A young man walked into a jewelry store to shop for an engagement ring. Standing nervously at the counter, he peered through the glass top at a tray of beautiful gems. The salesman brought out some of his finer diamonds and held each precious jewel up to the light. The diamonds were quality stones, but the young man wasn’t impressed. None of them caught his eye. Realizing he needed a new approach, the salesman pulled a black velvet pad out of the drawer and placed it on the counter. Using his tweezers, he delicately picked up one of his choicest stones and laid it on the black backdrop. As he did so, all the light in the room seemed to pour through the stone causing it to shine as it had never shone before. The man was dazzled. He had seen this very diamond moments earlier, but not like this. All the beauty of this precious stone was now dramatically enhanced and clearly showcased for him to behold. Noting his approval to the salesman the man said that this was the diamond he wanted to purchase.
What changed the man’s view of the diamond? Why did the costly gem, which only moments before had appeared so unimpressive, now sparkle like the stars above on a moonless night? In the jewelry business, the dark background makes all the difference. When placed on a glass counter, the black velvet causes the light overhead to radiate brilliantly through the stone, revealing its true beauty and causing it to sparkle and shine more brightly. Remove the black backdrop, and it’s difficult to see the diamond’s splendor. It’s the darkness that causes the stone to burst forth with dazzling light. The same principle can be applied to the spiritual realm. In order to fully appreciate God’s love, we must examine it against the black backdrop of His wrath. The blackness of God’s wrath showcases the flawless gem of His great love toward us. But remove the black backdrop of His wrath, and our appreciation of the brilliance of His amazing love fades.
The gem of Romans is the gospel—the good news. However, before we can fully understand and appreciate the good news we must understand the bad news that Paul presents in 1:18-3:20. The theme of this section is that everybody everywhere is condemned before God. Therefore, Paul makes his greatest attempt to get us lost in our sin so that we can then be found. He wants us to emerge from this section with a feeling of utter desperation. Not a little guilt, but absolute desperation! Have you ever heard the expression, “Hunger is the best cook?” That’s a true statement, isn’t it? Well, my purpose in the next five sermons will be to get you famished—famished for God’s love. In 1:18-32, Paul uses a broad brush to paint the portrait of human wickedness. This text teaches: When we sin God says, “Have it your way.” Yes, that’s right; Burger King® plagiarized God in their slogan. In this section, Paul discloses two sobering realities.
- We Have Willfully And Foolishly Rejected God (1:18-23)
Paul demonstrates that when we reject God as Creator we turn to idolatry and are ultimately without excuse. In 1:18, Paul issues a summary statement for 1:18-32, and perhaps for all of 1:18-3:20: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Paul begins his discussion with “the wrath of God.” Obviously, this is not a popular concept. Yet, since the Bible doesn’t shy away from this topic neither must we. Simply put, God’s wrath is His holy hatred of sin. But God’s wrath is very different from our wrath. God doesn’t fly off the handle and “go off” on people. He simply reacts to sin. Have you ever been allergic?
Similarly, the Bible teaches that God is so holy that He naturally and violently reacts to sin. He can’t help Himself; He’s just plain allergic to sin! Hence, one of the greatest truths we can come to grips with is how much God hates sin. When you and I understand the utter wickedness of sin, we will appreciate God’s wrath.
Paul states that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. This is particularly evident in those who continually “suppress [or hold down the truth.” Please note the phrase “the truth.” God believes in absolute truth; He objects to relative truth. He states that people suppress what they know to be true. In this context, the truth is that there is a God. The German philosopher Frederick Nichtze (1844-1900) wrote, “If you could prove God to me, I’d believe Him all the less.” This is what it means to suppress the truth. We must pray for our unsaved loved ones to have soft hearts that are responsive to spiritual truth. We must also pray that we don’t harden our hearts and suppress God’s truth in our lives.
In 1:19-20 Paul now explains the reason that God’s wrath is revealed: “… because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” One way God reveals Himself is through His creation.
