hear the word “sin”? Murder, theft, adultery, lying?

Most of us do. Yet, up to this point, we have not heard a single word about such sins.

What we have come across is one big sin: The refusal of human beings to know, honour and thank God. There has been no mention of any other “bad deeds”.

4.1 God’s Wrath Revealed

This insight is vital for our study. Remember that the “Revelation” section of our commentary (Romans 1:18-20) begins with a reference to God’s wrath?

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth”.

What is this “wrath of God” that is unleashed because of humanity’s rejection of him?

The verses that we are presently looking at provide the answer: It is God “giving people up” to do “what ought not to be done.” (See verses 24,26 & 28).

At first, this may sound a little strange. Why would God cause people to sin? Surely God is more against sin than anyone else?

When God “gives people up in the lust of their heart,” it simply means that he takes that which is already inside the heart (by choice) and allows it to become the governing force in that person’s life.

This means that the heart of that person is permanently handed over to its own choices. Once this has happened, any outward show of good deeds is useless, for the motives behind such deeds remain self-driven and corrupt. It is here that we deal with one of the most profound themes of Romans.

4.2 Heart Exchange Causes Lifestyle Exchange

Humanity’s great sin is an inward one, a sin of the heart, namely to reject God in favor of self. As we have seen, humans rejected God’s “Natural Order” (See The Great Exchange), and so God allowed their behavior to become “unnatural” so as to visibly portray what happened in their hearts.

To use those two very important terms that we spoke about earlier, their “life-source” was corrupted and so their “lifestyle” adapted itself accordingly, i.e. the tree became rotten, which obviously affected the fruit:

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In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he makes the point that the relationship between a husband and wife represents the relationship between Christ and the church. It should come as no surprise that he interprets humanity’s choice, to reject God in favor of self, as finding expression in a negative metaphor of the same truth: “Women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (verse 26).

Men did the same. They “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (verse 27). This is Paul’s way of simply saying: “We chose ourselves, our own kind, instead of that which God had ordained.”

Here, too, he makes the point that the “exchange” that took place in the visible realm was a “due penalty” for the exchange that took place in the spiritual realm. It was a visible manifestation of a spiritual choice: Humanity did not choose God. Humanity chose humanity – the creature rather than the creator.

4.3 Sin and Sins

This brings us to one of the most important distinctions running throughout the book of Romans: The difference between “sin” as an inward force of continuous self-choice and self-exaltation, and “sins” as the visible expression thereof through constant selfish behavior.

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If we read through Paul’s list of “sins” in verses 24 to 31, the common denominator is embarrassingly obvious: Self.

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The dominance of “self” is clear from Paul’s list of “sins”. Take a moment and look again at the above characters and what they represent in the Characters section for chapter 1:18-32. You will see how murder, arrogance, envy, disobedience to parents, strife and gossiping are all bound together and inspired by one single principle: The rule of self.

4.4 The Birth of Selfish Desire

The last observation that we need to make in this passage is the recurrence of the term “desire”. Unless we understand this little word, we will not and cannot understand Romans, nor it’s teaching on sin and the Law.

Note what Romans 1 has to say about this little word:

  • God gave people up in the lusts of their hearts. (verse 24)
  • God gave people up to dishonorable passions. (verse 26)
  • Men were consumed with passion for other men. (verse 27)
  • People were filled with all manner of covetousness. (verse 29)

These passages reveal that the connection between “sin” and “sins” took place through something called “lust”, “passion” or “covetousness” (covetousness means desire). The way in which God gave people up to do “what ought not to be done”, was very simple: He handed them over to their sinful desires.

The selfish motivation that prompted humanity to choose for themselves, rather than for God, became a strong and irresistible force of lust within their hearts. Humanity became a slave to selfish desire, and this led them to indulge in selfish behavior.

It is for this reason that Peter refers to “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire”[1] and Paul to the “old self which … is corrupt through deceitful desires.”[2]

As you will promptly see, sinful desire was not something born out of the blue, but rather a redirection and corruption of the appetite for God that had been implanted in humanity as a design to drive them to God. This desire for God is irresistible, as we pointed out, and so it remains, even in its corrupted form. We were created to lust for life, and in its absence we will satisfy our craving by trying to fill ourselves with all kinds of life-substitutes.

