When God Gives Up
February 16, 1992
There are some messages that pastors would rather not preach. This sermon definitely falls into that category. It’s not that I am afraid to say what must be said; it is rather that I know these things will not be easy to hear. I also know that my words may be misunderstood or taken out of context or may be used to draw conclusions different from the ones I am drawing. Nevertheless I am compelled to deliver this message because I believe it is God’s message for us today.
Some years ago Pastor Walter Luthi of Berne, Switzerland, was preaching to his congregation on Romans 1:24-32. He began his message this way: “In the words that we have just read we are told the whole truth about our condition. There may well be people among us who cannot bear to hear the truth, and would like to creep quietly away out of the church. Let them do so if they wish.” There is much justification for Pastor Luthi’s words, for these verses by the Apostle Paul are exceedingly difficult to contemplate. There is not a ray of light among them. All is dark, somber, black as midnight, filled with the roll of thunder and the sharp, jagged flash of lightning. This passage has for its theme the judgment of God upon a world gone mad with sin. When we read it, we come face to face with “our true condition.” Many of us would rather not think about that. I cannot blame those who would prefer to be somewhere else this morning.
Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse called this the most terrible passage in all the Bible. That in itself is a stupendous claim, considering how much of the Bible deals with judgment on the sin of mankind. But as I have studied this text, considered the verses and pondered the words, I believe Barnhouse is correct. This is the most terrible, most awesome, most shocking passage in all the Bible.
I don’t suppose I need to offer any justification for preaching this message, but if I do, I offer three reasons. First, as an expositor of God’s Word, it is my duty to proclaim to you the whole counsel of God. I have no right to pick and choose only those passages I think you might enjoy hearing. Furthermore, I would be doing you no favor if I kept back from you the hard truth about God’s judgment. And if we are going to take Romans seriously, we can’t skip this passage. It’s in the Bible; we have to let it speak to us. Second, I agree with Pastor Luthi. We need to hear these words because they tell us “the whole truth about our condition.” This is really the way we are, this is really the way the world is. Third, and most sobering of all, these words apply directly to Oak Park today. It is as if Paul had Oak Park in mind 2000 years ago. What he says to the Romans, he could have said to us.
When God Abandons Man
With that as background, we turn now to consider the text itself. The first feature that attracts our attention is a certain phrase that is repeated three times. When you study that phrase, you discover that it gives us the structure of the passage:
Verse 24 — “God gave them over”
Verse 26 — “God gave them over”
Verse 28 — “He gave them over”
The word in Greek is paredoken. The King James translates it as “God gave them up.” Barclay renders it “God abandoned them.” J. B. Phillips says, “They gave up God. So God gave them up.” It is a very strong word, meaning that act of God whereby he hands over the human race for judgment because of their sins. In this passage Paul is telling us what happens when men turn away from God. “When men lose God, they always lose themselves.” It’s as if God has said, “All right. If you want to turn away from me, I’ll let you go. I won’t try to stop you. But you’ll have to face the consequences of your own actions.”
This passage, then, describes the downward progress of the human race as it steadily moves away from God. Each step takes man further away from God and deeper into moral depravity. The key to this passage is that three-fold phrase—”God gave them over.” Each time it is repeated, it describes a further stage in man’s turning away from God. Stage 1 is bad, Stage 2 worse, Stage 3 worse still. In the end society has turned all moral values upside down.
What is the judgment of God when men turn away from him? God “gives them up” to their own devices. He lets them follow their own desires. He doesn’t try to stop their meteoric descent into the abyss. God “aban-dons” the human race by letting men reap what they sow. Nothing more terrible could ever be contemplated. When men “abandon” God in their thinking, God “abandons” them. Why? Because God is a perfect gentleman. He respects the freedom of the human will. If a man or a woman decides to live without him, he says, “Fine. You can live without me. In the end, you’ll be sorry. But if that’s your decision, I’ll respect it.”
“I Gave It Up Because It Can Kill You”
But there is a deeper reason at work. God “abandons” men so that they will see what life is like without God! In that sense, there is a redemptive purpose that stands behind the wrath of God. By letting mankind go its own way, he is not only punishing them. He is also allowing them to see the emptiness of life without him. Recently someone gave me a cartoon that graphically illustrates how this process works. The first frame shows a man saying, “I used to smoke to ease the pain … But I gave it up because it can kill you.” Then he says, “So I started to drink to ease the pain … But I gave it up because it can kill you.” Next frame: “So I started on drugs to ease the pain … But I gave it up because it can kill you.” Next frame: “So then I had nothing to ease the pain. So I faced the pain … And worked through the pain … Now I am pain-free.” Final frame, the man stands with his arms out-stretched: “What do I do to ease the emptiness?” That’s Romans 1 in a nutshell. Turning away from God brings only more pain. But when you get rid of the pain, what do you do about the emptiness? Where does modern man go to solve the deep void within?