Unfortunately, Paul emphasizes that even though all people know God as Creator, they reject Him. The term “known” (gnostos) means “capable of being known, intelligible.” Paul uses the noun “evident” (phaneros) and the verb “to make evident” (phaneroo) to emphasize that God has revealed Himself. These words mean “evident so as to be readily known.” So basically God says, “They know. I know they know, and they know they know.” Paul even states that this knowledge has been evident “since the creation of the world” (1:20a). The invisible God is visible through His creation. God’s “eternal power” is evidenced by the fact of His creation. God’s “divine nature” is evidenced by the fact that His creation is a created order, and not random chaos. This implies that God has a character, which gives order and purpose to creation. Please notice that Paul states that the truth of God in nature has been “clearly seen, being understood through what has been made” (1:20b).
The two verbs in this verse are very important. “Clearly seen” (kathorao) means that everyone has seen something of God’s handiwork in the world. “Understood” (noeo) is even stronger. It means that the revelation of God in nature strikes the heart of every man. Understand that Paul isn’t suggesting that nature contains a revelation about God which every man may see. That’s not strong enough. Paul is saying that every man actually sees the revelation and every man actually understands it to some degree. This is why Paul can say in 1:20b that man is “without excuse.”
Have you ever been to Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota? Mount Rushmore is a huge sculpture of the heads of four Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt). Each head is sixty feet high! Now suppose you visited this mountain for the very first time and no one told you anything about how the heads were formed. What would you think?
(A) You would think that the heads were formed by chance. The sculpture somehow just happened.
(B) You would think that all the forces of nature (wind, rain, sleet, snow, etc.) had their effect upon this mountain for thousands and thousands of years until finally the rocks were accidentally shaped in just the right way.
(C) You would realize that intelligent men must have formed and carved out such a massive sculpture. By simply looking at Mount Rushmore you could learn certain things about the men who formed and carved it (even though you had never seen or met these men).
(1) These men must have had intelligence to be able to plan and design such a monument.
(2) These men must have had wisdom to be able to carry out such a great project. Indeed, it took more than six years to complete.
(3) These men must have had power to be able to carve into hard granite (using dynamite, etc.).
(4) These men must have had skill to be able to transform a rugged cliff into an artistic masterpiece. In the same way, by simply looking at creation, we can learn many things about the Creator. He is a God of power, wisdom, order, and beauty. Moreover, we are able to conclude that this Supreme Being deserves our worship and obedience. These facts explain why in every culture there is some belief in a Supreme Being. It is obvious that there is a God.
No matter how you ponder creation, God is knowable and evident. When I was growing up I was a big sports fan. I collected the autographs of famous athletes. These autographs represented the value of the athletes. Likewise, all of creation bears God’s autograph. When God wants to show off His glory and power, He points to creation. The design of creation points to the Master Designer—God.
If time permitted, I’d love to share with you about the complexity of the human cell, the intricacies of the human eye, and the immensity of the sun. I could spend hours talking about God’s creative genius.
Tragically, when we reject God we inevitably worship a substitute. This is called idolatry. In 1:21-23, Paul testifies: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor [glorify] Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” Paul asserts that humankind does know God (1:21). His power and glory are apparent and irrefutable. How do we respond to this revelation? With a failure to honor God and give Him thanks. Failing to glorify God is the root sin. We were created to glorify God. It is our ultimate mission in life. Thanksgiving is also central to the worship of God. Martin Luther (1483-1546) claimed that ingratitude is the root of all evil. How true! Even as a believer, I am guilty of ingratitude. You are too. How often have we refused to acknowledge God for the great God He is? How many times have we failed to give thanks? Who are some people in your life that you can be thankful for? What are some possessions in your life that you can be grateful for? Have you expressed thanks to God. When we refuse to give God thanks there are mental and moral consequences.
The mental consequence is that men “became futile in their speculations.” The moral consequence was that their hearts were “darkened.” Paul also tells us that the appearance of intellectualism is in reality a sham (1:22-23). The supposed wisdom is, in reality, foolishness. This reflects the wisdom of Psalm 14:1a: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Tragically, God has been “exchanged.” We’ve taken Him back like a Christmas present that doesn’t fit and we’ve said, “We want our money back.” This is the great insanity of idolatry.
