We have progressed in our treatment of the book of Romans to the final section of text in the letter. We will close our study of Romans with this text in a few weeks. But before we do a final wrap up of this letter, it is appropriate to spend some time reviewing the book. The charge of any preacher is to present to the church, as Paul indicates in Acts 20, the whole counsel of God. That means we are not to avoid or ignore any part of the Scripture. When we study a book verse by verse we can’t skip over parts that are more controversial or seemingly insignificant. Unless this kind of disciplined approach is taken, the church might never hear from the pulpit on issues like election or divorce or the role of women in ministry or other difficult topics and it is crucial that we know what the word has to say on those issues. Doing this kind of study also magnifies the glory of God by showing us that all his word is inspired and profitable. The strength of that approach in preaching is its comprehensiveness. We began this series on Romans in February of 1998 and we are now beginning to finish it. We have done this to be comprehensive and because we share Luther’s conviction on this book which he wrote in his commentary on it. He said, “[Romans] is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”
This verse by verse approach to the study of Scripture, with all its strengths, does however carry a potential weakness. That is, in our striving to be comprehensive and not leave anything out, we can, if we are not careful, miss the big picture. We can spend so much time on the study of the trees, we forget the forest. Every word Paul writes is inspired, but he wrote it as a unified letter, not as 100 individual sections. So, this morning and for the next few weeks, we will spend some time reviewing the big picture of Romans. We want to exchange our microscope for a telescope so we can see, not so much the intricacies of Paul’s arguments, but so we can take note of the flow of the letter and its broad message.
In order to do that, we have to do something called surveying the text. This is not verse by verse exposition, it is section by section survey. It means that, although a few pivotal verses will be highlighted, the main question will be, “what is Paul’s general message here?” To that end, this morning we will be looking at chapter 1 through chapter 3:20, the first major section of the book of Romans. Before we do that, remember back to what we said the broad, overarching theme is in the book of Romans. We said the broad theme under which everything in the book can be grouped is “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” In Romans Paul, as nowhere else in the New Testament lays out a comprehensive treatment answering the question, “what is the gospel?” Or, to put it another way, how does God bring individual sinners into relationship with himself? That is the broad question to which Romans is addressed and Paul’s answer, which is presented in detail in Romans is, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Given that, it is no surprise Paul begins his treatment of the gospel by establishing the necessity of the gospel. The first logical question to be answered in practically any endeavor is, “WHY?” Why is the gospel necessary? We see the broad answer in 1:16-17 which we said is Paul’s broad expression of the entire message of Romans in two verses. Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith and from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.” Here Paul tells us the gospel meets the greatest need of humanity before God. The gospel reveals a righteousness from God or a righteousness of God. Humanity is descended from Adam who was unrighteous because of his sin and we carry that unrighteousness. That is, we are, by nature and by behavior in rebellion against God and his righteous standard of conduct.
Because God is by nature holy and therefore must be against all unrighteousness, his holy justice brings wrath against the unrighteousness of fallen humanity. He doesn’t do this to be “mean” or “cruel.” It is simply the response of His holiness to sin. And in chapter one verses 18-32, Paul presents the wrath of God against this unrighteousness of humanity. The wrath of God against the unrighteousness of sinful humanity is what makes the gospel necessary. This is not considered very enlightened thinking in our day and even in parts of the church but it is true. Unless you believe in a holy God who pours out his wrath on unrighteousness, you will never understand or have any genuine use for the gospel as the Bible presents it. Verse 18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men…” We could break this section on God’s wrath into two major sections. The first is WHY (more specifically)God’s wrath is revealed and the second is HOW God’s wrath is revealed.
The specific reason why God’s wrath is being revealed against sinners is because of two root expressions of unrighteousness. The first is found in verse 18 where Paul says this unrighteousness we are born in, thanks to our relationship to Adam, causes us to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Paul tells us in 1:20 that God has revealed Himself through creation in such a way as to compel humanity to believe He exists and also to worship Him. Based on what God has revealed of himself through creation, every person who has ever lived is accountable to not only acknowledge his existence, but also to worship him. God, who is the infallible Judge of the universe has decreed that the evidence of his glorious creation is sufficient not only to prove his existence, but also to compel people to worship Him. The unrighteousness within fallen humanity however, causes them to ignore or wrongly interpret the evidence for God’s existence and his glorious, worship-inducing nature. The reason people claim to be atheists and the reason people fail to worship God with all their hearts is NOT a lack of compelling evidence about God. It is because they are filled with unrighteousness. This leaves people in the pitiful condition of being accountable to know and worship God, but because of their unrighteousness, they are utterly unable to do so.
