For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. —Romans 1:18
Why are we thinking our way through Romans? Because here we strike it rich with a new understanding of God and ourselves and how life works. For example, we discover here that we are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14). That’s a new approach. In my mental universe I’m under law and under grace. I’m under law when I’ve been bad because I deserve it, and I’m under grace when I’ve been good because I’ve earned it. So I live in a mental world where I swing back and forth between self-punishment and self-exaltation. But the truth is, I’m not under law at all but totally under grace. If you are in Christ, God wants you to know that and believe it and dare to live it.
If you are in Christ, God is not thinking judgmental thoughts of you at all. God is at this moment perceiving you with gracious thoughts, and gracious thoughts only, for the sake of Christ. Don’t let yourself be lured into an endless conversation in your mind about how your obedience today offsets your disobedience yesterday and where that puts you right now in your running balance. I love the way Martin Luther put it:
It is the supreme art of the devil that he can make the law out of the gospel. If I can hold on to the distinction between law and gospel, I can say to him any and every time that he should kiss my backside. . . . Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I reply on the basis of the gospel, “The forgiveness of sins covers it all,” I have won.
Here’s how you can win in life. Come into Christ and live in Christ, where you are totally forgiven under grace, and tell the accusing devil to kiss your backside on his way out the door. That’s why we’re studying Romans. There is a new way for sinners to live in freedom and joy, and we want in on it.
It’s also a new way to treat one another. If we are not under law but under grace when we walk into this room, then we don’t put one another under the law in our thoughts and judge one another and scrutinize one another. We walk into this room seeing people for whom God feels nothing but grace, and we’re happy about that. We’re building up a not-law-but-grace church culture here at Immanuel, so that people can see the relational beauty Christ creates. That’s why we’re studying Romans.
In our passage for today, Romans 1:18-23, Paul is saying hard things. He’s showing us the wrath of God at work in the world today. Why? What is his point? If we look ahead in Romans, we see his strategy. Paul is doing two things in this next section of the book, Romans 1:18-3:20. One, Paul is preparing us for the grace of God. What makes grace non-amazing to us is our good self-images. In 1:18-3:20, God is giving us the gift of low self-esteem. He helps us see ourselves with new realism, so that we can be blown away by the grace of God. Two, Paul is showing us the people God uses to build healthy churches. The whole book of Romans funnels down to chapters 12-16, where we learn how to be a gospel-centered church. But here at the beginning of the book, we find out who the people are that God works with. Who are they? Sinners. God doesn’t start with saints but sinners. Jesus was famous for being a friend to sinners (Luke 7:34). He accepted them and ate with them (Luke 15:2). He identified with them. He made bad people the beginning of something new that will outlast the universe. That’s what we see in Romans 1:18-3:20. We see ugly people, who are transformed by grace into a beautiful church. Paul shows us three human profiles here. In 1:18-32 we see the human profile of unrestrained, no-rules self-assertion. In 2:1-16 we see the human profile of conscience and moderation and morality – but always looking for loopholes. In 2:17-29 we see the human profile of Bible-believing but Bible-disobeying self-assurance. And all these human profiles – the liberals and the conservatives and the biblically informed people – they’re all sinners. But God’s purpose is to display the greatness of his grace that builds all kinds of people into a beautiful church. That’s why Immanuel Church is here – to display together the newness only God can create.
Let’s have the courage then to look at 1:18-23 with openness. The only thing we stand to lose here is our damnation. Here are the highlights:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. —Romans 1:18
What is the wrath of God? It is his outrage when he looks at the world today. If God looked at our world today and liked it or were just indifferent toward it, could we respect him, much less worship him? A non-indignant God would be an accomplice. Who is the most loving person in all the Bible? God. Who is the angriest person in all the Bible? God. What would we have preferred? Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, with no feelings about us at all? The Greek concept of God was a projection of a Greek aristocrat. He wasn’t bothered by his inferiors, because they were too far beneath him to deserve any notice at all. The wrath of God in the Bible is not a sign of weakness but humility. He’s willing to be involved. He’s willing to be disturbed. The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). It never says, “God is anger.” But it couldn’t say that God is love without his anger, because it’s his anger that makes his love amazing. At the cross, God absorbed his own wrath into himself. At the cross, he didn’t demand our blood; he gave his own. God is not out to give us what we deserve; he is out to give us what no one deserves. Will we receive it?
