Depravity: How the book of Romans reads me

A few weeks ago, I sat down with my mentor and caught him up to speed on where I’ve been spiritually and the stuff I’ve been wrestling with. He helped me identify what I was dealing with, which is the depravity of man. The reality that, though I’ve given my life to Christ and believe in everything He’s done for me and is doing for me, that I still sin. Even though I know what’s wrong and what’s right, I still do things I know are wrong. Even when I don’t want to do things, I still do them. In his explanation of this, he mentioned the book of Romans several times and Paul’s own experience wrestling with this reality. So, on Sunday morning two weeks ago, instead of going to church anywhere, I decided to just spend time with God and sat down and read through the entire book of Romans. Though, in all honesty, I didn’t really read the book of Romans. The book of Romans read me.

If you’ve read the book of Romans before, you probably know that it’s chock full of promises from God. Romans 8 is (in my opinion) one of the most uplifting, encouraging, inspirational chapters in the entire Bible:

Romans 8:1

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:10-11

And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.

Romans 8:15-18

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.

Romans 8:28

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Romans 8:31

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?

Romans 8:38-39

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

*All passages in this blog are from the New Living Translation of the Bible.

These promises are incredibly encouraging for everyone living under the abundant grace and promises that God has given us. But, if you’ve read some of my recent blogs (namely “Blogging Again” and “I Can’t”) you’ll know that, quite frankly, I’ve heard these things my entire life. I’ve been taught them since before I can remember and, in twenty-one years of life, have gotten kind of desensitized to them. So I was reading through Romans, not for the promises and encouragement, but for the explanation of where I’m at. For the harsh reality that is the depravity of man and the way that Jesus has saved us from our inability to do what we know is right and to stop doing what we know is wrong. I’ve read through Romans multiple times, but I’ve never read it the way I did today. And the way I read it today has more meaning for my life than anything else I’ve read before.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am not a theologian. Well, maybe I am in a sense, but not really. What’s important is that I will be the first one to admit that I don’t have the answers. It’s entirely possible I may have gotten something wrong in here. And the way I think about things now could change entirely from the way I think about things at some point in the future. But this is kind of how faith works. It’s a journey. God doesn’t give you everything all at once, He gives it to you in pieces, leads you from point A to point B to point C. So if there’s something I’ve posted in here that you disagree with completely, great. If there’s something I’ve gotten wrong in here, cool. That’s fine. This just happens to be where my brain is at right now and this is one of the main ways that I organize my thoughts. Don’t send me angry hate emails or something. If you want to leave a comment, maybe explaining something I’ve misunderstood and trying to help me understand it better, that would be much preferred. I want to understand this, not be yelled at it for my misunderstanding. So thank you. Anyway, moving on.

Starting in the second chapter, Paul’s words to the Roman church started to strike really close to the heart:

Romans 2:28-29

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

What may be somewhat confusing here is Paul’s description of a “true Jew.” What’s important to remember is the context of Paul’s writing. This was in a time a few years after the death and resurrection of Christ, when Christianity as a religion was still young, but was spreading throughout Israel, Asia, and the Mediterranean. At this time, Christians were divided into two categories: Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were the people who had been raised being taught the law and may have known the Scriptures inside and out since they were taught basically from birth. These people had been raised following the law since before they even really knew what the law was. In the past two thousand years, the distinction of Jew and Gentile has all but disappeared, as most Christians nowadays are, in fact, Gentiles. We’re all just Christians at this point, and the title of “Jew” generally doesn’t apply to the Christian faith any more. At this point, I would argue that the “true Jews” Paul is talking about apply to a different group nowadays. I believe that it applies to, simply, “true Christians.” Try reading the passage this way:

For you are not a true Christian just because you were born of Christian parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of baptism. No, a true Christian is one whose heart is right with God.

Obviously, this change to the verse doesn’t translate for the entire passage since circumcision is not 100% equivalent with baptism. Regardless, do you see my point here? The American church at large is filled with people who consider themselves “true Christians” because they were born of Christian parents and were baptized. But Paul makes it clear that’s not the case, saying that “a true [Christian] is one whose heart is right with God.” This deceptive reality is one that I and many of my peers who I grew up in the church with grew up in. And I would argue it’s the reality many young Christians my age grew up in. And I also believe that many of them are probably starting to realize this lie for what it is.