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We can now expand our definition of “sin” and “sins” to include the presence of desire:

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This pattern, that sinful desire precedes sinful action, is confirmed by the Genesis account of the fall of humanity. The woman “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”[3] The desire then overcame her and she ate the fruit.

Similarly, James tells us that each one is tempted when he is dragged away and enticed by his own “desire”. Then, when desire is conceived it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.[4]

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The pattern is clear: Desire functions as a strong, selfish appetite that manifests in the heart, and it then gives birth to sinful behavior. This leads to death, the “wages of sin.”[5]

The reason is simple: The act of desire, as mentioned above, is nothing but the redirection of the heart to “God-substitutes.” This may temporarily feel like the real thing, but it can never provide the life that is in God alone. Thus, misdirected desire traps one with an expectation of life (“You will not surely die.”[6]) but always fails to deliver (“The wages of sin is death.”)

The startling implication is just as clear: The only way to eradicate sinful behavior is to get rid of the underlying desire that produces it. The problem is not with our deeds, but with our hearts!

As we will see in chapter 2, the circumcision that is required is not physical, but spiritual, namely a “circumcision of the heart”. The only way that the “flesh” can be removed from humanity is to have desire cut out of their hearts.

4.5 Desire as Self-Directed Love

The curse of sinful desire can only be understood against the backdrop of God’s eternal purpose with his children. As mentioned earlier, human beings were created to be loved by God and to love him in return. Indeed, “we love because he first loved us”.[7] Our love is the ultimate “responsive” act. It is out of God’s fullness that we are filled, creating in us the capacity for “freely giving” what we have “freely received”.[8]

The foundation for all sacrificial giving is therefore to be found in the fullness of God. To understand this, let us consider for a moment the three main “attributes” that the Bible assigns to God: Life, Light and Love.

Theologians have called these characteristics the three “eternal verities”, but we can simply refer to them as the three “L’s”. Their relation to God is clear from many verses in the Bible, such as in John 1:4 where we read “In him was life, and that life was the light of men”, and 1 John 4:8 where we read “God is love”.

The remarkable thing about the 3 L’s is that they all share a strong “emanating” or “radiating” quality. They all move outward and away from their own source towards some or other recipient. In this sense they all represent the action of “giving”, and so they are all manifestations of fullness.

When we are partakers of the divine nature, these attributes apply to us. And so Christ calls his followers “the light of the World,”[9] the very description that he used for himself.[10]. Similarly, he says that the living water that he will give people will become in them “a spring of water welling up to eternal life[11]. Finally, he tells his disciples that they are to love one another just as he has loved them.[12]

The point is that the nature of Christ will emanate or radiate from us when we are filled with him. This has nothing to do with effort, and everything with the “life-source” within. These attributes are manifestations of fullness and contentment, and they remind us of the words of David in the world’s most famous Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…my cup overflows.”[13]

Graphically, we can portray the process as follows:

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In Fig. 1, God is represented as Life, Light and Love, with these qualities emanating out of him.

In Fig. 2, God creates humanity and breathes his Spirit of life into them. Humanity is “filled” with the fullness of God and becomes a partaker of the divine nature.

In Fig. 3, humans emanate the very qualities of God that they have been filled with, and fulfil their creative purpose of being “image” and “likeness”. God’s seed of life now dwells in humanity, and so the first man is called a “son of God.”

Herein is the single greatest descriptor of the “life of Christ” that we referred to in Chapter 1, and that we are instructed to “find”. Simply put, it is a life that contains the fullness of God.

As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.[14]

As noted above, the fullness of God’s life was not reserved for Christ alone, but also intended for us. Paul goes on to say:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him…[15]

This has been God’s purpose from the beginning: To have an offspring indwelt by the fullness of his life and emanating his glory. We can thus depict “the life of Christ” as follows:

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As mentioned earlier, the two trees in the Garden of Eden were given to represent two lives: The eternal life of God and the autonomous life of humanity apart from God. When Adam and Eve chose for the latter, they forfeited their life source and were no longer recipients of God’s life. This left an aching void in the heart of humanity.

As Augustine famously wrote: Oh Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

To understand this, let us remind ourselves that human beings were created with a hunger and passion for God. When they rejected God the passion did not disappear but was redirected to all kinds of idols or “God-substitutes”.

