Text: Rom. 1:18-32 (Mk. 7:1-23)
Introduction: On Memorial Day, we remember people who fought to preserve our freedom. We should also consider the kind of culture we have created in the name of freedom.
Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration—February 15, 2009
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
This is the Word of the Lord
We’re in a series that’s tracing out the storyline of the Bible. We’ve said each week that the Bible is not a disconnected set of individual stories that each has a little moral to it. Rather, the Bible is primarily a single story that tells us, first, what’s wrong with the human race; secondly, what God has done about that in Jesus Christ; and thirdly, how it’s all going to turn out in the end of history.
We first started by looking at Genesis 1–4 to see the beginning of the Bible’s story about what is wrong with the human race, and now we’ve begun to look at Romans 1–4, where Paul gives us perhaps the single most comprehensive explanation of what God has done about our problem through Jesus Christ.
At this spot in the text of Romans, we actually have something pretty interesting. If you’ve been with the series, we have Paul reflecting himself on Genesis 1–4. We have him looking back on all the things we’ve been looking at and summarizing what’s wrong with the human heart. Now all Scripture is equally true, and all Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally packed. This text is packed. There is more in it than we can unpack.
So, for example, the very first line introduces to us the idea of the wrath of God. A lot of people have questions about that. We’re going to wait for next week on that. Instead, what we’re going to look at tonight are the four things Paul says you can find in every human heart. If you look in every human heart, Paul says, reflecting on Genesis 1–4, you’ll find four things. Those four things are the knowledge of our God, the manufacturing of our idols, the hardening of our humanity, and the capacity for endless praise.
Let’s start at the top of the text. The first thing we learn here, Paul says, is there is in every human heart the knowledge of God, because we’re told that what is so awful, what God is so angry at, is we suppress the truth. You can’t suppress something unless you have it. What do they have? What do we have? The truth. What is the truth? The truth is (and as you go through the rest of the little paragraph, it tells you), that basically down deep in our hearts, we know there is a God, and we know about his eternal power and divine nature.
In other words, regardless of what we tell ourselves or what we claim, every human being knows there is a Creator on whom we are utterly dependent and to whom we are completely accountable. His power … see? His nature … We know that down deep, but we suppress it. We repress it. The word there is we hold it down or hold it back.
That means Paul is saying two things about human beings. First of all, everyone does understand a great deal about truth. There is a lot of truth every human being knows about life, about reality. But we’re also told we hold down that truth. We repress it. Why? Well, here’s the big answer. The reason we repress the knowledge of the true God is, if you take a look down in verse 21, it says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him …”
I remember years ago, when I first started studying this passage, that sure sounded anticlimactic to me. “They didn’t give thanks? That’s it? That’s the problem? That’s the source of all the problems in the world, the evil, the misery, and suffering? We don’t give thanks?” You know, you think about when you were little, all the teachers and all the adults and all the parents were always saying, “Now, say ‘thank-you.’ Don’t take that without saying ‘thank-you.’ ” “Thank-you.” It just seems like courtesy, you know.
Is that it? That’s the problem with the whole world? Bad manners? Is that it? No. Let’s think about it for a second. Do you know what plagiarism is? We say, “That’s intellectual property theft, IP theft.” Yeah? But do you know what plagiarism is? Do you know why it’s so severely punished? Because it’s not giving thanks. In other words, it’s claiming to be self-sufficient, claiming that you came up with this, and not acknowledging dependence, not acknowledging the fact that you didn’t come up with that. You got it from over there. You’re dependent on this person.
Plagiarism is a refusal to give thanks, and therefore, it’s a claim to self-sufficiency when it’s not there, when it’s not true. Cosmic ingratitude, cosmic un-thankfulness, is living in the illusion that we are self-sufficient, that we can call the shots, that we decide what is right or wrong, that we decide how to live. We hate the idea that we would be utterly and completely dependent and, therefore, thankful to God for everything, because then we’d lose control. Then we’d be obligated. Then we couldn’t live the way we want, and we hate that.
Therefore, we’re told, because the sin in the heart makes us want desperately to keep control of our lives, and to live the way we want to live, we cannot acknowledge the magnitude, the size, the greatness, and how much we owe God, how dependent we are on him, how accountable we are to him, how much we should be living in thankfulness. We don’t want that, because that means to lose control.
Let me give you an example. Therefore we repress the knowledge of the real God. We may believe in God, but we don’t believe in the real God, the true God, because that means losing control. Example: Some years ago, I was listening to a minister teach on this topic. When I give you his illustration, you’ll know how long ago this was. He was saying the other night he had been watching television. He was watching David Frost on television. He saw David Frost interviewing Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was a very famous and activist atheist.
David Frost was arguing with her. She says, “Oh, there is no God.” He says, “Well, I think you can believe in God.” They went back and forth, and finally David Frost was getting kind of frustrated, so he did a modern thing. He solved the problem in the modern way. He took a poll of the studio audience. He said, “Now how many of you out there believe in God?” Almost everybody raised their hand, and he turned to Madalyn Murray O’Hair and said, “See?”
The preacher, the teacher who was teaching on Romans 1, said, “What a shame Madalyn Murray O’Hair missed … What an opportunity, what a chance she missed! What she should have done is say, ‘Excuse me. Can I take my own poll?’ She would have turned to the audience and said, ‘How many of you believe in the God of the Bible?’
She would have asked, ‘How many of you believe in the God who, when he comes down on Mount Sinai, comes down in lightning and deep darkness? How many of you believe in the God who is a consuming fire, who says, “No one can look upon the face of my glory and live”? How many of you believe in the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin”? How many of you believe in the God of the Bible? That God?’ Probably,” said the teacher, “very few people would have raised their hands, and then she could have just turned and said, rightly so, ‘I win.’ ”
Here’s why she would have been able to do that if she’d known. Romans 1 says the real God, not the liberal God or the conservative God … The liberal God is the God of love in the universe, you know, the spirit of love. Everybody loves everybody, so you basically can live the way you want. The conservatives say, “No, we believe there’s a God with moral absolutes, and if you really obey those absolutes, if you try really hard, then you know you’re one of the righteous people. Then you can please God. Then he will take you to heaven.”
