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Man’s Idolatry and God’s Wrath

June 19, 2022 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans

Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 1:18–23



(Read vv. 18–32) The passage I just read has to be among the most offensive passages in all the Bible to the modern spirit. I suppose there are some sections of the Law and a few OT narratives that would be pretty close, but this one is right there at the top.

Afterall, it condemns homosexuality, other sexual sins, and other rebellious acts. Our world increasingly will not tolerate this. Paul also condemns naturalistic science as foolish rebellion against what we all know to be true. And he condemns most world religions as another rebellious invention to ignore the sovereign Lord.

To top it off, God doesn’t wink at man’s foolishness; instead, God has wrath toward this rebellion. So, yeah, you won’t hear Romans 1:18–32 at the next national celebration, and much of so-called Christendom is embarrassed that this passage is in the Bible.

Yet it is in the Bible, and while standing for this passage may be costly in the future, we must not be ashamed. Quite the opposite, this is a profound passage of Scripture. And while it is direct and strong, it is also a gracious gift of God because it exposes some of Satan’s most destructive lies. It also equips us as Christians with some necessary tools for interpreting our world and for effectively witnessing to it. So, I’m really looking forward to this study, and I hope you are too. This morning, we will study vv. 18–23, and I’d like to begin in vv. 19–20 with…

I.  God’s Gracious Revelation (vv. 19–20)

Before we go any further, I must take a moment to set this passage in context. Last Sunday, we saw in vv. 16–17 that God saves sinners by crediting his righteousness to them through faith. Romans 1:18–4:25 develop this glorious, good news.

Paul’s first step in explaining this good news is to establish our need of salvation. Therefore, 1:18–3:20 demonstrate that we are all sinners, and we all need salvation from God’s wrath. 1:18–32 begin the argument with a broad perspective on Gentile rebellion. God says that they do not know him through his Word, and they refuse to obey his will.

Yet, vv. 19–20 argue that God has not left them without knowledge. God has revealed himself to all people even if they’ve never heard the gospel or read a Bible. I’d like to answer 3 questions from vv. 19–20. First…

How has God revealed himself? The simple answer is that God has revealed himself to all people through “the creation of the world,” and by extension, the entire universe.

This is a common theme is Scripture. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps 19:1–2). “The heavens declare His righteousness, for God Himself is judge” (Ps 50:6). The Bible teaches that all creation displays the glory and character of God.

I love how v. 20 describes this fact. God is spirit, so he is “invisible.” John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time.” But while God is invisible, he has visualized his glory in creation. Verse 20 says it is “clearly seen.”

That’s not to say that God has revealed everything about himself in creation. I have a couple 800-page books on the doctrine of God, and won’t find that level of detail by looking at creation. We need Scripture to precisely define who God is and especially what he has done for us in Christ. I’ll talk extensively this evening about general revelation can and cannot teach us.

For now, the Bible consistently teaches that creation powerfully declares God’s glory. Verse 19 says it is “evident within…” And v. 20 says God’s glory is “clearly seen.”

For example the complexity of creation screams of the fact that it is the product of intelligent design, not mere chance. Of course, many people try to deny this. This spring, Heidi and I watched a documentary that tried to explain the formation of earth by natural causes. It was creative, but it was also far-fetched, especially when they tried to explain why the earth has so much water and such a perfect atmosphere.

Let’s suppose you are hiking through a remote forest where no one has supposedly ever been and find an old chainsaw. Your first impulse would not be theorize about a chainsaw could naturally develop. No, you would immediately assume that someone must have designed that chainsaw and then left it in the forest. Similarly, the simplest explanation of our universe will always be that a powerful and wise God designed it.

Beyond that, every view of the universe is an opportunity for us to view God’s “invisible attributes,” or more specifically his “eternal power and divine nature.” The galaxies in space or a grand mountain peak reflect God’s power and majesty. The complexities and intricate design of the human body reflect God’s wisdom and attention to detail.

And the beauty of a sunset and other good things reflect God’s beauty and goodness. “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16–17).

Every drop of rain and every meal that we eat is God’s gracious witness of his existence and goodness. God has clearly revealed himself in his creation. A 2nd question is…

To whom has God revealed himself? Paul answers that God has revealed himself to all humanity. Yes, there are many places where the gospel is not available. In fact, there are billions of people without any practical Christian witness. This fact should grieve our souls.

But our text and the others I have quoted all teach that God has revealed “His eternal power and divine nature” to all humanity in every corner of the world through his creative work.

Romans 2:12–16 add that God has also revealed himself to all people through the gift of conscience. The fact that all people have moral awareness and know that there is a difference between right and wrong testifies to the fact that there is a moral authority who stands over all people.

So, yes, many people today would profess to be atheists, but God says they are lying to themselves. God has clearly revealed himself to them, and they know he is real. The 3rd question vv. 19–20 answer is…

What are the implications of general revelation? Verse 20 answers, “so that they are without excuse.” You may wonder “Excuse from what?” The only possible answer in context is “the wrath of God” in v. 18.

