SERMON FOR MARCH 22, 1998 FROM ROMANS 1:18-32
The first major theological topic Paul treats in depth in Romans is the wrath of God against the unrighteousness of man. In a letter which is all about the gospel, this only makes sense. After all, the reality of God’s wrath against unrighteousness is what makes the gospel so necessary. The gospel addresses the most basic, root problem of humanity, unrighteousness. The gospel, as we have seen “reveals a righteousness that is from God.” Last week, we saw that the root reason for God’s wrath is this rebellious UNrighteousness of people. But there is another branch which comes off that root and that is the fact that people “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.” Every other sin can be traced back to suppressing the truth about God and choosing to believe the lie. Paul exposes the rebellious nature of this sin by explaining that people, in the face of overwhelming, irrefutable evidence proving God’s existence and character, try to stamp out that truth about God. He says in verses 19-21 that God, through the creation reveals enough about himself to make people accountable to do three things.
First, they are able to understand from creation that He exists and that He is the one true, all powerful God. That’s from verse 21. Second, we see from verse 23 that all people are accountable to worship Him in a manner consistent with who He has revealed Himself to be. Finally, verse 32 tells us that on the basis of God’s revelation of himself through creation, people are also accountable to know that they are sinners and that they deserved death before a holy God. What God reveals about himself through the creation makes all people highly accountable before him. Sinners however, do not respond appropriately to the evidence. Rather than worship God, they run from Him--instead of submitting to His clearly revealed Lordship, they rebel against Him. They do this because they are unrighteous and the power of that unrighteousness forces them to rebel against God and who He has revealed Himself to be. This means that all sinners have a high degree of accountability before God, but they have zero ability to submit to what they know to be true. Unrighteousness causes people to suppress the truth about God.
This week, we move to the second core, root sinful element which springs from unrighteousness. To be more precise, this second expression of unrighteousness Paul examines comes as a natural consequence to suppressing the truth about God. This second, core sin which acts as a basis for every other sin and brings on the wrath of God is...idolatry. Paul takes this up beginning in verse 22. He says, “Although 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.”
In representing idolatry as one of the core sins of humanity, Paul is simply echoing what the rest of Scripture says. The ten commandments represent a summary of man’s entire duty to God and two of the ten commandments and not just any two, the first two forbid the sin of idolatry. The sin God warned the Israelites of before they went into the promised land was idolatry. The sin which the Old Testament prophets most frequently railed against was idolatry. In the New Testament, idolatry is a huge issue as well. In this passage, Paul reveals that it is one of the fundamental sins of the human race. It is mentioned in several other texts including the last verse in 1 John where he says, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” Revelation tells us the final, great consummating sin of humanity will be their idolatrous worship of the beast. Idolatry is a huge issue in the church and the world. As we address this as one of the roots of every sin in the world and in our lives, the more able we will be able to do two things. First, we will be able to pray more effectively for the lost, addressing their root sins and we will be able to more effectively address the gospel to their real, deep sin issues. Second, as believers this knowledge will help us to address our own root issues and see our sins as God sees them, in accordance with the truth.
This text says much about idolatry. I want to focus in on two aspects of this--the essence of idolatry and the evil of idolatry. Let’s firs look at The essence of idolatry as we see it in this text. Paul gives a definition of sorts for idolatry in verse 25 when he says “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” Idolatry is simply, “the practice of exchanging the truth of God for a lie”--a false god. In order to understand the full weight of that definition, we need to know what is meant by an idol. What is an idol? An idol is simply “anything to which we give higher loyalty or allegiance than God.” It may be a carved, wooden image or it may be a job, boat, hobby, person or past time. God, as He has revealed himself is deserving of our highest loyalty. People practice idolatry anytime they give anything or anyone higher loyalty or allegiance than God.
This raises a question and it is this: Given the fact that the first root of sin is people’s desire to be rid of God, why is the second root expression of unrighteousness to seek after another god? Last week we learned that people are doing their very best to suppress God, to eliminate Him from their lives. That is the most basic expression of unrighteousness. If the unrighteousness within people compels them to suppress God, then why are people in a relentless pursuit of gods? The answer implied in the text is that God has created people to be worshippers. Paul says, we don’t abandon all gods, we simply exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” The unrighteousness in fallen people doesn’t eliminate that basic part of human nature--all people are by nature, worshippers. The unrighteousness within people horribly twists and distorts their internal need to worship and makes them IDOL worshippers. Any anthropologist will tell you that every culture on earth has a strong religious or spiritual element--people have an inbred compulsion to worship. G.K. Chesterton quipped, when we “cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.” This is true. John Calvin saw this inbred propensity to worship idols and said the appropriate designation for the human race is “homo idolorum”--Man, the idol maker.
