Romans, Part 2 - "Why God Is Right to Be Angry" (1:18-32)
A few years ago, I shared with you an old - and now probably somewhat tired - story about my dad. I was getting beat up after school, put in a headlock by three or four older kids, and was terrified that they were going to choke the life out of me. My sister ran ahead of me, back home, and alerted my dad.
My dad is a tough guy. He’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he’s one of those guys about whom you say, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” There’s a lot of fight in that dog, and he loves his kids.
He was in the kitchen, reading the newspaper and smoking a cigarette after work. When I finally made it home, all teary-eyed and fearful, he took a long draw on his cigarette and basically asked me two questions. The first was, “Are you OK?” The second was, “Do you know where they live?” Long story short, he told my sister and me to get in the car. We drove over to the house. My dad knocked on the door, stepped inside at their invitation, and made it clear that wasn’t ever going to happen again.
Those bullies felt some measure of my dad’s wrath. But what prompted it? It wasn’t first and foremost anger toward them. It was love toward me.
Today, many people think that God’s wrath is somehow irreconcilable with his love. A loving God supposedly doesn’t judge people; he forgives them. A loving God, we’re told, doesn’t get angry; he’s patient. Many suggest that a truly loving God wouldn’t send anyone to hell.
A recent study by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research, the same study we referenced last week, provides some evidence of this line of thinking. It found that 73% of Americans at least somewhat disagreed with the statement that “Even the slightest sin deserves eternal damnation” (and, of these, 61% strongly disagreed). Conversely, only 12% strongly agreed. In other words, almost 90% of Americans today deny the full weight of God’s justice and wrath for sin as taught in Scripture, and affirmed by the historic, orthodox Christian faith.
So, suffice it to say, it seems that many are quick to affirm their belief in a God of love. Far, far fewer are quick to affirm a God of wrath.
But which is it? Does God get angry? Does he feel wrath toward those living in rebellion? And, if so, is God right to be angry?
This morning, I want to begin with a simple idea: you cannot truly believe in a God of love who is not also a God of wrath. To love something is to despise that which comes against it.
Imagine my dad was indifferent to my suffering. Imagine he just kept smoking his cigarette and reading his newspaper. Imagine he turned a blind eye to the injustice of it all. I can’t even begin to imagine that. Why? Because I know my father loves me. His love doesn’t preclude his wrath; it prompts and propels it.
God is jealous over what he loves (cf. Exodus 20:5; 2 Corinthians 11:2). It is not a jealously akin to envy. It is not jealousy born of insecurity. It is a pure and holy zeal to protect and prosper right relationships with the objects of his affection, relationships that glorify him and promote the good of what he loves. It is this pure and holy zeal, at times expressed in wrath, that reveals the depth of God’s love for his creation. Would God be holy and perfectly righteous if he was indifferent to evil and injustice? No. Without wrath, God would cease to be loving and ultimately cease to be God.
THE CHARGE (1:18)
As we continue in our study of Romans, we begin this morning in verse 18. The Bible reveals and warns of God’s wrath over and over again. Here is just one more example. Let’s read:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Here, Paul levels a charge against humanity: guilty.
He begins his charge by saying that the wrath of God is “revealed from heaven.” However, there is an important aspect here in the Greek. It’s probably better to translate this as being revealed. In other words, it’s happening already but is far from complete. This world is already under judgment; his wrath is already being revealed. It will culminate in even greater measure, in the future, but it’s here - present and active - now (cf. 2:5).
We should note that this wrath is not capricious or erratic. It is deliberate and controlled, a perfect expression of his holy character. God has emotions, but is not governed by them.
Hearing the charge, we’re then right to ask, “Of what are we guilty?” Paul lists two things: ungodliness and unrighteousness. Initially, these two terms might seem a little redundant. They’re not. The former is irreverence or a lack of piety toward God, and is oriented vertically (God to humanity). The latter is a resulting life of injustice toward others, and is oriented not only vertically but also horizontally (person to person). Do you see what Paul’s done? He’s brought a profound charge against humanity: we are not only guilty of breaking some of God’s laws. We’re guilty of breaking all of God’s Law.
