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Friday, May 6, 2011

Romans Series 3: The Wrath of God Against Idolatry and Unbelief, Rm 1:18-23

Romans 1:18-23 (NASB)

This is the Word of God; let us hear it and heed it:


"18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures."

Last time in this series we learned that the gospel--the "good news"--Paul was eager to preach in Rome is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. We also learned that in it--that is, in the gospel--the righteousness of God is revealed. What it means that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel is manifold, but by staying with our current text and our current progression through Paul's thought in Romans, we will ensure that we learn exactly what Paul had in mind in writing such a phrase and, through Paul, what God intends for us to understand about it.

Our section for today begins with the conjunction "for" or "gar" in Greek. As we are well aware, this usually serves to denote that whatever comes after it serves as a ground or basis for things that have come before it. Most naturally here, it seems to serve as a ground of verses 16 and 17, particularly verse 18, as a continuation of the chain of "for's."

In verses 17 and 18 Paul says that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes it, for (or because) the righteousness of God is revealed in it from faith to faith.

In starting our current section with the word "for," Paul is beginning to take on the very weighty burden of explaining to us why it is that the gospel reveals God's righteousness, and that this revelation of His righteousness in the gospel is what enables the salvation of believers in the gospel.

This is extraordinarily important. For in the same way that an accurate assessment of a mathematical problem paves the way to a right understanding of its solution, or the accurate diagnosis of a disease paves the way to a right application of treatment; in the same way, an accurate understanding of the problem addressed by the gospel--which we know in advance to be the cure--will aid us greatly in developing a right understanding of the gospel itself.

It is for this reason that I have no hesitation in my intention to continue this series by progressively expounding the rest of chapters 1 and 2 of Romans, which focus chiefly on negative aspects of the human condition. Though these are sobering, heavy, painful thoughts in themselves, when the gospel is applied afresh once we have a more thorough understanding of these problems, we will have new capacities for savoring its salve and new wisdom about how to appropriate the grace found in it for our daily lives. The question before us is, "What is it that we are saved from by the power of God found in the revelation of His righteousness in the gospel?" Again, the biblical answer to this question is not one, but many. But we are keeping with Paul's focus here in this text.

Paul says, in v.18, "the wrath of God is revealed" or "...being revealed..."

This is the main point of the section from v.18 and onward for a while, and serves as the ground of Paul's assertion that the gospel is the power of God to save because God's righteousness is revealed in it. To say it more succinctly, the reason the gospel saves believers is that it addresses the wrath of God.

And now we move from the main point of the section to several points in the text that serve as a justification of God's wrath being revealed.

This is just as necessary today as it apparently was in Paul's day. For it seems that in our wider culture, and, I'm afraid, even in professingly "evangelical" circles in our country, that people in general and even many professing Christians have an aversion to wholeheartedly affirming that God is a God of wrath. The preferred picture of God in many quarters is of one who is loving, but non-judgmental; tender and warm-hearted, but not angry with the wicked every day; pleading with sinners to repent, but not threatening Hell; understood a certain primitive way by the ancient Jews and Greeks, but more maturely developed in the minds of later humanistic children of the Enlightenment; or a God of anger and wrath in the Old Testament, but revealed only as meek and gentle through Jesus in the New Testament.

These pictures of God are inventions of human minds darkened through rebellion, over against an accurate picture of God painted from the whole counsel of God in His holy written Word.

God has many attributes, and these include love, grace, mercy, compassion, patience, and the like. But they also include: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, sovereignty, majesty, justice, and utter holiness leading to hatred of all sin and wickedness, as well as wrathfulness against sinners.

This is not my opinion, but God's own revelation of Himself in His Word, which we will now continue to study.

Paul now goes into detail to justify the rightness of God's wrath. In v.18 he continues that God's wrath is "against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men..." So God's wrath is not a capricious, unstudied, unpurposeful irritableness against random annoyances, but rather a just aiming of judicial, divine anger against unrighteousness and ungodliness.

Of what does this unrighteousness and ungodliness here consist? Or, at least, what does it do? Paul continues in v.18 "...who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." Two questions present themselves here. One is, "what is the 'truth' mentioned here?" and the other is, "what is this 'suppression' of it?"

The first question is answered immediately in the next two verses: "because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood by what has been made."

Clearly, the truth under consideration here is the truth of God's power in creation and His divine nature itself; more succinctly, the existence of a divine Creator. This has been a hot-button issue in human philosophy since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers and long before that. The existence of God is among the most important questions man can ask, because of the sheer weight of its implications for human self-understanding and how to view the world and live life. Here in our text, Paul treats the question--and the knowability of its answer--head on with divine authority as an apostle of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

His answer is that "truth" includes the fact of God's existence as God, as well as the fact of God's existence as powerful Creator. Not only these facts, but Paul even goes so far as to say that God has made Himself known to man within man, through the revelation of Himself in all creation. That which is "invisible"--these facts about God, namely, His power and divinity--has become "visible" by God's revelation of Himself in what has been made, so that in a sense man has been granted to "see" the invisible!