It is only when a man comes to the end of himself that he is ready to think about Jesus Christ. But when that moment of emptiness comes, when he finally faces the “God-shaped vacuum” inside, when he discovers that disobedience only leads to pain, when he reaps the bitter harvest of his own sin, then and only then has he become a candidate for the grace of God! Unfortunately, some people never figure it out in time. They die without realizing the folly of their own behavior. But others come to the end and finally, after many mistakes, they begin to look up. When they do, they find that God is there waiting for them.
To say that is to rush ahead to the end of our story. Right now, we are at the other end, looking at the three stages of God’s judgment on the human race. Each one takes mankind farther away from God.
Stage # 1: Sexual Immorality
This is the first step away from God—widespread sexual immorality. It’s a sign of what happens when a society (a village, a city, a state, a nation or an entire culture) decides to turn away from God. Verse 24 begins with the word “therefore,” which points us back to verses 21-23, and the Five Fatal Steps to Idolatry. First, men are indifferent to the truth they know. Then their minds become confused. Then their hearts are darkened so they no longer know the difference between right and wrong. Then they think they can live without God. Finally, they turn to idolatry.
But what happens then? From idolatry man moves to immorality. “Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.” Note the process. Idolatry always leads to immorality. That’s why the worship of Baal in the Old Testament was accompanied by temple prostitution. Once men invent gods of their own making, they can then rewrite the rules of human conduct. You can live however you like. Things like the Ten Commandments no longer apply. Want to sleep around? Go ahead. Want to have an orgy? Go ahead. Want to legalize prostitution? Go ahead. You can indulge your wildest fantasies once you begin making the rules.
Worshiping Under the Covers
But that raises an interesting question. Why is illicit sex singled out as the first major step away from God? The answer is not hard to find. Sex is closely related to the human spirit. The way you conduct yourself sexually is a good barometer of what’s going on in your heart. After all, what is sex but the desire to be worshiped by another person? Sound strange? It shouldn’t. When two people come together, they are seeking much more than physical release. At a very deep level, they are looking for love, acceptance, fulfillment, freedom and meaning in life. By giving themselves to someone else, they hope (and secretly pray) that through this self-giving, they will discover a way to fill the void within. They “worship” through sex hoping someone will “worship” them back. Sex and worship are thus closely related in their ultimate purpose.
It is as if God is pulling back the covers in order to show us how empty our hearts are without him. By turning to illicit sex, instead of fulfilling our dreams we only expose the emptiness within.
It never works out like we hope it will. Immorality never satisfies because it always involves deception. We lie to each other, we lie to ourselves, and ultimately we lie to God. Verse 25 explains what happens: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the created things instead of the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” When men and women turn away from God, they “exchange” the truth of God for “a lie.” What lie? The lie that you can ignore God and still find fulfillment in this life. The lie that you can break God’s laws and still be happy. The lie that you can live the “good life” without God. The truth is that living without God isn’t the good life. It’s quite literally hell on earth.
God allows this whole process of widespread, unchecked sexual immorality to pervade a culture as a means of showing how empty and barren life is without him. When people think they can find fulfillment in sex, God says, “Look, it won’t work. But you won’t believe that until you find out for yourself.” So God “abandons” people to sexual immorality. He lets them indulge their fantasies. He stands back while they rush headlong off the cliff of unbridled lust to be broken on the jagged rocks of disobedience. Why? He does it because he knows that in the end they will be more unhappy than they were in the beginning. Only then will they begin to see their need for God.
The Cost of Sexual “Freedom”
This week Pastor Brian Bill gave me a copy of the Jan/Feb 1992 issue of The Christian Working Woman. On page 2 there is a heart-rending story called “The Cost of Sexual ’Freedom.’” It perfectly illustrates my point.
I just finished reading the chapter in Common Mistakes Singles Make on relating to the oppo-site sex. Your words “sex outside marriage … is the pathway to personal destruction …” really hit home. I’m 34 years old and it seems nearly every serious problem I’ve had has resulted from sexual experimentation.