Do you remember the Ten Commandments? How are they structured? The first four pertain to our relationship with God; they’re oriented vertically. The remaining six pertain to our relationship with God as reflected in our relationship with one another; they’re oriented vertically but also horizontally. Jesus spoke to this when he summarized the whole law in two commandments, to love God with everything (vertical) and to love our neighbor as ourselves (horizontal) (Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27). To fail in this is, in the words of Paul here, ungodliness and unrighteousness.
THE EVIDENCE: GOD’S MERCY (1:19-20)
As we’ve seen this past week, during the confirmation process for a new justice to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, it’s not enough to make a charge; one must also provide sufficient evidence. With that in mind, Paul moves to a first line of evidence to establish the depth and breadth of humanity’s guilt before God in verses 19-20:
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
When I go away on vacation, I like to read - a lot. I pick a few books to take with me - maybe like 2 or 3 - or 10 or 15. This past summer, I read an excellent biography of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, the author of 1984, Animal Farm, and so on. I also read a book on theological research; that was especially riveting, as you can imagine. I also read a book about Christian views of gender and sexuality. All of that is to say this: I take a lot of books with me, so many that I have a hard time fitting them in my luggage.
The night before we leave, I’m usually packing and repacking, trying to jam-pack my clothes, my shoes, my books, and on and on into my suitcase. The result is a really, really strained zipper that looks like it will pop at any moment.
You know, that’s how Paul describes our world, even our own minds and hearts. God’s so packed our universe with the evidence and knowledge of his existence that we are without excuse. It is all around us; it’s even in us. The zipper of creation can’t stay closed; all of creation testifies to the glory and power of God. Therefore, as some have said, the problem isn’t a lack of evidence; it’s a lack of openness to that evidence. We suppress it.
We might suppress it by denying God’s existence altogether. This is the claim of atheism.
We might suppress it by denying that knowledge of God is possible. This is the claim of agnosticism.
We might suppress it with indifference. This is apathy.
We might suppress it by affirming the existence of God, but denying that he is God as revealed in Scripture. These are the claims of what we, as Christians, would call false religion.
Why did God gives us this general revelation his existence and nature? In one sense, it’s an act of mercy. God is under no obligation to reveal himself. In fact, he could justly abandon us, leaving us to ourselves and the hopeless darkness of complete ignorance. But he’s not done that. He’s given us so much knowledge of his presence and power that we’re without excuse; we can turn to him anytime we want to do so. Our problem is that we don’t want to do so. Our problem is not ignorance; it’s obstinance.
THE EVIDENCE: OUR SIN (1:21-23)
And so, according to Paul, our attempts at suppression continue. He explains:
21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The Bible knows nothing of a true atheist. Everyone, maybe pushed into the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds and buried beneath an avalanche of denials, possesses inescapable knowledge of God. However, a simple knowledge (notitia) of God’s existence and something of his nature doesn’t necessarily produce an intellectual embrace (assensus) of this truth, or a trusting reliance (fiducia) upon it.
When you walk into the Admissions Office of my alma mater, there is a small but beautiful stained glass window above the entrance. It says, “Without knowledge, there is no wisdom.” As a pastor, one entrusted to teach God’s Word, I think of that window often. It’s true: you can have knowledge without wisdom, but you cannot have wisdom without knowledge.
The ancient Hebrew worldview viewed “the fear of the Lord [as] the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One [as] insight” (9:10). Biblically, there is no true wisdom apart from knowledge of God; true wisdom begins there. However, the knowledge of God doesn’t guarantee wisdom. That’s why Paul calls those who reject God and suppress their knowledge of him, fools. He’s not calling them names or mocking them. He’s sharing a simple tautology: if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight, there is no true wisdom apart from him - only foolishness.
Paul’s portrait of humanity is not of people running toward the light, but rather fleeing from it. It’s not a picture of people seeking God, but rather suppressing their knowledge of him. This is not just the attitude or acts of the avowed atheist. It is, as we see in verses 22-23, also the work of the very religious. Here, Paul refers to idolatry, the worship of creation rather than the Creator.
