Sunday Evening Sermon: Romans 1:18-25 The Description of Mankind’s Need for Salvation, Part One

28 Mar

Romans 1:18-25
The Description of Mankind’s Need for Salvation, Part One

Over the last couple of weeks we have been looking at just two verses in Romans chapter one. We spent so much time on these verses because they are so pivotal to the book as a whole. We will be constantly coming back to the definition of the gospel in verses 16 and 17 as we go through Romans.
Tonight we move on to the second part of the first section of Romans. We have seen a definition of the gospel in chapter 1, verses 1-17 now tonight we will see the beginnings of the Description of Mankind’s Need for Salvation. This segment will go all the way from chapter 1, verse 18 through chapter 3, verse 20. And in this section, Paul will be making the big point that all people are in need of the salvation only the gospel offers. We will still be working through this section verse by verse, but probably at a little faster pace than the last two weeks. The next time we really hunker down and just look at a couple of verses at a time will probably not be until chapter 3, verses 21-26.
Tonight is the last time we will meet until April 15. So I hope you will come to the cantata next Sunday night and I hope you will enjoy having the evening of Easter off. So let’s give our full attention then to the first eight verses of this new section tonight.

Let’s begin by reading tonight’s section together . . .
18  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20  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. 21  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. 22  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25  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.

In my six years as a Pastor there has been one area I have learned much about that I didn’t expect: the medical field. Because I am so often with people in the hospital and surgery I’ve learned about all kinds of diseases and procedures and all kinds of stuff people do in the medical field. What I have learned most of all is that often doctors are guessing. They are trying to figure out what is going on but the body is complex. The best doctors, I have found, are the ones who keep at it until they find the problem. Some doctors just treat symptoms. But treating symptoms solves nothing in the long run. People get immediate relief and think they’re OK, only to have problems down the road. But a good doctor finds the problem, because he or she knows that a lasting cure can not come unless the real problem is identified and treated.
This is the same reason that Paul spends so much time talking about the serious problem of sin in Romans 1-3. Unless we understand our true problem, we will not look to the right solution. Unless we understand where we really stand in relation to God because of our sin, we will not trust in the gospel but will instead always be seeking to get by through self-help. We have a whole culture all around us that is treating symptoms of the soul. This is the case because we have failed to understand our true problem. This is what Paul wants to explain to us in our section tonight.

