What’s wrong with the world? Romans 1:18-23
If you don’t believe the message of the Bible, I would ask you to ask yourself why the world is the way it is. Why are there so many bad people doing bad things? Why do good people suffer and bad people triumph? Why are there tsunamis and earthquakes and famines? Why is there war? Why is there disease? Now I know that a lot of people take these very issues and throw them back at the Christian and say that their God could not exist in a world such as this. But consider the possibility that either God exists but doesn’t care about this world or that there is no God at all. Either option is about the same, practically speaking. If that is the case, then there is no reason behind all the terrible things that happen. They just happen. The world isn’t broken, the world just is. There is no such thing as objective evil because there is no objective Judge to say anything is evil in and of itself. Things just are.
The problem is that no one thinks like that. I don’t even think atheists think like that, even though many of them will profess to embrace such an understanding of reality. Steal his wallet and he is not going to think you have only broken the law but that you have done something objectively bad. The thing is that we all, no matter what our philosophical background is, think that the world in which we live is messed up. And what we mean by this is not only that we don’t like it the way it is, but that the world is not the way it ought to be.
Tied to this is man’s desire for the afterlife, for heaven. This is because heaven is a place where we imagine that things are the way they are supposed to be. C. S. Lewis argued in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” that this innate desire for heaven is a good argument that it exists. He asked his listeners to imagine they were on a boat in the middle of the ocean with no memory of anything outside of their present experience in the boat. They begin to get hungry, and although they have no memory of food or knowledge of its existence, their hunger is a pretty good reason to believe that eatable substances exist. Even so, Lewis explained, this inner desire for heaven that is in the heart of people in every part of the world and in every generation is a good reason to believe that heaven exists, even if we haven’t seen it ourselves (and even though it is no proof that we will enjoy it ourselves). We long for a place where everything is right, and part of this is because we are living in a place where things are not right. We have a hunger for heaven. This is because we are not in Eden anymore. We are in Babylon.
That brings us back to the question: why are things the way they are? Why is the world so messed up?
The answer to this question is found in the verses in Romans 1 that we will be considering this morning. The problem with the world is not that there is no God. It is not that God doesn’t care about the world and is content to watch his creatures destroy each other. The reason why the world is so messed up is because men have rejected God, ignored him, and exchanged the worship of God for the idolatry of created things. In this passage we see a dreadful chain of events that begins with revelation that leads to rejection and ends with wrath.
Now why is Paul writing about these things to the Roman Christians? We must remember that the apostle is explaining to them the gospel which he is preaching. Part of that gospel is explaining why it is necessary in the first place. The gospel is only good news when it is understood against the backdrop of bad news. The gospel which is the message of the revelation of righteousness of God is going to be meaningless if we don’t see our need of God’s righteousness (cf. Rom. 10:1-3). If we don’t think we are sinners or we don’t think our sins merit the wrath of God, then the gospel is going to be so much false advertising.
But this is important not only because we need to understand our need of God’s righteousness and God’s salvation, but also because we need to understand what sin is in the first place. The apostle is going to explain to us that sin in the first place is not doing bad things to yourself or to someone else. The fundamental sin and the fundamental problem with the world is that we have forgotten God and replaced God with something else. Every other evil emerges from this fundamental betrayal of God.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a famous Russian novelist and historian who openly criticized the evils of the Soviet Union, especially the gulag system. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his bold writing in the cause of freedom and justice which was hopelessly lacking in the communist nation. He was eventually expelled from his country and was not allowed to return until after the fall of communism. I bring him up because he wrote a famous essay explaining why Russia embraced communism and all its attendant evils. His explanation is given in the title of the essay: “Men Have Forgotten God.” He explained that after all the books he had read and all the research he had done on the problems facing his country, the best explanation for what had happened was summarized in those words: “Men have forgotten God.”
That is what Paul is saying here in Romans 1. You want to know why the world is the way it is? Because men have forgotten God. However, we have not just forgotten him, but ignored him, trampled upon his authority, despised him, and rejected his goodness and glory for lesser things. That is the reason the world is the way it is: it is not because God has forgotten us, but because we have forgotten God.
We need to be reminded of this, because we sometimes tend to weigh things wrongly. We tend to think that our big problems are problems of greed, pornography, lust, anger, addictions of various kinds, and so on. But Paul is saying here that as bad as those problems are, they are only symptoms of a deeper problem: the problem of godlessness. Every sin ultimately springs from this unholy fountain. When the heart is godless, every stream of thought and desire springing from the heart is poisoned.