Once again, in this we see the dreadful plight of what it is to be a sinner. On the one hand (as we said last week) people have a high degree of accountability to worship God, but thanks to their unrighteousness they have no ability to worship him. Here we see the same kind of pathetic truth. Though people are inherently, relentlessly religious--they will always worship something, the unrighteousness within them absolutely prevents them from worshipping the one true God as He reveals Himself in the Bible. People have accountability with no ability and a deeply felt need to worship, but they will always worship idols. That’s pathetic.
But what is the essence of idolatry? When you boil idolatry down to its most basic issue, what is it? Often, when you want to boil anything down to the root issue in the Bible, you can find the answer in the first three chapters of Genesis. In Genesis three, the serpent told Adam and Eve two lies. It was the appeal that these two lies had for them which tempted them to sin. First, in Genesis 3:4, he directly contradicted a claim of God. God told them that when they touched the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die. Satan in response said, “You will not surely die.” When they chose to believe that, they consciously suppressed the truth God had told them. Satan’s second lie was, “...when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” What is the appeal there? What is Satan tempting them with there? The same thing He himself wanted but couldn’t have--to be God. That temptation reveals something very important about the essence of idolatry.
At the very root of unrighteousness here when it is first introduced into the human family is the desire to be God. Don’t miss this. It is that desire--the desire to be like God which is the underlying motive for all idolatry. People want to be God because one of the most basic elements of what it is to be God is personal autonomy--freedom from outside authority. God doesn’t have to answer to anyone but himself. The unrighteous motivation behind idolatry is a desire to be god and that means to be free from outside authority. To put it another way, the motivation behind idolatry is the unrighteous desire to be SELF centered rather than GOD centered. That means people, who are inwardly compelled to worship something, and who also desire personal autonomy to be free from the true God, therefore MUST exchange the one true God for a god which allows them to have personal autonomy--to able do what THEY want to do--to be SELF centered, not GOD centered.
So people fashion idols which they can control--they think they can control--a god they can manipulate, appease and enjoy with minimal cost to themselves. They may create a materialistic god like a boat or a car--they can be slavishly devoted to it, giving it high priority to it, but it doesn’t require any loyalty from them. Their idolatry may come in the form of adherence to a false religion. These people worship this false god (they may even call it “Jesus”) and may even make great personal sacrifices for their “god,” but they are doing so motivated by SELF-righteousness. “I can be good if I simply work hard enough.” The motivation is still SELF. My false religion causes God to accept me. There is still autonomy--they don’t have to be dependent on anyone else because their righteousness is SELF righteousness. They can be righteous within themselves.
Verse 23 bears this out. “they...exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” People exchange the glory of God and the immortality of God for the fallen, mortal creation. Why? What is it about the glory of God and the immortality of God that grates against the people’s unrighteous desire to be god? The answer is--the glory of God and the immortality of God both remind us of the truth that we aren’t like him and therefore we really aren’t God. The glory of God is the display of His attributes--the manifestation of his Person. When the glory of God’s holiness, for example, is revealed in some way, people try to bury that somehow because His holiness reminds them of their sin and that they aren’t like Him and are indeed subject to his wrath. When the glory of God’s mercy is revealed, that implies his holiness. There is no need for God’s mercy unless you are a sinner before a holy God. If I am a sinner, God’s mercy screams at me at me that I need that mercy because I fall short of His holiness. And a person who wants to be god doesn’t want to feel a need for anyone outside themselves and they certainly don’t want to be in debt to a God outside of themselves. When the glory of God’s goodness is revealed, that starkly contrasts with people’s badness and people don’t want to be reminded that in their badness they are radically different and inferior to the true God. This same kind of thing could be said of any expression of God’s glory.