Now creation and its relation to the question of the existence of God has been paid no small attention by philosophers and theologians and scientists throughout the ages. And there certainly must be some scriptural merit in the Christian apologist's appeal to the order, irreducible complexity, and origins of life and all of nature as evidence of God's existence; however, as we will soon see, the fundamental problem of unbelief is not lack of evidence for God's existence in the world. Rather, the problem is a moral issue--a heart issue. It is a heart issue that fails to recognize divine glory and so trades it away for lesser glories, causing a darkening of the mind and subsequent inability to reason rightly from creation to Creator.

As a textual basis for reading this kind of thought from verses 19 and 20, independently from later discussion of glory, consider the Greek word here for the phrase "what has been made": poiEma, from which we derive the word, "poem." More than the simple math of the unlikelihood of the existence of life on our planet, or the incredible causative power needed for the beginning of our universe which by all appearances had a beginning, or the biological discussion of concepts like irreducible complexity, God's Creation is "poiEma," or "poem." It is a book of poetic verse with such compelling, gripping, and enrapturing combination of rhyme, alliteration, progression, and cadence; that to read this--the "book of nature" as Calvin called it--is to leave the reader, as Paul says at the end of verse 20 "without excuse" with regard to the truth of God.

So we end up with a clear teaching of Paul that all who are capable of reading this "book of nature"--this "poiEma"--are accountable to God for acknowledging His power and divinity. The result is that not one person anywhere in the world will be able to claim ignorance of God's existence as a basis on which they may be exempt from the results of their having suppressed the truth of God, the truth which He Himself had made abundantly and clearly evident to them.

Our second question, "what is this 'suppression' of the truth?", is answered in the verses to follow.

Verses 21 through part of 23: "For even though they know God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God..."

Verse 21 says that they "knew God." This is incredibly important to believe, whether you are a believer or an unbeliever today: every person in one sense knows God. This is just a passing restatement of what we have already said. Through the revelation of God in Creation--in His poiEma--every person who comes in contact with the glory and beauty of Creation comes into contact with real knowledge of the living and true Creator God.

The problem isn't knowledge or philosophical wisdom. The problem is lack of worship and thanksgiving: "...they did not honor Him as God or give thanks." The problem is a preference of something other than the glory of God: "they...exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God." The problem is the heart, while the problem of the intellect is the result of this heart problem. "...they became futile in their speculations." However, there seems also to be a spiraling effect, such that heart problems give rise to intellectual problems, which in turn give rise to further spiritual blindness, resulting in even further foolishness: "...they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God."

But it all starts with a lack of worship. A lack of rendering to God the due honor and thanksgiving that belongs to Him results in futility in "speculations"--"dialogismos"--a futility in one's internal dialogue with one's self, manufacturing every possible rationalization of the apparent glory of Creation that leaves a sovereign God out of the picture.

This is such a vicious circular process in the unbeliever, having started from birth because of inherited sin and corruption, that it almost instantaneously becomes self-covering, such that an unbeliever is not even aware of the deceitful nature of his own idolatrous self-deception. People who deny God's existence in a very real sense "know God," but that does not mean that they are engaging in lying when they tell you they do not believe in God. What it means is that they have been accomplishing a very great feat for many years: successfully and continually lying to themselves! Their continual unbelief, as well as their just accountability for their unbelief, is accounted for by this reality of continuous idolatrous desire as the cause of continual blindness to the obvious truth of God revealed in the "book of nature" or the "poiEma."

So we have fleshed out a little more what this "suppression" of the truth looks like. But let us continue to draw out more of the nature and extent of the foolishness of this idolatry causing unbelief.

We have already seen that the unbelievers being considered here "exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God," but for what did they exchange it? The answer in verse 23 is, "for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures." In other words, sinful man exchanged the glory of God for the lesser glory of His Creation! Most chiefly, and first on the list, man exchanged the glory of God for the glory of man.

Now we have come to the bottom of where this text takes us concerning the utter foolishness and heinousness of idolatry and unbelief, and therefore, in connection with the main point of this section, the complete justice of God in revealing His wrath against such unrighteousness.

Not only has man had the truth of God clearly revealed in nature to him and within him; not only has man suppressed this truth; and not only has man fancied himself wise in his ungodly speculations even as his mind was actually being darkened more and more to the truth; but man has even traded the glory of God for the lesser glory of the images of God painted through Creation! Man has traded the glory of what is incorruptible for the glory of its corruptible image! Man has traded the powerful and divine for the dependent and creaturely!

This is the utter foolishness of all sin and unbelief, and this is the heinous unrighteousness of man's suppression of the truth, and thus, this is the just basis on which God reveals His wrath against men and their ungodliness.

God's wrath is always holy and just, and that His wrath here against unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth is holy and just, the apostle Paul has made plain.