So let’s begin with verse 18 . . .
18  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Now once again Paul opens with the word “for.” He loves this word. So there is a connection here between verses 16 and 17 and verse 18. And the connection is this: in order to understand the gospel as the power of God in the revelation of His righteousness, you have to understand God’s wrath and human wickedness rightly. Again, a right understanding of the problem of sin will lead to a right understanding of the solution: the gospel. What verses 18 and following will tell us is that the world is lacking one thing: righteousness. And this is what sets it at odds with God and what puts it under condemnation. And of course, as we saw last week, the gospel is the place where the righteousness of God is revealed. God calls us to righteousness, we don’t have it, so God gives it to us through His Son. So this section we’re going to look at establishes our unrighteousness so that we will cherish the revelation of His righteousness in the gospel.
What we see first in verse 18 is that the wrath of God has been revealed. God’s wrath is His anger against sin which results in judgment. Now this is a very unpopular idea in our day. It has always been unpopular with non-believers, but now even some who call themselves Christians want to put away all talk of wrath, viewing it as something that is beneath the character of God. But in attempting to defend God many people demean Him. We would not call a judge good if the judge let guilty criminals go free without any penalty. In the same way, God’s wrath is in one way an expression of His righteousness, in that it shows that He does not overlook sin but deals with it justly. Now we have seen in verse 17 that the gospel is also an expression of His righteousness, so there must also be some way in which the gospel upholds the justice of God. This is what Paul will explain in the book of Romans. But he starts with wrath, God’s just punishment of sin. It is interesting that just as the gospel is a revealed truth, so is the wrath of God. In other words, fallen human beings will not come to understand either the gospel or the wrath of God apart from God’s revealing work. And it is interesting that two of the things people understand least about God is the true nature of the gospel and the true nature of His wrath. These are things we can’t get to through human ingenuity or effort. They must be revealed.
And notice that the phrase “is revealed” is identical to the phrase in  verse 17. There “the righteousness of God is being revealed.” Here “the wrath of God is being revealed.” In both cases it is a present tense, it is something that is happening now, not just in the future. The Bible is clear that there is a final day of wrath that will come at the end of time but there is also a present wrath of God. It is a more subtle and ingrained wrath than the final wrath that will come in the end, but it is a real wrath nevertheless.     We also notice in verse 18 that God’s wrath is revealed “from heaven.” One commentator says, this “significantly implies the majesty of an angry God, and His all-seeing eye, and the wide extent of His wrath; whatever is under heaven, and yet not under the Gospel, is under this wrath.”
So we have seen so far in verse 18 that the wrath of God is presently being revealed from heaven. Now the question the rest of this passage will answer is this: “How is the wrath of God being revealed?”
The first answer is in verse 18, pointing to the recipients of wrath. The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Now there are two things here that awaken God’s wrath: ungodliness and unrighteousness. There is a distinction here which is real and which comes out clearly in the passage. The first word in Greek is asebea, points to failure of right worship while the second word, adikia, points to failure of right living toward others and God. The order too is important, since wrong living follows wrong belief about God. Its just like the ten commandments, there is a reason that the first four focus on our relationship with God and the last six on our relationship with people. It is because if we walk rightly before God we will be more likely to live rightly before people. And I think even in the verses which follow we can see this same order play out. If you look at it, the sins Paul will detail in verses 19-25 are really sins of ungodliness, a lack of true worship and love for God and what we see as a result (and Paul clearly says this is a result) is unrighteous living among themselves and toward others in verses 26-32. So I think these two words in verse 18 open up the whole passage to us. People have failed to worship rightly and this leads to their failure to live rightly. Ultimately, this failure of right living leads to a suppression of the truth. We push down what we know is true deep into our hearts so that it never comes to the surface and never deeply affects our lives. There is a deadening of the heart when it is yielded to sin.
This is really important, because it shows us that our problem with God is not mental but moral. We suppress the truth of God not because He is so hard to understand or because the Bible is unclear. We suppress the truth of God because we love our sin. We suppress the truth of God because we prefer the illusion of our independence to a life of faith in Him. According to this passage, the most hardened atheist is ultimately not opposed to God because there is no evidence for God or because the idea of God doesn’t make sense, he or she is opposed to God because they love their sin.
Now before we leave verse 18, we have to deal with one little side issue. Is wrath God’s only response to the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men? And as we look at the book of Romans and the rest of the Bible the clear answer is “No.” In Romans 2:4-5, Paul writes, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
So God is revealing wrath but at the same time He is also expressing kindness. In Matthew 5:45 Jesus said, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Paul preached to the Gentiles in Acts 14:17, “[God] did not leave Himself without a witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
So God brings His wrath on the ungodly and unrighteous who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. And I think the word “all” here in verse 18 shows us that His wrath is on all unbelievers. But God’s kindness is also expressed to unbelievers in many ways. Even in this passage, it seems to me that God’s wrath works in the unbeliever in a subtle way, a way that goes with the grain of their own sinful choices. Over and over we see the phrase, “God gave them over.” “God gave them over.” It is almost as if Paul is saying here that the worst thing God can do to you in this age is leave you to yourself, that God demonstrates wrath right now by allowing people to live with hearts that have suppressed the knowledge of Him and walk in idolatry and darkness instead.
We spent a lot of time on verse 18 because it is foundational to the rest of the passage. We’ll go through the rest more quickly. But are there any questions or comments on verse 18 before we move on to the rest of the passage?

