May 21, 2017
GOD’S WRATH, MAN’S SIN, AND OUR LACK OF EXCUSE
(4 of 44 in a series through Romans)
For the last number of years (only skipping this past year), I’ve used the fall semester to teach a theology class in Sunday school. Once every four years that theology class specifically looks at the doctrine of salvation. And one of those specific lessons in that class I use to ask and answer the question, “What about those who never hear the gospel?” And though this is a bit of a spoiler to those who wanted to be surprised in the fall of 2018 when that class rolls around again, every time I answer that the only hope man has is to hear the gospel, repent, and believe. The man on the island who has never heard the gospel needs someone to get in a boat, get to that man, and speak to him the good news that because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we can repent and believe, have forgiveness of sins, and have Christ’s perfect righteousness credited to us.
But I understand when I say that that instantly there can rise up within us a sense of feeling that this is unfair, as it is easy for us to imagine these (as we’re tempted to think of them) innocent and ignorant people dying and facing God’s judgment. But it’s at this very point that we need to get our biblical bearings. We need to remind ourselves of what is true. We need to realize, as Kevin Chen pointed us to Genesis 3 a couple of weeks ago, that sometimes something can appear as a “delight to the eyes” and desirable and yet be utterly against what God has spoken to be true and good.
Knowing that, in this Sunday school class, I always lead us to consider the text we’re looking at this morning, Romans 1:18-32, for this text teaches us that God’s wrath is against mankind, why God’s wrath is against mankind, why God’s wrath is justly against mankind, and why the gospel is so necessary and glorious. And the reason it is so important that we understand that even the man on the island is condemned apart from hearing and believing the gospel is because if it were true that those who never hear the gospel are okay and will escape God’s judgment, then our strategy as Christians should be to shut our mouths, hope knowledge of the gospel dies out in a generation or two, and long for the day when every person on the earth will be ignorant of the gospel and, therefore, not condemned.
But we know that this simply cannot be our plan. Rather, we, like Paul, must feel the obligation and eagerness to preach the gospel, knowing that it alone is the power of God to salvation, wherein, through faith, God credits us with Christ’s perfect righteousness. So, why was Paul so eager to preach the gospel and why must we be as well? Let me unfold Paul’s answer to this in steps of argument. The first of which is simply this:
God’s wrath is against everyone who isn’t trusting in Christ
This is where Paul begins. One reason he’s eager to preach the gospel, he writes, is, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (v. 18a). That is to say, every person who has not consciously placed his or her faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ is under God’s judgment and wrath. This is obviously the state of those who have heard the gospel preached to them and haven’t believed. But it is also the state of those who haven’t heard anything about Jesus, have no idea about his death and resurrection, and are clueless about the call to repent and believe. All of humanity (outside of Christ) are under God’s wrath. Now, why? Why are they under God’s wrath, and why are they justly under God’s wrath? This is answered in the second step of Paul’s argument, namely,
God’s wrath is against humanity because every person has rebelliously rejected God
Now, you may be tempted to say, “Hold on a minute.” It’s fair to say that the guy who has never heard the gospel hasn’t placed his faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, but how can we say they’ve “rebelliously rejected” God when no one’s ever spoken the gospel to them and they’ve not read one page of Scripture? Paul gives his answer in these first few verses.
He writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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 are without excuse” (vv. 18-20).
In other words, when God created the world and placed mankind in it, he created the world in such a way that it shows us that the God who created it exists, that he is powerful, and that he is wise. In other words, though God’s eternal power and divine nature are “invisible attributes” of God, as Paul says, they are “clearly perceived” in the creation. And the reason they are clearly perceived and “plain” to all people is because “God has shown it to them.” And when God wants to make himself known to his creatures, he succeeds in making himself known.
So, every person who has the ability to think knows that God exists because God has created the world in such a way that it shows that he is, that he is powerful, and that he is glorious. In the words of Psalm 19, “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” (vv. 1-4). There is simply no place on the face of the earth where man can escape the witness of creation, showing us that God is and is worthy of worship. And every man knows it.
Well, if every man knows that God exists and is powerful and glorious, then why are there people everywhere who say they don’t believe in God? Paul tells us that it’s because they suppress the truth that they know about God in their unrighteousness (v. 18).
You see, when men deny that God is or refuse to honor him and give him the thanks that they know he deserves, the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge (they know). The problem is that they are in moral rebellion against God and refuse to acknowledge him, honor him, or give him thanks. As Paul says, “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” (v. 21).