I lost my virginity at 13, got genital herpes at 18, have had two abortions, had several relationships with married men, committed adultery when I was married, and had a child out of wedlock from a one-night stand with a married man. My sexual partners must number in the 20s or 30s—I honestly cannot remember every man I’ve slept with.
Every day I feel the guilt and pain of all that sexual ’freedom’ promised us by feminists and others of the radical 60s and 70s. It’s a lie; promiscuity and sex outside marriage does nothing but destroy your self-esteem and makes a mockery of your physical body—a gift from God that I have truly abused. I only hope He can forgive me.
Please keep in mind all the women who, like me, have had problems in this area. We especially need help coping with our abortions—the emotional scars are with us for life. Feel free to use my story; it may help other women, especially women holding onto their virginity and wondering if it’s worth it. In a word — Yes!
Here is a woman who has learned through enormous pain the truth of Romans 1. She believed the “lie” and it nearly destroyed her life. Now at last she has turned to God. But at what an awful personal cost. She illustrates what Paul is saying: God “abandons” people to their own desires in order that they might see how empty life is without God.
That’s Stage # 1 in the long march away from God: Sexual Immorality.
Stage # 2: Open Homosexuality
It shouldn’t surprise us that immorality leads on to homosexuality. By itself, sex can never satisfy man. You never get enough to satiate your lusts, your mind can always imagine new and different perversions, you keep pushing the limit to see how far you can go. But there is a law of diminishing returns. You have to do more and more to satisfy your sexual thirst. Eventually the desire crosses the line into homosexuality.
Please note that God allows this as part of his judgment on the human race. History records that ancient Greece and Rome were hotbeds of homosexuality. Many of our most revered philosophers were homosexuals as were many of the political leaders of that day. In fact, 14 of the first 15 Roman emperors were homosexual, some of them blatantly so.
But this should not surprise us. Whenever men turn away from God, terrible things begin to happen in society. Long-held standards disappear. Things once considered incredible now become commonplace. Evil no longer seems evil. The basic distinctions between male and female are obliterated. No one knows the difference between right and wrong. In such an atmosphere, homosexuality is first tolerated, then accepted, then praised, and finally enshrined as the ultimate freedom.
In thinking about this issue from a biblical perspective, three facts come into very clear focus:
1. Homosexuality is a willful choice, not a biological imperative.
Evrything the Bible has to say about homosexuality begins with this fact. It is a choice, a learned behavior, a chosen path, a personal lifestyle decision. Notice how Paul puts it: “God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way 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.” I have underlined the key words to highlight the main point. Homosexuality is a deliberate “exchange” of the natural for the unnatural. It is a willful “abandonment” of what is right in favor of what is wrong. (It’s also worth noting that Paul lists women first, as if to say how shocking it is that they would do such a thing.)
But that’s not all. Not only is homosexuality a willful choice, it is one that completely reverses the natural order of creation. It reverses God’s plan for the human race established in the garden of Eden. It is thoroughly “unnatural,” literally it is “against nature.” Men and women have to deliberately repress the way God made them in order to practice homosexuality.
We can take the matter even further. Look at the strong, precise words Paul uses to describe this sin: It involves “shameful lust;” it leads to “indecent acts;” it is “perversion” which leads to a “due penalty” from God. These are not small issues. No one can argue that Paul is unclear about his meaning. Homosexuality is a terrible sin, degrading, indecent, perverted, evil and wrong.
But let’s not lose the main point. More than anything else, homosexuality is a willful choice. No one can say, “I was born that way.” No one is born homosexual. No one. Anyone who argues otherwise is either ignorant of the Bible or has deliberately perverted its teaching.
You can talk all you want about genetics, the size of the hypothalamus, about absent fathers, over-protective mothers, about early sexual confusion, and even about sexual abuse. Some of those things may indeed create a predisposition to this particular sin. But the fact remains: Every act of homosexuality—whether in word or deed or in lustful thought—every single act is a personal moral choice. Temptation is not the issue because temptation in and of itself is not a sin. But giving in to temptation—whether mentally, verbally or in actual deed—is a sin. That’s a moral choice for which God will hold you 100% accountable. You can’t blame your choices on your hypothalamus! You can’t even blame your father for his failure to be there when you needed him.
