A few weeks ago I finished a series of historical fiction novels, written by Bernard Cornwell that chronicled the Napoleonic wars that were fought between England and France. Just curious….any OTHER Cornwell fans out there? Anyone other than me and Gary read his “Richard Sharpe” series? Well, I thoroughly enjoyed these books because Cornwell was not only good at weaving fictional characters into the factual history of the battles that made up that lengthy conflict—he also was very good at helping the reader understand exactly how wars were fought and won back in that day and age.
One aspect of warfare that he highlighted frequently in his books was the way the Duke of Wellington used special scouts to gather information in his struggle to defeat Napoleon. According to Cornwell, Wellington’s scouts were often older, and therefore wiser officers who usually worked alone as they traveled around the countryside gathering detailed information on enemy troop movements. These scouts were given fast, healthy, grain-fed horses, so that if they were discovered by the enemy, they could easily outdistance their pursuers—who usually rode much weaker mounts. After days or even weeks of covering many miles in front of the main British force, these scouts would return and when they did they were immediately ushered into the Duke’s headquarters. A map would be spread on the table and the Duke would listen as the scout said, “Here’s the situation…” He would proceed to give a very detailed BRIEFING of all he had seen. Then he would be dismissed and the Duke would formulate his battle plan on the scout’s information. Well, in my mind, that’s what Paul is doing in this next section of his letter to the church at Rome. He’s giving them his scouting report. He’s saying, “I’ve been all over the world watching and listening…and you need to know that the situation is dire indeed. Things are bad and getting worse and this is one reason—as I told you a few verses ago—this is part of why I’m so EAGER to preach the Gospel. What I have seen tells me that the Gospel message is something that people everywhere DESPERATELY need to hear.”
Take your Bibles and turn to Romans 1, verses 18-32 and listen as I read Paul’s briefing…this detailed “scouting report” he has prepared for the church in Rome.
18 – The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
19 – since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
20 – For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21 – For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
22 – Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools
23 – and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 – Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
25 – They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—Who is forever praised. Amen.
26 – Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.
27 – In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
28 – Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.
29 – They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,
30 – slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 – they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
32 – 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.
I want you to note that in his very detailed briefing Paul says three things—things that helped not only the Romans but still help Christians in our day and age—understand why people desperately need to hear the Gospel message.
(1) First, he says that his “scouting observations” have indicated that God has REVEALED Himself clearly to all people.
Look at verses 19-20 again: “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Paul is saying, “I have traveled all over the Roman Empire and I can tell you that without a doubt, every person everywhere can know there is a God. They can know by simply opening their eyes and looking at the created order all around them. They can easily see that God has revealed Himself to them.” Theologians call this “general revelation” and it says that you and I cannot live as spectators in the astounding theater of our world—a world that takes our breath away with it’s intricacy and beauty—we can’t look at all this and then one day stand before God and claim we saw no clues that gave proof of His existence. No one can say this because proof is all over the place. We can’t miss it. Human beings aren’t dumb. All anyone has to do is look and they can easily deduce that God exists.
As the Psalmist puts it,“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
Many of you have traveled widely so I know you’ve “heard” creation pour forth this “speech.”
You’ve seen it display this knowledge. I mean, have you ever looked at the Grand Canyon…or the Smokey Mountains…or a sunset on the Caribbean…and it almost took your breath away and you found yourself saying, “Oh My…God!” Well, that response makes sense. It’s the most natural response to have in times like that. In fact, sometimes I think God put these magnificent breath-taking, soul-thrilling wonders in our world as if to say, “Hey! Catch the hint! I’m here!”
And how could we not catch the VERY obvious hint that a Creator exists!? After all, a car presupposes a builder. A watch presupposes a watch maker. Turn on the television in your home and you can clearly see it was made by someone somewhere—probably not in the United States—but somewhere! Well, Paul is saying, “Listen, God made sure humans were smart enough to conclude just by looking at creation that He exists.” In fact Paul says, “Not only has God revealed His EXISTENCE in creation. He’s also revealed His ATTRIBUTES…His invisible qualities…His divine nature.” And He’s right! We can look all around us and see that our Creator is a Creator of limitless POWER. We see this in the spinning of a tornado…or the big breakers crashing on a rocky shore. Further LOOKING—deeper study—shows that all of nature is ALIVE with power—right down to the molecular level. In fact, the atoms that make up this pulpit are constantly in motion. All of nature is one great mass of energy—so it tells us that our Creator is infinitely strong. We can also see God’s SOVEREIGNTY in nature. I say this because nature has constant laws that are ABOVE us…laws we dare not break. For example—gravity is sovereign. Don’t think you can jump off a building and escape harm. You won’t BREAK the law of gravity. It will break you—as Wylie Coyote learned over and over again in the Road Runner cartoons. We don’t play around with the laws of ELECTRICITY either. If you doubt it’s sovereignty walk around in an electrical storm while holding a long metal rod. I could go on because nature is sovereign. It has the right to do what it was made to do and that tells us that our Creator is sovereign. After all, He set up these laws. They function at HIS will.
