SERMON FOR MARCH 15, 1998 FROM ROMANS 1:18-32
This week, we continue to examine the wrath of God as Paul discusses it in Romans chapter one. Last week, in order to give us an understanding of the wrath of God consistent with Paul, we looked at the prominent place this doctrine has in Scripture. Although this truth is greatly ignored today, we noted that if you do not have a biblical understanding of this doctrine, you will have a superficial appreciation of, not only the book of Romans, but the gospel itself. This doctrine is where Paul begins his treatment of the gospel. Indeed, it is part of the reason why the gospel is necessary because the sinner remains under God’s wrath until Christ, through the gospel releases him. This week, we will begin to examine Paul’s treatment of the reason for God’s wrath against sinners. Let’s read Romans 1:18-32.
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For 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, so that men are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen. 26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In 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. 28Furthermore, 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. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
There is so much in this text, but our focus this morning is on WHY God’s wrath is revealed and poured out upon sinners. The main focus of this text is on the unredeemed. The basic truth of this text as it relates to this question is this: The reason God reveals his wrath is the unrighteousness of sinful people.” The texts literally says in verse 18, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” The basic issue is unrighteousness--The behavior is ungodly and unrighteous because people are by nature unrighteous. The power of sin in a person’s life is seen at the root level according to Paul in their inherent unrighteousness. We know the main problem is unrighteousness because in verse 17, Paul says God’s solution--the power of the gospel brings what to sinners?... The righteousness of God for, “...in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.” The reason the gospel, first and foremost offers righteousness to sinners is because the root problem keeping people from God is their unrighteousness. Every other sin, as we will see in the future, is simply in some way a result of God’s ongoing wrath. The core issue is unrighteousness.
The central question is, “what is unrighteousness?” This text gives us an understanding of this word. Let me define it first and then prove it from this text and others. Unrighteousness is: “a rebellious refusal to conform to God’s standard.” We see this in classic texts like Isaiah 53:6 “We like sheep have all gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way.” God says, “here is the way--walk in it.” The power of unrighteousness within people responds, “I know the way you want me to walk--the standard to which you want me to conform, but I choose this way, my way instead.” Its not a matter of accidentally falling into the wrong way--its a deliberate, intentional deviation from what people KNOW to be God’s way. In this text, Paul gives two core or root expressions of this unrighteousness for which the wrath of God is revealed. We will look at one this week and the other, Lord willing next week.
These two expressions of unrighteousness act as a basis or foundation for all other sins. This is crucial to know because, number one, it helps us understand the essence of sin and that helps us target the gospel more precisely to the sinner’s root issues. This will bring the “power of God for salvation” to bear on the core sin of the person and help them to be truly set free by the truth. Second, knowing the root issues of unrighteousness also helps us because every Christian to some degree allows the power of sin dominate them. If we can know the roots of our rebellious unrighteousness and attack them instead of whacking away at the leaves, our growth in holiness will be much quicker and honor God more. Many people spend years going round and round in circles over a certain sin and continually hack away at it. It never seems to go away because they are not dealing with the root cause of the sin. As we understand what the root issues of our unrighteousness and repent of them, we can by the grace of God tear down many strongholds of sin in a much shorter time.
The first, core expression of unrighteousness in this text is this: “People held under the power of sin stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the unshakable evidence of the truth about God.” We see this in several places here. In verses 19-21, we read, “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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, so that men are without excuse.” Paul says God, through his creation has “clearly,” “plain[ly],” revealed his power and divinity--who He is as the only true God. Yet people refuse to relate to Him as God. This is true most blatantly for self professed atheists who claim there is no God. According to Paul, there are NO true atheists--the evidence against atheism is so overwhelming so as to give “no excuse” for atheism. There is a saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The fact of the matter is, there are no genuine atheists, period. “Let God be true and every man a liar.”
