To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Monday, September 27, 2004

The Wrath of God on Unrighteousness

Romans 1:18-25
Preached Sunday morning, September 26, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

This week we’ll begin a series of Sunday morning lessons from Romans. Of all Paul’s letters, Romans is the most oriented toward doctrine. In it, Paul clearly states the gospel and its relationship to righteousness, both for Jews and Gentiles. The letter begins with prayers for blessings to the Roman Christians (Rm 1:8-12). Soon, though, Paul turns to doctrine, and when he does he turns first of all to the sin and wrath of God. Paul says that “God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of those who in their wickedness suppress the truth” (1:18).

We learn something here about the righteous God, the God who has prepared wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. We learn something about unrighteousness, too—that unrighteousness is against truth. Sin is not just action, it’s lies, too. At one time or another that describes every one of us—wanting our own ways of unrighteousness more than God’s righteousness and truth. So Paul is talking here about all of us, and it’s not a pretty picture. This talk about unrighteousness is a picture of willful disobedience, of darkness, of lies, and of God’s wrath against such wickedness.

Paul goes on to tell us something else of great importance: “what can be known about God is plain” (1:19). God created the world, and his hand has made its mark on all creation. At the most basic level, all of creation points to a creator. The mere existence of the world is evidence for the existence of God. But creation reveals more than that. Looking at the world around us, with its goodness and beauty and order and workings—of the sun and moon, the seasons, the tides, the stages of our lives—we see evidence of a God of goodness, of order, of beauty, of power and might. As Paul told the Romans, “since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made” (1:20). God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in his creation, just as the Psalmist had said: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

Paul makes an important distinction in his words here. Notice that in Rom. 1:19 he writes, “what can be known about God is plain.” Of course there are deep mysteries about God’s nature that we will never understand on this earth. He is God and we are not, so we cannot possibly understand all the depths of his mind and actions. Part of the arrogance of our age is to think we can figure out, scientifically, everything we need to know about all we need to know. Science is good as far as it goes, of course. There is nothing wrong with using the minds God gave us to figure out all we can about his creation. We just have to remember that there are depths of God’s love, wisdom, and power beyond our understanding. God himself reminded Job of this fact when he asked him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4).

The fact that our own knowledge has limits, by the way, is why we need the Word of God. Truth that we ourselves can figure out, also known as empirical truth, will only take us so far. Some things we can know only because God reveals them to us. As we read in Ps. 19:7, “The law of the Lord is prefect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” So between those two, God’s creation and God’s revelation, we have been given all we need to know about God and life and salvation.

Why, then, is there any argument? Isn’t it obvious who God is and what we need to do as human beings? Why do so many people refuse to even recognize the truth of the gospel? Why does the world around us consider the truth of Jesus Christ to be simply a matter of religious opinion, with no more basis in fact than, say, my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla?

Paul gives us the answer in Rm. 1:18 & 21. First of all, one result of wickedness, the sinfulness in which we all share, is that it suppresses the truth. Those who have given themselves over to wickedness “became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21). So even though the truth is out there, plain to see, all of us to one degree or another have allowed our minds to be darkened by the wickedness within ourselves and all around us in the world. Before we became Christians our minds were darkened indeed. After we come to repentance, we still must struggle to overcome the darkness that presses all around us. We choose that darkness whenever we fall back into sin.

The world, as a whole, has always chosen darkness, ever since Adam and Eve sinned and were thrown out of the garden. Paul is talking about the whole world here—the overwhelming majority of human beings in all places, at all times. Elsewhere Paul calls the world “the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). It’s the world into which we are born, a world whose members make the choice of unrighteousness and lies over the truth and righteousness of God. But although human beings choose not to see, God has still made himself plain to the world.

Thus, as Paul says, they are without excuse (Rm. 1:20). Remember who he’s talking to here. He’s talking to us. We are the ones without excuse, all of us. God has revealed his truth in creation and revelation, and we have all to one degree or another chosen darkness over light. It’s not that we couldn’t understand the truth, but that we wouldn’t understand the truth.

So we’ve all messed up. And what is the most natural thing for human beings to do when we’ve messed up? Deny it, of course. That’s the most natural, automatic response to our own failures—to deny it, especially when our character is threatened. Did you ever hear the story Bill Cosby used to tell about the so-called “honesty” of children? He told about walking into the kitchen one day and catching his two-year-old daughter with her hand in the cookie jar.

“What are you doing?” Cosby demanded.

“Nothing,” the two-year-old said, poker-faced.

“Nothing?” he exclaimed, “Then what were you doing climbing up on the counter with your hand in the cookie jar?”

“I’m getting a cookie for you,” the girl said sweetly.