Another thing—we can look at CREATION and know that God loves VARIETY because there are almost limitless species on our planet, which is why bird watching and bug-collecting and snorkeling can be fun hobbies. There’s so much to see! We can look and see that He must love people—because He set up the laws of nature to make it possible for Human beings to exist and thrive. I for one think we can even see that God has a sense of HUMOR by simply looking at what He has made. One great example of this is a bug called a BOMBARDIER BEETLE. God made this little bug with special glands that secret two liquids…liquids that it ignites when it is threatened—generating a huge explosion. Well, the fact is—creation is FULL of proof that our sovereign, powerful, loving, creative God exists. I’m reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem entitled, Aurora Leigh. It has a line that goes like this:
“Earth’s CRAMMED with Heaven
And every common bush AFIRE WITH GOD;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes—
The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”
Evidence of God’s existence and attributes are indeed EVERYWHERE! This is why even isolated tribes—even people who don’t have the Bible and who have never heard a sermon…even people with no contact with the outside world…can acknowledge this fact. Back in 1962, in an article in HIS magazine — Leith Samuel said, “There are no atheists among [isolated] tribes. They know there is a God. There has never been discovered on earth a tribe of people however small or depraved which has not believed in some kind of god or had some system of worship.
The people found in these primitive tribes also know they have sinned and that their sin needs to be atoned for. When a Christian comes to them and talks about sin…he often finds ready acknowledgment that this is true.”
Our Creator has even left evidence of His existence imprinted in our minds. This week I read a story from the life of Helen Keller—that remarkable woman who, as an infant, lost her sight as well as her hearing and her ability to speak. If you’ve seen The Miracle Worker, you probably know the story of how a gifted teacher named Ann Sullivan—reached through the darkness and silence to the soul of that blind, deaf, and mute little girl and taught her to communicate. Because of Ann Sullivan, Helen Keller went on to become one of the greatest women of modern times. Keller tells of a time when Sullivan—who was a growing Christian—wanted to tell her about God. Sullivan enlisted the aid of Dr. Philip Brooks. As Dr. Brooks sat there, he talked to Sullivan…and she translated the words to Helen Keller through the various finger pressures that she used for communication. As she got across the idea about God, suddenly a light broke out on Miss Keller’s face and she answered back in her sign language, “Oh, I know Him. I’ve known Him for a long, long time.” To me this is wonderful confirmation that — even in the heart of someone who has no eyes to see, no ears to hear…there is proof of God’s existence.
Well, Paul says, that God has clearly revealed Himself to all human beings everywhere so that every human being is without excuse.
At the end of time none of us will be able to say, “I didn’t know. There wasn’t enough proof.”
Every person living even those in a remote part of Africa…or India…or on some uncharted island…every Redskins fan…every one will one day say there was sufficient evidence…because there has indeed been a general, UNIVERSAL revelation of God which has reached everyone everywhere. No one has ever lived without the knowledge of His existence. It’s a plain as the nose on your face. You have to admit that you believe He exists.
And God promises that if we make this admission—and if we act on it—if we seek our Creator, we will find Him. As Hebrews 11:6 says, “God rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” I’ve heard several stories of a remote people group using the eyes God gave them to see His general revelation in nature…and the minds God gave them to come to the conclusion that He exists and then pray that the Creator God would reveal Himself to them…and God responded by sending Christians to tell them about Jesus.
But—this leads to the second thing Paul says in his briefing—and its not good news because he reports that he has found that instead of making this admission…
(2) …there are unbelievers everywhere who SUPPRESS God’s revelation of Himself.
Look at the last part of verse 18 and also verses 21-22 where Paul says, “In their wickedness men suppress this truth…For although they knew [there was a] God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” In other words, Paul is saying people don’t accidentally miss out on God’s presence in their lives. It’s their choice. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, people say there is no God. They ignore the logical conclusion they make in their minds—and become intellectually dishonest by suppressing the truth. They try to cover it up even to the point of abandoning the scientific method. It is as Tim LaHaye puts it in his book, The Battle for the Mind, “Humanism is unscientific.” It doesn’t make sense.
The words of Psalm 14:1 come to mind where it says, “The FOOL has said in his heart, ‘there is no God.’” And the word we translate as “fool” here is the same word from which we get the word, “moron.” That may sound a bit critical but it’s accurate because we act like morons when we deny the fact that, as we can clearly see in this world of ours, God exists. By the way, the word, “Godlessness” here in verse 18 does not mean atheism or the belief that God doesn’t exist. No—Godlessness is thinking and acting AS IF God doesn’t exist. A Godless person doesn’t DENY the existence of God. He or she merely ignores Him. And Paul reports that this is what people were doing in his day and age—and people still do this. They look at the intricate orderly beauty of creation and willfully, Godlessly, suppress the truth that stares them right in the face.