2. Widespread homosexuality is a specific sign of a godless society.
This is undoubtedly Paul’s main point. As a society moves away from God, one mark of its drift into judgment is widespread homosexuality. The tragic fact is that this is exactly where America is today. On every front we are told that homosexuality is good and right and normal. Those who oppose it are called homophobic. All across the country gays and lesbians are coming out of the closet—not to the opprobrium they deserve but to the cheers of the crowd, even the approval of many people in the mainstream. It’s good, they say, to come to grips with who you really are. It’s time to get rid of the strictures of the past which treated homosexuality as a sin. It’s time we all accepted gays and lesbians as decent, upright, law-abiding, God-fearing, moral people.
What’s worse, the churches of America have largely caved in on this issue. Not a week passes that I don’t hear about another church that is ordaining gays and lesbians to the ministry. The situation is so bad that the mainline denominations no longer know what they believe on this issue. The issue of whether or not to condemn homosexuality is up for debate in the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church. What’s tragic is that the Bible-believers in those denominations are slowly being squeezed out. Anyone who dares to challenge the status quo is ridiculed for his fundamentalism. To my great sorrow, I read this week about a Southern Baptist church that has ordained a gay man as a deacon and is considering him for ordination.
It’s happening in churches across the country. It’s even happening here in Oak Park. Not far from Calvary, another local congregation has joined the “More Light” movement. That’s a group of apostates who have reinterpreted the Bible in order to justify admitting practicing homosexuals as members of the church. Such a thing is as evil as evil can possibly be. It is not Christian; it is a truly godless position. What’s sad is that so many church leaders have said, “We don’t know whether homosexuality is right or wrong.” Paul would call that a sign of a depraved mind.
Where are the churches and the pastors who will stand up and proclaim the truth of God on this issue? Why are so many pastors ready to preach the love of God and slow to preach the judgment of God? Are they afraid of losing their jobs? Are they afraid the gays and lesbians won’t like them? Or are they so committed to compromise that they no longer know the difference between right and wrong?
For too long the churches have been silent on this issue. We’ve held our peace while the militant gays have taken the battle to the streets. And they’ve been winning in city after city. It’s time for the people of God to fight back against evil. This week Pastor Bob Boerman gave me a telling quote from Martin Luther. Ponder his words carefully:
I find it impossible to avoid offending guilty men, for there is no way of avoiding it by our silence or their patience; and silent we cannot be because of God’s command, and patient they cannot be because of their guilt.
Did you hear what happened to Bill McCartney this week? He’s the coach of the University of Colorado football team, and he is also a fervent born-again Christian. A few days ago his name and affiliation appeared on the letterhead of Colorado for Family Values, a pro-family group opposing gay-rights legislation in that state. When the university president rebuked him for linking the university’s name with his personal views, he called a press conference to say he needed to be more careful about that. But in the answer to a question, he said plainly that homosexuality was a sin and an “abomination.” That so offended the university president that she called him a second time to rebuke him for “inappropriate behavior” and to warn him that “it could not occur again.” She hinted that a repeat could lead to his firing.
It’s a sign of the times. If Bill McCartney had said that homosexuality was a good thing, they probably would have had a ticker-tape parade through downtown Boulder in his honor. These days the only way to get in trouble on a college campus is by defending biblical morality.
Is This Child Gay?
Have you seen the current issue of Newsweek (2/24/92)? The cover picture is an enlargement of an infant’s face with the title superimposed in large letters: Is This Child Gay? The subtitle reads, “Born or Bred: The Origins of Homosexuality.” The article—which covers 7 pages—is basically a piece of pro-homosexual propaganda. New research, we are told, suggests that homosexuality is basically a matter of genetics. If that’s true, then no moral choice is involved. You are the way you are because that’s the way you are. Either God made you homosexual or it happened by chance. Either way, you aren’t gay by choice so don’t fight it. That also means that society is wrong for hanging on to the ancient stereotypes. The following statement is highlighted in a box at the bottom of page 46: “Many people have welcomed the indication that gayness begins in the chromosomes.”
Who do you suppose welcomes that news? Gays and lesbians are glad to hear it because it takes them off the hook. Phil Donohue is glad to hear it because it confirms what he’s been saying. Liberal churchmen are glad to hear it because they can now rewrite the Bible to fit in with the latest research. Newsweek is obviously glad to hear it because it gives them another chance to preach the gospel of gay acceptance. Being gay, we are told, is like being left-handed. It’s just the way things are. No longer do counselors have to try to “cure” homosexual-ity; the therapeutic goal is to help homosexuals accept their own inevitable condition.
