The Human Condition (Part 1) – Romans 1:18-32

YouTube video sermon

Romans 1:18-32

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 1.  This is our third (and final) week in this opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  And so far, we’ve considered Paul’s reasons for writing; he wanted to clarify the gospel, connect the church, and confirm God’s righteousness.  Last week we considered Paul’s call, his concern, and his commitment.  Hopefully you thought about your own calling.  If you consider yourself a Christian, if you’ve confessed Jesus as the Lord of your life, then you have a calling to be a servant of Christ, to be used for His purposes.

In recent weeks, some of you have discovered your calling.  There are families and individuals in our community that are struggling with all sorts of issues, and you’ve found yourself being in a place to speak into their lives.  You’re showing great concern for them – and not just for their physical wellbeing, but for their spiritual wellbeing too.  Why?  What compels us to do that?  Paul says that it’s the Good New of Jesus Christ – it’s His love, His forgiveness, His righteousness – that has so transformed us that we should desire to share it with others.

So, that’s how Paul begins.  And we think, “Great, let’s get our minds right, let’s open our hearts, let’s study Romans.”  And from that point, Paul goes dark and he goes dark pretty quickly.  In fact, from Romans 1:18-3:20, the only thing that Paul talks about is our sinful, broken, evil, human condition.  And frankly, that’s diametrically opposed to our normal evangelistic technique.  Most of our witnessing and sharing the gospel (assuming we’re doing that) avoids the topic of God’s judgment.

We talk about God’s love, and we talk about happiness, and we talk about abundant living, and we talk about forgiveness, and we talk about joy, and we talk about peace.  And we offer people all of those things, and we ask them if they wouldn’t like to have all of those things.  But we rarely talk about the wrath of God.  And I’m not just pointing the finger at you.  I’m guilty of avoiding the topic too.  We’re in such a hurry to win friends and impress people that sometimes we bypass the starting point.  And yet, Paul says that’s the beginning of the gospel and the proper place from which to introduce the grace of God.

The other day, curiosity got the better of me and so I googled the phrase “pure evil” and this is what I got:

  • a board game,
  • an arcade game,
  • a song,
  • a book,
  • a clothing line,
  • a music album,
  • a sound system company,
  • a movie, and
  • an art gallery.

All of the people that made those things chose the description “pure evil” as the way in which they would market their product.  So, we live in a world that’s jacked up and messed up and twisted and perverted and downright broken and sinful.  But that’s not all.  Not only is that what our world looks like, but we celebrate all of that brokenness.

And so, Paul introduce us to the fact that God reveals His righteousness to us through Jesus Christ (v. 17), and then immediately Paul turns and introduces us to the fact that God also reveals His wrath against ungodliness and unrighteousness.

Revelation of the Wrath of God

Listen to how Paul begins, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  Now, I want us to camp out on verse 18 for a moment, because I suspect that we need some help understanding and appreciating God’s anger, God’s wrath.

See, most of the time, when you talk about God being a God of wrath, people get disturbed.  They don’t understand how God can be a God of anger, and a God of wrath, and a God of fury, and a God of terror.  And that’s because, quite frankly, our churches and our pulpits don’t preach a balanced view of God.  We love to hear sermons about God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness.  In fact, for some ministers, that’s the ONLY preaching they do.  So, it’s not hard to see why we get a little disturbed when we read or hear someone talking about God’s wrath, because we’ve been conditioned to think that’s not who God is.

Listen, I’m getting ready to say something that’s going to hit some of you like a ton of bricks.  If God did not have wrath, and God did not have anger, then He would not be God.  Now, the reason that doesn’t sit well with us is because we hear it and picture it through human eyes/ears.  J.I. Packer, in his book Knowing God, would summarize it this way: “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is.  It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil.”

God is perfect in love, on the one hand, and He is equally perfect in judgment, on the other hand.  Just as totally as He loves, so totally does He hate.  The writer of Hebrews, speaking of Jesus, says, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (1:9).  And there is that perfect balance in the nature of God.  Charles Cranfield, a British theologian and minister who served as a chaplain during WWII and died at the age of 99 back in 2015, put it like this: “His wrath is not something which is inconsistent with His love: on the contrary, it’s an expression of His love.  It’s precisely because He loves us truly and seriously and faithfully that He is angry with us in our sinfulness.”

