Our unrighteousness and God’s wrath

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Romans 1:1-18

1. Illusory Superiority

We are all great at thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. It is called “illusory superiority” or sometimes it is called the “above average effect”.  I have spoken about this before. It’s the way that we have “cognitive bias” (a way of thinking) that for the most part causes us to think more favourably about ourselves when we compare ourselves with others. We have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves and what we are we are like.

 In a survey done at one university 68% of the university faculty rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability. 87% of students at Stanford University rated themselves as academically being in the top 50% of the student body. 93% of drivers in one survey also rated themselves to be in the top 50%[1]. In a 2014 study of Americans, 55% of them said that they were smarter than the average American, 34 percent though that were about as smart as the average American while only 4% believed that their intelligence was below the average. We all like to think of ourselves as being a little better than average. As far most people are concerned, we are poor judges when it comes to ourselves. We can readily see the problems in others, but we can have the same problem but just don’t see it. We have over inflated views of ourselves.

Now, this is a problem when it comes to the gospel. We can hear that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, but, somehow, we can still go away thinking that we don’t need it in the same way. Others might need saving but surely, we are not that bad that we need the same sort of help.

Last week in verse 16 and 17 of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans we heard how the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes and how in the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed. Today, we are looking at verses 18 to 32 of chapter 1 where Paul has begun to explain why we all need the gospel and why only the righteousness of God can save us.

Now sadly, the NIV drops out the word “for” at the beginning of verse 18 which I think ought to be included, as it has been in the English Standard Version (ESV). With it there it helps us see the connect with the previous. The NIV also uses the word “wickedness” which might have been better translated “unrighteousness” as in the ESV to also make the contrast with the previous verse more obvious. Listen to how I would translate this verse if I could take the best of the ESV and the NIV and combine the two.

Romans 1:18

For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

Here we see why we all need the revelation of the righteousness of God. It is because of the godlessness and unrighteousness of people. I think Paul is talking about all people here generally. Some people think that Paul is just talking about the Gentiles. But I think he starts off by talking about everyone and then he specifically addresses the Jews in chapter 2 who thought surely what he was saying couldn’t apply to them. Paul will show that it does.

Verse 18 is really the heading of long section which won’t end until in chapter 3 after Paul has made it clear that both Jew and Gentile alike are under sin (3:9) and that there is no one who is righteousness not even one (3:10). In these verses today Paul begins to describe our unrighteousness as human beings and how God’s wrath is being revealed against it.

Today I just want to make a few points about our unrighteousness as human beings and then look with you at how God’s wrath is being revealed because without understanding these things we will never appreciate our great own need for the righteousness of God and believe the gospel and be saved.

2. Our unrighteousness  

Our unrighteousness involves us firstly suppressing the truth of God.

2.1 People supress the truth of God

People suppress the truth of God by our unrighteousness and godlessness. The essence of sin says Stott “is a godlessness. It is the attempt to get rid of God, since that is impossible, the determination to live as though one had succeeded in doing so”[2]

Romans 1:18-19 (NIV2011)

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, 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 people are without excuse.[3]

The truth that the unrighteous and ungodly supress is that truth about God that he has made plain to them.

  • God has made himself known

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel and the painting that he left behind is the evidence that he was a great artist even though we never got to see him paint them. We know something of the artist through his work. His painting testifies of his skill and talent as an artist. In the same way, the beauty, splendour and grandeur of creation is evidence of God’s great power and divine nature even though we can’t see these invisible qualities of God with our own eyes. We can understand these things from seeing the things that he has made. These things reveal the eternal power of God and the deity of God, the fact that only ought to be worshipped.  

  • But we supress the truth in our unrighteousness

But instead of worshipping him we supress the truth in our unrighteousness and godlessness. We become godless people living as though he isn’t there even though God has made himself known through the things that he has made. This knowledge of God that is written into the creation (sometimes referred to as general or natural revelation) doesn’t result in people seeking after God, it just results in condemning us leaving us with no excuse for our unrighteousness and godlessness.

  • We have no excuse

Having no excuse means that we can’t argue with God on the day of judgment. We can’t argue for extenuating circumstances in our case that makes our rejection of God excusable. We can’t say that if we had known more it would have been different. If a child refuses to eat even a few mouthfuls of their dinner, bringing out a whole lot of the stuff and putting it before them won’t make any difference. What the child need is a change of heart so that they might be a little less headstrong and open their mouth and eat what’s on their spoon.  We can’t say that if only God had revealed more that things would have been different. God in creation has showed us enough and it’s enough to make our rejection of him inexcusable. God has made his eternal power and deity plain in the things that he has made so that people have no excuse. Paul will later conclude that the whole world will be held accountable to God (Romans 3:19).