Don’t you see? Both of those kinds of gods leave you in control. You know, a God who is just a God of love … you can live any way you want. A God who is a demanding God … if you obey him, then he’ll take you to heaven, and then you can know you’re one of the righteous people … that’s a God who owes you. You’re not losing control.
But this is the God of the Bible, the God who is a consuming fire, the God whom you can’t look upon and live, the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there’s no remission of sins.” This is the God who, if you relate to him, you have to relate to him on the basis of absolute grace, and therefore you owe him everything. You will be utterly thankful to him or not have a relationship to him at all. That God.
At the very end of that old movie The Bible in which you have Abraham and Isaac, and Isaac at the very end looks up at his father Abraham and says, “Is there nothing he cannot ask of thee?” And Abraham says, “Nothing.” That God. Nobody believes in that God unless by the power of the Holy Spirit your heart is regenerated. The Holy Spirit has to come in and intervene to let you believe in that God, because according to Romans 1, you can’t believe in that God. You suppress the truth about that God.
You may not believe in any God at all. That way you can live any way you want. Or you believe in God. In fact, most people believe in God, but they don’t believe in that God. They can’t believe in that God. They won’t believe in that God, because then they lose control. We can’t do that. We don’t want to glorify him as God. That means give him the significance he deserves and give him utter thanks, because then we’d be out of control.
Therefore, we all have the knowledge of God, but we suppress it. Do you know what this means? Here I’m going to speak to Christian believers. We have to realize what Solzhenitsyn said is true of everybody in a way. Solzhenitsyn has this very famous line where he says you can’t divide the world into good and bad people. Rather, “… the line dividing good and evil cuts through the center of every human heart.” Every human being is good and evil.
You know, Christians understand that, because Christians know even when you’re born again you have the new self and you still have the old self, and we feel that. But Paul is saying that’s true of absolutely everybody. Everybody is in the image of God. Everybody has the truth, and yet everybody has a deeply ambivalent relationship to the truth.
Therefore, the line between good and evil goes down the middle of every movie, every book, every work of art, because every human being knows a lot about the truth, and every human being is struggling and resists the truth. Therefore, every work of art, every cultural product, everything out there has remarkable mixtures. There’s a dialogue going on between the truth and falsehood in all human endeavor.
Therefore, Christians cannot just say, “Well, I only want to read Christian books and go to Christian counselors and Christian lawyers and Christian doctors, and all those other people out there are bad.” No, no. You don’t want to be like Salieri who’s sitting around saying, “Hey, I go to church. I pray. Why is this licentious person Mozart …” This is in the movie Amadeus. “… getting so many of God’s gifts? Why is such beauty coming into the world through him? I don’t understand it. I’m the good person. He’s the bad person. What’s going on here?”
James 1:17, says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights …” Every act of goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty, no matter who does it, is a gift from God, and everybody does them. So Christians need to not be so exclusive. They need to have critical appreciation of all the people around them and all the culture around them, yet at the same time knowing in all of our hearts there is this deep resistance to the truth. So you’re not naïve; on the other hand you’re not exclusive. So it’s a very important first point.
Now this is perhaps the central thing Paul is getting across. There’s a lot more we could say about it than we are about to say, but let me say this. First of all, he shows us here the inevitability of idolatry, because he says in verse 25, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …”
Notice “… they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …” There are only two options. You either worship the Creator, or you worship a created thing, but there is no possibility of not worshiping or serving anything, in spite of the fact that plenty of people say they don’t worship or serve anything. It’s impossible. Why? Paul says it’s impossible. If you do not worship the true God, and nobody does, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, then you have to be worshiping something else.
How could that work? Well, like this. Some philosophers and thinkers have said it this way. Human beings are telic creatures. Telic is from the word telos, which means purpose. In other words, human beings have to live for something. Human beings don’t live; they have to live for something. Something has to capture your imagination. Something has to capture the highest allegiance of your heart. Something has to be the resting place of your deepest hopes.
Every human being has to look at something deep in their heart, semi-consciously or unconsciously, and say, “If I have that, then my life is worthwhile. Then I have meaning in life. Then life will have been worth living. Then I’ll know I’m somebody. If I have that …” and whatever that is, wherever your hopes are, your deepest hopes, whatever your highest allegiance is, whatever your ultimate concern is, that’s what you worship.
That’s what worship is. Therefore, the inevitability of idolatry, because since none of us in our natural state actually worship the true God. We believe in God, but we believe in a kind of god who keeps us in control of our lives, as we just said. Then what we actually center our lives on, what we actually give our functional trust, our functional worship to, is always something else, whether it’s achievement, or money, or claim, or human approval, or comfort, or power, or approval, or control.
That’s the inevitability. But the second thing Paul shows is the incredible range of idols. Today if you talk about idolatry, almost immediately modern people say, “You mean worshiping statues?” Oh no. When Kathy and I first started coming up here to start the church, in 1989, we used to take trips up here every Sunday afternoon to meet with people and meet individuals. I remember one time we met somebody at a Thai restaurant.
Every week we used to take one of our three sons and leave the other two at home with a babysitter. That’s the parental philosophy “divide and conquer.” You leave two at home, have one … you know, we outnumbered them, so it always was better. But I remember my middle son, age 9, with the loud voice that only 9-year-olds can muster, walks into the Thai restaurant, sees the little statue and a candle lit in front of it, and says, “There’s idols in New York!” If only he knew … Because see, Paul in his writings … let me give you three examples … shows that anything can be, anything is an idol.
