We prefer to skip the dire, dark themes of Scripture. But without the bad news, the good news fades to okay news.
How We Misread Our Lives and Feel Great About Ourselves
A family in rural Ohio got excited one day in January when the temperature peaked in the mid ‘60s. That was a Friday. The kids hoped the warm streak would repeat on Saturday. Maybe they could break out the softball gear and enjoy it. Morning came. Dad tried to stir some enthusiasm, and asked his youngest daughter to go downstairs, read the thermometer, and then come back and tell everyone what it said. She returned, breathless, and reported, “It’s eight!” Dad was incredulous. “Eight? Well, I guess that’s Ohio for you. I’m sorry kids, looks like it’s going to be an inside day after all.”
Everyone got dressed, went down, and then realized it was fifty-five degrees outside. Dad said to his daughter, “Sweetheart, I thought you told us the thermometer said ‘eight.’” “It did,” she replied. “The big hand was on the twelve and the little hand was on the eight.”
Adults get confused too, when it comes to reading the right gauges. If you asked most people how they’re doing from a moral and spiritual standpoint, they’ll typically go to some type of instrument panel in their mind—one that has several different gauges on it.
The first will probably ask if they’ve ever broken any laws. If they aren’t guilty of arson, embezzlement, or armed robbery, that’s a step in the right direction. In some sense they’re already doing well. A second gauge might ask them to compare themselves with someone else. A candidate will always be available for that comparison, especially one who will make them look outstanding. Occasionally they’ll find someone who will challenge them, but not too severely. So far, so good. Finally, there’s a gauge that will ask how they feel about themselves. They’ll admit to having bad days (mostly when they didn’t get their coffee), but for the most part they don’t feel they’re evil. On a scale of one to a hundred, they’d humbly give themselves something in the high eighties or low nineties.
But the entire exercise is as misguided as the little girl who tried to read the thermometer by looking at the kitchen clock.
Getting the Bad News Straight
If most people accessed the correct gauge to begin with, they’d be shocked concerning where humanity stands with God. Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”
The phrase “wrath of God” says it all. Things are in the red. As it turns out, God isn’t an indulgent old grandfather who winks at boys being boys. Though the idea of His wrath jolts modern readers, they usually recover and agree with it. “That’s right,” they say, “God is enraged over domestic abuse, racism, sex trafficking, and terrorism.”
Though that’s right, it’s still not accurate. We need to read the instrumentation correctly. The verse says God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. That includes not just the sins of systems, groups, and mindsets, but of individuals. If your life has been stained with any unrighteous act, or ungodly attitude, God’s wrath is against you.
This sounds like a terrible thought, and it is. Every single human being should be losing sleep at night. The omnipotent, omnipresent God is furious over things we’ve done.
The Gospel is Good, and You’re Not
You need to know about God’s wrath, but for a bigger reason than your personal safety. We actually need honest, unvarnished bad news so we can appreciate the thrilling, transcendent good news of the gospel. It’s an issue of contrast.
For instance, think of your life as a white sheet of paper, good for the most part and unmarred with serious wrongdoing. It’s all good. Then along comes the gospel, a light-colored object which is also good. You say, “Sure, I’d like receive that.” Good news enters good life—light-colored object upon light colored background. The gospel blends in, becoming invisible. There’s no contrast. Under those circumstances, even if the gospel was no longer there, you’d still be left with your white paper, a good life.
But we know that since you have committed unrighteousness and you’ve carried yourself in ungodly ways, you don’t have a white sheet. You have a dark one. Now when the gospel, that light-colored object, comes along and you receive it, it doesn’t blend in; it creates a contrast so great it can be seen all the way across town. And you couldn’t be clearer about what’s good in your life. It’s the gospel of Jesus, not you.
That’s the reason for these extended negative passages in Romans. God wants to reveal the bad news of His wrath on unrighteous humanity, so we would receive and appreciate the good news of His salvation in Christ.
A Trip Through the The Darkest Part of Romans
This segment of verses—1:18-32—has numerous moving parts, but keep this navigational plan in mind and you won’t get lost. We’ll see the dynamics of human unrighteousness when humanity should have known better, the terrible result of it, and God’s unique solution to the problem.
First, unrighteous human beings suppress the truth (v. 18). That is our initial reaction, since truth at first always seems to harbor unpleasant implications for us. Though pregnant with blessings of all kinds, we would rather not allow truth to bloom and inflict possible discomfort, so we squash it instead.
What is this truth? Verse 19 tells us it is “What can be known about God” (v. 19), meaning this truth is essentially theological, about God, and it “is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” In spite of persistent objections about the hypothetical native who didn’t know, God has delivered the truth about Himself to every individual human being. That is why we can say it is plain. The teacher is none other than God Himself.
But what specifically is this truth about God? Verse 20 begins to tell us: “His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature.” God has not directly disclosed the specifics of Judeo-Christian teaching to every individual, but a primal revelation of sorts concerning what kind of God He is.
And Paul continues to be adamant that these things “have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world.” They are not obscure. Yet how could such clarity be possible? Many of the human beings who ever lived had no access to Bibles, preachers, seminaries, reading materials, or any other prop we consider to be necessary vehicles of basic theology. The answer is, “in the things that have been made.”