2.2 People don’t worship God as they should

But our unrighteousness is more than just a suppression of truth. We don’t just ignore what God reveals of himself, but we refuse to honour him as we should, exchanging the glory of God for the home-made gods that we manufacture for ourselves.

Romans 1:21-23

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 a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

  • We have become corrupted in our minds and hearts

People don’t worship God as they ought. They should have glorified him and thanked him but instead because, we suppress the truth, our thinking becomes futile and our foolish hearts become darkened. In other words, we become corrupted in minds and heart. Ignoring God has a damaging effect on our minds and our hearts. It effects who we are, the way that we think and feel about life, our intellect, what we desire, our wills. We believe that we are wise but in fact we have become foolish turning from God and fashioning our own idols for ourselves.

  • We fashion our own kinds of false gods

Our generation might not fashion idols with our hands anymore, but our foolish hearts still fashion false ‘gods’ for ourselves. Our idolatry might be a little more sophisticated but it still no less real or dangerous. We exchange the worship of God for our obsession with ourselves and our  careers or wealth or our success, or achievement in sport or lifestyle of pleasure and leisure. We exchange the truth of God for a lie and end up worshipping and serving created things rather than the Creator (v25). We come up with our own gods and our own religions rather than acknowledge the living God.

2. God’s wrath

It’s this unrighteousness and godlessness that God’s wrath is being revealed against. God’s wrath is God’s righteous anger that is directed against sin and evil.

John Stott wrote that it “is his deeply personal abhorrence of evil”. God’s anger is not like our anger. We usually become angry when others just get in the way of what we want. We yell at people who hold us up traffic lights or who take too long to go around the corner. Our anger often is just about us not getting what we want and can be irrational and spiteful. God’s wrath is not God losing his temper. It isn’t God overreacting like a frustrated parent who is tired of how they’re being treated. It isn’t God letting off steam. It’s God’s resolve to bring his righteous judgment on sin in this world.

In chapter 2 Paul will talk about the day of God’s wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed (Romans 2:5-11). In chapter 2 he is talking about a future day of judgment. But in verses 18 of chapter 1 that we are looking at today Paul wrote that God’s wrath is even now being revealed from heaven against the wickedness of people. Even now there is divine response to the godlessness and unrighteousness of people.

  • God gave them over

But how is God’s wrath being revealed? Well Paul has a refrain (a phrase that is repeated) that runs throughout these verses. It is found three times in the second half of the chapter in verses 24, 26 and 28. In these verses we find the words, “God gave them over”. In each of place where the refrain appears Paul tell us how God hands over people to their own sinful desires so that they might experience the awful consequences of their sin in their bodies. I think what they experience to some to extent are awful consequences of what it is like to live without God – the chaos. John Stott writes that “God abandons stubborn sinners to their wilful self-centredness, 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).”[4]

3.1 God gave them over to the sinful desires of the heart

The apostle Paul gives three examples of God giving people over removing his restraining hand and letting sinners go their own way. Firstly, in verse 24 Paul wrote that he gave people over to the sinful desires of their hearts.

Romans 1:24

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.

Paul literally refers to them being given over to impurity (as in the ESV) but the NIV is not wrong as understanding this as sexual impurity in a general sense. That Paul has in mind is sexual activity that doesn’t conform to how the creator intended it – within a marriage between a man and a woman. This is sexual activity that isn’t about honouring the creator through our sexuality but about us fulfilling our sinful desires.  It’s sexual activity which uses others and degrades our humanness whether that be through pornography or promiscuity or adultery. These things don’t honour God but arise out of our sinful desires. Paul warns the Corinthians to flee from such sexual immorality.

1 Cor. 6:18 -20

18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your body.

3.2 God gave them over to their shameful lust

Secondly, having describe how people have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, Paul says in verse 26 that God gave them over to their own shameful lusts.

Romans 1:26-27

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Paul here talks about how men and women have exchanged natural relationships with the opposite sex for unnatural ones with the same sex. The word “natural” means according to nature. If you believe in the Creator, who created all things, then what you are saying is according to the Creator’s original intention for his creation which was for a man and a woman to come together in marriage. Paul clearly spells out what he means by exchanging natural relations for unnatural ones. He writes in verse 27 that men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men. He is referring to homosexual activity.