So the good news of the gospel begins with the bad news that God is feeling morally appropriate outrage at our entire human race. And the very fact that the Bible uses the word “wrath” shows how intensely God feels it. The Bible says about the blast furnace called the w rath of God,
Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire. —Nahum 1:6
It is not the Bible’s job to protect us from the living God. It is the Bible’s job to show him to us. We’re not supposed to feel comfortable. We’re supposed to feel awakened.
Many people today have a problem with the doctrine of the wrath of God. They think it gives Christians justification to be angry, violent people: “If God is like that, we can be too.” Some Christians are angry and violent, but not because of this doctrine. It’s because they ignore this doctrine. When we let the wrath of God sink in, we stop fighting. Remember that Paul is going somewhere with his teaching. In chapter 12 he tells us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Romans 12:19). When we really believe in the wrath of God, we let go of our own wrath. God is the only person in the universe morally qualified to judge.
What is it then that God finds in us so offensive that he cannot and will not overlook it?
…who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. —Romans 1:18
The deal-breaker for God is not the sins as we think of as the usual suspects. The deal-breaker for him is our dishonesty. We defy God by ignoring him. Paul calls it “suppressing the truth.” What does it mean to suppress the truth? It’s the opposite mentality to the “faith” of verse 17. Faith swallows the truth whole. But unrighteousness suppresses the truth. What truth? The truth of who God is and who we are before God. That is the guilty secret we cover up. We look the other way when we see clear evidence of how good God really is and how wrong we really are. We suppress it, spin it, evade it. We use soft words to describe our failings, we leave out embarrassing facts, we make apologies that don’t really own up to anything, we make ourselves look as good as we can and point the finger at others to make them look as bad as they can, we shift the blame to our parents, to society, to our genes. Our mental habits look for ways to change the subject from our guilt before God to someone else’s guilt before us. We tilt the conversation from the vertical to the horizontal and make it all someone else’s fault. And what gets buried and suppressed and censored in all the blaming is the one truth our guilty consciences are so afraid to face – the truth of who God is. And God takes that personally. It makes him angry. Why?
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. —Romans 1:19-20
God is gloriously wonderful. He has made his power and deity obvious. Look at the creation. How can we miss the most obvious thing? So our ignorance of his glory is a guilty ignorance, a chosen ignorance. That’s why God is offended. Our problem isn’t a lack of intelligence; it’s a lack of honesty. The heart controls the eye. What the heart does not want to see the eye cannot see. Yesterday I signed an email, with this verse in mind, “with no excuses left, Ray.” The next time someone asks “How are you?” maybe your answer should be, “Not a leg to stand on.” It’s the truth. It’s shakes us up, but it also moves us toward God.
Here is the truth that God has made so clear in his creation that we have no excuses left. God is God, we are not God, and he deserves all our worship. We might have plausible excuses for many sins. But we have no excuse for this mega-sin – refusing to be who we are and refusing to let God be who he is and treating him as a problem rather than our joy and resource. Whittaker Chambers was a communist spy in this country during the Stalinist era. Eventually he became a Christian. It began one day in his apartment in Baltimore:
My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had even happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed into my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature. . . . They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid on my forehead.