Without wasting any more space on the issue, let me come to the bottom line: The article is sick, morally evil, and a piece of depravity masquerading as good journalism. It illustrates how far we’ve gone down the road Paul talked about in Romans 1. Evil has become good and good has become evil.
At Home in Oak Park
What do we find right here in Oak Park? The same “enlightened” attitude Newsweek approves. Oak Park has become a haven for homosexuals. In 1989 the Village Board voted to add “sexual orientation” to its Human Rights Ordinance, thereby officially protecting homosexuals from discrimination. But you only protect the things that you value. By voting that way, the Village Board changed the moral values of our community. Is it any wonder that we have the highest rate of AIDS of any community in Cook County outside the city of Chicago itself?
A few months after the Village Board acted, the School Board decided to follow suit. Many of you will remem-ber the struggle in the fall of 1989, how hundreds of Christians from many local churches banded together to oppose the School Board’s actions. Some of you wrote letters, many lent your name to a newspaper ad, others testified before the School Board. You’ll also remember that in the beginning the Board voted 9-0 against us. The local papers editorialized against us. The letters to the editor columns were filled with anti-Christian vilification. But in the end … after all the smoke had cleared … when the vote was finally taken … the
School Board voted 9-0 against us. we didn’t change even one vote. Not one.
Welcome to the new Oak Park, where the Gays and Lesbians can parade through Scoville Park in their Cultural Arts Festival, where local bookstores sell homosexual literature, where the OPLGA (Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association) can sponsor a youth drop-in center for teenagers, where teachers at the high school can advocate homosexuality as a normal way of life, where the local newspaper runs personal ads for “men seeking men” and “women seeking women,” where the local churches welcome gays and lesbians as members. It’s a different world now, one much different from the Oak Park of the 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s.
We do it all under the banner of diversity and tolerance. But it is a form of idolatry. Oak Park has bowed down to the false god of diversity and the idol of pluralism. Is it any wonder that evil flows unabated in our midst?
What’s worse, some of us are co-conspirators in this catastrophe by our silence. By not speaking up against evil we have aided and abetted the enemy. Because we have not spoken the hard truth, many have assumed that we agree with what has happened in our midst. We do not agree!
Oak Park is under the judgment of God.
The Village Board is under the judgment of God.
The School Board is under the judgment of God.
Is this perhaps the reason why the high school is in such turmoil? Would this explain why we can’t balance the high school budget, why we just lost a superintendent, why there is racial tension in the hallways? Is this one reason why we’re cutting back instead of moving ahead? Are not all these things signs of the judgment of God in our midst?
Romans 1 has come true before our very eyes. Oak Park is under the judgment of God because we as a village have turned away from God. The homosexuality in our midst is part of that judgment. We said, “We want to be free and open and tolerant and diverse.” We said, “We want to be free of that narrow-minded attitude that condemns homosexuality.” And God said, “All right. You can be free of it. But you’ll have to face the consequences of your own decision.” That’s exactly what’s happening in 1992.
Now the Bills Come Due
Did you notice the little phrase at the end of verse 27? Paul says that homosexuals receive in themselves “the due penalty for their perversion.” That means that homosexuality is a self-punishing sin. It punishes those who practice it. First there is the emotional penalty of confusion, self-hatred and sexual uncertainty. Then there is the physical penalty of Sexually-Transmitted Diseases, especially AIDS. These diseases are a reminder that God will not be mocked. Those who break his laws will eventually pay a high price.
There is no greater misnomer in the English language than to call homosexuals “Gay.” There’s nothing gay about them or about the way they live. They are anything but gay and their life is a long trail of tears, heartache, anger, frustration and guilt. Each day is evil because they have chosen to do evil. Tomorrow holds no promise except the promise of more pain. They are locked in the chains of sexual lust, chains they hate but seem unable to break.
Stuart Briscoe puts the issue of homosexuality in its proper biblical perspective:
The logic of Paul’s argument should not be missed. Those who reject what they know of God in so doing divorce themselves from truth and reality. This means, among other things, that a person out of touch with the reality of God is out of touch with reality, period, including the truth about humanity. To be out of touch with the meaning of humanity means a crisis of identity which is demonstrated in many ways, not least in confusion about sexuality. When sexuality is misunderstood, the sheer power of unrestrained sexual drive and uneducated sexual insight will produce all manner of aberrant sexual behavior. In short, confusion about God breeds confusion about man, which breeds confusion about sexuality which produces sexual confusion and chaos. Far from being, as was fondly imagined by many, an enlightened age of sexual freedom, Paul showed his contemporaries that they lived in a dark day of divine wrath. (Romans, The Communicator’s Commentary, pp. 50-51. Italics mine.)