It’s possible that you, too, are guilty of idolatry and you don’t even realize it.
(1) Is there an object, person, or activity in your life that’s a substitute for God?
(2) Are your affections centered on something God has created rather than God the Creator?
(3) Does this activity prevent or replace your love for God?
(4) Is there something you worship more than God? If you respond honestly to these questions, you may have recognized the idolatry that exists within you. Commit yourself right now to forsake idolatry. Begin this process by exposing your idol to another person. Request prayer and press on in the worship of God.
[When humankind rejects God’s revelation, God responds in a very surprising way.]
- God Deliberately Gives Us What We Want (1:24-32)
When we refuse to glorify God and give Him thanks, God gives us over to our sin. In other words, the penalty for sin is more sin. The first result of idolatry is found in 1:24-27: God gives us over to sexual sin. Paul writes, “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” Please notice that it was God who gave us over (see 1:24, 26, 28). When we reject God, He gives us over to sexual immorality. Although many folks think this is a dream come true—this dream leads to death (cf. Jas 1:14-15).
Once the “passing pleasures of sin” (Heb 11:25) are over there is loneliness, emptiness, guilt, and many other potential emotional, mental, and physical consequences. If you’re committing sexual immorality, stop in your tracks. Repent of your sin and return to a lifestyle of purity. While God is a God of grace, He’s also a God of wrath. Consequently, He will exercise His present tense wrath (cf. 1:18) in an attempt to get us sick of ourselves. Even this is an expression of His love.
Unfortunately, the tendency of humankind is to ignore God’s love and to play once again by their rules. Verse 25 serves as a parenthetical statement to tie 1:24 and 26-27 back to the idolatry of 1:21-23.
In 1:25, the response of humankind is to exalt the creature over God. Paul writes, “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” This verse states that man “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” If you have a center column or side column reference Bible, you can see that the phrase “a lie” is literally translated “the lie.”
This begs the question: “What lie is Paul referring to?” I believe the lie that Paul has in mind is the first lie—the mother of all lies that began in the garden. The lie is godship, that we are the masters of our fate, the captain of our souls. This is a satanic deception straight out of hell. I believe that the worst time in our history was the period of “Higher Criticism of the Bible” (1800s to the present) where man stood over the Scriptures and decided what parts were true and what parts were false. People slowly lost confidence that you could trust God’s Word. Consequently, the creature became exalted over the Creator. There was role reversal of the most demonic sort. When this happened it can be legitimately said that man “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Once God is brought down to creature level, the creature is then worshipped above God. Yet, even in the midst of penning this atrocious account, Paul bursts out into praise over God the Creator: “who is blessed forever. Amen.” What an example for you and me! When we read the Word there should be occasions when we break out into praise.
In 1:26-27 we come to the hot topic of homosexuality. Honestly, I’m not interested in what various denominations, pastors, and scholars say about homosexuality. I’m also not interested in how particular politicians view homosexuality. My chief concern is: What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Let’s read these verses carefully. “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.”
Paul’s view of homosexuality seems rather clear. He refers to the practice of homosexuality as “degrading,” “unnatural,” and “indecent,” and “error.” Whether our country likes it or not, whether we like it or not, the Bible considers homosexuality sin. It’s not an alternative lifestyle. God calls it sin throughout the Bible, and so must we. It’s not a hate crime to say so; it would be a biblical crime to not say so. If we’re to be Christ followers we must tow this line. But we must do so with compassion and sensitivity. We must be careful to not suggest that the sin of homosexuality is worse than any other sin. Homosexuality is only one of many unclean or dishonoring sexual practices. Many Christians can be downright brutal. We go off on this sin because it’s one that many of us don’t struggle with.
However, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul lumps the homosexual and the coveter together. Have you ever wanted something that doesn’t belong to you? If so, then you are covetous, and so am I. In God’s sight, we’re no worse or better than the homosexual. We must avoid being judgmental (see Rom 2:1-11). Instead, we ought to spend more time striving against our own sin rather than pointing the finger at someone else’s sin. We must seek to share Christ with homosexuals and lesbians and let the Holy Spirit work His change in their lives.