On the one hand, here he links idolatry to sexual lust, sexual desires. Now if this is the only place he mentioned idolatry and then he said sexual lust is an example of an idol, making an idol out of sex, romance, maybe even marriage, you say, “Well, he has sex on the mind.” But go to Colossians 3. There he calls greed idolatry, materialism idolatry, a love of money idolatry.
You say, “Okay, well, I can understand that. Sex can be an idol, money can be an idol.” Try this one on. In Galatians 4, he is talking to Jewish Christians who are sliding back into their belief that they need to adopt the Mosaic code, all the Mosaic laws, in order to please God. He looks to them, and he starts saying, “If you go back into that kind of moralistic religion, if you begin to think that obeying the Mosaic code and the law of God is going to get you into heaven and please God, if you go back into that kind of moralistic, legalistic religion, you are going into idolatry.”
Look, maybe you’ve heard of the idea that money can be an idol. Maybe you’ve heard the idea that sex can be an idol. Have you ever heard that church can be an idol? The law of God can be an idol. Your own moral efforts and your own moral rectitude can be an idol. Until you can see that, you don’t have a biblical understanding of what idolatry is, because idolatry is looking to something to give you the kind of hope, the kind of value, the kind of safety that only God himself can give you.
If you love anything more than God, if you rest your security in anything more than the providence and wisdom and sovereignty of God, if your imagination is captured by anything more than the greatness of God, if your value is rooted in anything more than the grace and love of God, if you love anything more than God, and you do, you are looking to a created thing to give you what only God can possibly give you. Therefore, you have set up an idol.
There are all kinds of idols. There are near idols and far idols. For example, you say, “Well, I’ve heard this idea that money is an idol.” Ah, okay. But why is money an idol? Some people, you know, make a lot of money, and you’d have no idea. They don’t spend it on themselves. They don’t spend it on clothes. Do you know why? Money for them is something they sock away, and they can’t give it away.
Do you know why? Because money is their way of keeping control of the environment. It’s their way of saying, “I have this money, and therefore, I can handle what comes. I’m secure. I have control over my world.” Instead of prayer, instead of God, it’s money. That person doesn’t spend the money on him or herself at all. They just have to know it’s all there. They can’t give it away. Why? Because of the idolatry of control. “I have control of my life, and the money gives me that control.”
Other people take the money and they spend a lot on themselves. You can see it. They look beautiful, and they live in beautiful places, and they hang out with beautiful people. Why? Because for them, money is a way of getting on the inner ring. Money is a way of getting human approval. “If I have human approval, then I know who I am. Then I feel significant and secure.” So the money is actually an easy-to-look-for idol, but underneath there are deeper idols.
Everything is an idol. Everything can be an idol. Everything serves as an idol. If you are a Christian believer, it means you may have had the back broken of your idols, and when you gave yourself to Christ you understand something about who he is. He comes into your life, but you have the new self and the old self, and the old self is still beholden to idols. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re completely beholden to idols, and therefore, everybody in this room has a problem with it.
Do you know what your idols are? Do you know what your near idols are, your far idols are? Unless you do, Paul says you don’t even know your own heart at all. You don’t know anything about your heart. You haven’t begun to understand yourself. So in the heart is the knowledge of God. In the heart is the manufacturing of idols.
The third thing that’s going on in every human heart, and linked very much to idolatry, is the hardening of our humanity. One of the great themes of the Bible throughout, from Old to New Testament, is that idolatry leads to a heart of stone, to dehumanization. Over and over again, we’re told if you worship idols, which are things, rather than the living person of God …
If you worship things rather than the person of God, instead of a person, you’ll become a thing. You will become hard. You will become as blind as the idol. You will become as deaf as the idol. You will actually become less and less of a human being, less and less personal, more hardened in heart, more blind.
There are hundreds of these references, but here’s one. Psalm 135. “But their idols are silver and gold … They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear … They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
Now Paul is basically working that out, because when he says we’re all guilty of idolatry, then he goes along and says our wills, our minds, and our emotions are slowly being eroded. They are slowly being taken over, and we are becoming less and less human and less and less personal all the time.
Look, first of all, he says whatever you worship (this is down in verse 25) you serve. That word servemeans you are a slave to it. Think about this. Well, I know this is hard because we’re also blind and futile in our thinking, and we’re in denial. But think about this. Whatever is the most important thing in your life, whatever is the thing about which you say, “Boy, because of that, I’m happy. Because of that, I have meaning in my life …” You have to have that. You have to. If you don’t have that, life is over. Hope is gone. Your very identity falls apart.
Therefore, there’s no freedom about that thing. There’s no choosing about that thing. Human beings can choose. But you’re more like an animal who is operating on instinct. Or you’re more like a robot that has to do what it’s programmed to do. You have to have it. You’re driven. So your will is beholden.
Secondly, your mind. See, up in verse 21 it says because they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him, their thinking became futile. Then of course, even down in verse 25 it says, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie …” All addicts … and that’s what we’re talking about, you know. Idolatry is a form of spiritual addiction. All addicts … all … are actually in denial.
You see, I don’t know where you are. I don’t know what you thinking right now. But if you say, “I don’t see any idols in my life right now,” you’re an addict, and you are in denial. You say, “Well, yeah, of course, that is pretty important to me.” You have no idea how important it is, because you don’t want to see. Alcoholics say, “I can control it.” That’s what an alcoholic is. An alcoholic says, “I can control it.” They can’t, but they think they can.
There’s something in your life that you look at like that. Idols weave a delusional field, a field of denial, around them, so you always minimize their impact on you. In other words, you have eyes, but you don’t see. The longer you worship the idol, the more you have eyes that don’t see, just like they have.