Every time an unbeliever looks at a glorious sunset, the beauty of the trees, the blooming of flowers, the complexities of animals, and on and on, which show them unquestionably that God exists and deserves their worship, they rebelliously reject that truth and suppress it in unrighteousness. And that includes the so-called man on the island. There is no one ignorant and no one innocent. Every man knows, and every man rebelliously suppresses what he knows in unrighteousness, so that, as Paul notes at the end of verse 20, “They are without excuse.” There is a settled darkness in man’s heart against God, refusing to acknowledge or worship him as he deserves.
Moreover, Paul tells us that it isn’t only that mankind rebelliously rejects what they know to be true about God, refusing to honor him and give him thanks, but also that:
Man’s rejection of God is manifested in unrighteous thinking and living
That is, it’s not only that they rejected the glory of God and refused to honor him or thank him, but they also turned to unrighteous ways of thinking and living, worshiping things that are unworthy of worship, living in ways that are unnatural and wicked.
Paul argues in verses 22-23, “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.” Man not only refuses to acknowledge and esteem God but we actually turn and honor and esteem and worship things that aren’t worthy of worship. We may well find our hearts troubled because we imagine a scenario where the man on the island is saying, “God, I know you are, and I want to know you more. I want to worship you.” But that, according to this text, is a fairy tale. That response wouldn’t happen in a million years. Rather, the man on the island is refusing to acknowledge and worship God while carving that tree next to him into an object that he’ll fall down and worship instead. He’s unable to believe. But his inability is a moral one, not a physical one. He simply hates the light and loves darkness, as does the rest of mankind.
What Paul is saying is that with unbelieving mankind, there’s this constant exchanging of something glorious, true, right, and good for something lesser. Paul notes this again in verse 25, saying, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen!”
But as I noted, the dark corruption of man’s hearts and minds not only affects their worship but their thinking and living so that they think and live unrighteously. Paul uses the exchange language one more time, nothing in verses 26-27, “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.”
Paul will reference other sins. He gives us a catalogue of unrighteous thinking and living in verses 29-31, including envy, deceit, slander, murder, being boastful, disobedient to parents, ruthlessness, etc. But I think the reason he begins with homosexual activity is because it exemplifies exchanging truth for a lie. All sin does this, but perhaps none demonstrates this as clearly as homosexual activity, wherein we clearly exchange what God intended by design for what God never intended and never designed.
Brothers and sisters, there will be many so-called Christians who tell us that God doesn’t condemn homosexual activity, but this text couldn’t be clearer. Not only is it condemned but noted as unnatural and shameless.
The fact that the world is filled with sexual immorality, homosexual activity, slander, strife, envy, murder, and on and on is the result of man’s rebellious rejection of God. Their rebellious rejection has led to their hearts and minds being darkened so that their thoughts and actions are filled with all manner of unrighteousness.
And what makes it worse is that the suppression of truth is even happening in the midst of these unrighteous practices. Paul notes in verse 32 that every persons knows “God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die” but “they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
This means that your unbelieving neighbors who aren’t married but are sexually active go to bed at night knowing what they’re doing is wrong. The homosexual couple that feels the need to walk in that gay pride parade are doing so because they’re trying to deal with the shame they feel. The girl who walks into an abortion clinic and walks out later having witnessed the ending of her baby’s life feels in her heart that what just happened was evil. Yet not only do they continue to do these things but, standing on the sidelines, they approve and encourage others who practice these very things. Is this not seen all around us?
Paul says that this is a picture of man outside of Christ. Not only does he rebelliously reject and refuse to honor the God whom he knows exists and is worthy of worship, that that rebellious rejection of God creates a settled darkness in one’s heart that leads to all manner of unrighteous thinking and living.
But this picture gets darker. And we need to see it and feel it because if we don’t, we’ll never understand and feel why Paul is so enamored with the gospel and has such urgency to preach it. We also see in this text that:
God’s wrath is presently revealed as he gives people over to their sin
Sometimes we think of God’s wrath as simply that which will happen on the day of judgment. And it will most definitely happen on the day of judgment. But Paul tells us in this text that God is already revealing a taste of his wrath now. How? We might ask, “Is he making it so that people who rebel against him always have bad things happen to them or something like that?” Actually, no. Paul’s answer is that God’s wrath is presently revealed as God gives people over to their sin.
We see it three times in the text: vv. 24, 26, and 28. Paul writes in verse 24, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” Again, Paul gives in verse 26, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions,” and then he goes on to describe the homosexual activity we read earlier. And again, he writes in verse 28, “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.”