Paul continues his explanation of the purpose of the law in chapter 3.

Romans 3:19-28

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God freely and graciously declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.

Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.

There are a couple verses in this passage that stood out the most to me. Verses 19-20 make it clear that the law exists so that we would see how sinful we are, so that we would have a clear understanding that we can’t do everything right. But Jesus, full of unfailing love and faithfulness, came to give us a way to be made right with God without fulfilling the requirements of the law because, quite simply, we can’t. We are completely incapable of fulfilling the law. The fact that Jesus came to die and save us means that, as Paul explains in verses 27 and 28, that we can never be proud of ourselves for obeying the law. We cannot boast to other people about our obeying and fulfilling the law because we already broke it. And Jesus came and died so that we wouldn’t have to try to fulfill the law because, again, we can’t. So we have no reason to be proud of ourselves for our obedience. Ever. It’s by faith we’ve been saved, not by anything we’ve done or tried to do.

Being human, many people would obviously take this the wrong way. Paul attempts to address this soon afterward in verse 31 of chapter 3, “Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.”

Just because we can’t fulfill the law doesn’t mean we ignore the law. It’s still important. Paul makes it clear that taking on faith and believing in Jesus is, in fact, the only way to fulfill the law. If you don’t believe in Jesus and don’t have faith, you aren’t fulfilling the law. Jesus came and lived a perfect life and gave His life as a sacrifice to fulfill the law for us; our fulfillment of the law comes in accepting the gift He offered and having faith in Him.

This seems to have strayed a bit from the total depravity of man, but in reality it hasn’t. The law and man’s attempt to fulfill it is, in and of itself, the focal point of man’s depravity. The fact that we have a sin nature and have sin in our hearts is where man’s attempt to fulfill the law comes into play, and the depravity of man is made known. But there is still plenty of truth Paul writes in this book that continue to address all of these issues.

In Romans 4, Paul writes:

Romans 4:14-16

If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe.

 

If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, there is no promise. God would have made a promise for no reason, knowing that no one was able to obey the law, leaving His promise permanently out of reach and unattainable to anyone who would ever live. Simply because “the law brings punishment on those who try to obey it.” As Paul says in Romans 2:12, “When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it.” Since we know that we aren’t able to obey the law, we’ll be judged by it and receive the punishment from it. So the promise is received by faith. And when we have faith like Abraham’s, we receive this gift whether or not we live according to the law. Some people will read “And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses,” and will take that statement without finishing the verse, which makes it clear that we’ll receive it “if we have faith like Abraham’s.” Faith saves, not works. Understanding that we can’t fulfill the law is pointless without the understanding that faith is what saves us. Understanding the former without the latter will just lead to people giving up on their belief. But understanding that accepting Jesus’ free gift and receiving this gift by faith leads to eternal life and being saved through Him. And, as was brought to my attention and realization by close friends of mine through discussion recently, the thing about having faith like Abraham is that, if we believe in Jesus, we already have faith like Abraham. It’s not something we have to work toward. Having faith like Abraham involves having faith that God is for us and has saved us and has a plan. We’ve already been given that gift of faith by the grace of God.

In Romans 5, Paul writes:

Romans 5:7-8

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.

Before we could even be saved, while we were still living in sin, God sent His son to die for us. God knew we couldn’t fulfill the law and sent His Son to fulfill it for us. He knew that, even after accepting the gift He offers us, that we would still sin. That we still wouldn’t be able to fulfill the law. And yet He came anyway. He came to save us in spite of our depravity.

In Romans 7, Paul addresses exactly what I’ve been feeling. He addresses exactly what I’ve felt and been concerned about.