Last of all, your hearts are darkened. Not only is your will beholden and your mind made futile and deluded, but then it says in verse 21, “… their foolish hearts were darkened.” Most of all, it says, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts …” Now if you’ve been around Redeemer, you’ve heard this before. The Greek word that is translated here desire shows up every place that idolatry shows up in the New Testament.
It’s the word epithymia, which actually means an epi-desire, like an epicenter. It doesn’t mean sinful desire. That’s not the best way to translate it. Sometimes they try to translate it as lust, but lust of course just means sex, so that’s not a good translation. There’s no good English translation, so I’m going to tell you what it is.
Idolatry creates super-desires. Burnout-level, over-the-top, uncontrollable desires. Inordinate desires. Over-the-top desires. You not only are driven to have it, but if anything gets in your way, there is paralyzing anxiety, not normal kinds of worry. There is paralyzing, debilitating guilt, not normal kinds of regret. There is paralyzing, debilitating bitterness, not normal kinds of anger.
Therefore, you are more and more like an animal, or more and more like a robot, following your program, and less and less like a human being. You say, “How does that work out?” Well, let me read you from a manuscript that I was working on with somebody about idolatry. Listen carefully.
“Anxiety is idolatry mapped onto the future. Anxiety becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose my highest value, my functional meaning in life, is politics, either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Then when my party experiences a great defeat, I don’t experience just glum disappointment, but I’m shaken to the depths. I want to leave the country, and I’m too furious to speak to anyone who voted for the other side.
Guilt is idolatry mapped on the past. Guilt becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose I value a happy family. Therefore, my performance as a parent is valuable above everything else. Then if my daughter goes wrong or has great problems, I am not just sorrowful and grieved, I am stricken with neurotic guilt. I cannot forgive myself. I hate myself. I may become suicidal.
Lastly, anger and bitterness is idolatry mapped onto the present. Anger becomes pathologically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value. Suppose my career is the measure of my worth as a person, and someone at work is harming it. I won’t just be angry. I will be so deeply bitter and capable of doing things to this person that I may blow up my career more thoroughly than that person ever could.”
Do you see what’s going on? Or what if you make your moral rectitude into an idol? Remember, like in Galatians 4? What if you really believe that because you’re a good person, you’ve tried very hard, God owes you a good life. Then when difficulties come, sorrow is pathologically intensified into absolute bitterness against God and life itself and it poisons your ability to ever enjoy life ever again, because you deserve better than this? Don’t you see? Idolatry dehumanizes you. If you worship a thing instead of the living person of God, you’ll become less and less a person and more and more a thing.
How will we escape? I told you this is a packed text. This text is like an arrow. If you really listen to it, this text is like an arrow in a bow, and the bow is bent. The bow is really bent. How are we going to escape? Here’s what you have to do. Admittedly, the text doesn’t tell you much about it, because what Paul’s going to tell you God has done about it comes later on in the next chapters, especially chapters 3 and 4. But there’s a hint here, especially at the very end, when it says we “… worshiped … created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
Think with me for a second. The first thing you have to do, if you want to escape the idols of your heart and the hardening that comes with them, is you have to really not waste your sorrows. You have to make good use of your disappointments. There has never been a better time than now. There have never been more disappointments in New York City than now.
Why? Well, here’s why. It says in verse 24, “Therefore God gave them over …” To what? Now don’t forget what the right translation is. God gave them over to the strongest desires of their hearts. The worst thing God can do to you, and the most just form of punishment God could possibly give you, is to give you over to the strongest desires of your hearts. In other words, let your wishes come true. That’s the worst thing God could possibly do, and the most fair thing.
Oscar Wilde, of all people, said, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” You think about that. It’s right out of Romans 1. When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers. Oscar Wilde knew that when he got the things his heart most wanted it was the worst possible thing for him, because our hearts are disordered, our hearts have idolatrous desires. They have epi-desires, over-desires.
The worst thing God could possibly do is give you what you want, give you over. You know, the word give over is actually a word that means surrender to your enemies. That’s an amazing verse. Paul is saying your enemies are the strongest desires of your heart, the idolatrous desires of your heart. The worst thing God could actually do is give you a good life, let everything happen the way you want it to happen.
Richard Baxter, the old seventeenth-century Puritan, has a section on particular kinds of spiritual problems, and he has a frightening section which he wrote in the 1650s or 1660s on if you set your heart on money and you actually get it, how horrible that is for you spiritually. He says, for example, if you set your heart on money and you actually make it, several things happen.
One is you, first of all, mistake wealth and savvy and skill and smarts for character, because you’re smart and you’re savvy and you’ve made this money. You want to believe it’s because of your character. So you mistake wealth and savvy for character. Then the rest of your life, you make all kinds of terrible choices in relationships, because you’ll mistake wealth and savvy for character, and it’s not true.
You’ll also become very proud. He says wealthy people believe they’re smart about every area, they’re experts on everything. He says everybody sees it and everybody laughs at it, but nobody can say anything because of your power, which makes it impossible for people to tell the truth. He goes on and on and on and says the worst thing that could possibly happen is to set your heart on money and get it.
But it’s really true about anything. Kathy and I, before we were married, had really good prayer lives. Neither of us really thought we were going to get married to anybody. We got married, and without our knowing it, our prayer life kind of went into the toilet. Why? Well, why do you have to pray to God when all you could do is just call on the phone?
John Newton said the worst thing about a good marriage is the problem of idolatry. For many years, we had no idea how poor our prayer life was because we had made idols out of each other. We didn’t see it that way. We didn’t understand that. But when sickness came, when bad sickness came to both of us, we realized our prayer life was nothing like it should have been. The best thing that happened to us was our idols were in jeopardy. It gave us a prayer life back.