So, if you’re looking for a definition of God’s wrath, of God’s judgment, of God’s anger and fury, here it is: God’s wrath is His love in action against sin.  God must act justly and judge sin, otherwise God would not be God.  If sin is anything that misses the mark of God’s standard of perfection, which is the Bible’s definition of sin.  If sin is anything that’s said, thought, or done outside of the perfect will of God, and God doesn’t respond to that in anger, wrath, and judgment, then God is not God.

Maybe you’ve heard the name Jonathan Edwards.  Maybe you know he preached a famous sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God back in 1741, but chances are pretty good that you’ve never read it.  So, listen to this brief excerpt: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string; and justice directs the bow to your heart, and strains at the bow: and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”

You and I may not like to hear that kind of preaching, but that’s what makes the Gospel such good news!  The judgment and anger that my sin stirred up in God…  The judgment and anger that your sin stirred up…  The wrath that was due to me because of my sin…  The wrath that was yours because of your sin was poured out on the precious Son of God at the cross of Calvary.  And if you are not under the blood of Jesus today, then you are fully exposed and in full view of God’s wrath.

So, Paul begins by directing our attention to God’s wrath.  But then he turns and provides several reasons for it.

Reasons for the Wrath of God

Starting again with verse 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” 

Paul begins by saying that God’s wrath is revealed against ungodliness and unrighteousness, and to most of us those sound like the same things.  In reality, what Paul is doing here is using a grammatical construction that we find from time to time throughout the Bible called a hendiadys, which is a “twofer.”  It’s where two words that basically mean the same thing are actually emphasizing something else, thus the “two for one” idea.

So, what Paul is saying here is that God is furious with a particular sin, which when we examine it is seen to be both ungodly (irreverent) and unrighteous (immoral).  And the sin that Paul says God is most angry about is the suppression of the truth, the forceful restraint of the truth, the pressing down and holding back of truth, which is committed by every human being.  Make no mistake about it, friends; this is a universal sin.  And what Paul is saying is that every person takes the truth of God and presses it down into their subconscious in order to get it out of their mind.

But we’re still left with the question: What “truth” is being suppressed?  And that’s what Paul answers in the following verses.  Look at verses 19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they [i.e. mankind] are without excuse.”   The truth that we’re all guilty of suppressing is the existence of God as He’s revealed to us in/by the created world.  That’s what we call general revelation.  God, as He’s revealed in the created world.

During this period of quarantine, I’ve been using a little prayer book by pastor, author and seminary professor, Dr. Kenneth Boa called Handbook to Prayer: Praying Scriptures back to God.  Listen to how Dr. Boa describes these verses:

“In the most elementary of human terms, this is not a case of a father who chastens his teenager for something that he never even told him to do.  Rather, this is a case of a teenager leaving school, and all the way home seeing billboards, street signs, flashing marquees, signs on buses, bumper stickers, airplanes pulling message banners “Billy, don’t forget to set the garbage out for the trash truck!”  Then, when he gets home, there are phone messages, e-mail messages, and television commercials reminding him of the same thing.  That’s how plainly God has made Himself known to you and me.”

Psalm 19:1-4 comes to mind: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.  Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

There is no excuse.  Look at verses 21-23, “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.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”  Suppressing the truth of God leads to idolatry.  All of us have looked up to the heavens and have recognized that there’s Someone out there who’s responsible for us being here.  And there’s this inbuilt sense of what this cosmic governor, this Lord wants from us, and yet we all say, “I’d rather go another way.”

We’ve looked at this all-loving, all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful Maker and said, “No thanks, I’d rather give myself to something or someone else instead.”  Idolatry breeds immorality.  Replace God and reap the consequences.  And we see these consequences everywhere.  We see them in the daily news.  We see them in our own homes.  We see them in the mirror.