I’m reminded of Richard Dawkings, the outspoken atheist and author of The God Delusion, who was asked if he died and found himself at the gates of Heaven, how he would justify his lifelong atheism. He said, “I would say, ‘Not enough evidence, God. Not enough evidence.” What a fool! If a blind girl can see this—how can he not! Well, Paul would say, “This Godless man—Dawkins—CAN see it—he just won’t admit it. He ignores the truth that God has made so plain.” I want to show you a clip from CASE FOR A CREATOR to show you to what lengths some “scientists” go to suppress this truth.
CLIP CASE FOR A CREATOR – From 26:08 to 33:08
Isn’t that ridiculous? Wouldn’t you agree with Strobel that this is a desperate attempt to explain away the obvious…a moronic stab at SUPPRESSING the truth. To me it’s like a game we used to play when we would swim in a lake—it was sort of a water version of Rugby because the object was to get the ball and keep it. Of course if you had the ball, everyone would be gunning for you—so one strategy would be to hide it in the confusion by keeping it underwater…deep enough to not be visible from the surface. This didn’t work well though—because of course that inflated ball “wanted” to get to the top. But we tried nonetheless. We SUPPRESSED that ball as long as we could. But we could never do it long enough because our strength or balance would give way and the ball would explode to the surface. Well, that’s what many people try to do with the “speech” that pours forth in creation and says, “There is a God!” They shove it from their thoughts!
Now—why would people do this? Why do they suppress the truth whenever they feel it rising to the surface? Well, as Hybels puts it, this is because it’s easier to live with a lie than it is to live with the trauma that the truth produces. You see, if God exists—then there is such a thing as sin—and there’s such a thing as Heaven and Hell, which means they would have to change the way they live. Well, people love their sin too much. They don’t want to give it up. It’s as Jesus said in John 3:19-20, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” So you see, unbelievers have a vested interest in suppressing the truth because if they don’t suppress it, they might have to give up the sin that they love so much. Hybels says he received a letter from a church member who writes, “Romans 1:18-23 is the story of my life. In my early teen years I knew the truth but I didn’t want to deal with it. I was independent…rebellious. I wanted it my way. I didn’t want my sin exposed. I didn’t want my lifestyle cramped. I went and embraced new age movement…mantras…you wouldn’t believe what I’ve done but I knew all along I was lying to myself. I knew I was suppressing the truth. The threat of bowing to Jesus was more than I wanted to deal with so I just kept on exchanging the truth for lies.”
How many of you have heard testimonies like these? Perhaps your own testimony is similar. Maybe you’re trying to “hold the ball under the surface” of your life right now. I mean, is there some area in your life where you are blocking God out? Is there some behavior you KNOW is wrong but you won’t admit it. You lie to yourself. You suppress the truth?
So our spiritual scout—Paul—says God has revealed Himself everywhere to everyone…but people everywhere ignore this general revelation. They suppress this truth. And I hate to tell you but that’s not all the bad news. There is more that is much, much worse.
(3) You see Paul also reports that his travels have shown that because of all this suppressing the truth, God has UNLEASHED His wrath. (Verses 18a, 24-32)
Look at verse 18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
Now—if you were one of Paul’s original readers you might think, “What’s he talking about? I don’t see any WRATH OF GOD being revealed at the moment. There’s no fire or brimstone falling. In fact, the bad guys I know seem to be doing just fine.” And we might look around today and come to the same conclusion—but that would be a mistake because you see, the word he uses for WRATH here, isn’t the “fire and brimstone kind.”
In the Greek there are two words for “anger.” One is “thermos” and “thermos” literally means a BLAST of anger. “Thermos” is a sudden burst of temper…an explosive uncontrolled anger. But God’s anger is not THERMOS so that’s not the word we find here. Instead Paul uses the word “orge” which means controlled anger. It’s settled—not impulsive and its seen in a sad phrase Paul uses three times. Look at verses 24, 26, and 28 and tell me, what are those words that describe God’s wrath? Right! Paul says that God, “GAVE THEM OVER.” God’s wrath is not in thunderbolts flung from Heaven but rather it is His settled, regretful decision to give man over to his desire to sin.