The best thing that can happen, according to Oscar Wilde, is God not answering your prayer. At that time, and only at that time, do I begin to see this anxiety I’m feeling, this guilt I’m feeling, this anger I’m feeling … it’s pathological. It’s not caused by the circumstances. It’s caused by my over-trust in things, my looking to things to give me what only Jesus can give me. It’s only in bad times that you will ever see your idols. It’s the only opportunity you have … briefly, when bad times come … to get on top of them.
Then besides making good use of your troubles, the second thing you have to do is learn to do what the angels do, which is endlessly praise. See, the only way to get your hearts to stop worshiping other things is to worship the right thing. Who endlessly praises God? The angels. In 1 Peter 1:10–12, we read, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets spoke of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. They spoke of the things that have now been told to you by those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit, into which things even angels long to look.”
The phrase long to look … It says here the angels long to look at the gospel. They long to look at Jesus dying for us. They long to look at the glory of it and the beauty of it and the wisdom of it and the love of it. They can’t get enough of it. Do you know what that phrase long to look is? It’s the word epithymia. It’s the word that’s usually translated lust. The angels lust after the gospel. What does that mean?
Here’s what it means. The deepest passions of angels’ hearts are satisfied by looking at the love and the beauty and the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Reveling in it, rejoicing in it, singing praise … It wasn’t even for them. See, when the deepest passions of your heart are satisfied by praising and adoring Jesus Christ, then all other passions are put in their place.
You can look at approval, and you can look at romance, and you can look at all these things you wish you had, and you can say to them, “I can live without you, because I have Jesus Christ. If I can’t live without you, I’ll never be able to live safely spiritually with you. Therefore, don’t you tell me how to live my life. Don’t you push me around. Don’t you inflict anxiety and guilt on me.”
You can spit in the world’s eye, if you have learned, like the angels, to look at the gospel and be so moved by his love for you and love him for his love for you, especially when you realize this word … It says God gives us over to our strongest desires, but do you realize in Romans 8 it says God gave him over to die for us? And in Ephesians 5 it says Jesus Christ gave himself over to die for us.
When you see Jesus Christ giving himself over to his enemies to die for us, out of love for us, to pay for our sins, nothing else will take functional control of your heart. If you see him giving himself over for you, you will not be given up and given over to your lusts, to your idols. Learn to sing the praises of the one who died for you. Here’s actually a hymn that was written many years ago about this very subject by William Cowper.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
Thank you, Father, for being the one God who, if we get you, will satisfy us to the bottom, and if we fail you, will forgive us. If we live for our career, our career can’t die for our sins. We pray, Father, that you would help us to rest in the beauty of what Jesus Christ has done. Teach us how to praise you endlessly, especially for your gospel grace.
As we do it, as we sing your praises, and as we think about what you’ve done, our hearts will heal. We’ll get from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We’ll become more and more personal. We’ll be more and more free to live our lives instead of being driven by fears and guilt and anxiety. Oh, Lord, give us the lives that are possible if we love what your Son our Savior has done for us, Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, amen.
It is important that we grasp the connection between this section (‘The wrath of God’) and the last (‘The gospel of God’). In verses 16–20 the apostle develops an argument of sustained logic. He refers successively to the power of God (16), the righteousness of God (17), the wrath of God (18) and the glory of God in creation (19–20). Moreover, each statement he makes is linked to the preceding one by the Greek conjunction gar or dioti, meaning ‘for’ or ‘because’. Let me try to clarify the stages of the argument by engaging Paul in dialogue.
Paul: I am not ashamed of the gospel (16a).
Q: Why not, Paul?
Paul: Because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (16b).
Q: How so, Paul?
Paul: Because in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, that is, God’s way of justifying sinners (17).
Q: But why is this necessary, Paul?
Paul: Because the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (18).
Q: But how have people suppressed the truth, Paul?
Paul: Because what may be known about God is plain to them … For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen … (19–20).
One might, then, speak of a fourfold self-revelation of God, although the vocabulary of revelation is not used consistently throughout. For the sake of theological clarity I will state these divine disclosures in the opposite order:
First, God reveals his glory (his eternal power and divine nature) in his creation (19–20).
Secondly, he reveals his wrath against the sin of those who suppress their knowledge of the Creator (18).
Thirdly, he reveals his righteousness (his righteous way of putting sinners right with himself) in the gospel (17).
Fourthly, he reveals his power in believers by saving them (16).
A careful study of the devastating exposure of Gentile decadence which follows has suggested to some scholars that Paul was influenced both by the story of Adam’s fall in Genesis and by the Jewish critique of pagan idolatry in the book of Wisdom.
Professor Morna Hooker has written that Paul was portraying ‘man’s sin in relation to its true biblical setting—the Genesis narrative of the Creation and the Fall’. Others have taken this up, and it is not difficult to find parallels which could be claimed as reminiscences. For example, like Genesis 1–3, Paul refers to the creation of the world (20) and to the classification of its creatures into birds and animals and reptiles (23); he uses the vocabulary of glory and ‘image’ or ‘likeness’ (23); he alludes to the human being’s knowledge of God (19, 21), the resolve to become wise (22), the refusal to remain a dependent creature (18, 21), the exchange of God’s truth for Satan’s lie (25), and the understanding that rebellion deserves death (32; cf. 5:12f.). From this it seems clear that Paul was writing against the general biblical background of creation and fall, although the case has not been proved that he was intentionally re-telling Adam’s story.