Of course, this view of our sexuality puts us add odds with the culture around us who want define nature as what I feel is natural to me. We should not find this odd in our world that has suppressed the truth about God and exchanged the truth for a lie. Paul has already explained that sin effects everything. It affects the way we think and feel about things. If we suppress the knowledge of God, then nature just becomes whatever we feel is natural for us. But the Bible says that sexuality immorality be it heterosexual or homosexuality is the outworking of our sinful desires of hearts.

3.3 God gave them over to a depraved mind

Lastly Paul says that God gave people over to a depraved mind.

Romans 1:28

28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.

A depraved mind is one that has been corrupted. It isn’t that God corrupted their minds but in not retaining the knowledge of God they corrupted them, and God gave them over to their unfit minds to do things which ought not to be done. We just don’t see the fallenness of humanity expressed in our distortion of our sexuality but in everything that we do. The apostle gives a long list of twenty-one things that we shouldn’t do that we do.

Romans 1:29-31

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

  • We do those things which we ought not do

All these are things that people do that they shouldn’t do, and they do them because God has given people over to their own corrupted hearts and minds that want to do what ought not be done. It isn’t just the sexually immoral whose hearts and minds have been corrupted. All our hearts have. It is the children refuse to obey or honour their parents. It’s those who gossip. It’s those of us who are arrogant or boastful. It’s those who are greedy and heartless and those ruthless. I think Paul expects us to see ourselves somewhere in this list.

  • We are all unrighteous

What Paul is showing us is that we are all unrighteous because we all do some of these things that we ought not to do. This is why in Corinthians when Paul explains that the wicked won’t inherit the kingdom of God, he doesn’t just mention the sexually immoral or the adulterer or those who practice homosexuality but he mentions the greedy, the drunkard and slanderer and the swindler (see 1 Corinthians 1:29-31). The judgment of God is coming upon all these things and these things are themselves the evidence of our own unrighteousness and godlessness. They are the external evidence that reveal the fact what is hidden in our hearts and minds. We have all rejected our Creator and suppressed the truth and have not honoured him as we ought to have. Verse 32 is the summary of how bad things have become among us. We not only know that these things are wrong and deserve death, we continue to do them, and we approve of those who practice them. Even the wrongs things that we might not do ourselves we approve of those who practise them. We promote what God opposes. We end up celebrating what God condemns.

4. Our unrighteousness and the gospel

Paul has painted a picture of what we and our world are like.

4.1 Our world suppresses the truth

We live in a world where people suppress the truth of God and their thinking becomes corrupted and distorted and our hearts darkened. Our world therefore has a distorted view of what righteousness looks like.   When the people of this would talk about being according to nature, they mean what seems natural for them. But, the trouble with all our minds and hearts is that not one of them has not been affected by our suppression of the truth.  We think we are wise when really, we have become fools and so we do those things that ought not be done and think that we are being wise. We are do what is wrong and think we are doing what is right. What is evil in God’s eyes becomes the good in ours. We might not see ourselves in this way but that is just part of the problem when we deliberately suppress the truth of God in our unrighteousness.

4.2 We are all unrighteous

The other thing that we learn is that sin affects us all. We might not all fall into sexual immorality ourselves, but being a gossip, being arrogant and boastful and envious and deceitful and disobedient to our parents, being heartless and faithfulness and ruthless are all things that highlight our unrighteousness.

All of us do some of these things that ought not to be done. We might not do all of theme, but Paul will eventually conclude in chapter 3 that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (3:23). We need to hear what the Bible says of our true condition. We need stop telling ourselves that we are OK and recognise that what think of us and our righteous deeds are like filthy rags in God’s sight.

4.3 We all need the gospel

What this highlights for us is that we all need the gospel ourselves and we ought to be eager to preach it to others for they need it too. We all need God’s righteousness that is revealed in the gospel. We need God to make us righteous. We don’t have a righteousness of our own to boast of and we have no excuse for it. God has made himself known in the creation but what God has made plain to us we have suppressed and ignored. We all need the light of the gospel to shine into the darkness of our own hearts and minds. We need the gospel because it is God’s power for salvation for those who believe.

[1] See the article called “Illusory Superiority” from Wikipedia. These statistics are from this article which is found at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusory_superiority

[2] John Stott, The message of Romans, BST, page 72.

[3] Except where otherwise indiated all Scripture citations are taken from The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] John Stott, The message of Romans, BST, page 75.