Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Romans 1:18-32

I'm speaking at a CU later this week on Romans 1:18-32. It's the first time that I've spoken on this passage, and I'm somewhat nervous, so would love to hear any feedback or helpful comments that you can give.

You’re in water and a safety line is winched down from a helicopter. Do you grab hold of it? The answer to this question, of course, will depend upon your situation. There’d be little point grabbing hold of it if you were in a paddling pool. You’d be much more keen to grab hold of it if you were drowning in the Atlantic.

The main point of Romans 1:18-3:20 is to show that all members of humanity – even those that might consider themselves good or religious – all of them are condemned without the cross of Christ. And so Paul spends two and a half chapters demonstrating the guilt of every member of humankind. And just as you wouldn’t grab hold of the safety rope if you think you’re already safe, you won’t cherish and rely on the sacrificial death of Jesus until you realise that, without it, you are in grave peril. And so Paul writes these opening chapters of his letter to the Romans, wanting every person to realise that, whoever they are, by themselves, they are in serious trouble.

God’s anger with our rebellion against him (verses 18-23)

Our first point tonight takes us to the heart of the problem. Outside of the cross, every member of humanity is in serious trouble because – verse 18 – God is angry. We read that ‘the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the wickedness of human beings who suppress their truth by their wickedness.’ God is angry. Now, there’s a lot of people who don’t like the idea of an angry God. And I think that’s because they’ve got human anger in mind when they think about God’s anger. Human anger tends to flare up. Even when the thing that prompts the anger really does deserve that reaction, the heat of the moment and all the impulse and the emotion turns anger into a really ugly thing. The response of anger isn’t righteous.

But God’s anger is different. It is his personal and settled hostility against everything that is wrong. Think about the situation in Zimbabwe and it might well make you angry. And you’d be right to be angry, because what is going on there under the Mugabe regime is very wrong. We’ve seen the damage caused by the irresponsibility and false government of many there. And it’s this sort of ‘cold light of day’ anger – removed from the reach of human sin – that characterises God’s anger. He opposes things in his world that are very, very wrong.

Read on in verse 18 and we see why God is angry. ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness.’ In other words, God is angry because of human deception. God is angry because humans know something, but that we have wickedly and deliberately chosen to suppress this truth, to consciously ignore it.

Verses 19-23 outline this make-believe world that we’ve created for ourselves. It’s this – that we know all too well of God’s existence and power, but that we’ve neither glorified God nor given thanks to him. Verse 20 makes it clear that everyone has enough evidence for God’s existence. ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.’ The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to God if, upon dying, he found out that he’d been wrong all along, and that God actually existed. His answer? He’d say, “Not enough evidence, Lord; not enough evidence.” These verses show that, in truth, there is plenty of evidence proving God’s existence. And that evidence is found in creation. Paul’s argument is this: open your eyes and you have evidence of God’s existence. Walk through the Lake District or along the Welsh coast, look down a microscope or a telescope – and you have all the evidence that you need for God’s existence. We may disagree about precisely how God created, but the evidence is irrefutable. Create he did.

But the extent of our deception is unpacked in verses 21 onward. Deep down, each of us knows of God’s existence. Each of us knows his ‘eternal power and divine nature’, as verse 20 puts it. But here’s what twisted humans do with that knowledge. We say to God, “Stuff you!” In particular – look at verse 21 – we neither glorify God in the way that he deserves as God, nor give thanks to him. In refusing to glorify him as God, we deny God’s right to rule over us as our Creator. Somehow, we think that the universe revolves around us – we’re masters of our own worlds! It doesn’t occur to us that God, our Creator, might have something to say about how we ought to live in his Universe. Moreover, we refuse to give him thanks. Despite the truth being that we rely on God for everything – for our bodies, for the food he has given us, for our every breath – we don’t him thanks. We live as though everything belongs to us, that it’s our universe.

And so, do you see the delusion? The reality at the centre of the Universe is the living, Creator God. And how have we treated him? We’ve treated him as a joke. We’ve twisted the truth and denied him and considered ourselves accountable to no-one.

And this is true of you even if you’ve always believed in God’s existence. It’s possible to believe in God’s existence, yet still to reject his right to rule over us as God, and to refuse to give him thanks. Imagine a family where a teenager takes everything from his parents, never says thank you, and in practice his life without reference to them. It’s not very likely that said teenager will go around saying, “Mum and Dad don’t existence.” Rather, he’ll show through his actions that, whilst he’s very happy to take their money and their gifts, he’d rather than they weren’t there. He’s accountable to no-one but himself.