Of course none of these idols could truly satisfy the longing of humanity. The wise Solomon wrote that God had put “eternity into man’s heart”[16], and so there was a deep part of the human heart that longed for something more than mere carnal pleasures. Human beings, in spite of their spiritually dead state, were longing for Eden.

The famous Christian author G.K.Chesterton once remarked: “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Chesterton’s statement might cause eyebrows to rise, but he was in fact merely pointing out that at the heart of all emptiness, and sinful efforts to overcome it, lies a yearning for God.

Having lost the fullness that they was designed for, humans began seeking for alternatives to compensate for the loss of God. Having lost sight of the heavenly realities, they only had the world and its provisions as a potential source to rediscover the lost treasure. This was the birth of “worldliness” and “lust”, namely a misdirected spiritual hunger that was doomed to last as long as humans remained disconnected from their only legitimate source of life: God.

Needless to say, the “natural order” picture that we looked at earlier now looks different. The moment the “inflow” from God ceased, the “outflow” from humanity ceased as well. Instead of being a channel of God’s life, light and love, human beings became seekers after some alternative that could still the hunger and thirst of their souls.

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In Fig. 1 God is rejected as “life source.” In Fig. 2 the absence of God creates the need for a substitute to replace the inflow of life. In Fig. 3 humanity looks for “God-substitutes” in their own environment (the “world”).

The sad outcome of this situation is clear from the last picture: The arrows are inverted. Whereas the man in the picture was a “giver” from a position of fullness and contentment, he now became a “taker” from a position of emptiness and need.

As the famous mathematician Blaise Pascal once quipped:

What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

The 3 L’s now became the 3 D’s. Life was replaced with death, light was replaced with darkness and love was replaced with desire.

Indeed, this is precisely the sad scenario sketched by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.[17]

  1. The disappearance of “life” represents the disappearance of the divine nature, that which is symbolized by “partaking of the tree of life”.
  2. The disappearance of “light” represents the disappearance of the ability to “know” God. As we have seen, knowing God is related to intimacy with him, walking in his light, understanding him and knowing what his will for your life is. To be “darkened” in one’s understanding is to no longer see the glory of God, but to see only the world and the flesh, the very shift that made Adam and Eve see their own nakedness for the first time.[18]
  3. The disappearance of “love” represents the redirection of our passion and desire for God to the natural realm and created things. It is the direct result of the disappearance of those things that are experienced because of “life” and seen and understood because of “light”. When the heavenly realities are no longer comprehended, the only things that remain “to be seen” and thus appreciated are the things of the flesh and the world. [19] Thus the “love of the Father” is replaced by “the love for the world”, which is exactly what “desire” is. It is an appetite of lust that seeks to compensate for the loss of God and the things of God, and thus the “giving” vitality of the divine nature becomes the “taking” compulsion of the fallen human nature.

Note the words of 1 John:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.[20]

Note that “desire“ underlies the drive to compensate for the loss of God’s divine life and light. The “desires of the eyes” are related to “seeing”, the “desires of the flesh” are related to craving that which can give life, and the “pride of life” is related to the conviction that we can be “like God” in the sense of recreating those realities that we have forfeited with the fall.[21]

Our picture now looks as follows:

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Note that the energy driving the two men in the picture above is exactly the same energy: Love! The difference between the two pictures is the direction in which the love travels. Whilst the little green man is giving it, the little grey man is demanding it.

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4.6 A Final Word on “Desire”

The implications of the above are quite severe, if you think about it!

By recognizing the “self-life” (the life that Christ commanded us to “lose”) as a life under the power of “desire”, we have simplified the question of sin significantly. If this is true, then it follows that a deliverance from the power of “desire” would be a deliverance from sin, and the necessary prerequisite to gaining entrance into the “life of Christ” which is a life of contentment, thanksgiving and “love”.

But can we back up such a radical conclusion from the rest of the Bible? Is this a mere inference from Romans, or is it indeed the central theme of the gospel?

We have already pointed to two verses that confirm that desire precedes sinful actions. Here they are again:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight for the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.[22]

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.[23]

Yet these are not the only verses that confirm the picture that Romans 1 paints of desire as the force behind the sinful life. Note again what Peter and Paul have to say about this:

…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.[24]

…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.[25]

The “old man” that Paul refers to here is related to the “former manner of life” of the believer, and thus to the “life that I need to lose” part of our Life Exchange Graphic. According to Paul, this old life is corrupt because of “deceitful desires”, and according to Peter it is exactly these desires that have ended up corrupting the entire “world”.