God has used everything as a teaching tool. The native living on a desert island in the south Pacific could observe his world, and begin to understand that whoever made earth and sea must be greater and more powerful than those things—certainly not smaller. Members of a barbaric tribe thousands of years B.C., could observe the sun rising and setting, the seasons coming and going like clockwork, and surmise that whoever created all things is not capricious, but faithful.
People in every era have watched the complexities of the food chain, and simple physics, noticing a Wisdom beyond this world that dwarfed the wisdom of men living in it. And in reflective moments, many a person has been touched with this world’s dizzying array of natural aesthetics—the colors, the shapes, the light—that spoke to them about the beauty and goodness of whoever created it.
According to verse 20, the effectiveness of nature as teaching tool upon humans can be summed up this way: “they are without excuse.” No one can say they’ve been so shorted of learning opportunities that they had no idea of God at all. In fact, verse 21 boldly says, “they knew God.”
The problem is not that human beings didn’t know Him, but “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (v. 21). It’s an audacious refusal, where men who know better judge the powerful, faithful, wise, good God as not worthy of their gratitude. And to buoy up their poor decision, “they became futile in their thinking,” meaning they multiplied thoughts and rationalizations for their attitudes. It did not bring the enlightenment they thought it would. “Their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (v. 21-22). Probably no greater reversal exists than thinking darkness is light, or foolishness wisdom, yet this is the quandary in which unrighteous humanity finds itself.
They “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (v. 23). The greatest folly of all lies in trading away, exchanging the glory of God for something of lesser value—mere images, hollow of substance—and then honoring those things with great shows of obeisance and pomp and heartfelt admiration. The real God, they feel, “Doesn’t do it for them.” And so they relegate Him to a pile of discards. They gave Him up.
The terrible result comes when “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. 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” (vv. 24-25).
When men trade the truth of God for a version of the truth they prefer, they don’t get a better truth, an updated truth, or a more relevant truth. They get a lie. There are no versions of the truth. God never responds by forcing them to choose Him, but rather He gives them up to the thing they long and lust for (typically dishonorable sexual behavior), to have it with all the evil and darkness that comes with it. Released from their Creator, nothing remains but bottomless moral darkness.
Paul then provides examples of where this free fall can go. “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (v. 26). Females, typically the nobler of the two sexes, behaved contrary to the way females naturally ought to act. “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” (v. 27).
These verses obviously refer to gay conduct and lifestyle. Despite the immense political, social, and educational energy our modern culture has spent to normalize the practice of homosexuality, these God-inspired descriptions of that behavior outweigh them all: “contrary to nature” and “error.”
The apostle further points out that those pursuing it receive a penalty. Though he does not specify what it is, the context of the passage suggests that it may be a further reinforcement in delusional thinking, greater darkness, and a worse bondage to the behavior itself. Indeed, certain forms of sexual deviance become so difficult to escape that those enslaved to them begin to accept them as their virtual identity.
Yet these are not the only symptoms. “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. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die…” (28-32).
Again, an even more muscular appeal is made to the fact that these people know, except now they not only know God, but they know what they’re doing is wrong, that judgment is coming upon them, and that they deserve it. Worse, God knows that they know.
Yet the evil works continue. “They not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” It is the Waterloo of the wicked that though armed with a plethora of plain and certain knowledge about God, about themselves, and about their dark future, they persist in their unrighteousness, approving and celebrating those who do the same. They fancy themselves part of a great herd which is too large and with too much momentum to be accosted. There is safety, they think, in popularity. But when a herd rushes by the thousands over a cliff side, gravity knows nothing about numbers. And neither does the judgment of God.
Given Up for Their Own Good
In this dark, but necessary passage, there is still a ray of hope. Although three times the verses say, “God gave them up,” we are never told “God gave up on them.” Parents frequently find themselves in straits with a child who will not listen anymore. Little Johnny or Jane may have better ideas about how life ought to be lived than does their plodding old parents.
If this attitude persists until the age of consent, mom and dad may have to give their child up to let them learn something, although they never give up on their child. They hope the difficult classroom of life will administer needed correction.
God will in principle also do the same for wayward human beings. Perhaps these unrighteous men will grow tired of the darkness they have chosen, weary of the punishment they find in it, and return to Romans 1:16-17, where they find that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation…for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” The righteousness missing from their lives is available in the gospel of Jesus.
Non-Christians will interpret these verses as being hopelessly out of step with modern sensibilities. Such critiques are the very futile thoughts described in this section of Romans. Rather than argue with the wrath of God (which is not a winning strategy), they should come to Christ in faith.
Christians however, should not read these verses as though the text were talking about others. The only distinction between the unrighteous humanity mentioned here and the Christian, is Jesus. Without Him, the hapless believer would immediately conform to everything God condemns.
Even when Christians neglect Christ for relatively short periods of time, certain aspects of their lives will begin to look like the great horde of unrighteous souls who inhabit this world. We believers ought to maintain a deep humility about what we are and where we were, as well as a profound thankfulness for the gospel.