Note that idolatry does not need to be the crude and obvious idolatries of worshipping carvings, statues, and images. Paul uses these examples because they were common, and especially stunning examples of human foolishness (i.e. worshipping pieces of wood and stone, materials that you would burn to keep warm or craft to make tools). However, biblically speaking, idolatry is much broader and can be much more sophisticated. It involves the worship and service of anything over and against the only worthy object of worship and ultimate service, God himself. It’s a disordering of our affections, loving and serving aspects of creation over their Creator.
THE EVIDENCE: GOD’S JUSTICE (1:24-25)
How does God respond to those in obstinate rebellion and suppression of his truth? Three times, Paul says that God gives them over. We read the first in verses 24-25.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
There are two aspects to God’s wrath, one we might call consequential and the other we might call consignment. In the first case, we think of God simply allowing those who despise him and the things of him, to experience the consequences of their rejection. If you don’t want God, God will allow you to walk away, but - please - consider the consequences carefully.
What is life without God? It is life without all that God is. It is life without love. It is life without goodness. It is life without truth. It is life without light. C.S. Lewis said it this way, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing." Do you remember what Jesus said? He said he is the way, the truth, and the life. Life without Jesus is, in a sense, life without life; it is death.
However, God’s wrath is not simply passive; it is also active. It is God who actively consigns those who reject them to the consequences of their own choices. J.D. Greear gives a great example of this from the story of Adam and Eve. They sinned, subjected themselves to guilt and shame as its consequence, and therefore fled from God’s presence. God confirmed the consequence of their choices by actively consigning them to life outside the Garden of Eden.
Before we move on, notice the progression in Paul’s thought, from attitudes to affections and from affections to actions. Because they suppressed the knowledge of God, he gave them over to the disordered lusts of their hearts and dishonoring of their bodies. None of this strips God of his honor for he is forever blessed (v. 25).
THE EVIDENCE: GOD’S JUSTICE (1:26-27)
We find the second “giving over” in verses 26-27:
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Admittedly, this is one of the more difficult aspects of New Testament teaching today. Here, Paul says that gave them up to the “dishonorable passions” and practices of homosexuality. He calls these acts “contrary to nature,” and justly deserving God’s punishment. Many of you might be wondering what this means for gay friends, relatives, family members, and others - maybe even yourself.
Let me say some things briefly.
First, this is one reason that we preach through the Bible, verse-by-verse, at Willow Creek. It leads us into difficult places, and doesn’t allow us to avoid them. We want to study, preach, and teach the whole counsel of God, not just what’s easy and popular.
Second, this is not a sermon about sexuality, though it touches upon it. These issues are far too deep and complex to address sufficiently as we deal with the broader teaching of this passage, of which this is only a small though significant part. That’s not a convenient hedge born of fear; it’s a caveat born of respect. A full and respectful treatment of Christian teaching regarding homosexuality would require much, much more than we can give it this morning.
Finally, let me also say that I know this is very personal for many of you, and for some of you, even painful. I want you to know that when Scripture stings, it’s ultimately to heal, even if that healing can only take place through some initial hurt.
So, what is Paul saying here? He’s saying that homosexuality is not according to God’s design, nor the design of nature. Using the language of Scripture, it is sin. There are creative arguments to the contrary, and I’m open to an honest discussion of them. However, I’m bound to Scripture. So far, I haven’t found these convincing. Until I can be shown from Scripture where this is an error, my conscience keeps me here.
Why does Paul speak of homosexuality in particular? Is it because homosexuality is of a special class of sin, that the homosexual is at special enmity with God? No - not at all. The reason is rhetorical. After speaking of idolatry as a vertical inversion of our relationship with God (worshipping the creature below rather than the Creator above), he cites homosexuality as an inversion of the horizontal - our deepest, most intimate relationships with one another expressed in the wrong direction.