Romans 7:14-25

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

This is the primary issue I’ve wrestled with. “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” I’ve just been incredibly frustrated by the fact that, although I know what I should and should not do, I do the opposite. This really helped make it clear as to why. “If I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.” I’m still letting this reality sink in. The reality that, though I mess up quite often, I still live and walk in the grace that God has offered me. The fact that I know that what I do is wrong does not mean that I am doing wrong; it is my own sin nature causing me to do so. This is a really confusing point that, honestly, I’m still working through in my head. And this doesn’t mean that sin isn’t bad. Sin is still bad. But I shouldn’t be so hard on myself when I do sin. I shouldn’t beat myself up and sit around wishing I was better. I need to be comfortable with the reality that I will sin sometimes. It’s just the reality of my sin nature. And just because I do sin and will sin also doesn’t mean that I’m unrepentant. In fact, repentance is kind of the glue that makes this possible. Without repentance for what you’ve done wrong, you’re just going on sinning for no reason. It’s the realization that what you’ve done is wrong and your repentance, bringing it before the throne of God, that makes it so you don’t have to live ridden with guilt. This is only available to those who have been saved through faith, and I’m incredibly grateful that it’s available to me.

There’s still more in this book to get to, though. In Romans 9:16, Paul says, “So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.” Again, Paul makes it clear that we can’t do it ourselves. There is nothing we can do to attain mercy. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t work for it. We can’t choose to receive it. But we can choose Jesus. And God, in turn, will turn around and pour grace and mercy out in abundance over our lives.

This whole living by faith and not by works thing is a lot easier said than done. I’ve realized that more and more for myself in recent times. The Jews of Paul’s time also struggled with this concept:

Romans 9:30-32

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,

   a rock that makes them fall.

But anyone who trusts in him

   will never be disgraced.”

Working to be saved is a great rock in the path of faith. The law is a difficult thing. It’s good, and we should follow it, but trying to live up to the letter of the law will, in and of itself, result in condemnation, because we’ll be judged by the standard of the law and we will, inevitably, break one of its rules. Trying hard to follow the law, striving to follow the law, without the assistance or power of Jesus and the Spirit of God living within you, just leads to death. And you’ll never be satisfied with your own performance at following the law. Because that’s what an attempt to follow the letter of the law is about: Performance. The idea that all eyes are on you and you need to do everything right for yourself and the people around you to see. But Jesus isn’t about performance. Jesus is about faith. In Colossians 3:23, Paul writes, “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” Striving to fulfill the letter of the law is working for man, putting on a display that is right in man’s eyes. But God doesn’t want us to work for man and try to prove ourselves to the people around us. God wants us to become more like Jesus. And He wants us to become more like Jesus by relying on His power and His Spirit to continually work in us and through us. To change our hearts and the hearts of those around us. It’s a difference between working hard and living a life of faith. And God wants us to live a life of faith, falling into Him and pursuing Him deeper and deeper each day.

This is a difficult concept for people to wrap their brain around. I still struggle with it, if I’m being honest. We’re supposed to become more like Jesus by trusting in Him to do a work in us. Being more like Jesus involves loving more, loving better, and, because of who He is, sinning less. But sinning less involves following the law. But we aren’t supposed to try hard to follow the law because that in and of itself is going against the grace that’s been lavished upon us. It comes back to the issue of trying to keep the law instead of trusting in Jesus. Trying to keep the law based on Jesus’ working in your heart is the key. And this conclusion can take people a long time to realize. In Romans 10, Paul writes:

Romans 10:1-10

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand;

   it is on your lips and in your heart.”

And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved.

Our declaration of faith and our belief in Jesus in our heart makes us right with God. So at this point, no good thing that we do can make us more right with God. And no bad thing we do can make us less right with God. We just believe in Him and become more like Him every day. We don’t want to have an enthusiasm for God that’s simply misdirected zeal. We don’t want to be excited about God and then wander around as slaves to the law, striving our hardest to fulfill everything that’s asked of us to do. We want to press into the Spirit and fall deeper into the love, grace, and mercy that Jesus has in abundance for us. There is only one way to get right with God; we don’t want to cling to another way that will get us nowhere.