Let’s look now at verses 19 and 20. Here Paul is going to expand on his explanation of why the wrath of God is being revealed.
19  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20  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.
These verses tell us that the wrath of God is being revealed because people have received the knowledge of God but their suppression of this knowledge has left them without excuse. These verses along with the rest in chapter one, move from the present tense of verse 18 to past tense. This is an explanation of how we got to where we are now, where the world sits under the wrath of God. What we have in these verses is what is commonly called “general revelation.” God has revealed Himself in what He has made. Psalm 19 tells us the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies declare His handiwork. Day to day they pour forth speech. There is no speech, there is no language where His voice is not heard.  Paul makes it clear that God has revealed Himself perpetually “since the creation,” v. 20) and clearly (“clearly perceived,” v. 20). God’s attributes of power and divinity are clearly seen in what He has made. Power is seen in the majesty and diversity of the creation and divinity is seen in the order of the universe and the very fact of the existence of the universe, which points to One who is Supreme as its maker. Psalm 8 says when we consider the heavens, we think of our smallness, but also as we consider the universe God has made we should think of His bigness. What must God be like who could create by the power of His word billions upon billions of galaxies and a universe so vast as to be almost beyond our comprehension? To think that our sun with all its blazing heat and power is but one star among trillions of stars points to the amazing power of God.  So there is a sense in which every human being can know God exists, by looking around them at what God has made. This is one of the reasons why the teaching today, so common in our culture, that God was not the creator but that everything came to be through pre-existent matter and eons of time is such a destructive thing. It is an undercutting of the natural revelation of God and therefore an obstacle to people seeking God. In one way, it can be a way to suppress the truth in unrighteousness masquerading as open-minded scientific inquiry. You can see this active suppression all the time in the scientific community. There are many scientists who simply will not acknowledge the existence of God even though the evidence right in front of them points in that direction. For example, Richard Dawkins, one of the loudest voices in favor of naturalistic evolution, has written, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” And Francis Crick, of DNA fame, who says, “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” I can’t think of many better examples of suppressing the truth than these two quotes.
God’s wrath is expressed for good reason since his power and divine nature are clearly revealed through the world he has made, and yet he is rejected by all people. These verses and the whole section that follows up to chapter 3 verse 20 show us that salvation does not come through “general revelation.”  The created world leaves us with no excuse but it does not show us the way to salvation. That only comes through the special revelation of the gospel, where God’s righteousness and love are made clear. No one can complain that God has left insufficient evidence of his existence and character; and no one can complain that their condemnation is undeserved, because this passage is clear that all people have rejected the evidence of creation by suppressing the truth. One commentator says, “It is not that the truth is sought but cannot be found, but rather that, confronted with the truth (which is “clearly perceived,” v. 20), fallen humanity seeks to hinder and obstruct its influence, and is therefore “without excuse” (v. 20). The “excuse” in view is an appeal to ignorance.” So the idea is that, in the end, no one will be able to stand before God and say, “I didn’t know you existed and that’s why I lived for myself.” No human being can claim ignorance of God when facing His final wrath and all who are not saved will have to acknowledge a suppression of the truth. So the guy who says he goes out into the woods to meet God is really just heaping condemnation on himself if there is no connection in his life to the special revelation of God in Christ.

Verse 21 will expand on this theme we have just discussed . . .
21  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.
The “For” here seems to be to give us the reason for why all unbelievers are without excuse. It is assumed in verse 20 but it is spelled out plainly in verse 21. We see first here that it can be said that “they knew God” only in the sense that they knew of his existence and his attributes. There is obviously in the Bible a kind of awareness and even acknowledgement of God that can be called knowing that is not saving faith.
But in spite of this awareness of God, there is at the root of human life a failure to treasure God above all things and this links to the idea of ungodliness that is expressed in verse 18. The failure to acknowledge and honor God as God leads to futility. And futility leads to darkness. Again, notice that this is not because of a lack of information but it comes because of a lack of willingness to align our lives to the information we see all around us in creation. Here is another blow against the naturalistic view of the universe. The proponents of naturalism generally say that there is a progress in people. John Lennon, the humanist musician and member of the Beatles, wrote a song which contained the lyrics, “Every day, in every way we’re getting better and better.” And there is a certain illusion that makes this feel true because of the increase of technology. The application of scientific principles into every day life gives us the feeling of progress. We carry phones around in our pockets and we fly in airplanes and we communicate instantly around the world through the internet and we think, wow, humanity has really progressed. Maybe the humanists are right. And then we think about Lennon’s theme song, “Imagine there’s no heaven. Its easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there’s no countries. I wonder if you can. Nothing to kill or die for, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people living life at peace. You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.” Oh, how nice sounding. “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” But what happens when we give peace a chance? What happens when we remove God from the equation. Ask the people of the former Soviet Union. Living under an atheistic communistic regime, hundreds of millions of people were slaughtered. And the response from the atheists comes back, what about the Crusades? What about militant Islam? And I say, yes, all these groups did bad things. But what is clear when we look at the carnage of the world is that John Lennon was not right. The problem is not God but man. Francis Schaeffer used to always talk about in his books, “Man’s inhumanity to man.” This is the problem. We are not progressing spiritually. We are stuck in the same rut we’ve been in since Adam, foolish, darkened, idolatrous hearts.