The case is stronger that Paul was alluding to the apocryphal book of Wisdom, especially to its chapters 13–14, which is a Hellenistic Jewish polemic against pagan idolatry. Sanday and Headlam provide a table, whose columns draw attention to possible parallels between Wisdom and Romans. Certainly the Wisdom chapters contain references to the human failure to know God from his works (‘from the good things that are seen they gained not power to know him that is’);3 to the sin and folly of idolatry (‘they … called them gods which are works of men’s hands’); to the fact that ‘the worship of those nameless idols is a beginning and cause and end of every evil’,5 including ‘the confusion of sex’, ‘disorder in marriage’ and various social ills; and to the conclusion that those who fail to find God in his works ‘are not to be excused’.7 But these similarities are picked out from a mass of inferior material, and are not close enough to suggest conscious borrowing. It seems likely that Paul was drawing more on the Old Testament prophets’ criticism of idolatry than on the book of Wisdom. I agree with Godet that there is a huge difference between Wisdom’s ‘tame and superficial explanation of idolatry’ and Paul’s ‘profound psychological analysis’.
In returning now to Paul’s text, we are confronted by his statement that the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all … human wickedness (18).
The very mention of God’s wrath is calculated nowadays to cause people embarrassment and even incredulity. How can anger, they ask, which Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount equated with murder, and which Paul identified as a manifestation of our sinful human nature and as incompatible with our new life in Christ,10possibly be attributed to the all-holy God? Indeed, reflection on the wrath of God raises three questions, about its nature, objects and outworking.
If we are to preserve the balance of Scripture, our definition of God’s anger must avoid opposite extremes. On the one hand, there are those who see it as no different from sinful human anger. On the other, there are those who declare that the very notion of anger as a personal attribute or attitude of God must be abandoned.
Human anger, although there is such a thing as righteous indignation, is mostly very unrighteous. It is an irrational and uncontrollable emotion, containing much vanity, animosity, malice and the desire for revenge. It should go without saying that God’s anger is absolutely free of all such poisonous ingredients.
The desire to eliminate any notion of God’s personal anger, as being altogether unworthy of him, is usually associated with the name of C. H. Dodd, whose commentary on Romans was published in 1932. He argued that ‘Paul never uses the verb “to be angry” with God as subject’, although he is often said to love, and that the noun orgē (anger) is used only three times in the expression ‘the anger of God’, whereas it occurs constantly as ‘wrath’ or ‘the wrath’, without reference to God, ‘in a curiously impersonal way’. Dodd’s conclusion is that Paul retains the concept ‘not to describe the attitude of God to man, but to describe an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’.12 A. T. Hanson elaborated this view in The Wrath of the Lamb (1959), maintaining that God’s wrath is ‘wholly impersonal’ and is ‘the inevitable process of sin working itself out in history’.14
But the argument based on the comparative absence of the expression ‘the wrath of God’ in favour of ‘wrath’ or ‘the wrath’ is weak. For Paul treats grace similarly. At the end of Romans 5 he writes both of ‘the grace of God’ (15), and about ‘the grace’ which he nevertheless personifies as both ‘increasing’ (20) and ‘reigning’ (21), and which is the most personal of all God’s attributes. If then ‘grace’ is God acting graciously, ‘wrath’ must be God reacting in revulsion against sin. It is his ‘deeply personal abhorrence’ of evil.
The wrath of God, then, is almost totally different from human anger. It does not mean that God loses his temper, flies into a rage, or is ever malicious, spiteful or vindictive. The alternative to ‘wrath’ is not ‘love’ but ‘neutrality’ in the moral conflict. And God is not neutral. On the contrary, his wrath is his holy hostility to evil, his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it, his just judgment upon it.
In general, the wrath of God is directed against evil alone. We get angry when our pride has been wounded; but there is no personal pique in the anger of God. Nothing arouses it except evil, and evil always does.
More particularly, Paul writes that God’s wrath is being revealed against all the godlessness (asebeia) and wickedness (adikia) of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (18). According to J. B. Lightfoot, asebeia is ‘against God’ and adikia ‘against men’. Further, ‘the first precedes and entails the second: witness the teaching of this chapter’. Scripture is quite clear that the essence of sin is godlessness. It is the attempt to get rid of God and, since that is impossible, the determination to live as though one had succeeded in doing so. ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (3:18). The converse is also true. The essence of goodness is godliness, to love him with all our being and to obey him with joy.
God’s wrath is directed, however, not against ‘godlessness and wickedness’ in vacuo, but against the godlessness and wickedness of those people who suppress the truth by their wickedness (adikia again). It is not just that they do wrong, though they know better. It is that they have made an a priori decision to live for themselves, rather than for God and others, and therefore deliberately stifle any truth which challenges their self-centredness.
What ‘truth’ has Paul in mind? He tells us in verses 19–20. It is that knowledge of God which is available to us through the natural order. For what may be known about God (and what is knowable to finite, fallen creatures like us is inevitably limited) is nevertheless plain or open. And the reason it is plain is that God has taken the initiative and has made it plain. How? Verse 20 explains. It is that ever since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature (which together constitute something of his ‘glory’, 23)—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. In other words, the God who in himself is invisible and unknowable has made himself both visible and knowable through what he has made. The creation is a visible disclosure of the invisible God, an intelligible disclosure of the otherwise unknown God. Just as artists reveal themselves in what they draw, paint and sculpt, so the Divine Artist has revealed himself in his creation.
This truth of revelation through creation is a regular theme of Scripture. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’, and ‘the whole earth is full of his glory’. The Job who confessed that hitherto he had only ‘heard’ of Yahweh, finally affirmed that through the ingenuity of the natural order his eyes had ‘seen’ him.19 For the living God who made all things, as Paul proclaimed to his pagan audience in Lystra, ‘has not left himself without testimony’, but has shown his kindness to the human race by his gifts of rain and crops, abundant food and overflowing joy.