That’s our world today. Paul’s words are for us just as much as for the first-century Romans. We too live in a dark day of divine wrath.
But to leave the matter there would be incomplete and misleading. The Bible does more than condemn homo-sexuality; it also shows the way out.
3. Homosexuality is a sin, but it is a sin that can be forgiven.
Paul spells it out very plainly in I Corinthians 6:9-11. “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolators nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Paul specifically says that homosexuals will not go to heaven. That’s what “inherit the kingdom of God” means. Those who persist in choosing that lifestyle will eventually end up in Hell.
But they don’t have to end up that way. Paul says, “Such were some of you.” Meaning, some of you were homosexuals. The tense is crucial. “You were,” not “You are.” The entire difference between Heaven and Hell is found in the difference between “were” and “are.” What happened to those former homosexuals? They were “washed” in the blood of Jesus. They were “justified” by the grace of God. They were “sanctified” by the Holy Spirit. Jesus forgave them, God declared them righteous and the Holy Spirit changed them from the inside out.
That’s what the gospel can do. It can take a man or a woman mired in homosexuality, forgive them, change them, redirect their desires, give them a new heart, a new mind and a new disposition. It can take a person bent on sin and replace that desire for sin with a new desire to please God in everything.
It’s true. You don’t have to stay the way you are. Homosexuals can change. Newsweek doesn’t believe it, but it’s true. All over the country—and I dare say even at Calvary—there are men and women who have been set free from this sin by the power of Jesus Christ.
Having said that, we must not miss the main thrust of this passage. As any society turns away from God, it first displays widespread sexual immorality followed by open homosexuality. From there it is only a short step to the final stage of social decay.
Stage # 3: Unlimited and Unrestrained Evil
These verses describe a world that has left God far behind. It is a society with all the restraints removed, a culture that has lost all sense of right and wrong, a place where literally every man does what is right in his own eyes. In this stage God abandoned the world to a “depraved” mind. The word means “rejected, disapproved.” It speaks of a mind that is so clouded by sin that it is no longer able to make reliable moral judgments. Here we have gone beyond deliberate iniquity to something much more frightening. At this stage man has lost the desire and the ability to think clearly. He has lost his mind and doesn’t even know it.
These verses list 21 specific sins that come to the surface in this stage. They all basically show a contemptuous disregard for others. “Wickedness … Evil … Greed … Depravity … Envy … Murder … Strife … Deceit … Malice … Gossip … Slander … Hatred of God … Insolent … Arrogant … Boastful … Inventors of evil … Disobedient to parents … Senseless … Faithless … Heartless … Ruthless.” These are the sins men commit when they turn away from God.
Notice also that these sins cover the whole range of life—home, the family, marriage, the workplace, the stadium, the place of worship. All of life is affected by man’s decision to turn his back on God. Nothing is the same, nothing is left unaffected, no area of life is untouched. In a sense, this passage is a comment upon the doctrine of total depravity. The historic Protestant doctrine uses phrases such as “spiritually dead, inherently corrupt, incapable of pleasing God and hopelessly lost” to describe the plight of the human race apart from Jesus Christ. What does it mean to be “inherently corrupt?” It means to live in the way Paul has just described.
So we say again that this third stage of unlimited and unrestrained evil is the final stage before total social collapse. But even this is not the worst. There is one more step to take, a step that is simply the result of moving through these three stages. Where does society end up when it turns away from God? What does the world look like in the end? Romans 1:32 gives us the answer.
Result: Final Loss of Public Morality
This verse is very striking: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” Paul outlines the three things that happen when men have completely and decisively turned away from God:
They know what they are doing is wrong.
They do wrong anyway.
They praise other wrongdoers.
We have now reached the bottom, and it is not a nice place to be. The bottom is where you are when evil becomes good and good becomes evil. The bottom is where you are when the wrongdoers are publicly praised while defenders of morality are reviled. The bottom is where you are when truth is on the scaffold and wrong is on the throne. The Living Bible has a striking translation of the first part of this verse: “They were fully aware of God’s death penalty for these crimes, yet they went right ahead and did them anyway.” That, my friends, is the bottom—When evil is celebrated publicly!