Additionally, fathers, don’t ever shy away from expressing your love to your boys. Lavish love on your boys both physically and verbally. Don’t be afraid to hug and kiss them. Always tell them how wonderful they are and how much you love them. This is one of the greatest ways that I know to ensure that your boys have healthy, God-honoring relationships with other men. Obviously, this principle applies to mothers and daughters as well. But it’s especially critical between fathers and sons because statistically, men are three times more prone to adopt a homosexual lifestyle than women.
As we wrap up these verses, it is worth noting that Paul does not specify what the “penalty” received is. Though many Christians like to infer from this that the current AIDS epidemic (or more recent outbreak of deadly staph infections among homosexual men), this is uncertain. Paul merely notes that the penalty of their delusion is received “in their own persons” (en heautois). I believe he is referring to the gnawing, unsatisfied lust itself, along with the dreadful physical and moral consequences of sexual promiscuity.
In either case, the consequences are severe. When we sin God says, “Have it your way.” Beware!
The second result of idolatry is found in 1:28-32: God gives us over to every manner of sin. In 1:28, Paul writes, “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.” Previously, Paul has said that God is “known,” “evident,” “clearly seen,” and “understood” (1:19-20). Yet, humankind refuses to even “acknowledge” (echo: “to have, hold”) God any longer. Their response is to dismiss God altogether. The result is dreadful: utter mental and moral darkness. This leads to a vice list of twenty-one different sins in 1:29-31. This is the most comprehensive list of sins in the entire New Testament. As you look through this vice list, please notice that many of these sins are fairly acceptable in the Christian community. Sins like greed, envy, strife, gossip, slander, arrogance, and my personal favorite—disobedience to parents— are common traits of many Christians and are found in every church. Yet Paul says that these behaviors are sin, and he cleverly links these acts with homosexuality, murder, idolatry, and every form of wickedness. This should change the way that we view sin. We are without excuse. Paul has leveled the playing field. This should humble us all and motivate us to achieve a new standard of holiness. We are to be holy as He is holy (cf. 1 Pet 1:15-16).
Paul concludes this passage by hitting way too close to home. In 1:32 he writes, “Although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” Paul concludes by echoing a form of the verb “know” (epiginosko) from 1:19 and 21. Our tendency to rebel against the knowledge of God has been evident throughout this passage (1:18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 28).
Even though we know the truth, we tend to rebel against it. This is where we are at as a nation right now. As a result, God’s wrath is being revealed all over the place. We have idols everywhere we look. We’re trying to legalize homosexual marriage. Our TV talk show hosts are trotting out the most perverted guests they can find and the audience claps and roars at what they’re doing. The New English Bible captures the forcefulness of Paul’s idea when it translates the phrase as “they actually applaud such practices.” This is the wrath of God. God has backed off and has allowed the world to go stark raving mad! George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the famous playwright and theater critic, said it well, “Earth is the place other planets send their insane.” Of course, when God gives people over and puts into motion His wrath, it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House or who’s on the city council or who’s on the school board. It’s irrelevant because when the wrath of God is your problem, the goodness of God is your only solution.
As we close, I want to take us back to 1:18. Please notice the first word of this passage. The word “for” (gar) is important because it links 1:18 and following to 1:16-17 and gives a reason for it. The gospel is necessary because there is such a thing as the wrath of God and only the gospel brings deliverance from His wrath. I also would like to draw your attention back to the word translated “gave over” (paradidomi). As I stated earlier, the verb “gave over” is used three times (1:24, 26, 28). As I studied this word, I found something interesting. This word isn’t found again until 4:25 where Jesus Christ is “given over” or “delivered” for our sins. That’s good news! We have a future hope. Why? Because as Martin Luther said, “God is not hostile to sinners, but only to unbelievers.” Will you believe the gospel? Will you receive Jesus Christ’s provision for your sin today?