The other root cause of God’s wrath or, the other root expression of unrighteousness within people is their sinful desire to worship god’s other than the true God. God designed people to be worshipping creatures so when they refuse to worship the true God, they simply find another God. They can do nothing else. G.K. Chesterton said, when we “cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.” These false gods serve people’s own selfish desires. That is Paul’s explanation of WHY God brings his wrath against this unrighteousness. One, people suppress the truth of the true God and two, they run to worship false God’s who will serve their own selfish desires. Instead of being God-centered as He desires, sinners are self-centered. Every sin anyone has ever committed can be traced back to those two roots.
Paul in chapter one continues to show the necessity of the gospel by discussing HOW God executes his wrath against sinners in their unrighteousness. Most people think of God’s wrath as being hell fire and torment when the person dies and that is the ultimate expression of the wrath of God. But Paul says the wrath of God is not only revealed after a person dies and pays the ultimate and final penalty for sin, but the wrath of God is also being revealed against unrighteousness right now in this present life. We see HOW God is revealing his wrath against this unrighteousness in verses 24, 26 and 28 of chapter one. In each verse it says that God in his wrath “gave them over” to something. This “giving over” reveals God’s wrath against unrighteousness in THIS life. When God “gives someone over” to something, he is simply allowing the person to pursue the darkness of sin and to discover the painful consequences of that sin. He turns away from that person and refuses to break the power of sin with all its destructive force in their lives. He allows them to indulge in what their unrighteous hearts want and doesn’t stop the wrecking ball of sin from repeatedly crashing into their lives.
This is a wretched thing to happen to a person because when God gives people over to their sin, his is giving them over to a world system governed by Satan. Giving a sinner, with an insatiable appetite to sin over to the author of sin who desires to kill, steal and destroy them is an expression of God’s wrath just as much as hell is. Satan is more than content to feed the sinner’s insatiable appetite for sin, knowing that every sin more and more ripens them for hell, dehumanizes them and makes them more and more like him. Perhaps the most emotionally disturbing truth about this picture of God’s wrath is that the people involved are utterly oblivious to the fact that this life for them is, spiritually speaking, hell’s dressing room. In this life, they are filling up their bellies with the fuel of sin that will ignite God’s judgment and bring them eternal incineration in the fiery cauldron of hell. This giving over of people by God in response to their unrighteousness anticipates his final outpouring of wrath in the fires of hell.
As we move from a more general understanding of what it means for God to “give someone over” to their sin to the specifics of the text, we see that God reveals his wrath in this life by giving people over to the insatiable desires within them that lead to sexual sin and perversion. We see this sexual sin “degrades the body” in verse 24. That is, it takes the human body, with its sacred purpose of being the dwelling place for God, and reduces it into being nothing more than a vehicle for the dispensing of moral filth. It reduces the human body to the level of a beast, controlled NOT by reason and divine guidance, but driven instead by glandular lusts. In verse 26-27 we see another expression of God’s wrath by giving people over to homosexual sin. In one of the most politically incorrect portions of the Scripture, Paul calls homosexual sin, “perversion” in verse 27. This is not popular today. Very few things will bring you persecution faster in our culture today than to admit to believing this truth. You’ll instantly be labeled narrow, bigoted and intolerant. You couldn’t be elected dog-catcher today if you openly admitted you believed this truth about sexual sin and homosexual sin in particular. But it is the truth of God. Paul He calls homosexual sin an “exchange of the natural for the unnatural.” These areas of sexual sin are the first two expressions of HOW God reveals his wrath. These sexual sins not only BRING the wrath of God, they are in fact, when God gives someone over to them, an EXPRESSION of God’s wrath.