At this point you have the total reversal of values in society. I do not think it unfair to say that we have essen-tially reached this point in America. The wrongdoers have nearly taken control of two key areas of modern society—education and the media. Now they seek legal status for their iniquity. And they defy all attempts at control. When a major magazine argues that homosexuality is “normal” and when a public figure is chastised for speaking out against it, when the churches are ordaining homosexuals and those who object are mercilessly vilified, when Baptist ministers rally in support of a boxing champion convicted of rape, when all those things are true, what you have is the final loss of public morality. No one knows the difference between right and wrong because the values of society have been turned upside down.
Life in the Lowest Dimension
Kent Hughes has a helpful word of application on how this passage hits home in a very personal way:
What a telling application this has on our media-captivated society. Millions sit in their living rooms watching debauchery, violence, deceit and many other vices—and applaud what they see! It makes little difference whether the vices are real or portrayed, the effect is much the same—an increasingly depraved mind on the part of the viewer. Approving another’s sin is a sign that life has reached its lowest dimension. (Romans: Righteousness From Heaven, pp. 46-47)
I confess that I find those words troubling, and deeply convicting. It’s very easy for me to preach boldly about the sin “out there.” It’s much more difficult to face what comes into my own living room. A few days ago I rented a movie for our family that others had recommended to us. Were I to give the name, many of you would recognize it as one of the most popular movies of 1991. As the movie began, it seemed innocent enough, and even seemed to have a healthy message. But suddenly, and without any warning (or any justification) a half-clad girl appeared on the screen. After a few moments, I reached out and covered the screen with my hand. It seemed like a helpless gesture, but it was the only thing I could think to do. After that, the movie lost its appeal for me, seeming unfunny and stupid and not worthy of the famous “Two Thumbs Up.”
As I have meditated on the incident later, I think Kent Hughes is absolutely right. We must be extra careful about what we watch and read. Each night we allow images (shades of Romans 1:23!) into our living room that portray events diametrically opposed to our Christian faith. But because we are “just watching,” we think it doesn’t matter. But it matters! What we watch becomes a part of us. If we see it enough times, it doesn’t seem so bad. Once it seems not so bad, it soon looks pretty good. In the end, we tacitly approve of evil we once condemned … which is exactly what Paul was talking about in Romans 1:32.
I believe it was Alexander Pope who penned the following lines:
Vice is monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen.
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
These words are for us! These words are for Oak Park! They perfectly describe the world in which we live. Romans 1 is the story of our country, our city, our town, our street and our neighborhood. It is also the story of a culture on the skids. The great tragedy is that we can’t seem to find a stopping place nowadays. No one seems to be able to stand up and say, “This far and no farther.” There seems to be no limit on sensuality, no limit on immorality, no limit on pornography, no limit on any of the sins mentioned in this passage. Each year we push the line a little farther.
Three Crucial Conclusions
Let me wrap this message up with three crucial conclusions.
1. When a nation turns away from God, its course is always downward.
This is the argument Edward Gibbon made in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Rome fell for many reasons, not the least of which is that it rotted from the inside. Long before the political decline came the moral decline. This has been the story of the collapse of every great civilization. They rot from the inside out so that when the climactic moment comes, the final battle is over swiftly.
America, are you listening? Does anyone care what is happening in our country? With each step we take, we go farther away from God. And the course is always downward.
2. When a nation chooses evil instead of good, God punishes that nation by letting evil reign supreme.
Fifty years ago it happened in Nazi Germany. It also happened 2500 years ago in ancient Babylon. This pattern has been repeated in every generation, on every continent, in every culture. It is an immutable moral law. When men willfully choose evil over good, God says, “If you want evil, you can have it. But you’ll have to live with the consequences.” In the end, the nation itself collapses because no nation can long survive that enshrines evil on the throne. Just ask a man named V. I. Lenin what happened to his dream. His ideas reigned supreme for nearly 75 years but in the end his way brought only suffering and poverty to the people of Russia.
3. When a nation is under the judgment of God, it is also ripe for the preaching of the Gospel.
It’s time at last for some good news. After all the talk of judgment and punishment, we come to the “good part” of the message. Here it is. Any nation under the judgment of God is ripe for the preaching of the gospel. That’s truly good news because the moral climate of America is so dark that you might be tempted to say, “The light can never shine here again.” It’s good to remember the words of the gospel song: “The darker the night, the brighter the light.”