If you’ve had a two-year-old you know this story rings true. As soon as little boys and girls can say the word “no” they learn how to use it to deny things that might get them in trouble. As we grow older we become more sophisticated in our denials. Such behavior may be cute in toddlers. But when we are mature, it’s sin, pure and simple, the fruit of darkened hearts.

That’s why it’s so critical for us to recognize our sin, to acknowledge our guilt. Later in his letter to the Romans Paul will address this issue head-on and point out that we are each personally responsible before God for our behavior. If we don’t recognize our own responsibility in sin, we can’t possibly repent. And repentance is essentially to new life, to salvation.

To a great extent, repentance is unnatural. It’s a result of God’s grace in our lives, of his truth breaking through. Denial is much more natural. It’s what our hearts naturally fall back into—like our backsides onto a comfortable recliner. That, by the way, is why the world hates Jesus, because he is the truth, the light, and in him is no darkness at all (Jn 14:6, 1 Jn 1:5). The light of Jesus Christ exposes unrighteousness for what it is, and sinners cannot bear to see that. The world will accept Jesus if we tone him down—put him under a bushel basket, so to speak, so that he doesn’t show the world its own wickedness. But if Christians proclaim Jesus as he revealed himself, the world will hate him—and hate us for showing them the truth.

That hatred of the truth is the result of sin. Humanity traded the glory of God for shoddy counterfeits, cheap imitations our own hands had made—idols and images of men and animals. Paul tells us that because humanity made these bad choices, “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” (Rm. 1:24, 25).

Why would a loving God do such a thing? Why would he allow humanity to go further and further down a road that leads to wrath and destruction? If he loves human beings, how could he “give them up” to such an awful path?

The answer lies way back at the beginning of the human race. God made human beings out of two ingredients: dirt and his own breath (Gen. 2:7). God created us “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). An image is a representation of something: a statue is an image of a person or animal, a portrait is an image of a face, a photograph is an image of whatever is in the picture. Therefore God created us an am image of him, to represent him on earth. In a sense God created us to be co-creators with him, to share in some mysterious way his nature. Throughout history God has allowed human beings to come to him with requests, and he has shown a tendency to let us have what we ask for. As a result, as the old saying goes, we’d better be careful what we ask for, because we just might get it. Sad to say, what mankind has asked for, has chased after, for most of our time on earth, has been unrighteousness. And as Paul points out here, if people have their minds made up to chase after sin, God won’t stop us.

There are, of course, consequences from that choice, as Paul goes on to explain: impurity and dishonor, homosexuality, degraded minds and bodies. “They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rm 1:29-31). In short, they allowed themselves to be filled with he Spirit of darkness rather than the Spirit of God. Or should I say, we allowed all ourselves to be filled.

Some folks in the church will protest: “I read over that list, and I don’t do any of those bad things.” Some outside the church may go farther: “I don’t do any of those things, and I’m not even a Christian. But I’m a good person. I vote. I recycle. I exercise and eat right. I volunteer at the hospital, I give to the United Way, I love my family. I help my neighbors. I smile. I’m nice to waitresses at restaurants..” Some folks really do seem to have it all together, and it’s hard to argue when they say they’re nice people, even if they don’t acknowledge God. Of course, that’s a lie. As Paul tells us later in this letter, all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we try to get by as good folks without God, we fall for a form of the sin Paul describes in verse 25: worshiping the creature rather than the creator. In this case, it’s not idols, but themselves that people are worshiping. So no one is innocent.

For all who choose unrighteousness over truth—and that’s all of us to one degree or another—God’s wrath is reserved, for “those who do such things deserve to die” (Rm. 1:32).

Well, that’s where we stand before God—all of us, even nice folks—unrighteous, untruthful, worthy of death. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that even though we’ve made a mess of things ourselves, God has given us a way out. After laying down the bad news, with force, Paul goes on in the rest of the letter to the Romans to explain the good news, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rm. 1:16).

The good news is that even though we reject God with our sin, God does not reject us. He loves us so much that he sent his own son, Jesus, to live and work among us. Because Jesus was the truth, the world rejected him and killed him. And because Jesus died without any sin of his own, he was able to pay the price of sin (death) for all who receive him, who believe his name. For those who believe and obey, we are given the privilege of becoming children of God. And if we join ourselves to Christ, we share not only in his death to unrighteousness, but his resurrection to new life.

That new life is something we don’t deserve. We deserve death. But God’s son, who is the source of all life, took death upon himself to give us eternal life. And eternal life is not something that comes only after we die. It’s something we can enjoy now—new life with the righteousness of God. As Paul told the Ephesians, “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.” (Eph. 5:8). That’s grace. That’s good news.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


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