Because Romans 1:19–20 is one of the principal New Testament passages on the topic of ‘general revelation’, it may be helpful to summarize how ‘general’ differs from ‘special’ revelation. God’s self-revelation through ‘what has been made’ has four main characteristics. First, it is ‘general’ because made to everybody everywhere, as opposed to ‘special’ because made to particular people in particular places, through Christ and the biblical authors. Secondly, it is ‘natural’ because made through the natural order, as opposed to ‘supernatural’, involving the incarnation of the Son and the inspiration of the Scriptures. Thirdly, it is ‘continuous’ because since the creation of the world it has gone on ‘day after day … night after night’, as opposed to ‘final’ and finished in Christ and in Scripture. And fourthly it is ‘creational’, revealing God’s glory through creation, as opposed to ‘salvific’, revealing God’s grace in Christ.
The conviction that God reveals himself through the created universe is still meaningful to us in the twentieth century. Although the five so-called ‘classical’ arguments for the existence of God, formulated by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa in the thirteenth century, are no longer in vogue, Christians still believe that God’s power, skill and goodness are displayed in the beauty and balance, intricacy and intelligibility of the universe, as scientists keep on probing it.
For example, after the satellite detection of the birthpangs of the universe was announced to the American Physical Society in April 1992, an anonymous Guardian contributor wrote: ‘It is difficult to know what the appropriate reaction to such mind-expanding discoveries should be, except to get down on one’s knees in total humility and give thanks to God or Big Bang or both, for cunningly contriving to allow this infinitesimal part of the universe called Earth to be bestowed with something called Air.’ At the opposite end of the size scale, a consultant surgeon wrote to me a few years ago: ‘I am filled with the same awe and humility when I contemplate something of what goes on in a single cell as when I contemplate the sky on a clear night. The coordination of the complex activities of the cell in a common purpose hits the scientific part of me as the best evidence for an Ultimate Purpose.’ Anthropologists have also found a worldwide moral sense in human beings so that, although conscience is of course to some extent conditioned by culture, it still testifies to everybody everywhere both that there is a difference between right and wrong, and that evil deserves to be punished (32).
Paul ends his statement with the words: so that men are without excuse (20). This shows that what he has been asserting is ‘natural revelation’ and not ‘natural theology (or religion)’. The latter expresses the belief that it is possible for human beings through nature to come to know God, and that therefore, as the way to God, creation is an alternative to Christ. Some people base this belief on Romans 1, especially on the expressions that they knew God (21) and that they possessed the knowledge of God (28). But there are degrees to the knowledge of God, and these phrases cannot possibly refer to the full knowledge of him enjoyed by those who have been reconciled to him through Christ. For what Paul says here is that through general revelation people can know God’s power, deity and glory (not his saving grace through Christ), and that this knowledge is enough not to save them but rather to condemn them, because they do not live up to it. Instead, they suppress the truth by their wickedness (18), so that they are without excuse (20). It is against this wilful human rebellion that God’s wrath is revealed.
The first answer to this question is that God’s wrath will be revealed in the future, at the end, in the judgment of the last day. There is such a thing as ‘the coming wrath’, and Paul calls Judgment Day ‘the day of God’s wrath’. Secondly, there is a present disclosure of God’s wrath through the public administration of justice, to which Paul will come later in his letter (13:4). But this is not in his mind here.
Thirdly, there is another kind of present disclosure of the anger of God, to which the apostle will devote the rest of Romans 1. It is being revealed from heaven now, he says (18), and he goes on to explain it by his terrible threefold refrain God gave them over (24, 26, 28). When we hear of God’s wrath, we usually think of ‘thunderbolts from heaven, and earthly cataclysms and flaming majesty’, instead of which his anger goes ‘quietly and invisibly’ to work in handing sinners over to themselves. As John Ziesler writes, it ‘operates not by God’s intervention but precisely by his not intervening, by letting men and women go their own way’. God abandons stubborn sinners to their wilful self-centredness,26 and the resulting process of moral and spiritual degeneration is to be understood as a judicial act of God. This is the revelation of God’s wrath from heaven (18).
Let me sum up our reflection thus far on the wrath of God. It is God’s settled and perfectly righteous antagonism to evil. It is directed against people who have some knowledge of God’s truth through the created order, but deliberately suppress it in order to pursue their own self-centred path. And it is already being revealed, in a preliminary way, in the moral and social corruption which Paul saw in much of the Greco-Roman world of his day, and which we can see in the permissive societies of ours.
In Paul’s exposition of the outworking of the wrath of God, he develops the same logical process of deterioration, according to the principle he has established in verses 18–20. That is, the general pattern of his argument recurs in verses 21–24, 25–27 and 28–31, ‘repeated with horrifying emphasis’.
First, he asserts the people’s knowledge of God: they knew God (21), the truth of God (25), and the knowledge of God (28).
Secondly, he draws attention to their rejection of their knowledge in favour of idolatry: they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him (21); they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator (25); they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God(28).
Thirdly, he describes the reaction of God’s wrath: he gave them over … to sexual impurity (24); to shameful lusts (26); and to a depraved mind (28), leading to antisocial behaviour.
These are the three stages of the downward spiral of pagan depravity.
The opening statement that they knew God cannot be taken absolutely, since elsewhere Paul writes that people outside Christ do not know God. It refers rather to the limited knowledge of God’s power and glory which is available to everybody through general revelation (19–20).
Instead of their knowledge of God leading to the worship of God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. Rather their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (21), and (despite their claim to wisdom) they became fools (22). Their futility, darkness and folly were seen in their idolatry, and in the absurd ‘exchange’ which their idolatry involved: they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (23).
What Paul saw plainly, wrote C. H. Dodd, was that Greek philosophy ‘easily came to terms with the grossest forms of superstition and immorality. And so it did, just as it is a grave count against the lofty philosophy of Hinduism that it utters no effective protest against the most degrading practices of popular religion in India today.’ But the cultural idolatry of the West is no better. To exchange the worship of the living God for the modern obsession with wealth, fame and power is equally foolish and equally blameworthy.