To Paul, Rome was the center of wickedness on the earth. All that was wrong with the world was found there. It was a city wholly given over to evil, a city where wrong was celebrated and right was punished, a city of emperor-worship, pagan idolatry, gross immorality, open homosexuality, a city where fathers routinely aban-doned their infant sons and daughters, a city where slavery was rampant, a city built upon rapacious cruelty. And how did Paul, an unknown Jew from Tarsus, feel about visiting Rome for the first time?
— “I am eager to preach the gospel at Rome.” (1:15)
— “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” (1:16)
It was in Rome—with all its sin and debauchery—that Paul was eager to preach the gospel. Why? Because in the gospel the power of God is revealed, a power that leads to salvation, a salvation made available on the simple and single condition of believing in Christ, a condition anyone could meet—Jew or Gentile. Paul knew that Rome needed nothing as much as it needed the life-changing power of the gospel. And nowhere but in Christ did that power exist.
What a wonderful perspective for us who live in Oak Park. I know that I have been bold in this message to proclaim the judgment of God. And I want you to know that I stand by my words. But if what I said discourages you, then you have missed the point. Oak Park is ripe for the preaching of the gospel precisely because Oak Park is under the judgment of God.
God Loves Oak Park
That leads me to a key theological point: God doesn’t “give up” on the human race because he hates mankind. Far from it. God “gives up” because he loves the sinning men and women who have chosen to turn away from him. Like a weeping father who must let his prodigal son go to the far country, hoping against hope that experience will cure the desire for rebellion, God lets the human race go deep into sin because he knows that is the only hope of curing the desire for sin. Every parent understands this. Sometimes you’ve got to let your children make serious, even life-threatening mistakes, because they will never grow unless they face the consequences of their own disobedience. If you don’t let them go, they’ll never learn the difference between right and wrong.
Behind the wrath of God stands the love of God. Behind the frown is a smile and a tear and a message to mankind: “I love you enough to let you go.” God loves you enough to let you go so far in sin that you will one day wake up and say, “This is awful. I need the Lord.” When that day comes, you’ll discover that he’s been standing at the door of your heart all along, waiting for you to let him in.
Against the deepening darkness of our time, God has broken through in the person of Jesus Christ. Here is the amazing truth: God has poured his wrath on his own Son. Ponder that for a moment. All the wrath of God came down on Jesus when he hung on the cross. That includes every bit of the wrath of God mentioned in this passage. The penalty for man’s headlong plunge into sin was poured out on the strong shoulders of Jesus Christ. He paid for it all: the idolatry, the hatred, the immorality, the cheap sex, the one-night stands, yes thank God, even for all the homosexuality, and for all those terrible sins Paul mentioned, even the penalty for the public celebration of evil. He paid for it all! He drank the bitter dregs of sin for the human race. The evil of evil, the full force of Hell itself, came down on him, and he took it all, that day at Golgotha.
Nothing more needs to be done. Nothing more can be done. Jesus paid it all.
The Most Hopeful Passage
That leads me to a familiar verse: “I came that they might have life, and might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) No verse is more appropriate for these times. When you come to Jesus Christ, you discover what you were always looking for but could never seem to find. All the world promises but can never deliver is fully found in him.
Seen in that light, Romans 1 is the most hopeful passage in all the Bible. It’s hopeful because as Pastor Luthi said, it tells us the whole truth about our condition. And if we can bear to hear the whole truth, then we can be healed. Romans 1 is hard truth, but behind the hard words stands the bleeding form of the Son of God reaching out to a world that crucified him.
After all, no one is more likely to welcome the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ than those who have experienced the wrath of God in the outworking of their own sinful behavior.
No one needs the grace of God like those who have experienced the judgment of God. If you need a massive dose of God’s grace, then Romans 1 has done its work in your heart. If you have eaten at Satan’s trough long enough, then in the name of Jesus Christ, I invite you to the banquet that will never end.
So let no one be discouraged. Let the church lift up its head. Let us not be fearful in the face of brazen sinners. Let us not shrink back from the battle before us. The truth of God marches on. The gospel of God shines like a beacon in the blackness of this hour.
Let us go from this place firm in our conviction that the only hope of the world is Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us march out in the darkness, turn on the light of the gospel, and let it shine right here in Oak Park. When we do, we will see broken people crawling out of the darkness toward the healing light of Jesus Christ. Have no fear of what might happen. Out there in the darkness, hurting people are waiting for the light. If you let it shine, they will come.