Which means that if we really want to battle sin in our lives and get at the root of things, we have to first of all go at sin at the level of the godlessness that still exists in our hearts. If we do not see God as glorious and good and holy and worthy of all our affection and allegiance we are not going to be holy people ourselves, no matter how much external religiosity we dress ourselves up with.
Now I want to show you that this is the argument of the apostle in this text. Here we see the sequence of events: revelation, rejection, and wrath. God has revealed himself to us, but we have rejected him, and because of this God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against our ungodliness and unrighteousness. Paul starts here, with our ungodliness, before he addresses our more noticeable sins, like disordered affections and sexual sin and so on. So this is where we need to start, not just in terms of this exposition but in terms of how we deal with the sin in own lives.
The Revelation of God’s Wrath (18)
The apostle begins by saying something that really summarizes his entire argument from this point to the middle of chapter 3 where he transitions back to his exposition of the gospel proper. It is this: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” The ultimate verdict against mankind is that God’s holy and just wrath is aimed at them, revealed from heaven. The reason given for God’s wrath is that we are ungodly and unrighteous. I am convinced that the order here is significant. We are ungodly first and then unrighteous. We are wrong with God before we are wrong with our fellow man. Then the evidence for our ungodliness and unrighteousness is that we have suppressed (lit. “held down”) the truth about God. So we see that all the elements of Paul’s explanation for the condition of the world are right here, although in reverse order: wrath, rejection (we have suppressed the truth), and revelation (the truth that has been rejected).
Now God’s wrath is revealed. What does the apostle mean by this? Does he mean that God has revealed his wrath in terms of giving information about it in the gospel, or does it refer to temporal judgments, or does it refer to the final, climatic revelation of God’s wrath at the end of the age? Well, if we look at the progression of the apostle’s argument here, he is saying that God’s wrath is revealed now in terms of sin itself and finally in terms of his judgment upon sin. Sin is itself a judgment from God. It makes men stupid (21-22). It makes them do unnatural things (26-28). Sin is not just a matter of disobedience but carries with it its own punishment. It warps our hearts and minds. It deforms the soul and eventually brings the body to the grave (6:23). Sin shrivels the soul, makes us small, and kills the conscience. It blinds us to the beauty of God and draws us toward moral decay.
But the judgment sin brings with itself is also a pointer to God’s final, climatic judgment upon sin at the end of the age. Paul will expound upon this further in chapter 2, when he talks about the “wrath and fury” the “tribulation and distress” that will come upon “every human being who does evil” (2:8-9). There is a “day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:5).
Men in their sin are already wearing the noose around their necks. Their whole lives are lived on a journey to the gallows. The horrible thing about it is not only their end but also the fact that they have somehow convinced themselves that the rope around their neck is something to boast about. We are so twisted by sin that even though God has revealed his wrath in the very sin we commit that we turn that revelation which ought to be a warning to us into a reason to be glad. But that does not change the fact that God’s has revealed his wrath to us and that it ought to convince us of the need to repent of our sin and embrace his mercy.
However, the apostle is not content to merely summarize his message. So he goes on to expound on the revelation of his truth and how we reject it.
The Revelation of God’s Truth (19-21)
Paul says that all men are without excuse when it comes to sin. No one will be able to stand before God and say that there was not enough evidence. I know that Bertrand Russell remarked that if he woke up after death and discovered there was a God after all, he would simply explain his atheism to God by saying, “You didn’t give me enough evidence.” But Paul is saying that this has never been the case. God has amply discovered his existence to us in multiple ways.
Notice what Paul says. He says that “what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them” (19). It is not hidden, it is plain. This is not about really smart people who are able to logically deduce God’s existence from various strands of evidence. This is something plain to every human being, no matter how smart they are or are not.
He explains why it is plain in the next verse: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, even since the creation of the world, in the things that are made” (20). Notice this phrase, “clearly perceived.” Plainly put, Paul is saying that the physical creation is all the evidence we need for the existence of God and the power of God. You don’t have to be able to formally express the cosmological or the teleological arguments for God’s existence. It is in fact not something you have to argue for. It is basic knowledge, it is something that everyone knows. The fact that people reject God’s existence is not because there is not enough evidence; it is because they suppress what is obvious. The result is that “they are without excuse” (20).
You don’t have argue for God’s existence: you have to argue yourself out of belief in God, even if this happens at an early point in life. For the apostle says that everyone knows God exists: “for although they knew God…” (21).
Now I’m not saying that apologetics is useless. There is a place for that. There is a place for helping people to see that they have no excuse. But at the end of the day, we also need to understand that people don’t reject God ultimately because of logic. They reject God because of sin, and unless they are willing to deal with the sin in their hearts, all the arguments in the world are not going to move them one inch towards a relationship with their Creator.
