You’ve heard it said “you are where you come from”, and I’m convinced that environmental influences of your youth, in part, make you who you are today. Eli and Peyton Manning grew up their whole lives around football. It’s no wonder, then, they each became Super Bowl MVPs. It’s what they knew. So what does that say for a kid who grew up in a large church, under the preaching of published theologians and seminary professors in the reformed tradition, while being guided at home by a father who taught reformed theology in a popular lay-led adult Sunday school class? What future would you envision for that same young man who, in his senior year of high school, opted out of the traditional youth group Sunday school class in favor of an alternative youth Sunday school which went through John Stott’s commentary on Romans? (I cannot recommend that commentary enough). You might say that such a young man was aligned (predestined?) to be a Calvinist from the start… maybe even a preacher.
Such was my experience… and as I sat in that class as a high school senior, going through Romans 1 at a painstakingly-detailed pace, we came to Romans 1:30… the verse that made me a Calvinist.
I wouldn’t even say it was the whole verse, but simply one phrase:
“[They are] slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents;” (I quote the NIV here, because that’s what I was reading at the time)
To sum up the latter half of Romans on (for the purposes of verse 30)…. BIG LONG LIST OF SINS… and right in the middle of all of them, “God-haters”. This phrase… this specific sin… had a profound effect on my spiritual thinking. If one is to understand the doctrine of Total Depravity…. not being as depraved as we can be… but the idea that everyone has every part of their being (heart, soul, will, mind) tainted by the curse-ridden effects of their sin….. If we are to understand that, then we have to (at least in part) find places in Romans 1 where we can identify or relate.
Preachers love to use the latter half of Romans 1 to show how God’s wrath is burning against “THEM”. And while the unrepentant, un-regenerate “THEY” certainly may be the main contextual focus of the passage (one I will not discredit), I do not think that lets “US” off the hook. Bearing in mind that Paul wrote no chapters, we can keep going straight in to chapter 2 verse 1… and see that judging “them” is not exactly Paul’s recommended outcome here: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (2:1). Rather, Paul’s call is to repentance: “…do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (2:4).
I, like many of my Calvinist colleagues, came to the extremely humbling realization that I was once part of the “they”. My personal sin of choice? Being a “God-hater” through my sinful actions. Growing up as a person who always believed I loved God, even as a sinner, this was a shock. How could I ever hate God? I believe it was John Piper who once quipped that we become a “mini-atheist” in the exact second in time that we commit a sin, and do so every time we sin. This is due to our sin nature. Hating God is our default. To try to mix in “free will” into the solution to our sin problem is to fail to understand the true condition of a human heart tainted by sin. Romans 1:30 led me on a journey to discover, from God’s word, the true state of my own heart:
-The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)
–None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Rom. 3:10-12)
-“… you [Christian] were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Eph. 2:1-3)
-[God speaking] “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh..” (Ezk. 36:26)
What do these verses reveal about our sinful heart? Simply that, to quote Jason Mraz, “nothin’s gonna stop me but divine intervention”. I came to realize, over time, that hating God was in my nature, in the time before I was Christian (my “old nature”, to borrow from Paul). In reality, a dead man can’t love anything of its own free will. A heart of stone cannot love unless it is transformed into a heart of flesh (which, may I add, is the only heart vulnerable enough to be penetrated).
When studying Romans 1, you have GOT to take it personally. I WAS the one who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”. I WAS the one who’s “foolish heart was darkened”. I was a “GOD-HATER”. That, dear friends, is the “T” of TULIP. There’s a reason it’s first.
Just like the first cannonball into the water is always the coldest, it was only through the brokenness of a full scriptural understanding of “Total Depravity” that I was wonderfully immersed in the unspeakable joy, hope, and purpose found in the “U-L-I-P”. You have to first know you’re sick, in order to search for the cure, right? But how can you know you’re dead, unless you’ve first been resurrected. Fortunately, my savior is in the resurrection business. The beauty of the cross is that Jesus died for “God-Haters”. You say “whosoever believeth in Him”? I say “ya, which is no one… cuz we’re God-hating dead men”. AND YET… “while we were YET sinners, Christ died for US” (Rom. 5:8).
My first time jumping into the scriptural pool of Calvinism was, by far, the coldest theological swim I’ve ever had. Like the slave-owner-turned-pastor John Newton, I saw that God, by His grace, “saved a WRETCH like me”…. not a basically-moral-man like me… not a free-to-choose-Him man like me… a wretch. Romans 1:30 helped me quickly come to Newton’s final realization, the two ultimate conclusions that all knee-bending, worship-shouting Calvinists come to: “I am a great sinner… and HE is a great savior”
Featured Image: Mountains by Alper Çuğun; CC 2.0