Our foray into the book of Romans begins to take a dark turn. I say this because in the next two chapters, Paul lays out a scathing condemnation of humanity. Paul reveals to his audience just how sinful they are–how sinful we are. There are many who will not like what I have to say in the coming weeks. Many would like to pretend that they are generally good, decent people who commit a few mistakes, sure. Everyone commits mistakes. But tell a person he or she is deserving of God’s wrath, then you are likely to receive a tongue lashing. We are a culture that has become desensitized to God’s wrath. We have been so exposed to a loving, gracious God, that the thought of grace no longer even amazes us.
I watched a lecture this week by Dr. R.C. Sproul, and he told a very interesting story. He said that he began teaching an introduction to the Old Testament course in theology at a particular college to all 250 students. He laid out how students would be graded for the class. There would be a series of papers turned in throughout the semester due on a certain date. If the paper were not turned in, the students would receive a failing grade. Sproul said that at the first due date 225 students came with their papers and 25 did not. The 25 pleaded with Sproul saying that they were making the transition from high school to college; they had made bad time management choices and needed more time. Sproul granted them more time, much to their delight. The next due date came, and this time 200 students came with their papers, and fifty did not. Once again the begging and pleading ensued. Once again, Sproul offered an extension. At this point, Dr. Sproul became very, very popular on campus. All the students loved him. According to Sproul’s story, they even sang a song to him!
But then, the final due date arrived. This time, 150 students handed in their papers. 100 did not. Sproul approached a young man and asked, “Do you have your paper to turn in?” The young man replied, “Hey, don’t worry about it prof. I’ll have it for you in a couple of days.” Sproul picked up his grade book, looked at the young man again and said, “You don’t have your paper?” The guy replied, “No.” Sproul marked in his grade book and said, “F.”
Sproul continues, “There was this gasp in the room. And I looked and said, ‘Johnson, where’s your paper?’ ‘I don’t have it, sir.’ I said, ‘F. Reynolds, where’s your paper? F.’ And as if it were orchestrated...they call cried out with one voice, ‘THAT’S NOT FAIR!’
“I said, ‘What did you say?’ ‘We said that’s not fair.’ I said, ‘Beech, weren’t you late with your paper last time?’ He said, ‘Yes sir.’ ‘And you are late this morning?’ He said, ‘Yes sir.’
“So, I gave you an F for today, and it’s justice that you want? I’m going to give you justice. I’m going to change your grade for the last one, the one you were late for, and I’m going to give you an F for that one. O.K.? Now, who else wants justice. You people be careful about ever asking for justice because you just might get it?”
Sproul continues, “But what happened? They became accustomed to my grace. First they appreciated it. Then, they expected it. Finally, they demanded it, and that’s who we are.”
That’s who we are. When it comes to God’s grace; His love; His mercy in this day and age–we no longer appreciate it. Most of us expect it. And many demand it. This is why there is a severe lack of humility in many churches today. This is why many Christians come across as arrogant and self-righteous. They believe they deserve grace–they deserve God’s love. And a Christian who is not afraid of God’s wrath or a person who is not afraid of God’s wrath, will not hear the Gospel as good news; will not ever have a change of heart; and will never experience the fullness of peace that the Gospel delivers.
Today, we begin a journey towards humility. Today we will begin to have our toes stomped on unmercifully. When Paul is done with us, our hearts will either be hardened to the point that we want nothing to do with God, or our hearts will be crushed and ready to hear what God has done when we least deserved it.
Paul begins, “18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” There was a time in recent Christian history when theologians wanted to get as far away from God’s wrath as possible. They believed this painted God as arbitrary, judgmental, liable to blow up at a whim and punish whoever He wanted whenever He wanted without regard. The idea that God could get angry to the point of dealing death toward His creation was shoved as far back as possible in favor of a God who simply loved and wanted to be loved. The majority of theologians today have repented from this because the horrid events of the 20th century: the Holocaust; the killing fields; the murder of millions of people in Russian pogroms woke them up to the reality of evil. And if God is a just God; if God cares even a smidgen for His creation, then He cannot stand such evil acts. God’s anger must burn hot at sin or God is not good!! Let me say that again: God’s anger must burn hot at sin and injustice, or God is not good! This is what is behind Paul’s words here. Ungodliness is sin against God. Wickedness is injustice or sin from one human against another. God hates these sins with a passion. They bring about His wrath.