A third expression is God giving people over to a “depraved mind” in verse 28. The mind is the steering wheel of a person’s life. Whatever direction the mind is turned, the whole person will be turned. When God gives people over to a depraved mind, it means he refuses to reprogram their mind with the truth. He continues to allow the lies of this world to be the primary influencers of the mind. Because the mind is the main navigational tool or compass of the person, the sinner with this depraved or “useless” mind has no way to make the kind of moral decisions that will bring them true life or joy. They are utterly lost and the compass they are using to find their way in this life has been demagnetized. And God, in his wrath against them in their unrighteousness, simply lets them run further and further away from the truth which can alone set them free from sin. In verses 29-32, Paul lists some of the sins the sinner with this depraved mind runs to in the hope of finding fulfillment.
This is a pathetic picture of the sinner under God’s wrath. He is a person with a hopelessly distorted navigational tool for living, but who, just the same, follows it with the utmost confidence as it leads him right into the gates of hell. And God’s wrath is seen when he allows them to follow this broken moral compass without offering any mid-course correction. That is the just, deserved wrath of a holy God revealed in THIS life against the unrighteousness of humanity.
As Paul moves into chapter two, he is still discussing the necessity of the gospel seen in God’s wrath against sin, but he changes his target. He moves from denouncing the godless heathen to those who are in some way religious. Some people think he is specifically addressing the Jews (and he does so by name later on in the chapter), but he is general enough here to be addressing anyone who is righteous in their own eyes—whether through religion or just a being a nice person. He moves from addressing people who “approve of those who practice” (1:32) these sins to those who, at least outwardly, condemn those who practice them. Its as if Paul has a religious outwardly moral person looking over his shoulder as he is writing 1:18-32 and is saying to Paul: “You tell em, Paul, let them have it—those godless heathen, they ARE wicked and evil—God is giving it to em and boy are they gonna get it when they see him. I’m right with you Paul, keep up the good work, Paul.” In chapter two, Paul turns and addresses THAT person in their self- righteousness.
In 2:1 Paul says, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Paul’s point in this section is that God requires true righteousness. And just because a person clucks their tongue at the sins of others, doesn’t mean that they are, in many ways, just as wicked as the heathen are. Paul tells these self righteous people, “You do the same things they do—you just try to wallpaper it over with your religious expressions.” God will judge anyone, his wrath will rest on anyone, religious or irreligious, who does not do what the law requires. He says in 2:13, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” In this section he also strips away any false security the Jews may have because they possess the law and circumcision. What God requires is the righteousness brought about through an internal change of heart, not an external expression of piety. God requires, according to verse 29, a “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit” not an external expression of religion. This is the righteousness God requires and it is not something supplied by being religious or nice. God’s wrath falls on the religious person—the Jew, the Baptist, who has not been transformed by the power of the gospel, as much as his wrath comes to the godless heathen in the jungle. He shows no partiality in the holy dispensing of his wrath in this life and the next.
Here, Paul in some ways levels the differences between the Jew and the Gentile. So, in the first eight verses of chapter three, he does note that, though the Jews are no better than the Gentiles essentially, they do occupy a special place in salvation history because of God’s work with them. But in verse nine, he again reminds them that both Jew and Gentile are equally taken captive to the power of sin and BOTH need the gospel equally. Verse nine says, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” In verse ten, he makes the over-arching general charge, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” On their own, no one can stand in God’s presence and be anything but utterly condemned. Then in verses 11-18, Paul delineates the extent and the depth of the unrighteousness of humanity. This section is like a powerful exclamation point to this section of Romans where Paul labors to show the necessity of the gospel by highlighting the unrighteousness of sinful humanity.
Paul uses several quotations from the Old Testament to describe the profound effects of sin on the human heart. He says in verse 10, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands.” No sinner understands the basic question of life which is “why am I here?” No sinner gets that, much less lives for God and his glory. They are completely blinded to the biggest issue of life. Paul says the power of sin has corrupted the sinner so thoroughly, they literally stink from the decay of their hearts. Paul says, “Their throat is an open grave.” Their hearts are full of rottenness and corruption which emanates out of their throats, making their breath smell to God like a grave filled with rotting corpses. Their throats and mouths are like chimneys that carry the rotten fumes from them and from their mouths they spew out (verse 14,) “cursing and bitterness.” They are so full of sin, they run headlong into self destructive lifestyles. Verse 16, “Destruction and misery are in their paths.” And the only thing that can rescue them, the fear of God, which turns people from evil, is tragically absent in their lives. Verse eighteen says, “There is no fear of God in their eyes.” Finally, some turn to the law of God for rescue from unrighteousness, but there is no relief there because the law is not intended to solve the problem of unrighteousness, the law is instead intended to draw attention to it and show us our unrighteousness.
