The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
The Emperor of United States
Note: The purpose of this chapter is not to discourage but to diagnose. An accurate sight of our disease is the first step in a cure. What must be kept in mind is that God has provided a remedy, and that the purpose of Romans 12 is to present and apply that remedy.
Also, the topic of this chapter should help you be sympathetic with yourself and with others. As you come to realize just how powerful and dangerous are the world, the flesh, and the Devil; and come to see how disordering sin is to the human heart; you can look at yourself and others and think, Yes, sin can lead even the “best” of people into a very bad place.
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Rom. 7:25a. There is rescue, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven.” Ps. 33:1a
John Newton writes:
You have one hard lesson to learn, that is, the evil of your own heart: you know something of it, but it is needful that you should know more; for the more we know of ourselves, the more we shall prize and love Jesus and his salvation. I hope what you find in yourself by daily experience will humble you, but not discourage you: humble you it should, and I believe it does. Are not you amazed sometimes that you should have so much as a hope, that, poor and needy as you are, the Lord thinketh of you? But let not all you feel discourage you; for if our Physician is almighty, our disease cannot be desperate; and if he casts none out that come to him, why should you fear? Our sins are many, but his mercies are more: our sins are great, but his righteousness is greater: we are weak, but he is power
John Newton and Richard Cecil, The Works of John Newton, vol. 2 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 140–141.
In 1859, Joshua Abraham Norton presented himself to the world, most particularly the people of San Francisco, as Norton I, Emperor of the United States. He issued currency, awarded titles, and dissolved the United States of America on July 16, 1860.
His delusion, which followed an ill-fated attempt to corner the rice market in California, was a matter of amusement to the city and seemingly of little harm to him. San Francisco played along and continued honor their monarch even after his death.
Joshua Norton was completely a mystery to himself: he was no monarch; he was an immigrant to tried to strike it rich only to be thwarted by ships filled with rice coming from Peru. And yet, to himself he was king of the country.
He is little different than the poor, deranged people who frequent the bus stop across the street from work and engage in extended conversations with the air. He seems to have been far more genial than most lunatics, but his error was equally as profound. He simply believed much that was wrong about himself.
Yet his trouble did not end with his confused self-assessment: he was wrong about the world around him. He thought the people of San Francisco his subjects, when they were merely his audience; and participants in a quite different play than that imagined by Norton.
Whether it is especially pertinent that only Emperor of the United States was a madman I will leave to others; but I will press one point: his fault is common. To take a phrase from the poet Dylan Thomas, the fault is “commoner than water.”
It is a fault which inflicts everyone: we are all born quite wrong about ourselves, and wrong about the world:
This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
Ecclesiastes 9:3. We are all born “in Adam,” who is the source of all madness in the species. Rom. 5:19.
Think of the madness of Adam. He could not claim that he was uncertain of God; that he lacked “evidence.” He could not complain that God must be defective because there is evil in the world. The conversation with God was unquestionably clear; the instruction plain. Gen. 2:16-17.
And yet, despite the plainness of his direction and unquestioned instruction of God, Adam took the advice of his wife who had gained her knowledge from a serpent. Granted the serpent was subtle, but we must marvel at the absurdity of the whole.
Adam given lordship of the creation, direct conversation with God, and no want of any sort, fell for the instruction snake.
God had spoken to Adam, Adam had communicated to Eve. A snake had spoken to Eve and Eve communicated that to Adam.
If the result were not the death of every descendent of Adam, not the ravage of disease and war, not the plagues of pestilence, and the sorrow of a mother as her infant dies; if the result were not the endless evil which flows through history like sewage, the story of the serpent would be comical.
But it is not funny in the least. It is a horror of sorrow. The absurdity makes it even more bitter.
And so, Cain murdering his brother, and the brothers selling Joseph, and viciousness of Sodom, and the murder of the infants by the Pharoah who knew not Joseph, and the corruption of the time of the Judges and the thousand other horrors of history all flow from the moment with the serpent.
God cursed the serpent and brought judgment upon the humans: The relationship of mother and child would be pain, husband and wife would be contest; work would be on the vicious terms of sweat, boredom, unending; the very ground itself would become an enemy. The ground by nature grows that which we cannot eat; it takes tillage to keep an apple tree or a tomato vine in suitable shape.
We are people subject to incurable madness, madness among people of incurable madness, in a creation we were created to rule and which escapes our control at every turn. Our bodies decay. Our senses deceive.
Even our minds: the very way that we think has been subjected to the ravages of Adam’s sin.
You see to be born is to be born under the law and under the curse. The sin of Adam put everyone born on the planet under a death sentence. We are fragile creatures, beset on every side; and we are under a curse. We are born under the wrath of God.
This is too much for anyone to bear. Who can truly know the wrath of God and rest at ease? No one rests as a volcano explodes. No one rests when a lion attacks. No one rests as they swim in the ocean knowing a shark is near. No one rests knowing we are under the wrath of God.