As we will see later, the instrument of execution for this “old man” is the cross of Jesus Christ. Note what Paul has to say about the work of the cross, and how it relates to the above:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.[26]

It cannot be clearer than this. To summarise then, let us incorporate the two respective “fundamentals” of the self-life and the Christ life into our graphic:

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 4.39.47 AM

Note that the “great prohibition” to desire and the “great command” to love are not two separate instructions, but the two opposing sides of the same instruction. Desire is not a force apart from love, but love itself gone wrong and misdirected. To use the words of the Christian author Norman Grubb, desire is an “illicit love affair”.

This means that it is impossible to obey the great command without also obeying the great prohibition, for it is in fact the same command stated in two different ways. The one is stated positively (you shall) and the other is stated negatively (you shall not). Once we understand this, we understand the following statements:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.[27]

If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.[28]

We can put this in another way: A person has only one heart, and that heart has only the capacity for a single overriding or primary allegiance. As stated earlier, the only motivating energy on planet earth is “love”, and we cannot do anything about it. The only freedom that we have is whether we are going to let that love travel from us to others, or whether we are going to demand that it travels from others to us. But it simply cannot travel in both directions at once!

Lastly, these insights are more than mere interesting or philosophical observations. They are vital to understanding the heart of true Christianity. If “desire” or “lust” is love gone wrong, then we cannot conquer it by fighting against it, for we shall be fighting against our very design as creatures who have been created to love. The only way to conquer desire is to redirect it back to its rightful object, namely God. Once that happens desire is conquered and can exist no more than a cake can exist on a plate after it has been eaten.

As you will see, Romans is designed around this principle. The “great prohibition” underlies the first half of Romans (chapters 1-11) and is clearest revealed in chapter 7. The “great command” underlies the second half of Romans (chapters 12-16) and is clearest revealed in chapter 13. There it is presented as the “fulfilment” of the great prohibition and the lifestyle that results from our inability to obey it.

More about this in the following chapters.

[1] See 2 Peter 1:4

[2] Ephesians 4:22

[3] Genesis 3:6

[4] James 1:14-15

[5] Romans 6:23

[6] Genesis 3:4

[7] 1 John :19

[8] Matthew 10:8

[9] Matthew 5:14

[10] John 9:5.

[11] John 4:14

[12] John 13:34; 15:12

[13] Psalm 23:1, 5

[14] Colossians 1: 19

[15] Colossians 2:9-10

[16] Ecclesiastes 3:11

[17] Ephesians 4:17-20

[18] According to John 1:2 “light” is a component of “life”: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This means that “enlightenment” may never be sought apart from the life of God, as though it is something to be gained and possessed in itself and for its own sake. To “know” is a byproduct of participating in the divine nature, and so we can safely assume that Adam and Eve would have gained knowledge had they eaten of the Tree of Life. Yet this knowledge would have been intrinsically linked to their union with God. The yearning for “light” apart from the “life” of God defines the first sin, all witchcraft and occult practices since then, the rise of first century Gnosticism, and the unbiblical notion that God can be “known” through intellectual analysis. It is this idea that was severely rebuked by Jesus in his words to the Pharisees: “You diligently study the Scriptures, thinking that by them you have life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39).

[19] It should therefore come as no surprise that lust is related to nakedness.

[20] 1 John 2:15-17

[21] Note that this is exactly the way in which Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. He “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (the desires of the eyes), he incited him to “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (the desires of the flesh) and he suggested that Jesus throws himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so as to publicly display his own divinity (the pride of life). And thus Satan tempted Jesus with counterfeit light, counterfeit life and counterfeit love (i.e. love for self, the desire for prospective greatness).

[22] Genesis 3:6

[23] James 1:14-15

[24] 2 Peter 1:4

[25] Ephesians 4:22

[26] Galatians 5:24

[27] Matthew 6:24

[28] 1 John 2:15

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Author: Tobie

Naturalchurch is the blog of Tobie van der Westhuizen.

One thought on “Romans 1:18-32: A Pagan Party

  1. Pingback: Romans 1:1-17 – Introduction |

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