Tragically, it gets even worse. Paul explains that our rejection of God causes us to live for something else. We were created to live for God – but we’ve rejected him. And verse 23 speaks of how rejecting God doesn’t leave us in a vacuum. Instead, we live for something else. We devote our attention elsewhere. Verse 23 speaks of images and created things. More than likely, Paul’s original readers would have been reminded of Israel’s worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32. But this description of idolatry applies no less to our present day idolatry. It’s said that an idol is something other than God that gives a person’s life purpose and meaning. With that in mind, it’s perhaps easy to see what the most common idols are today. Pleasure, sex, being respected for having money, power and influence over others, a husband, the list in endless. And Paul would say this: it is a sign of human twistedness that, in a world where God has made himself clearly known, we think that, say, having trinkets or being cool, is the most important thing, the thing that we live for.

And so this is the problem. All humans have deliberately chosen to live out the delusion that God isn’t really there and we’re not really accountable to him. And that leaves all of us – verse 20 – without excuse. None of us can say that we didn’t really know that God was there, and none of us can say that we’ve glorified God and thanked him as we should have done. And in response, God is wrathful. He is angry.

There’s perhaps a bit of you that wants to say, “What is God’s problem?” OK – so we’ve ignored him and not thanked him. But sometimes each of us has known that very same experience. Sometimes people don’t thank us when we’ve done things for them. And so sometimes we’re tempted to think that God is a Nietzsche-like dictator who says, ‘Worship me’ – and then gets upset when people don’t. But the difference is this. Dictators are not worthy of worship. They’re just people. That’s why when dictators call for worship, it’s ugly. It’s subverting the reality of how things really are. But God is the Creator. He really has given us all things. We really rely on him for everything. He really is worthy of worship. He really does have the rights to call the shots in his Universe. And when we rebel against him, the whole moral order is thrown out of kilter. Things that were designed to be very good become very bad. The world is broken. And that is why God is angry with our delusion.

God’s response to our rebellion against him (verses 24-32)

The remainder of the verses in our passage show God’s response to our rebellion against him. In other words, they are a description of how God’s wrath – his anger against us – is manifested today. And the key phrase is ‘God gave them over’. It recurs in verses 24, 26 and 28, and describes three ways in which God’s anger is made known in the world today.

The first way is described, then, in verses 24-25: ‘Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen.’ In other words, the first sign of God’s anger is that he simply leaves humans to their own desires. God’s judgement upon a world that abandons him is not to intervene at all; to let humanity live with their actions. We were made to live with God – in him, we find our reason for existence and our satisfaction – and, without him, we are impoverished. To let humans go on rejecting him, then, is part of God’s judgement on initial human rejection. And, above all, Paul singles out the moral uncleanliness that God lets humans pursue, including sexual degradation, that we’ll come to in a moment. Paul’s point is this: we should be able to look at the world and it’s twisted morality and all of the consequences that go with it and realise this: God is angry with our rebellion against him, for having ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie’.

The second way that God’s wrath is shown is described in verses 26-27: ‘Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.’ Here’s the second judgement of God only a world in rebellion. No lightning strike from heaven – but, again, God simply leaves humans to their vile and twisted passions. And that brings us to probably the most politically incorrect part of our passage. Paul says that homosexual sexual relationships are proof of just how sick and twisted humanity has become.

Now I think it’s important to say here that Paul isn’t saying that homosexuality is the unforgivable sin, nor is he saying that practicing as a homosexual is any more sinful that other forms of rejecting God. Paul is not saying that being attracted to members of the same sex is necessarily sinful. He’s certainly not saying that homosexually oriented people can’t be Christians. And Paul would have had no time at all for homophobia. Rather Paul’s emphasis comes on the world ‘natural’. Biologically-speaking, and in the Genesis account, we read that sexual relationships were designed to be heterosexual. And so Paul turns to homosexuality as a vignette of how ‘unnatural’ a world in rebellion to its creator is. Bodies are used in ways that they were not designed to be used. The fact that there are men who have sex with other men, or women with other women, is proof of how twisted and broken humanity has become through our rejection of God. Sex becomes something that falls short of God’s good design. A very good and natural and intimate thing is smashed and ruined. And that is proof that God is angry with rebellion against him.