And so, we suppress:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Romans 1:18 This is no rare condition but the default response of our race. John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the observation that, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 35.) And, “[I]t is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” (Id., at p. 37) We do not know God and so we do not know ourselves (and from there, we know nothing correctly).
The results have been catastrophic. It begins with this refusal to concede the principle point of reality: God is, and we are under his condemnation. Much like a Jenga tower where a key block has been removed, the whole mechanism of human psychology plummets with the refusal to see ourselves in the right relationship to God:
For 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.
Romans 1:21. Paul then details our descent into madness:
They became futile in their thinking.
The futility is that by rejecting the truth of God, we can never think rightly about God:
It is in the “reasonings” of people that this futility has taken place, showing that, whatever their initial knowledge of God might be, their natural capacity to reason accurately about God is quickly and permanently harmed.
(Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 107.) Our lives will be marked first and foremost by the nature of our relationship to God.
If we cannot think rightly about God, then we cannot think rightly about ourselves—or about anything else. We will be deformed human beings if we are not in right relationship to God:
Every sinner is aware of the discomfort in his environment. The existentialists, and those psychologists and psychiatrists who are ininfluenced by them, have described this awareness as alienation and an undifferentiated angst .3 But the unbeliever fails to articulate the true nature of the problem. He knows something is wrong in himself and in this world, but the very thing that creates the problem—his separation from God—also makes it impossible to conceptualize the issues in those terms. The unregenerate man is an uncertain man; he has no absolutes, no standard outside of himself and his ever-changing opinions and values. Down deep inside he is never sure about the life he lives; he can’t be because his basic antagonism with his environment constantly unsettles him. He is unhappy and uncomfortable in his environment because he finds himself at odds with it.
Jay Edward Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resource Library, 1986), 39–40. And so, being alienated from God:
Their foolish hearts were darkened.
The heart is what a human is: it not limited to body, to thought, to emotion, or to soul. It is that which makes us as we are. But this central control of the human life is here said to be (1) foolish and (2) darkened.
To begin to understand this clause we can consider what Paul writes elsewhere:
17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
Ephesians 4:17–19. Whatever else this foolishness and darkness may mean, we know that it pours forth as sinfulness. It does not love what should be loved; it does not shun what should be shunned. It runs to its own destruction.
Nor can we trust in our conscience: “Conscience is sometimes deceived through ignorance of what is right, by apprehending a false rule for a true, an error for the will of God: sometimes, through ignorance of the fact, by misapplying a right rule to a wrong action. Conscience, evil informed, takes human traditions and false doctrines, proposed under the show of Divine authority, to be the will of God.” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 13.
Having fallen to this state, we fall still further. Rather than worship God, by nature, we worship the creature. We set up idols based upon our own deformed desires. We give ourselves to these images, destroying ourselves for honor or fame, money or love, power or revenge, and so on. Not all idols stand upon a fixed altar. The most dangerous idols are those erected in the “factory” (to use Calvin’s apt phrase) of our foolish hearts.
And from here, the steps fall further: we do not know right, we do not think right, we do not love or fear right, and so we are given over, given over, given over.
This degradation ends unspeakable horrors:
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Romans 1:28–32. And just a bit further, in chapter 3 where Paul rightly says this anatomy of sin has infected us all (Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned”), he sums up human character, outside of God’s redemption as follows:
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
At this point, you may think to yourself: that is all fine and good, but what is that to me? I have certainly passed beyond that madness and sin.
At this point, return to Romans 1:28. One of the results of the madness of sin is a “debased mind.” The word here translated “debased” is the Greek work a-dokimos. There are a number of words which Paul could have used, and here he used this peculiar word. This matters because Paul uses the related word dokimos in Romans 12:2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The root idea of the word has to do with testing: Is something true or fit. As a verb it means to test or try. In Luke 14:19, someone wishes to “examine” his new oxen. Proverbs 27:21 in the ancient Greek translation speaks of silver and gold tested by fire. A man who is such, has been tested and found fit.
In Greek, placing an “A” before a word has the effect of “Not”: a theist believes in God; an A-theist does not.
We are given over to a mind to a heart which is not trustworthy: it does not know how to value anything rightly; and it itself is tested and found wanting.
Look earlier in Romans 1:28. The clause “just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God” contains this same word, to test: “see fitto acknowledge”. We do understand God rightly, therefore, we are unable to understand anything correctly. We do not worship God; we will worship sticks and stones. We do not love the life offered by God in Christ; we will love our own death and destruction. We cannot know our ourselves, because we do not know God: therefore, would mind is worthless, and it cannot rightly test anything.
Think of just worthless the mind of man who does not rightly know God will be. They murdered Jesus, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for it they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” 1 Cor. 2:4.
In a word, we are mad: We do not know who we are (because we do not understand either ourselves or God) and therefore we do not understand anything else correctly (worshipping the creature rather than the Creator).