But this text is not simply an indictment on self professed atheists. This text gives no room for excuse for any human being who does not worship God as the sovereign Lord of the universe. That is what God’s creation reveals Him to be and that obligates all people everywhere to worship Him as such. Verse 21 brings this out. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him...” God has revealed Himself in such a way in creation that people are accountable not only to acknowledge that there is a God, but they are accountable to worship Him and give thanks to Him in a manner consistent with who He has revealed himself to be. Paul here indicates that God, through His creation alone has given a very significant understanding of who He is. Yet Paul says people steadfastly and intentionally refuse to do this.
In verse 32, we see even more brazenly this stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth of God. It says, “Although they KNOW God righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but approve of those who practice them.” People not only have enough truth about God to make them accountable to worship Him, they also have enough inherent truth within people to cause them at some level to know when they are doing something sinful and also to know that their sin deserves the death penalty from God. There is even within sinners an inherent understanding between right and wrong--there is, as Paul says in 2:15, “ a law written on [their] hearts.” This provides people with an inner sense that a given behavior or attitude is wrong, but also that if you do that, you deserve the condemnation of God. All sinners have that much truth inherently within them. God holds all people accountable to know what their sin is and that it brings death to them and also to worship God as God. Nature and our own God given inherent sense of morality makes all people accountable to do those things.
If God holds people are accountable to do those things, why don’t they? Paul’s answer is, because they are unrighteous. It is the unrighteousness in people--the power of sin in them, which causes them to suppress the truth rather than submit to it. Paul says there is a revelatory “tug” on people’s hearts exerted by creation and that power naturally compels people to fall on their face in worship of the one true God. The problem is, as powerful as that pull is, the power of their own unrighteousness to keep them defiantly on their feet, thumbing their nose at God is stronger. It is the rebellious unrighteousness which dwells within all people which causes them to look at the truth squarely in the face, see it as the truth and then make a decisive, intentional effort to ignore it and reject it. They MUST do that--the power of unrighteousness within then forces them to rebelliously respond that way to the truth. ALL people, no exceptions come into this world with this rebellious unrighteousness as standard equipment. David says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
In 3:10-11 Paul says, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one seeks after God.” People use the expression, “I found God ten years ago.” That’s bad theology. No one finds God because no one is looking for Him. They are engaged in the rebellious and futile enterprise of trying to blot from their lives the indisputable proof of His existence and His nature. No one seeks after God because the unrighteousness within them causes them NOT to seek after the truth of God, but instead to put it down and bury it. Jesus says in John 6:44, “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws (drags) him...” As a result of unrighteousness, people are busy suppressing the truth, not seeking after it.
We see this in the first sin of humanity. Here is Adam and Eve living in the sinless garden with astonishing access to, and intimacy with God. They knew from their own personal experience that God is the Ruler of the Universe. They had NO reason to doubt who God was and this God, whom they knew so well explicitly told them, “if you touch the fruit you will die.” Onto the scene comes the serpent, a creature they outrank--he is under their dominion, much less God’s. And the serpent, with no track record, with no resume to in any way correspond with God’s boldly proclaims to the first family that God has mislead them and that they should in fact eat the fruit so they could be like God. And they did it. Was it because they had strong evidence that God was a liar? Was it because the serpent was more credible in his assertion than God--more God-like? Was it because they knew the serpent so much better than they knew God? NO! The reason was because they, in this first act of unrighteousness deliberately chose to suppress the truth of what God had said and chose to believe a lie.
There is much we could say by way of application, but let me give three points very briefly. Point one--sinners are in a dreadful state. Do you hear the pathetic situation the sinner finds himself in before God? God, through His creation has given them enough information about Himself to make them accountable to acknowledge his existence and also to worship Him as the one, true God. That’s what he rightly expects of them based on the evidence He has graciously provided them. The trouble is, they CAN’T do that. They are totally unable to comply. They have an unrighteous nature which, without exception, universally compels them NOT to submit to the truth, to run from the truth about God as fast as they can go. They are in the pitiful state of having a high degree of ACCOUNTABILITY before God, but no ABILITY to perform that for which they are accountable. That’s pathetic.