The third symptom of God’s anger is described in verses 28-32. Once again, we read that God ‘gives over’ humanity to the choices that we have made. Let’s re-read verse 28: ‘Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.’ In other words: since, as humans, we have felt that we don’t need to retain God in our knowledge; since we have felt that we can live in God’s world as practical atheists, God has let us live with the consequences. This time Paul speaks of how our minds have become corrupted. It’s like we’ve got a virus. We’re infected with sin. We make bad choices. We are genuinely ‘spiritually insane’. Matthew Henry describes the fallen mind as ‘a mind void of all sense and judgment to discern things that differ, so that a person cannot distinguish their right hand from their left in spiritual things.’ In other words, we’re out of control of our lives. We keep rebelling against God. In the name of ‘freedom’ we reject him, and our choices are foolish. And we have to live with the consequences of our rebellion.

And so the implication is this. If any of the words in verses 29-31 describe you, it means that God is angry at your sin. And just notice that the list here includes ‘socially acceptable’ sins right along with those considered socially unacceptable. Let’s look at just a few. Look at the number of words that describe dysfunctional human relationships, described in the middle of verse 29: ‘envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice’ – these are all expressions of hatred against other people. All of them, in some way, are articulations of murdering others in our hearts. Sure, most of us would never actually murder someone, but we can cut someone to pieces with our words and show them that we’d rather they were there at all. And that behaviour is a sign of God’s wrath on a rebellious humanity.

I find the phrase ‘they invent ways of doing evil’ chilling. Such is our rejection of God that we dream up ways of getting people back when they’ve wronged us. Or we want to see others exposed. And that ties in with verse 32: even when we know a behaviour is wrong, we approve of it and continue to do these very things. Another sign of God’s wrath on a rebellious humanity.

Or also included is the charge of being disobedient to one’s parents – and the flipside ‘without love’. This word speaks of family love: it speaks of parents that are unkind and cruel to their children. The family, of course, is not a social invention, but was created by God as the building block of society. And these verses speak of that being broken. Dysfunctional family relationships – children that are disobedient to their mother and father, and unloving parents – are proof of God’s wrath on a world in rebellion against him.

The point is this: none of us can read these words and say that none of them apply to us. If any of them describe you, it shows how corrupt and twisted your mind has become. And that shows that your attitudes and decisions have rightly put you under the judgement of the God of the Universe. You rightly face his wrath for eternity.


I started this talk by saying that Paul seeks to demonstrate in this section, and over the following chapters, how serious our situation is. We’re not in a paddling pool. We’re drowning and we’re about to go under. Our situation is serious. Paul’s begun to show us just that, and he’ll continue in chapters 2 and 3.

And so what are the implications of this passage? Well, firstly, I think we see our need in real clarity. It is this: both our sin and God’s righteous response of wrath prevent us from experiencing our humanity and creatureliness and having a relationship with God. Without God’s wrath being satisfied, we’d all still face hell – as God’s justice must be done. Without our nature being changed and made new, we’d go on sinning for eternity and there’d be no way we could live with God in his new creation.

But Paul is convinced that the gospel message can meet both of these needs. Look back at 1:16: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.’ Paul is saying this. There really is something to be saved from, and the gospel really does save. In coming weeks, you’ll see how God has intervened to save us. You’ll see how, in the person of Jesus, the wrath that we rightly deserve was taken upon God himself. Anyone that is trusting Jesus is condemned no longer, because he was condemned on our behalf. And our natures have been so radically changed that Paul will go on to describe the person trusting in Christ as being ‘new’. Even our minds, which we’ve seen are completely corrupt, can be renewed. What drove Paul to write Romans was a conviction that the gospel is our only hope when it comes to dealing with our sin and with God’s wrath. It’s that conviction that will lead you to love and cherish the cross of Christ too.

If coming into tonight you’d not have really described yourself as cherishing the cross, will you come clean? Will you admit that you are in far more serious trouble than you had previously realised. Because it’s at this point that you’ll begin to appreciate the amazing love and grace of God – that same God that we’ve rebelled against and rejected and ignored – in giving us everything to reconcile us to himself, making the relationship that we were created for possible to enjoy for eternity. That offer is open to everyone, whoever you are, whatever you are like. Christ died to bear our wrath and to free us from our sin.

The final implication cuts to the heart of what you’re here for as a Christian Union, offering hope to this college. What this passage shows Christians is that as you share the gospel here, you must talk about sin and God’s wrath. I know that this isn’t a popular idea, but without hearing about these things, your friends will not realise how serious their problem is. They will not cling to the cross. They will still think that they are in a paddling pool, without need for a safety line. The Christian writer John Stott put it like this, ‘What keeps people away from Christ more than anything else is their inability to see their own need for him or their unwillingness to admit it. Jesus himself put it this way: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). We only go to a doctor when we admit that we are ill and we can't cure ourselves. In the same way, we only to go to Christ when we admit we are guilty sinners and we realize that we can't save ourselves.’

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