Therefore, Paul is saying that no one will stand before the Lord at the Great White Thrown Judgment and legitimately claim they had no idea that God exists or that they should honor him with their lives. This knowledge is “evident within them,” and it is “evident to them.” As a result, God will be fully justified when he condemns them to eternity in hell.

Now, I realize this raises a host of questions that you may have or that you will get asked at some point by someone you love or someone with whom you are sharing the gospel. I don’t have time this morning to answer these questions fully, but I plan to deal more completely with them tonight.

The big one is whether general revelation is sufficient to save? The short answer is that Paul does not say that it is. He says “they are without excuse.” So, it is sufficient to condemn, but he never says it is sufficient to save. That’s hard. “How can any of that be fair?” The short answer is that God determines what is just, not us.

Those are all important issues. I hope you will come back tonight and think about them with me. For now, the main application of vv. 19–20 is that must embrace Paul’s ambition in vv. 13–17. We must share the gospel with all those who have never heard! People must hear about Christ, and we must compel them to be saved. And we must work together to see the gospel preaching churches established in those parts of the world where they have no access to the gospel. So, vv. 19–20 say that God has graciously revealed himself, but vv. 21–23 then describe…

II.  Man’s Foolish Rebellion (vv. 21–23)

These are some of the tragic verses in Scripture. They describe a downward spiral from God to absurdity, which has been tragically repeated time after time throughout human history. They begin with the fact that…

Everyone knows God is real. Verse 21 says all people “know God.” They don’t know him as Savior, but they know he exists. This is because God “made it evident to them” in creation and conscience.

It’s a simple point, but it’s so reassuring as we feel the pressure of a humanistic culture and as we try to share the gospel with it. People like Richard Dawkins can scream all they want that God is not real, but God says they don’t truly believe it. It’s all just a ruse designed to ignore a reality they don’t like.

Don’t be intimidated by it, and don’t buy the lie that they are the smart, objective thinkers, and you’re the superstitious fool for believing in God. It’s all just a self-deceiving show.

As well, remember that it’s not up to you to prove God’s existence to the unbeliever. God says he already knows God is real. It’s fine to answer sincere questions because that’s faith-building.

But generally speaking, begin with the assumption that God is real and that is Lord. And focus on the gospel and Scripture, not long philosophical debates. So, people know God is real, but Paul notes that instead of worshipping him…

Sinners refuse to honor God. People want to believe that we are all born morally neutral or even good. Therefore, they also want to believe that they can think objectively, and that they are capable of discerning ultimate truth.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I just believe the best of all the religions” as if they have much more intellectual and moral insight than everyone before them? It’s extremely arrogant.

And God says it is foolish because sinners are blinded by sin. Verse 18 says they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” The grammar indicates that this is an ongoing suppression. So, the knowledge of God keeps pushing to the surface. But they don’t want to believe it. So, they are constantly playing whack-a-mole against this knowledge. But it just keeps popping up.

Similarly, notice v. 21. Sinners do not want to “honor God or give thanks.” Afterall, honoring God necessarily means accountability to him. And sinners want to take credit for what they have, not admit their dependence on God and give thanks to him for what they have.

It’s tragic because all that effort to suppress the truth doesn’t bring joy; it just leads people further into destruction. Yet people all around us live this text every day of their lives. But sadly, the spiral is far from complete.

Sinners worship the creation instead of the Creator. Because we are made in God’s image, we must worship something. But rather than worshipping God, v. 21 states people became “futile…” (BTW, the past tense verbs are not referring to a one-time event. Rather, the Greek aorist often communicates timeless realities, and that’s what’s happening here).

That said, you can’t improve on God, so worshipping anything else is futile, speculative, and foolish. It’s absurd, but we are surrounded by evidence that this verse is true. People will believe and worship anything to get away from God.

On Wednesday, I listened to Albert Mohler talk about the growing industry of life coaching based in New Age spirituality. He quoted NYT journalist Molly Worthen as saying, "If we are tempted to dismiss their taste for crystals and energy healing as New Age flimflam, it's partly because they face up to something that many modern Westerners struggle to admit. Neither total submission to a traditional religious institution nor atheistic materialism feels right. We kind of do want the universe to hold our hand without bossing us around too much.”

That’s an incredibly honest description of sinners. We want a higher power, but we don’t want it too high because we want to be the boss.

But the absurdity only gets worse (v. 23). Notice the downward spiral from God to man, to the birds of the sky, to mammals, and to reptiles that crawl in the dirt. Again, history demonstrates that this is what people do. They have imagined all sorts of gods, but all of them are inferior to the true God.

Again, it’s not because they don’t know that there is a sovereign and righteous God; it’s because they don’t want to honor him or be holy as he is holy. So, they imagine something else that fits their agenda.