God’s judgment on the people’s idolatry was to give them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity. The history of the world confirms that idolatry tends to immorality. A false image of God leads to a false understanding of sex. Paul does not tell us what kind of immorality he has in mind, except that it involved the degrading of their bodies with one another (24). He is right. Illicit sex degrades people’s humanness; sex in marriage, as God intended, ennobles it.
Here another ‘exchange’ is mentioned, not the exchanging of the glory of God for images (23), but the exchanging of the truth of God for a lie, indeed ‘the’ lie, the ultimate lie. For this is what the falsehood of idolatry is, since it involves transferring our worship to created things from the Creator, whom Paul in a spontaneous doxology declares worthy of eternal adoration: who is for ever praised (25).
This time God gave them over to shameful lusts, which Paul specifies as lesbian practices (26) and male homosexual relationships (27). In both cases he describes the people concerned as guilty of a third ‘exchange’: the women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones (26), while the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another (27a). Twice he uses the adjective physikos (‘natural’) and once the expression para physin (‘against nature’ or ‘unnatural’). Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion (27b). Paul does not specify what this penalty is; only that it is received ‘in themselves’.
Verses 26–27 are a crucial text in the contemporary debate about homosexuality. The traditional interpretation, that they describe and condemn all homosexual behaviour, is being challenged by the gay lobby. Three arguments are advanced. First, it is claimed that the passage is irrelevant, on the ground that its purpose is neither to teach sexual ethics, nor to expose vice, but rather to portray the outworking of God’s wrath. This is true. But if a certain sexual conduct is to be seen as the consequence of God’s wrath, it must be displeasing to him. Secondly, ‘the likelihood is that Paul is thinking only about pederasty’ since ‘there was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world’, and that he is opposing it because of the humiliation and exploitation experienced by the youths involved. All one can say in response to this suggestion is that the text itself contains no hint of it.
Thirdly, there is the question what Paul meant by ‘nature’. Some homosexual people are urging that their relationships cannot be described as ‘unnatural’, since they are perfectly natural to them. John Boswell has written, for example, that ‘the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual people’. Hence Paul’s statement that they ‘abandoned’ natural relations, and ‘exchanged’ them for unnatural (26–27). Richard Hays has written a thorough exegetical rebuttal of this interpretation of Romans 1, however. He provides ample contemporary evidence that the opposition of ‘natural’ (kata physin) and ‘unnatural’ (para physin) was ‘very frequently used … as a way of distinguishing between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour’. Besides, differentiating between sexual orientation and sexual practice is a modern concept; ‘to suggest that Paul intends to condemn homosexual acts only when they are committed by persons who are constitutionally heterosexual is to introduce a distinction entirely foreign to Paul’s thought-world’,34 in fact a complete anachronism.
So then, we have no liberty to interpret the noun ‘nature’ as meaning ‘my’ nature, or the adjective ‘natural’ as meaning ‘what seems natural to me’. On the contrary, physis (‘natural’) means God’s created order. To act ‘against nature’ means to violate the order which God has established, whereas to act ‘according to nature’ means to behave ‘in accordance with the intention of the Creator’. Moreover, the intention of the Creator means his original intention. What this was Genesis tells us and Jesus confirmed: ‘At the beginning the Creator “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one.’ Then Jesus added his personal endorsement and deduction: ‘Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’36 In other words, God created humankind male and female; God instituted marriage as a heterosexual union; and what God has thus united, we have no liberty to separate. This threefold action of God established that the only context which he intends for the ‘one flesh’ experience is heterosexual monogamy, and that a homosexual partnership (however loving and committed it may claim to be) is ‘against nature’ and can never be regarded as a legitimate alternative to marriage.
Paul’s opening statement in verse 28 this time includes a play on words between ouk edokimasan (‘they did not think it worth while’) and adokimon noun (‘a depraved mind’). It is not easy to reproduce it in English. One might say that ‘since they did not see fit to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to an unfit mind’.
And their depraved mind led this time not to immorality but to a whole variety of antisocial practices, which ought not to be done (28), and which together describe the breakdown of human community, as standards disappear and society disintegrates. Paul gives a catalogue of twenty-one vices. Such lists were not uncommon in those days in Stoic, Jewish and early Christian literature. All commentators seem to agree that the list defies neat classification. It begins with four general sins with which these people have become filled, namely every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. Then come five more sins which they are full ofand which all depict broken human relationships: envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice (29). Next come a couple on their own, which seem to refer to libel and slander, although jbp offers a characteristically imaginative translation: ‘whisperers-behind-doors’ and ‘stabbers-in-the-back’. These two are followed by four which seem to portray different and extreme forms of pride: God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful. Now comes another independent couple of words, denoting people who are ‘inventive’ in relation to evil and rebellious in relation to parents (30). And the list ends with four negatives, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless (31), which jb rather neatly renders ‘without brains, honour, love or pity’.
Verse 32 is a concluding summary of the human perversity Paul has been describing. First, they know. Yet again he begins with the knowledge possessed by the people he is depicting. It is not now God’s truth that they know, however, but God’s righteous decree, namely that those who do such things deserve death. As he will write later, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (6:23). And they know it. Their conscience condemns them.
Secondly, they nevertheless disregard their knowledge. They not only continue to do these very things, which they know deserve death, but (which is worse) they actively encourage others to do the same, and so flagrantly approve the evil behaviour of which God has expressed his disapproval.
We have come to the end of Paul’s portrayal of depraved Gentile society. Its essence lies in the antithesis between what people know and what they do. God’s wrath is specifically directed against those who deliberately suppress truth for the sake of evil. ‘Dark as the picture here drawn is,’ wrote Charles Hodge, ‘it is not so dark as that presented by the most distinguished Greek and Latin authors, of their own countrymen.’ Paul was not exaggerating. Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church.  Stott, J. R. W. (2001). The message of Romans: God’s good news for the world (pp. 69–79). InterVarsity Press.