Also, we need to understand that the kind of knowledge Paul is talking about here is not saving knowledge. Knowing God exists is not saving faith. We need to be reminded of the apostle James statement in his epistle: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!” (Jam. 2:19). James is saying that belief in God only comes up to the level of the faith of demons; not something to be particularly proud about! In fact, in many cases, it does not even come up to the level of demon-faith because the demons tremble at the thought of God, and there are many theists who treat God as if he were just another neighbor down the block. However, though such knowledge is not enough to save, it is enough to condemn.
Finally, we need to understand that this is not a condemnation of atheists per se. Atheists did exist in Paul’s day, but the problem was that people rejected the knowledge of the true God for idols. The problem was not atheism but polytheism. This is relevant in our day, because even though secularism is growing and Christianity is on the wane, polls have shown that people are not growing less religious or spiritual. You can be very spiritual and very religious and be in the category of someone who suppresses the truth about God: you don’t have to be an atheist. You can be a very spiritual person and have simply recreated God in your own image. That is exactly what the polytheists did. If you look at the gods of the Greeks and Romans, the remarkable thing about them is that they are very much like the people who worshipped them. They didn’t become atheists, they just downgraded God to their own level and made him manageable. And that is the perennial temptation facing man. How do you think of God? Is he like you or is he transcendently un-like you? Is he holy or is he earthy? That is the question. The thing we must consider is that though we may be religious, it is still possible to have rejected God.
The Revelation of God’s Rebuff (21-23)
But what does it look like to reject God? What does it look like to fall under God’s wrath? Paul’s answer may surprise us. For he does not paint a picture of Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. Instead, he talks about people who do not honor God or give him thanks: “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. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Their knowledge of God did not lead them to honor God, or thank God, or glorify God. Instead, they became futile in their thinking, self-deceived, and made a fatal exchange.
The root problem is in the very last verse: they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (23). Again, remember that this does not mean they became atheists. It means that they did not see God for who he truly is. They redefined God in terms that put him on their level. Once you do that, it is impossible to worship the true God.
We need to see how serious this is. This is the root of all evil. All sin ultimately springs from a failure to see God for who he is. It is a refusal to acknowledge the reality that we are utterly and entirely dependent upon God for our entire existence, that we owe everything to him – everything! – and that God is our Creator and as such has rights to every part of our lives. It is the refusal to see that we owe God honor and reverence because he is holy and we are not, because he is God and we are not, because he is the Creator and we are the creature. It is the refusal to see that we owe God thanks because he owes us nothing and yet gives us life and breathe and every good thing that we have. We are dependent upon him; he is not dependent upon us. We can only give God what he has already given us. We owe him glory, because God is the only Being in the universe who is truly glorious. Everything else flickers with a reflected light; God alone is the self-existent source of glory and beauty and truth.
When once we unloose ourselves from this vision of God, when once we begin to assert our own self-sovereignty and put God on the level of the creature – then we begin down a path that is twisted with evil and selfishness and lovelessness. Every sin in some sense is committed because we have elevated ourselves to the level of God, which can only happen when we have first in our hearts lowered God to the level of the ourselves.
The sad thing is that when we do this, we not only diminish our view of God, but also of ourselves. Note what Paul says: we exchange the vision of the true God for an image like man – and then for birds and animals and snakes. Is it any wonder when men begin to act like animals? The truth of the matter is that men and women can only retain their own dignity as long as they retain a Biblical vision of the glory of God. When we reject that, we have let off the brakes to descend down a path leading further and further to futility and vanity and folly.
What is the problem with the world? The problem with the world is that we have forgotten and rejected the true God. We do not honor him or thank him or glorify him. Instead, we have replaced a vision of God with corruptible things. We are muckrakers by nature.
Men and women desperately need to recover a knowledge of the glory of God. It is the first step to saving faith. You simply cannot come to Christ as long as you retain lordship over your life; as long as God is on your level.
And the Christian needs desperately to retain a knowledge of the glory of God. As long as we live in a world that ignores him, despises his word, and is blind to his glory, we are going to be tempted to start thinking again in unbiblical categories. And that leads to bad choices and wrong priorities. It breaks our fellowship with God. It destroys our joy. It’s why when our Lord taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to begin by saying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed by thy name” (Mt. 6:9). It’s what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote that we need to “in your hearts honor Christ as holy” (1 Pet. 3:15). Let us resist the orientation of the world away from God, and seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Let us honor him, thank him, and glorify him.