Last week we sat with the weighty words of Romans 1:18-32. There is no doubt that it’s a pretty confronting passage. But over the years I have found verses 18 to 21 a great summary of how God describes the problem at the heart of our relationship with him. It’s a great summary for us to get our heads around, and a great passage to have in mind as a go-to when people ask about the Christian faith.
It’s a helpful go-to passage because it gives a simple two-point summary of the evidence for God, and a two point summary of the problem of sin. And in both cases, I’ve found it resonates with the vast majority of people I’ve read it with.
For one thing, it fits with most people’s lived experience because it doesn’t try to overstate the case for God. It just makes the simple statement that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (v20). It’s not trying to say too much about what we learn of God from creation, but simply that creation points to two attributes of God: ‘Eternal power’ is a statement of his pre-existence; that there was a power present before creation. ‘Divine nature’ is a statement of his distinction from creation; that while the rest of the universe is ‘natural’ there is something ‘super-natural’ beyond it. Even a hardened atheist can see that this is not arguing for a lot of detail about God, simply that there is some kind of force before and distinct from the rest of the material universe. And it helps move the conversation forward.
Secondly, this passage gives a simple and relatable summary of what the core issue of sin is. “…although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…” (v21). You can’t get a much simpler definition of such a big topic, and you’ll also struggle to find one that people can relate to more easily. Because it’s talking about sin, not sins (the bad behaviour that most people think Christians say God is cranky about). It’s about the relational problem at the core of our being. And everyone I’ve ever read this passage with has been able to acknowledge that they have indeed failed on both counts: that even on the minimalist definition of God given in verse 20, they’ve failed to give the appropriate respect or thanks to any such being.
And as the rest of Romans chapter 1 makes clear, the consequences of this fractured relationship with our creator spirals out to impact our whole lives, impacting all our human relationships and even our relationship with the Earth. And I’ve found this summary has left many people genuinely open to considering the claims of the gospel that prompted Paul to give this pithy summary in the first place. That we really do have a problem we need rescuing from, and we really do need a righteousness – a rightness of relationship – to come from beyond ourselves. Because if this picture of our heart is correct, we simply don’t have it within us to fix us.
So, it’s not the end of the conversation by any means, and it will raise as many questions as it answers, but in my experience, Romans 1:18-21 is one of the great ‘go-to’ passages to commit to memory so you can pull it out when the opportunity arises.