Let me illustrate how pathetic this is. A sophomore in high school has the athletic ability to run the 100 yard dash in 10 seconds flat. That is the standard to which his father who is also the track coach holds him to. As long as the does what his father, the coach tells him to and he behaves himself, he will be able to run at that at speed and meet that standard of excellence. All is well until one day when this young man goes to a party, gets drunk and while intoxicated walks out in front of a speeding bus. Both legs are shattered and it takes him months just to learn to walk on crutches. He has rebelled against his Father and now suffers the consequences--he will never be able to run the 100 yard dash in anything approaching 10 seconds because he will for the rest of his life be forced to walk with crutches. As a result of his sin, his “nature” changed from being a great athlete to being dependent on crutches just to move about. But the standard doesn’t change. In order to be on the track team, he is still held accountable to run the hundred in 10 seconds. His father, the coach tells him he cannot be on the team if cannot keep up his old time. The boy, in utter frustration and anguish goes out to the track, moves up to the starting line, throws his crutches aside and with all his might lunges out of the blocks in the futile hope that being on the track will bring his legs back. He collapses in agony after two steps. He lays on the ground, weeping bitterly and buries his face in the cinders. From that moment on, he develops a deep hatred for track, for the ten second standard, and for his father who has now become his adversary. He spends the rest of his life doing his best to blot all of them from his life.
That is a pathetic picture, but it roughly approximates in principle the state of the sinner. God cannot lower the standard of righteousness and still be God. He has made people accountable though his creation to worship Him and obey him, but they are under the power of unrighteousness and doing everything they can to rebel against this One who is now very much against them. They owe Him the ultimate accountability, but they have zero ability to comply. The state of the sinner is pathetic and we need to see them through this lens as we pray for them and witness to them.
Point two: the enormous power of unrighteousness in sinners requires an the gospel to be enormously powerful. Here is the sinner--unrighteous by nature, unable and unwilling to submit to God--a hardened rebel in the truest sense who is deliberately and intentionally seeking to suppress the truth of God, dead, in trespasses and sin. What kind of gospel does it take to reach that person? A gospel which can not only convince them of the reasonableness of Christianity, but a gospel which must first reach into his chest cavity and replace the unrighteous heart of stone with the heart of flesh. This is the gospel which Paul calls “the power of God for salvation.” God “drags” sinners to himself through the power of the gospel. We made this point two weeks ago, but if we believe what the Bible says about the spiritual depravity of the lost (which we will treat more fully when we get to chapter three), the gospel must have enormous power to change lives.
Point three: at the root of every sin we commit is our choice to suppress the truth and believe a lie. Nothing has changed from the garden in terms of the effect unrighteousness has on the soul. Although Christians have been set free from the power of unrighteousness, our flesh beckons us to remain in bondage to that power. The way we as believers voluntarily surrender our freedom from the power unrighteousness is to choose to suppress the truth and instead believe a lie. Here are some examples. When we lust, we are suppressing the truth that God has established horrible consequences for lust and that lust pollutes our spirit. Instead, we choose to believe the lie that lust brings more pleasure than purity. When we gossip, we suppress the truth that gossip maims people and destroys relationships intended to honor God. We believe the lie that the satisfaction we get spewing out or nibbling on that tender morsel of gossip is greater than the joy in exercising self control and keeping our big mouth shut.
When we lie to someone, we suppress the truth that telling the truth, as painful as it may be, liberates us while deceit places us in bondage. We believe the lie that dishonesty is the best option for us. When we covet material wealth, we suppress the truth that God alone is sufficient to bring us “joy unspeakable and full of glory” and we believe the lie that money and riches can satisfy our need. We could go on and on with EVERY other sin, but the pattern will be the same. The way to get victory is to pray for God to give you penetrating discernment to recognize the root lies which crouch beneath each temptation to sin and to address the lie as a lie and by faith, walk in truth. Deal with it at the root level of truth versus lie and you wont have to waste time endlessly hacking away at the branches. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” I challenge you to see sin as a truth versus lie issue. If you do that and act on it, you will find you make much more rapid progress in the Lord. Now may God give us grace hear and obey his word.
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