22  Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
Verse 22 adds pride to the list of our problems. In our suppression of truth there is a certain arrogance, a claiming to be wise. Going against the grain of truth of God deep in our hearts produces a deception in which we feel wise. Maybe we feel like we’ve moved beyond the elementary childish tales of Bible story days and we’ve moved instead into the days of maturity, where we no longer believe ancient myths about God. Maybe we even look down on or feel a little sorry for those people who still believe. Yes, this is certainly the kind of attitude you see in those who reject God. There is a fundamental arrogance of “why do you not get it?” But the Bible tells us in Proverbs 1:7, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We learn as well in the Scriptures that “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” So these who think they are so wise are actually fools.
Now before we move on to verse 23 I just want to note something that I thought about for my own life. In my talking with people about the things of God, I must guard against the approach of arrogance that says, “Why do you not get it?” The reason I must guard against this is two-fold. First, those whose hearts are set against God have darkened hearts, they can not get it unless God works in them to awaken faith. Second, there was a time when I did not get it and it was only the grace of God that allowed me to get it and even now I don’t get it perfectly but see in a mirror darkly. So arrogance in discussing these issues of sin and righteousness should be far from the heart and mouth of the believer.

23  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Futile minds and darkened hearts lead to idolatry. This is very interesting because it shows us that we are made to worship. When we have suppressed the truth about God we will still turn to something to worship. In the case of those Paul is talking about it was images, of man, bird, animal and reptile. Do we worship like this? Look at our focus on money and sex and celebrity. As one pastor says, “We turn a good thing into a god thing, and that’s a bad thing.”
The comparison made here makes it clear that this exchange is not a good deal for us. We are exchanging the worship of One who is glorious and immortal, infinitely greater than us, for the worship of temporal and inferior things. You should not worship that car because it belongs to the created realm just as you do and because God is superior to any created thing He alone is worthy of worship.

24  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
Now we get our first therefore. This is a stronger word than “for,” which is kind of a connecting word. Therefore is a strong break a big connection giving the result of the idolatry of the hearts of the people. Notice that God gave them up. He didn’t cause them to sin but He did deliver them over to their sin. It gives the impression that God took His hand of common grace off of their lives to some extent. He let them go their own way. Whenever Paul says God gave them up he is pointing to the  results of idolatry, the refusal to make God the center. Practically, the creature is exalted over the Creator. So there is a way in which you can say that all sin ultimately comes from a failure to prize and praise God as the giver of every good thing. So as we give ourselves over to sin, it is clear that God also gives us over to that sin.
It is very interesting to see where this turning away from God immediately goes . . . To sex. This is not surprising. Much of the idol worship in the Old Testament was associated with sexual immorality and clearly when we give up the worship of God we will seek to go to the place where we think we can find the next greatest and highest life, within sexuality. This is why pornography and affairs and romance novels and all the titillating TV shows and movies are so popular. They are promising something great. They are promising something worthy of worship. Our sexualized culture holds out to us the promise of wonder and mystery and beauty and blessing but it is a hollow promise because it is divorced from the giver of beauty and blessing and sexuality, the Lord. So people are hurt, lives are ruined, relationships are broken and the whole thing sits before us as a shambles, as a memorial to our God-hating idolatry. There is something about sex that is supposed to be honoring. When we step outside of God’s design through lust or through acting on some sexual temptation, we dishonor our bodies and we are further down the road of darkness. And this is the great example of idolatry Paul gives, as we see in verse 25 . . .

25  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.
The context of this verse is sexuality, both from verse 24 and the verses that follow. So Paul will is pointing to this self-worship through sex as the great lie. We turn for life to one another physically and sexually rather than turning our spirits to God and in so doing we serve the creature rather than the Creator. What could be such a wonderful gift in the right context has become incredibly corrupted through our idolatry. I just don’t see how biology alone could explain the massive sexual dysfunction in our world. Only the kind of description we see in Romans 1 is truly accurate.

So, is there any hope for us? The hope lies in verses 16-17. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” In other words, because we are unrighteous, and in our unrighteousness suppress the truth, our only hope is that the righteousness God demands from us would be freely given to us, namely, God’s own righteousness, to be received by faith.

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