Please don’t be fooled.  Idolatry is not some ancient problem.  Listen, I remember getting an e-mail not too long ago and the subject line said: You Are The Smartest Man Alive (ha).  And I left it in my inbox for a while.  I told myself that I thought it was funny, which I did, but truth be told I’d like for that to be true.  You know what I mean?  On the other hand, if I got an e-mail and the subject line said: You Are An Idol Worshipper (delete).  That’s not how I like to think about myself.  I don’t bow the knee to some strange statue.

But I am an idolater…  If idolatry means that you give some thing that you should give to God to something or somebody else.  If it means that you allow anyone or anything (and it’s usually good things) to take what should be the rightful place of God in your life.  Anything we serve…  Anything we love…  Anything we give our time and energy to…  Anything we’ll sweat for, bleed for, die for, kill for, could be an idol.

G.K. Chesterton said, “When you stop worshipping God, you’re not worshipping nothing.  You’ll worship anything.”  John Calvin said that our hearts are like idol factories.  I like to think of it like a squeaky cart at the grocery store.  You ever had one of these?  You get a cart and you’re making your way through the store and it’s got a bent wheel.  You know what I’m talking about?  Like, no matter what you do the thing just bends and curves to the left.  Like, you’re running into the shelves and babies (well maybe not babies), but kids and elderly folks – “I’m sorry.  I’m trying to keep it straight, but it’s just not working.”  And no matter what you do that cart just curves in one direction.  That’s our hearts.  We’re bent toward idolatry.  We’re curved away from God, because we’ve looked at Him and said, “I’d kind of like to do things on my own.”  So now we find ourselves sick with this disease and we’re consistently pulled away from God.

And that finally leads us to the results of God’s wrath.

Results of the Wrath of God

Let’s quickly read verses 24-32:

Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

 For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions.  For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

 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.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  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.

Wheew…  Now, there’s a lot that could be said and probably should be said about these verses, but for the sake of the time we have remaining let me just offer a few thoughts.  And I’m going to work backwards from verse 32 back up to verse 24.

I don’t know about you, but I like the sin lists in the Bible that I can look through and say, “Can’t find me there – all you bad people doing your bad things.”  But the thing about this list is it’s thorough.  That’s the first result of God’s wrath.  It’s thorough.  What Paul is saying is this: people celebrate evil because people do evil.  But it still begs the question: Why?  Why do people do these things?  Why do people act in such destructive ways?  Why do we?  Why do I?  Why do you?  Why do we do things that we know are going to hurt ourselves and other people?

And that leads to the second thing I want us to notice in these concluding verses.  Look back at the end of verse 28, “…God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”  The second result of God’s wrath is that people’s minds don’t work.  We don’t think well, and that’s why we don’t live well.  Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that sin is smart and sophisticated.  But that’s backwards.  Sin doesn’t make us smarter.  Sin makes us dumber.  That’s what verses 21 and 22 say, “…they became futile in their thinking…  Claiming to be wise, they became fools…”

And the third and final result of God’s wrath is that He gives us over to our hearts desire.  Now you might think that’s a good thing: “Hey, we finally get what we want.”  But just remember, this all started with suppression of the truth of God.  And when God doesn’t have a place at the table with the thoughts of our minds or the desires of our hearts, then the result is only evil all the time.  Again, verse 22 supports this, “…their foolish hearts were darkened…”

Maybe you remember Jesus speaking to the crowd and His disciples in Mark 7.  He was talking to them about the things that defile a person.  And the Pharisees and the people were under the impression that one’s level of defilement was associated with what they ate, what they consumed, what went into them.  But Jesus corrected that way of thinking and said, “‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’  And He said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”

The results of God’s wrath are that our minds don’t work and we’re given over to our heart’s desires, which leads to all kinds of evil.  Ultimately, we exchange the truth of God for a lie.  A difficult message, indeed, yet, that’s where the gospel begins.  But remember, there’s Good News, and the good news is Christ has taken the full fury of God’s wrath if you’ll accept His gracious substitution for you.