If you have the opportunity to travel abroad, there are some things you have to do to be prepared. For example, you might want to make sure your cell phone plan has international service. You might have to get a power converter for your hair dryer or laptop. Of course you have to get a passport, make arrangements for your travel (Will you fly? Sail?) and accommodations for when you get there (Hotel? Hostel? AirBNB?). One of the other things you will probably have to do is exchange some of your U.S. money into the currency native to your destination so you can pay for your expenses.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you go to your bank, give them your account number and ask for 500 Euros. Let’s also imagine that you have never been to Europe and you have done no research whatsoever on what a euro looks like. You are flying blind, trusting the bank to give you the correct amount and the correct currency. The cheerful teller hands you a stack of wrinkled, written on, used post-it notes. The topmost of these has the word ‘euro’ scribbled on it. The teller says, ‘Here you go, that’s 500 euros. Have a great day!’
How would you respond?
As you probably know the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome. In the first part of his letter, chapter one, Paul talks about the guilt of the Gentiles (non-believers). In chapter two, Paul talks about the guilt of the legalistic Jews. Both of these chapters build to an idea Paul develops in chapter three, explaining ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 3:23-24, ESV). Paul takes his time developing this idea because there was some finger pointing from one group to the other, and Paul knew he had to show them both that neither was better. No one should look at another thinking lofty thoughts about themselves. Lofty thoughts about ourselves is the enemy of our true understanding of the gospel. (For more on that please read our studies The Humility of Christ and Identity in Christ.
Even though the Gentiles have not been raised to know God like the Jews, Paul says they are yet without excuse to know about God. He explains that God himself has shown it to them, through all of creation. Paul is asserting that any created thing has the handprint of the Creator upon it.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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. (Romans 1:19-20, ESV)
Paul goes on to write to the church about how Gentiles foolishly traded this obvious truth about God for a lie by pointing out ‘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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.’ (Romans 1:21-23 ESV)
Not only is Paul pointing out that they have made a foolish exchange, he is also pointing out that they have made a cheap exchange. He seems to be saying that they have exchanged something of great value for something with no value at all. It’s a bad trade.
Let’s go back to the bank teller window. Your money is hard- earned. I feel sure you have an appropriate value for that money. Not an overinflated value, since the Bible warns against that, but a healthy value, a wise stewardship. So when your bank teller hands you those post-it notes, do you walk away, assuming you will be just fine when you arrive in the destination country? No, of course you don’t. You politely inform that bank teller that he is simply nuts if he thinks this exchange is going to work for you. You are wise. You are discerning. Even if you know nothing of what the money should look like, you do have common sense, after all. You’re not going to make a bad trade.
This common sense is exactly what Paul is describing in chapter one. Theologians call the way that God reveals himself through creation ‘general revelation.’ It means that, common sense applied, created things must have a creator. From the specificity of a bacterial flagellum to the vastness of the stars, the entire universe declares the glory of God (that’s Psalm 19:1 but also COMMON SENSE).
In what ways do you see the people and culture around you exchanging the truth about God for a lie? How do we still ‘claim to be wise…exchanging the glory of God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things?’ More importantly, how can we stop doing that???
It starts with compassionate conversations, not judgmental finger-pointing. Paul is battling that finger-pointing even in his own time. This problem of ‘holier than thou’ is as old as man. Don’t get trapped in it. The enemy will use that trap to destroy your testimony to the non-believer.
Instead, be gentle and loving and transparent about the ways you have exchanged the truth about God for lies yourself. We all have done it, haven’t we? Do we always believe all the truth about God…that He is able…He is loving…He is just? Nope. When the chips are down, we all have the potential to doubt the God we serve. But we are all without excuse. He is evident, even obvious, and He is worthy of our trust.
Just as you would prepare for your trip with real euros, help those around you be travel-ready for eternal life. Don’t let them accept garbage as currency for that eternal trip. Only one currency is payment at this destination: that’s the blood of Jesus Christ.
Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28 NIV)
You are not your own; for you were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)