That is, when we look around and see the proliferation and ease of access of pornographic material on our television screens, computers, and phones and all manner of sexual impurity, Paul says we’re actually seeing the wrath of God. When we see the culture not only practicing but applauding homosexual behavior, that’s actually a demonstration of God’s present wrath. When we read again about violence and murder on the streets, disobedience to parents that makes us sick, and people seemingly creating new ways to do evil, that is a manifestation not of man getting away with rejecting God but men bearing the wrath of God. That is, grace would be shown if men were brought to turn from their sin, but God is showing his wrath in giving over.
This is sobering, with many pastoral implications. I want to name a couple. First, brother or sister, as you are fighting to walk in holiness and purity, you may see around you people who are doing the very things you’re fighting so hard to avoid, and it may look and feel to you like they’re getting away with it. And so you feel that the wind is taken out of your sails in that you begin to ask, “Why am I trying to make war against sin so bad when it seems to be not bringing any negative repercussions for that person?” But what you may actually be seeing is not someone “getting away with it” but the judgment of God on that person. So, don’t be deceived. God is not mocked.
And I also want to say to anyone here who professes faith in Christ and yet is refusing to repent of sin, even comforting yourself by noting that it seems that all is well. You’re coming to church, things in your life seem fine, you don’t even feel the Lord’s disapproving hand, and conviction is absent. Do not mistake a lack of discipline for clear sin as God’s approval. It may actually be God showing that you’re being given over in judgment. So, I want to plead with you this morning to repent. Hear my voice as God’s gracious warning and disciplining hand and repent.
So, what then do we do with this information? God’s wrath is against all men (outside of Christ) who know God exists but suppress that truth and refuse to honor and worship him as God. Furthermore, their rebellious rejection of God doesn’t stop there but manifests itself in all manner of unrighteous thinking and behavior. And finally, the fact that people pursue this irrational, unrighteous behavior which they know is wicked and deserves God’s punishment is actually a manifestation of God’s wrath already in this present age, as he hands rebellious sinners over to their dishonorable ways. I mean, is the point of this text merely to sigh and long for the day when God will make things right?
Well, remember that Paul launched into this argument about God’s wrath, man’s rebellion, and the manifestation of each in this age after noting that he’s eager to preach the gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation and in it the righteousness of God is revealed by faith. This shows us that these two things arguments (vv.14-16 and vv. 18-32) are connected. How? I think they’re connected in this way:
The reason Paul is anxious to preach the gospel is because he knows that the gospel alone is the power of God to break through that settled darkness in men’s hearts and shatter the moral rebellion men have against their Creator. As hopeless as it seems that mankind is, the gospel has the power to take men’s hearts who love darkness and hate light and change their hearts. In the text we heard read earlier, Paul mentioned that he knew that God had chosen them “because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:4-5). And what was the result of these men who had once rebelliously rejected God and turned instead to search idols? Paul notes, “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (vv. 9-10). That’s what God does as his Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel.
And a second part of that eagerness relates to what God does. He credits us with Christ’s righteousness. After all, we don’t read these sins and simply think of other people, do we? Far too often we see that this has characterized us. What hope do we then have of being approved of before God? Our hope is that by faith in the crucified and risen Lord the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is counted for us so that we stand before God justified. That’s the glorious good news.
Finally, this powerful gospel not only brings us to the point of being justified before God because of the free gift of righteousness by faith but it also, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, produces a heart that wants to please God. Brothers and sisters, it may be this morning that you hear some of these unrighteous activities that God has given people over to in their rebellion and think, “But I struggle with that too. I find my heart wanting that too.” Maybe you feel the pull of lust. Maybe you feel same-sex attraction. Maybe you feel the temptation to envy strongly. Well, this side of the resurrection the Lord does not always see fit to remove our sinful desires. But he does give us the strength by faith in the gospel, the powerful working of the Holy Spirit,
and the encouragement of a local church (Heb 3:12-14) to walk in holiness, even if we find our flesh desiring wickedness. That’s what the Lord does as he saves us.
A list of sinful activities remarkably similar to what we’ve seen in our passage this morning is found in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, but listen to what Paul says there. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” That’s what the Lord does through his gospel and the Holy Spirit. May we then come to the table this morning repentant, delighting in forgiveness, and praying that the Lord would give us a deep eagerness to preach the gospel to all men, as it is the only power of God for salvation to a world that stands under his wrath. Amen.