There is a great deal which could be said of this mind, but for us we must see one thing: The “debased mind” given in Romans 1:28 is in the process of being renewed as shown by Romans 12:2.
This renovation in Romans 12:1-2 is the reversal of Romans 1.
Here is where the trouble then arises: the human being so brutally laid out in Romans 1-3 is to put to an end, that “old self” is crucified with Christ. Rom. 6:6 But we also know that this crucifixion is not the end but only the beginning of a transformation.
Upon salvation, we do not immediately shed our foolish thoughts, or wicked habits, or sinful desires. We may have shut the door, but we can still see the Tempter through the window.
We have not achieved the reason and sobriety which will one-day be ours. We are like a carpenter who has purchased a rotten house and board-by-board replaces the planks, resets the doors, puts on a roof. In the end, it will be the same house, but not the same house. And someday “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2. But today, we are being renewed into that image. Col. 3:9-10.
We must keep this infirmity in mind when we consider the instruction given Romans 12. A due since of our frailty and infirmity, of our absolute dependence is critical to reading these words correctly.
We will always be tempted to think we have judged all things rightly and that the one with whom we have conflict is wrong. One thing I have learned by experience, is the most just is usually the one must ready to see his or her own sin, to seek reconciliation. The one who is smugly certain of no error, who is convinced of his own perfection is the one who is most mad and furthest from command of God. If you are not frightened that perhaps I may be in sin here, then you are most certainly in danger.
And so, to end, we are born mad: We misunderstand ourselves and our God. This foolishness of heart, which reaches thoughts, and desires, and behaviors, make loving God and loving neighbor seemingly impossible.
Ask yourself the following questions: Perform an examination of your own heart and life.
And do not be discouraged when see that you have cause to repent. In repentance, we renew our love to God. In repentance, we defeat the Tempter. In repentance, we are forgiven of all sin. The most dangerous sin, is the sin for which we will not repent. Look for the sin, that you may drag it from its hiding place and give room for God’s blessing.
1. We are commanded to love our enemies. Without trying to weasel out of the word “love” and without pretending like there are none who have hurt or of whom you are fearful, can you say you love them?
2. We are to drag the log out of our own eye before seek the speck in our brother’s eye. When you have conflict, do you begin with your own repentance? Do you begin with a clear sight of the enormity of your own sin (and to sin as a believer is worse than to sin as an unbeliever, because you sin against light)?
3. Paul was willing to die for the Gospel and the glory of Christ. Are you willing to be inconvenienced for the Gospel?
4. Peter writes of a servant being wrongfully misused and suffering unjustly at the hands of a cruel master: and to do so without revenge. When you are mistreated by another, do you suffer it gracefully? Do you bless those who persecute you?
5. When you minister to others and do some good, do you make sure that everyone knows how righteous you are? Or do you seek to hide it and wait for God to give you a reward? If you did good and another got public credit, would you fume or would you graciously commend the whole to God?
We continue the same through the commands to not sin: Have you lusted, coveted, envied, gossiped, harbored bitterness? Have you believed false reports about another? I am here looking at those sins of the tongue and mind which are so easily excused as a “prayer request” or easily concealed because they take place in your heart beyond the sight of all.
Surely you see how much remanent sin still clings to you. Surely you see how great your own fault.
Or one last test. What if your entire live since coming to faith were displayed for all: Every word, every deed, every thought, every desire, every intention, every glance. What if your heart were laid bare?
Only if you can see the continued horror of sin as it still pours out of your heart can you begin to comprehend the next clause we will consider,
The mercies of God.
From The Valley of Vision
When clouds of darkness, atheism, and
unbelief come to me,
I see thy purpose of love
in withdrawing the Spirit that I might prize
in chastening me for my confidence in
past successes, that my wound of secret
godlessness might be cured.
Help me to humble myself before thee
by seeing the vanity of honour
as a conceit of men’s minds,
as standing between me and thee;
by seeing that thy will must alone be done,
as much in denying as in giving
by seeing that my heart is nothing but evil,
mind, mouth, life void of thee;
by seeing that sin and Satan are allowed power
in me that I might know my sin, be humbled,
and gain strength thereby;
by seeing that unbelief shuts thee from me,
so that I sense not thy majesty, power, mercy,
Then possess me, for thou only art good
Thou dost not play in convincing me of sin,
Satan did not play in tempting me to it,
I do not play when I sink in deep mire,
for sin is no game, no toy, no bauble;
Let me never forget that the heinousness of sin lies
not so much in the nature of the sin committed,
as in the greatness of the Person sinned against.
When I am afraid of evils to come, comfort me,
by showing me
that in myself I am a dying, condemned wretch,
but that in Christ I am reconciled, made alive,
that I am feeble and unable to do any good,
but that in him I can do all things;
that what I now have in Christ is mine in part,
but shortly I shall have it perfectly in heaven.