Likewise, his immortality. People are mortal, they die. And because God is immortal--He doesn’t ever die, that again points to His superiority to us. He is over us. People in their unrighteousness don’t want a God who is glorious or immortal, because that reminds them that God is very different from and superior to them. If people, on the one hand are compelled to worship someone, but on the other wants to be god themselves--personally autonomous, they will form gods they can control. People don’t a want an infinitely holy, mercy, good God. That kind of God would have an unquestionable claim to be their Lord and Master and their rebellious unrighteousness chafes against that. People want a malleable, pliable, bendable god which they can on the one hand, give their loyalty to, and on the other, control. In short, they want a god who will conform to their image and likeness--who will fit into their box--who will serve their SELF centered interests. That kind of god frees them in some way to express their deep need to worship and at the same time be god--that is autonomous. The essence of idolatry is the creation of a god which enables people to be god. They may give these gods a high degree of loyalty, but anything they give it only feeds into their selfish desire to be god.
Next, let’s look at the evil of idolatry. In other words, what is it about idolatry that kindles and reveals the wrath of God? The broad answer is simply, idolatry robs God of the glory He deserves as the one, true God. Idolatry declares that God is not worthy of a person’s ultimate loyalty. Moreover, it declares that the person themself is worthy of their ultimate loyalty since they are ultimately exchanging themselves for God. That arrogance rejects God in favor of themselves and is certainly worthy of God’s wrath. This is the ultimate expression of rebellion--for the creature to say to the Creator, “I am above you and I will not submit to you” is cosmic rebellion. Its not only rebellion, but it is a dismal failure for the creature. God created man chiefly to worship Him--to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. When these people, created in God’s image and intended to rule and reign with Him--when they reject their purpose to worship and glorify God, they become useless, worthless--of no more good than a dirty diaper. They are worthy of wrath because they are cosmic rebels and they are ultimate failures. Unless the truth of the gospel penetrates their hearts and restores them to righteousness--restores them to their position as worshippers of the one, true God, they will surely suffer God’s wrath. They are in a dreadful condition. Is that the way we see lost people? We should because that’s how God sees them. That’s what we were before God in his mercy redeemed us and made us worshippers of Him.
Having said that, lets apply this truth to believers--those who have, by God’s grace been given this righteousness of God and who have been restored to worshippers of the one, true God. All genuinely born again believers have been restored to worship God. But we can, through our flesh choose to allow unrighteousness to control parts of our lives. And all of our sins can be traced back to idolatry. Think about it. The essence of idolatry is choosing to exercise our will autonomously instead of submitting to God as Lord. We make ourselves gods every time we fail to submit to the one true God. We are showing higher loyalty and allegiance to our selfish, flesh controlled desires than to the will of God. That is idolatry anyway you slice it. Let me ask you, when you sin, do you see it as a rebellious usurping of God by yourself? Do you see it though that lens? That is the root of every sin you commit. Our sins are not mistakes, they are not peccadilloes, not misjudgments. They are nothing less than our shaking our fist at God and saying to Him, “I want to be God, so bug off.” I will give allegiance to me, not You. Frankly, if we saw our sin more in those terms which is seeing them in the light of truth, that would allow the Holy Spirit to do a much deeper and effective convicting work. He is the Spirit of Truth and when we look at our sins with the lens of truth, His power to bring brokenness and repentance is enhanced.
When a believer comes to God after sinning and confesses at its root level of idolatry, it attacks the heart of the matter. For instance when we covet someone else’s possession--their house, for example, we can pray, “Lord, I confess that in coveting I have played God by thinking that I know better what I need that you. I have usurped your role as my provider. God have mercy on me.” That attacks the root of my covetous heart. This truth applies to lust, hatred, anything which in some way takes back God’s right to fulfill our needs and places it into our own hands.
We need to see the heinousness of this sin in our lives. This devalues God. It declares to him, “YOU aren’t enough--you are not sufficient to satisfy me. You, the infinite, eternal glorious King of Kings, are not enough to meet my needs as my God. I need things that will truly satisfy me like Golf, or a nicer house, or a new job, or more money, or a spouse. Those temporal, finite, corruptible sin scarred things will satisfy me. When we commit idolatry, we place God beneath a boat or a car or a sport or a television program. Do we honestly think the Ancient of Days, the holy One of Israel is unaffected by that ranking--that priority given Him by people who owe their very existence to Him (not to mention salvation). Does He simply shed a few tears of rejection, shrug His shoulders and move on, dejected. NO!! Paul says, “is WRATH is revealed against” this unrighteousness. Isaiah 42;8 says, I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” What are your idols? What do you place ahead of God? May God give us the grace to know our idols and to smash them to bits so that He can reign unchallenged on the throne of our hearts.
Page last modified on 12/31/2001
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