Non-Christian and sub-Christian worldviews are popular not because of their intellectual strength but because people need excuses for evading God – the real, full, industrial-strength God. But that doesn’t stop God. He is laying his finger on the foreheads of God-evading rebels of all kinds and making them into his church. It happened to C. S. Lewis. He was a contented unbeliever when he made the mistake of reading G. K. Chesterton. Later he confessed:
In reading Chesterton… I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere – “Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
No one has an excuse for leaving God out. But God has his ways of getting through. We need him to make the first move and penetrate our fuzzy, confused thinking so that we see him with a clarity we cannot deny. Apart from him, we’re living in a lie – and it messes with our minds. Here’s how:
For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. —Romans 1:21-23
When I was a pastor in California years ago, two students in our church spent an afternoon on their college campus standing silently, each one holding up a sign. One sign said, “Glorify God.” The other sign said, “Give God thanks.” And other students passing by kicked them and taunted them. Why? Glorifying God, magnifying God, praising God, treasuring God, trusting God, obeying God, enjoying God, letting the impact of who God is change me – that is the end of my willful pride and my big plans and my self-centered way of life and my undisturbed conscience. And thanking God, acknowledging God, recognizing God, giving God tribute – that means I owe him everything and I can no longer think of myself as a victim and I have to stop accusing God and cheer up. But our hearts prefer dark thoughts of God, because those thoughts justify us in our God-resistance. But that mental environment destroys us within. Paul says, “They became futile in their thinking.” He’s describing how our inner worlds become hollowed out and emptied of purpose and focus and joy and clarity. We become self-chosen worlds of darkness within. And we don’t lift ourselves out of this by our advanced degrees and expert knowledge. If we leave God out, the more we know and the smarter we get the more brilliantly we reinforce our own darkness. When was the last time you heard a TV talk show pundit say, “I need God”? They profess to be wise. They are very self-assured and full of their own opinions. But why does the Bible say “they became fools”? What is foolish about the God-deficit of our modern world?
Our loss of God is no accident. Verse 23 says, “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” See the word “exchange”? That’s a choice. We see the glory of God in a Pacific reef filled with colorful tropical fish and we choose to think, “God’s not really that interesting.” We think the glory of God in the elegant rationality of mathematics and we choose to think, “God’s not really that smart.” We feel the glory of God in the tenderness of family and friends and we choose to think, “God’s not really that loving.” Then we fill the emptiness in with cheap substitutes. We exchange, we trade God in, as if he were a bad deal. But when we stop worshiping God, we don’t worship nothing; we start worshiping anything. We treat the all-glorious God as an optional frill, a garnish on the side at best, and we treat created things as if they were our life and breath.
The Bible is describing our whole chosen way of life as a culture today. Our culture is a brilliantly designed mechanism for exchanging the glory of God for idols. That’s what our culture is for – to persuade us that it’s smart to exchange the glory of God for idols within the creation that never say No to us. But it’s foolish, because only God lasts forever. Do you see the word “eternal” in verse 20? Do you see the word “immortal” in verse 23, and the word “mortal” in verse 23? Even the crown of creation, man, the most intelligent being in the creation, dies. When you shop at the grocery store and buy a gallon of milk, you look for the expiration date. You choose the gallon with the furthest date stamped on it, because it will last longer. But would it be smart shopping to choose a gallon of milk with any expiration date when right there in plain view, and for free, you can have a bottle of the finest wine with no expiration date, a bottle that miraculously never empties, never runs dry, no matter how much you pour out? Is that smart shopping? Or is it foolish?
In closing, I want to say one thing to believers and another thing to unbelievers. If you’re a believer, the most vital thing we do here at Immanuel Church is trade back. We say with Paul, “Whatever gain I had, I count as loss for the sake of Christ. I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8). Will you choose a lifestyle that displays, rather than suppresses, the truth of his endless worth?
If you are an unbeliever, the good news of God’s grace begins with the bad news of God’s wrath, doesn’t it? But God is building a new community of worshipers with people who have treated him like dirt. Here’s how he’s doing it. He shows us his wrath, and then he shows us his grace. Every one of us will experience the wrath of God in one of two ways – either personally or substitutionally. Jesus Christ crucified is the only substitute for dishonest idolaters like you. If you will run from the wrath of God by running to the grace of God in Christ, he promises to lay on Christ crucified every guilty secret in your life, and you can be new again. Will you trust God enough today to stop suppressing the truth and come to him for his wonderful forgiveness?