Now, Westerners would say that we are too smart for the nonsense of v. 23. They proudly declare that they don’t need any god. But few of them believe it. Most of them fit in that NYT quote. Eastern spirituality is exploding in our culture because people “want the universe to hold our hand without bossing us around too much.” We must appreciate that impulse if we are going to share the gospel well and stand for our faith. The 4th stage of the spiral is…

Sinners call their foolishness wisdom (v. 22). What a perfect description of humanity. For millennia, people have carved idols, bowed in worship, and then boasted about their intelligence. Today, people boast that they have explained God away or even killed him.

Today is Father’s Day, and our culture boasts that it is toppling patriarchy and the biblical family because they are forms of oppression. Yes, abusive men must be confronted. But they want to destroy much more. And the evidence clearly states that this new morality is destroying lives, cultivating violence and mental disorders, and tearing society apart.

But people boast as if what they are doing is so wise and good. But God calls them fools, and that’s exactly what they are.

It’s all terribly tragic. God made us to worship and serve him, and he graciously gave us the Bible so that we can know him, know how to live wise and fruitful lives, and the joy of fellowship with him. You can’t improve on the Bible.

Don’t forget it. Love the Word and cling to everything it says. Don’t be intimidated by the world. See its boasting for the foolishness that it is. And then share the gospel aggressively because you are zealous for God’s glory, and you really want what’s best for sinners. This is imperative because v. 18 says that man’s foolish rebellion inspires…

III.  God’s Righteous Indignation (v. 18)

The first question we need to answer about this heavy verse is…

What is God’s wrath? We know that sinners struggle to comprehend holy wrath because our wrath is rarely holy. As well, God’s wrath offends modern people; therefore, many “Christians” have tried to explain it away.

It is important that we distinguish God’s holy wrath from human rage which is often irrational and out of control. But God is always in control, and everything he does is reasonable and rooted in perfect righteousness, justice, and love.

It’s good that God responds to evil with wrath because otherwise it would last forever. “God’s wrath is…an outworking of his love. Once we understand God’s love, we know it as a tough love, one that respects his standards of righteousness and burns in jealousy against those who betray it. God’s wrath serves the purposes of his love, and his love is the richer for it: it bestows on his beloved the ultimate blessing of a sin-free world” (John Frame, p. 468).

The reason we have a problem with God’s wrath is not because God is harsh; it’s because we think too much of ourselves and not enough of God. And we don’t appreciate how horribly sin has destroyed God’s good creation and purpose. So, God’s wrath is his righteous, just, and good hatred of evil.

Why does God have wrath? It’s important to say that wrath is not an attribute of God. He is not eternally wrathful; rather, evil must arouse wrath in God.

And v. 18 says that this is exactly what has happened. God’s only just and good response to “the ungodliness…” is wrath. So, the occasion for God’s wrath is the rebellion of sinners who reject the truth he has given them.

Now, it’s one thing to applaud God’s wrath against Vladimir Putin or the Chinese Communist Party. We look at their evils, and we are glad that God is angry and that he will end such violence and evil someday.

But you can’t fully appreciate this passage and its place in the larger argument of Romans until you come to grips with the fact that God has wrath toward your sin and mine and toward the sins of all people outside Christ. It’s hard to stomach the idea that God has wrath toward your precious child or grandchild who is so kind and sweet.

And yet all of us are guilty of “ungodliness and unrighteousness” and all who are lost “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Rather than being offended by God we need to be offended by our sin. We need to appreciate how horrible and rebellious it truly is.

Specifically, your sin is so vile that it deserves the eternal judgment of God. I know that’s hard to hear, and I can’t fully comprehend it because I don’t fully comprehend God. But God says it is so, and as hard as it is to hear, you must accept it before you can ever appreciate the good news of the gospel.

So, don’t lie to yourself about how you are a good person who is worthy of God’s love. Instead, admit that you are hopelessly condemned under God’s wrath because only then will you rest in the mercy of God alone.

And praise God that there is plenty of grace and mercy in the cross. Jesus took our sin out of the way when he suffered the judgment of God on the cross. And you can be saved from the wrath of God by trusting in Christ. Please repent of your sin and turn to Christ. You can leave knowing that you are safe from the wrath of God.

And if you are saved, this passage should compel you to share the gospel with those around you. They stand under God’s wrath, and they will be condemned to hell unless they believe the gospel. Don’t let this truth ever grow stale. It should sting. Then we must lovingly warn them about the wrath to come and boldly urge them believe on Christ. Be a strong witness for Christ this week.

Finally, the key issue in this entire passage is worship. We were made to worship God, and the greatest sin we can commit is worship something else in God’s place. So, this day and every day, “Honor Him as God.” See him for who he is and worship accordingly. Then “Give thanks,” because we are not the masters of our fate. All that we have comes from his hand, and God is abundantly good and kind.

More in Romans

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Don’t Graduate from the Gospel

May 12, 2024

Separatism Serves Unity

April 28, 2024

Friends and Teammates