“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe…” (Rom 1:16)
There was once a society very similar to our own.
Children were seen as a burden. They were routinely left to die in the hours after their birth, for the convenience of their parents, in a primitive abortion-like practice.
Sexual expressionism was celebrated, in an ancient version of what we might call PRIDE. Homosexual activity was a feature of religious practice, and prevalent in the culture.
The weekend crowds at the stadium left our MCG’s capacity in the shade.
Materialism, love of entertainment, and hedonistic pleasures reigned supreme. A condition which gave rise to the idiom, “bread and circuses.”
Orgies were the foul indulgence of the elite.
There was even a thriving feminist movement.
Public expressions of Christianity were dissident acts, offending the cultural sensitivities of the time, and earning adherents a place on the fringe of society.
It was a world in which the emperor would marry two boys – one he called his husband, and the other his wife. But not before he had kicked his pregnant (actual) wife to death amidst the rise and rise of a broader domestic violence epidemic.
It was a world whose power, prestige, and wealth betrayed its crippling sickness; a sickness of soul and spirit, which ultimately destroyed it completely.
It was the dizzying and spectacular, yet broken world of pagan Rome.
What medicine does a world like this need?
Where to begin? How to engage?
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church at the epicentre of it all – in Rome herself.
“I am not ashamed!” he declares. And why should he be? He carries a priceless treasure for a broken world. He knows and proclaims the truth which will set these people free.
And he pulls no punches in demonstrating just how unashamed he is.
His very next words state the blunt truth that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
We only need to look at Israel Folau’s lot over the past week to know how inflammatory that was.
You can almost see the furrowed brows of outrage over this man’s lack of nuance and grace. How dare he! Why is he alienating people?! Such judgementalism!
But he will not stop.
He calls out the people’s sins in rapid-fire succession, not pausing for breath for three chapters.
And yes, he even has a few uncomfortably direct things to say about homosexual behaviour. And hellfire, for that matter.
Crucially, he does not ease up the pressure until he is sure his readers are no longer pointing the finger of accusation outwards at their culture… but at their own hearts, too.
Until they have had every defence mechanism, every excuse, every instinct to burst with outrage, overwhelmed with rapid-fire condemnation.
Paul concludes, “None is righteous, no, not one,” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
But of all the sacred cows he kills along the way, self-worship would have to be the biggest.
Because, in times like these, the very last thing people can comprehend is the idea that they might be wrong; that they could be judged by God and found wanting; that they could possibly be hell-bound.
That is offensive. It is worthy of ridicule.
Reading over the various opinion pieces on Israel Folau, the common feature among authors – both his supporters and detractors – is their contempt for this very notion.
“If those are the criteria for entry [to hell], then I’ll see you all down there,” says one.
Well… yes… exactly…
Above all things, we live amongst a generation that tells us to believe in ourselves, so we do. And we believe that self is good.
The Mardi Gras banners emblazoned with “pride” just give overt expression to the cardinal, though often more subtly expressed, sin of our times.
Our highest value is ourselves, and our identities.
Paul presses this very button in Romans 1, declaring that we “worship and serve creature rather than creator.”
We’re narcissists who have killed God in our thinking, putting ourselves on His throne.
Nietzsche’s famous words have been fulfilled, “If there is a God, how can I bear not to be that God?”
And Paul intends to burst that bubble with some serious trigger words.
Because he knows it is the thing which is immunising his fellow Romans against the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So long as this remains true, they will never repent. They will never turn to Christ. They will never be saved. And that means ultimate disaster.
That is why the Apostles preached sin, guilt, and judgement with boldness at every turn.
There is not one public sermon in the book of Acts which does anything less than press the issue home with unrelenting conviction, normally right after exposing the specific sin of the crowd being preached to.
Paul even declared the coming judgement of the “unknown God” to the men at Mars Hill, whose forebears had killed Socrates for “introducing new deities” – no wonder scripture says he was stressed before he spoke!
And the full ambit of reactions is seen.
Paul was mocked and laughed at. Peter and John were hauled before a tribunal for hate speech. Agrippa had his curiosity aroused. Many were “cut to the heart” in response to Peter. Detractors plotted revenge. People threw stones at Stephen.
The churches were a mixed bag, too. Some listened – clearly – but Paul also writes that “all in Asia have deserted me.” And he had to defend himself against endless attacks and smears by writing 2 Corinthians. His was no smooth road.
And, crucially, anger continued to swell from all quarters against these men who dared to point the finger, name sin, declare Christ’s judgement, and urge repentance.
Paul died as an axe took his head off.
Every Apostle was martyred, except the one they exiled.
But they followed in the footsteps of their Lord, the crucified Christ. And He, too, was One who began His earthly ministry with the word, “Repent.” And He, too, experienced the full range of reactions.
But crucially, we must not forget that something else happened.
The gospel spread faster than a pandemic through the Ancient Roman world, fuelled by the unrelenting boldness of these early Christians.
Why do I say all this?
Because too many of us think Israel Folau did something wrong.
If he did the wrong thing, then so, too, did Paul, Peter, James, John, the rest of the Apostles, and Jesus Himself.
The truth is, there’s nothing more offensive than the ideas of sin and judgement to a generation like ours, no matter how you say it.
The notion that in myself I am judged and found wicked is anathema and contemptible.
This idea that some sovereign God has power over me in any real sense must not be countenanced.
But the truth will set the people of such a world free, as it did you and I.
And the truth, whenever it is spoken, will yield fruit. That is a promise of God.
I have no doubt that there are many who are saved through the most gentle of encounters, as Christ with the woman caught in adultery, or through honed apologetics, like Nicodemus.
But in a hardened, self-loving, neo-pagan age, maybe Folau’s paraphrase of a scripture which assaults it all head-on will be just the medicine someone needed to turn to God in repentance and faith, and know Him forever through Jesus Christ.
If we don’t believe that, then we must ask ourselves to what extent our wayward culture has shaped our thinking.
Perhaps the boldness of the apostles, who bravely declared against the odds that they were “not ashamed” is what God looks for among His people in these changing times.
From pagan Rome, to neopagan Australia, there really is nothing new under the sun.