There are other things that go along with this, though. Paul writes in Romans 12:3, “Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.” There is a lot that goes into this statement. This is an issue of pride, something that everyone deals with at some point in some way or another. We aren’t meant to think of ourselves higher than we really are. On the flipside of that coin, we also shouldn’t think of ourselves as less than we really are. Either one is wrong. If you think you’re better than you really are, odds are you’ll end up being disappointed when you mess up. You’ll get down on yourself and beat yourself up, feeling guilty for not living up to whatever standard you may have in your mind. If you think of yourself as less than you really are, that edges into the territory of believing that what Jesus did on the cross wasn’t enough for you. Which, honestly, is more dangerous than thinking more of yourself. If you think “I’m not worth anything, I just mess up all the time, I can’t do anything right,” that is thinking of yourself as less than a son or daughter of God. Less than a co-heir to the throne of God. Less than royalty. Less than saved. This is wrong. Very wrong. Thinking of yourself as less than saved by grace through faith, that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t enough to save you, reveals an unbelief in God that needs to be sorted out. So the key here is to not think more of yourself, not think less of yourself, but be real with where you really are. Be comfortable with your flaws. Not saying that you don’t want them to not be there, because we should always be wanting to become more like Jesus. But be comfortable with the fact that you’re going to mess up sometimes. And it isn’t exactly “okay,” but it is, in fact, okay. Because it’s going to happen. It’s bound to happen inevitably because of our sin nature. Sin is bad, but understanding that you are going to sin is good. We need to be comfortable with that reality. We need to be comfortable with our own depravity.

This doesn’t mean that we should just sin whenever we feel like it. We should still be working every day to become more like Jesus. There’s a difference between sinning (because we’re going to) and sinning because we know we’re going to. The moment you think to yourself, “Well, I’m going to sin anyway, so I might as well just do x, y, or z,” is the moment you’ve edged out of faith and into licentiousness. Licentiousness is when people think that, because they’re saved, they have license to sin knowing that God will forgive them later. Yes, God will forgive you. No, that doesn’t mean that you should sin because of that fact. Moments of temptation should lead to prayer, not some sort of illogical reasoning that says, “If I do x, God will still forgive me, so I’ll do it anyway.” NO. BAD. WRONG. Don’t do that. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have thought this at times. And, looking back on it, I just feel gross about it. Being comfortable with our own depravity involves knowing that we are going to sin, but still trying to be like Jesus and not beating ourselves up horrendously when we do sin. That isn’t what God would do. When God sees us sin, He says, “I still love you. Nothing can change that.” When we bring our sin before Him in repentance, He says, “I know. And I still love you. Nothing can change that.” On a side note, the moment we start to think that God is surprised when we bring our sin before Him in repentance is another moment when you should realize you got confused about something somewhere. He knows already. He just wants to hear it from you.

The last thing I want to get to that stuck out to me in this book comes from Romans 13.

Romans 13:13-14

Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.

We’re supposed to live in the light. We’re supposed to live in such a way so that people can see everything we stand for and the reality of radical forgiveness and grace that we live in. So, that does imply that something should be done about the things Paul mentions in these verses: wild parties and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and immoral living, quarreling and jealousy. The fact that Paul mentions these things specifically implies that there’s something that needs to be done with them. If you’re living a life in Christ, and any of these things exist in your life, GET RID OF THEM. No, seriously, it’s not okay. These are things you need to get sorted out. Get help if you need it. These are the things of the world, and we are meant to be in the world and not of it. How can people tell that your life is different from theirs if you engage in all of the same crap that they do? So, get it sorted out. Then, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Live your life in the light. Be real with people about what you believe, in whom you place your hope, where you find your joy. Live life in the light.

So this has been a long post. I had a lot of thoughts about this book. And, suffice it to say, I have a lot of stuff to work on. Just in general. This is something that I’m becoming more comfortable with and that I’m working on improving day by day. Just because I came to these realizations doesn’t mean that they set in right away. It’ll take time. But I have faith that things will work out all right and I’m hopeful, looking forward to the way God will work all of this out in my heart in the (hopefully near) future. Depravity is something many people, especially those in the modern American church, don’t entirely understand. It’s been a place of confusion for me for a long time, and in some ways it still kind of is. But I know that God illuminated this in my heart for a reason, and I know that He’ll give me further clarity in the days to come. But for now, all I know is that I’m going to sin today. And tomorrow. And every day after that. But that doesn’t change who I am or who God is.