That’s an overview of Paul’s treatment where he shows the necessity of the gospel. The sinner’s chief need is the righteousness of God—only that will satisfy a holy God. Only that will bring a person into relationship with God. But, as Paul labors to show, the sinner is as far away from the righteousness of God as can be. In his unrighteousness, he pushes God away, he has an insatiable appetite for sin and the wrath of God allows him to travel further and further down the pathway of hell. There is absolutely, utterly, totally NOTHING in sinful humanity that can make them righteous and therefore acceptable to God. Apart from some answer God can alone provide, there is nothing but hopelessness and hell for the sinner. That is the message of Romans 1-3:20. This section is not simply valuable in showing us why sinners need the gospel, however.
These truths about God’s wrath, as politically incorrect, as tragically neglected as they are in the church today, are absolutely crucial for us to know backwards and forwards if we want to have a healthy relationship with God. And one reason is because, unless we have a strong understanding of the sin from which we have been saved, we wont love God very much. Jesus lays down this principle in Luke seven when He contrasts Simon the Pharisee with a prostitute who was kissing his feet. He says of the woman, “…her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little,” Jesus lays down as a principle here that there is a direct correlation between the amount of sin you have been forgiven with the amount of love you have for Him. What that means is this; if we want to love God as the Scripture commands, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength,—if we want to love him that much, then we MUST have an understanding of the extent and depths of the sin you have been forgiven. And there is no better place in all of Scripture to show us that than Romans 1-3:20. We must spend significant periods of time meditating on the blessing of being plucked from the pathway of hell and the wrath of God in this life and the next, if we want to love God as we should.
This failure to understand our depravity and the tremendous debt we owe to God that we can never repay is one reason for so much superficiality in the church today. Our worship is tepid and external, not white hot and heartfelt, because we don’t love God very much because we don’t think deeply about the depths of our sin and what we have been saved from. Evangelism is often done, not so much with the motivation of plucking God-hating sinners from the path of hell as it to offer them a more fulfilled life. If this section of Romans teaches us anything, it teaches us our greatest need is not personal fulfillment and satisfaction, it is the forgiveness of our wretched, wrath-bringing sin because we are by nature creatures of wrath. And unless people hear and accept the gospel, God’s only answer to the problem of unrighteousness, God’s wrath rests upon them in this life and the next, no exceptions. When we give our salvation testimonies, do we begin with the fact that we were sinners against a holy God, saturated with unrighteousness? “And He saw me in my rebellion, in my unrighteousness and he, in his great mercy, with absolutely no help, no contribution from me, He saved me, He rescued me, He delivered me from my horrible sin!” When was the last time you heard a testimony of salvation that sounded like that? The fact that we don’t hear that very often shows how badly the church misunderstands the gospel as it is laid out in the New Testament.
The truth of our unrighteousness and the wrath of God which follows it is the salt God puts on our tongues to make us thirsty for the forgiveness found only in the gospel. How can we truly understand, much less appreciate the gospel if we don’t understand the depths of our sin which makes the gospel so necessary? How can we understand, much less appreciate the cross, the blood of Jesus, the Father who sends His only Son to die for rebel sinners if we don’t meditate on what made all of that unnecessary—our gross unrighteousness before a holy, just God who must bring wrath on all sin? Finally, if you are here today and have never been met with the reality of your sin, may the Holy Spirit show it to you this day—your helplessness, your hopelessness, your depravity. Not for the purpose of condemning you, but of enabling you to feel the great need you have for the gospel. This understanding and grieving over sin is an indispensable part of what it is to saved. May God give us the grace to meditate on these truths so the gospel can be for us “the power of God for salvation.”
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
(c) 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 - All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your minstry.