But one might argue, how can someone who has never known God or known God’s commands stir God’s anger? Isn’t that injustice on God’s part? Paul says unequivocally that God’s anger is stirred against ungodliness and injustice–of those who suppress the truth. Can EVERYONE know the truth?
Paul anticipates this argument as he continues, “19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;” Paul probably has Psalm 19 verses 1-4 ringing in his head as he dictates these words. This Psalm reads:
The heavens declare the glory of God
the skies proclaim the works of his hands
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
No sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Paul believes in what we call today, natural revelation–that we can come to know God–His power and His divinity–through the natural world. This is not anything new for most people. Most people believe that we can come to know some sense of right and wrong; some sense of justice; some sense of God through looking around the world. Hence, every single culture around the world has some form of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Babies have a sense of fairness and justice. It is innate within each and every person who is in his or her right mind. No one is without excuse. And if there is a universal law, where did that law come from? Paul argues that those who suppress the truth are those who claim it comes from anywhere and everywhere but God.
21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. There is a blatant mistranslation in this text in verse 21. It should read “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened.” The importance of this translation will become clear in a moment.
Paul continues in his argument saying that even though people knew God–even though they knew of His revelation through creation–they did not honor Him or give thanks to Him. They refused to worship God. This led them to become futile in their thinking; have darkened hearts; and to become foolish. How does this happen?
This happens because everyone worships. Yes, everyone worships. I don’t care if you are an atheist, a staunch believer, or even a Christian in name only. Everyone worships something. Some may disagree with me greatly, but here is the argument laid out for you:
We as human beings don’t just live–we all live for something. Something in this life gives us meaning; gives us direction; gives us purpose; gives us hope; gives us a sense of value. Timothy Keller puts it best when he says, “There has to be something which captures our imagination and our allegiance, which is the resting place of our deepest hopes and which we look to to calm our deepest fears. Whatever that thing is, we worship it, and so we serve it. It becomes our bottom line, the thing we cannot live without, defining and validating everything we do.” In days of old those things were literally idols–images made from wood and metal, but in our days, such idols have been changed but are still none-the-less idols: money, sex, justice, peace, prosperity, work, family, friends, busyness, power, climbing the corporate ladder, science, technology, free time, the government and a host of other things capture our hearts’ imagination and lead us to become foolish.
How does this happen? Let me read to you the comments of atheist David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech at Kenyon College:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason to maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you choose to worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing you will die a thousand million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious. They are default settings.
When your heart’s imagination is captured by anything other than the Creator, you will become enslaved. It will demand your time; your money; your energy; your entire being, and then you will delude yourself into thinking you are just fine. You will justify what you are doing over and over and over again. You will make excuses for your behavior and your thoughts. When others confront you with your behavior, you will get angry and frustrated, and you will say, “I can stop this at any minute,” knowing full well you cannot and will not–until your heart changes. Your stubborn, darkened heart makes you a fool. Your worship of things other than the Creator turns you into a fool.
And now we must all ask ourselves: what do we worship? What consumes our heart and mind and our thoughts day in and day out. What do we think about in our spare time? What does our life revolve around? Odds are, it is not God. None of us, and I mean none of us are focused with all our being upon Him. We have traded worship for our Creator for things that are created. Therefore, we stand under God’s wrath. We deserve God’s wrath. God’s anger is kindled against us.
And now, I must end with an apology. I apologize for ending this sermon right here and right now. For years, I have included in my preaching the Gospel. I have brought you time and again to the point where you hear the soothing message of what God has done for you through Jesus Christ. I have pronounced the Gospel in a nutshell: John 3:16-17 with reckless abandon. But I cannot do this today. This book is forcing us to reflect upon the state of our hearts; upon the state of our sinfulness. We must continue through the darkness so that when the Gospel is announced at the end of chapter 3, we will once again discover just how amazing grace is. Amen.