Finally, let me say this. One’s conviction that homosexuality is outside of God’s design does not, in any way, justify holding or advancing that belief in an manner outside of God’s design. You can’t justly advocate obedience to God by breaking God’s law.
How should you treat your LGBTQ neighbors? The same way you should treat all your other neighbors. You should love your neighbors as you love yourself (Mark 12:31). You should speak to them, and of them, with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). You should serve them, as Jesus served and serves you (Mark 10:45). You should share with them the truth of God’s Word, but only if you’re prepared to speak that truth in love - removing every needless obstacle to the enjoyment of communion with God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:15). And whenever you don’t do this, you should confess it as sin and repent.
How should we, as a congregation, welcome our LGBTQ neighbors? God welcomes all who would come, and so should we. We should teach the truth of God’s Word, even its more difficult aspects, but only in love. Without love, we’re nothing (1 Corinthians 13).
There is more that I could say on this point, much more. In time, we will. However, for our purposes this morning, we need to continue.
THE EVIDENCE: GOD’S JUSTICE (1:28-31)
We read the third and final “giving over” in verses 28-31:
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Paul continues by saying that dishonorable passions can give way to a debased mind. He then provides a lengthy list of sinful attitudes, affections, and actions. Now, this is very important. If you’re tempted to think that Paul’s description of homosexuality makes it a special, especially grievous, form of sin; you’re wrong. There is a certain “sin-leveling” here. None of us, apart from Jesus Christ, are exempt from Paul’s indictment. Have you:
ever felt envious?
ever been angry at your brother? Jesus called that murder in your heart.
ever created or maintained strife in your relationships?
ever harbored or acted in malice?
ever gossiped about someone?
ever slandered someone?
ever failed to love God the way he should be loved?
ever been stubborn or arrogant?
ever disobeyed your parents?
ever been foolish, faithless, heartless, or ruthless?
If you say you haven’t to any of these, you just lied - so there!
These are far more universal and socially pervasive forms of sin, and actually form deeper evidences cited by Paul. Bottom line: no one is immune or exempt. Left to ourselves, we are all in a gradual fall out of our proper orbit. Until God becomes our sun, we are all rogue planets and wandering stars in the gloom of utter darkness (Jude 1:13).
THE EVIDENCE: OUR HARD-HEARTEDNESS (1:32)
I’ve only stood before a judge one time. It was after I accidentally backed into a streetlight on the New York State Thruway, and knocked it over two or three lanes of traffic. When the judge saw my embarrassment, and was convinced that there was no intent, he was very merciful toward me. However, had I plowed through it on purpose, I doubt he would have been so kind.
The judgments of a criminal court of law often factor a criminal’s level of intent. Therefore, Paul establishes the level of humanity’s sinful intent in the final verse of our passage this morning. He says:
32 Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
The Bible tells us that God’s wrath for our sin, both its consequence and consignment, is death. For this reason, in Romans 6:23, Paul later writes that “the wages of sin is death.” This death is deserved. Humanity is not only rebellious; it revels in its rebellion.
THERE IS NO SALVATION IN US, ONLY JESUS
We live at a time when asserting God’s wrath seems, to many outside the Church, out of date and out of touch - perhaps little more than Bronze Age superstition. Even many evangelicals are tempted to soft-pedal the notion of God’s wrath in an attempt to make the Christian faith more palatable for modern hearers and to grow their churches. Some go so far as to say the Old Testament God of judgment and wrath has been replaced by the New Testament God of love and acceptance. For all these reasons and more, we hear less and less of wrath.
However, hearing less of God’s wrath is not compassionate; it’s cruel. It is to hear less of God’s love.
Without knowing the full wrath of God for your sin, you cannot know how strongly God loves his creatures and his creation. You cannot know that to which Jesus willingly, even joyfully, subjected himself and endured for your salvation. You cannot know the horror of life apart from him, and be fully warned to seek a reunion by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
Only when you know the horror of being a great sinner can you know the happiness of having an even greater Savior. And that is my prayer for each of you here this morning, that you would love the Savior who loved you enough to suffer the wrath you deserved, in your place.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.