But we move now to the application that we mentioned at the start. The problems of the human condition are manifold, as we anticipated. There is idolatry and darkening of the reasoning to be dealt with. However, the main point of this passage is that the wrath of God is being revealed, and this somehow has to do with the fact that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation because God's righteousness is revealed in it.

The implication is that the gospel addresses the wrath of God. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and one thing man needs saving from is the wrath of God against his unrighteousness. For every one of us at one time, and to a lesser degree today even us believers, have spurned the glory of God and traded it for lesser glories; we have all suppressed truth we knew about God for our own idolatrous ends; we have all failed to give God the honor and thanks due to Him. Therefore, God's holiness and justice threatens us with divine wrath.

Whatever else the gospel does, if it would save us, it must address the wrath of God against our unrighteousness. And it does. In later chapters, we will understand this more thoroughly.

Among things that Jesus does in the gospel of our salvation, He reveals God to us in a special way that overcomes His people's natural bent toward atheism and unbelief. General revelation--the "book of nature"--God's "poiEma"--is not enough to convince rebellious, hardened, mind-darkened sinners. But when God takes on a human nature through Jesus Christ, speaks like no man ever spoke, performs spectacular miracles of healing and provision, evidences sovereignty over nature itself and the demonic realm itself, and rises from the dead three days after having been brutally executed, God is saving revealed.

Among things that Jesus does in the gospel of our salvation, He also reverses our idolatrous exchange of divine glory for lesser glories. He invites people to come to Him, to receive Him, and to be satisfied forever in Him by "eating His flesh and drinking His blood" and drinking of the "living water" of His Spirit so that they will thirst no more. Paul exemplified this in Philippians 3:8 when he said "...I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord..." Jesus as God and as the conscious center of our Trinitarian worship becomes for the believer in the Gospel more glorious than the created things designed all along to point to His higher glory. So there is a new exchange, a reversal of the first one.

However, of the things that Jesus does in the gospel of our salvation, the most relevant here in this passage--and perhaps most foundational in a sense--is address the wrath of God against our unrighteousness.

Through the gospel God aims at our salvation. Part of this salvation must consist in our salvation from the wrath of God. But the wrath of God against our idolatry and unrighteousness and foolish unbelief is just! Acquittal in the courtroom of heaven from the penalty of such high treason would demean God's glory and demonstrate a lackadaisical divine attitude toward human trampling of God's honor! God is not a God who will tolerate such things. God is not a God who would fail to demonstrate His absolute righteousness in the universe. He is the most perfect, glorious being in the universe and would be unrighteousness to fail to call attention to and demonstrate His perfections.

What is the solution then? How then can anyone be saved from His wrath? Answer: the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ in the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ dying on the cross in the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ dying on the cross, representing sinners as a substitute on the cross in the gospel. Answer: Jesus Christ the Son of God dying on the cross, representing sinners as a substitute sacrifice, bearing the very wrath of God against their sins on the cross in the gospel. And answer: Jesus Christ the Son of God rising three days later, vindicated by God as God's Son, and as having made an acceptable and sufficient sacrifice for sinners by His death on their behalf.

In Christ, there is no condemnation, because our sin was already condemned in Him on Calvary.

In Christ, there is no wrath of God against us, because it was poured out fully and finally on Him instead.

In Christ, God savingly demonstrated true mercy for sinners, by coming to us as one of us to bear His own wrath against our transgressions.

So unbeliever, turn to and trust in Jesus, because He has made God known to man even more clearly. God has spoken to us in many ways at many times, but has spoken to us in these last days in His Son.

So unbeliever, turn to and trust in Jesus, because He has demonstrated anew the preciousness of the glory of God, and calls you to satisfy your soul in it instead of lesser things. He calls you to repent not to deprive you of pleasure, but to give you deeper and longer-lasting pleasure of fellowship with Him.

So unbeliever, turn to and trust in Jesus, because He has born the wrath of God against the unrighteousness and sin of all who will simply have Him as Savior. Full forgiveness, and even a declaration of "righteous" is yours freely by grace, through faith alone apart from your efforts or works.

Christian, turn to and trust in Jesus, and glorify and give thanks to Him; because He has savingly revealed God to you, has defeated your idolatry and as God has become supremely valuable to you, and has in your place drank every last drop of the wrath of God for your sins past, present, and future.

Christian, consider the unevangelized, the unreached, and the unengaged! They are lost in idolatry and sin, and the "book of nature," God's "poiEma," will not save them. They are too hardened to recognize that the "heavens are telling the glory of God." They have no excuse for their idolatry, but they cannot save themselves. They are in need of a saving, special revelation: the revelation of the gospel! They are also in need of a heart change: the work of the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel! And if they would receive God's mercy, they are in need of a substitute sacrifice for their sins, according to the justice of God's holy Law: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen, in the gospel!

May Jesus our Very Great Savior be glorified, who has wrought so great and thorough a salvation for His people to embrace and to take to the nations for His glory. Amen.

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