Please note—Paul is saying that wickedness—which is the natural result of Godlessness—he’s saying that wickedness is not the CAUSE of God’s anger but the CONSEQUENCE of it. You see, in His righteous anger God has doomed people to having their own way. In essence He says, “In spite of all the evidence you don’t acknowledge My existence? You don’t believe in Me? You don’t want Me in your life? Well, okay then. I give up. Have it your way.” Mark Buchanan writes, “When God’s anger reaches the level of wrath, He doesn’t start punishing us. He stops. He shows His wrath, but not by thrashing us. It’s worse. He shows it by abandoning us, leaving us all to ourselves.” And the truly terrifying thing is that when God gives up like this—well, there is nothing to keep us from slipping further and further into depravity…because our natural bent is not TO God but AWAY from Him. Since we are natural born sinners, our natural bent is to go with the tug to sin—and when we do we always suffer. God says—and I think with an infinite amount of sadness, “Okay…enough is enough. You love your vices more than My truth…your lifestyle more than Me…then have it your way. You are now free from My watch-care and guidance. I will no longer try to woo you or prompt you or tug you toward what is best. You are free. I will take My hands off of your life.”
And when God gives up like this not only do we drift into embracing sin—it also means no One is restraining the evil one. Jesus talked about this. Do you remember how the evil one wanted to attack Peter? In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said, “Peter, satan wants to sift you like wheat…but I’m not letting him.” And do you remember God’s conversation with satan concerning Job? He said, “Okay—you can test him but there are boundaries.”
So—when we suppress God’s general revelation. When, in essence we say to our loving Creator, “Talk to the hand because the face is not listening…” Well, God gives us over. He gives up. As He warned in Genesis 6:3, “My Spirit will not always strive with man.” Now of course God is slow to anger. He has a long fuse—but it is not eternally long. There comes a time when He says, “Enough is enough.”
How many of you have been to Niagra falls? I’m sure the rest of us have seen pictures of that beautiful place. Well, the further UP-stream you go, the more calmer and quieter the river seems to be—and of course the closer you get to the falls, the faster—and more white water there is.
When I read this text I envision four teenage boys fishing in a boat about 2-3 miles above the falls and there’s a rope from their boat to the shore and God has a hold of the rope. These teens want to explore down river. They want to go down stream and look around, and they do that but then the rope unwinds such that it gets taught and they say, “God give us more rope!” God yells from the shore and says “Hey guys, trust Me…you don’t want this. You don’t want to go much further down stream…” but at their insistence He relents gives out a little more slack. They say, “This is great! Give us more rope because the further down stream we go, the more exciting the river is! We love this white water. In fact, let go of the rope! We’re so sick of You keeping us from all the fun. Let go…cut us free! Stop holding us back from fun!” And they begin to YANK on the rope and as they do God pleads, “Listen guys, as long as I hold the chord there’s hope for you…as long as I still have this much impact on your destiny there’s hope.” But the boys suppress His clear warnings. They think they know better and they get angry and start using filthy language and throwing things at God, yelling, “For the last time God, let us go!” It’s breaking God’s heart but does. He drops the rope. And the boys are free—free to take a trip that will be exciting at first but will eventually cost them their lives
Now—with that image of a boat flying down river faster and faster toward the falls—look now at what Paul says is downstream. This is the inevitable “downstream result” of God’s “orge” wrath.
I’m reading beginning in verse 24 where it says. “God GAVE THEM OVER in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. God GAVE THEM OVER to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women…and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He GAVE THEM OVER to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.”
And lest you think homosexuals are the only ones experiencing God’s wrath listen as I read on.
“They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 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.”
This is not a fun section to look at is it? If I counted correctly there are 21 kinds of sin here. That great preacher from yesteryear, J. Vernon McGee calls this section of Romans a “sinarama.” Hybels calls it a “21 sin salute.” Well doesn’t this list sound like our culture today? I mean can you see God’s wrath being revealed on our society right now? Sure we can! This is why the news is so depressing—it’s just a recounting of God’s ORGE wrath—the inevitable result of people in our society who say every day, “Leave us alone God! Let go of the rope!” And, as Paul reports, when God let’s people go—one of the first things that happens is sexual perversion. I mean, sexuality is a very explosive drive in human beings. It takes a lot of discipline and prayer and surrender to the Lord for you and me to control our sexuality. Paul is saying, “If it’s difficult for a believer to handle their sexuality, imagine how hard it is for an unbeliever to do so—especially when God no longer restrains them.” But as we see here, Paul says that’s not all. When God gives up GREED takes over and people who have millions take money from people who have very little. Remember ENRON? When God gives up on people who ask Him to—horrible evil happens…like the father who killed his three children in that Baltimore Hotel room this week. Atrocious things happen when people say, “God I don’t want You in my life…” and He replies, “Okay—if that’s what you want…”
In 1987 a plane crashed near Interstate 94 after taking off from Detroit. The only survivor was a four year old little girl. You can imagine it was a scene of horrible carnage but what was WORSE was the fact that within 15 minutes of the crash, seven people were arrested…for picking the jewelry off the bodies of the victims. Does it get anymore depraved than that? We hear stories like this and think, “How could people do that?” Well, here’s how—they suppressed the truth of God—they said they didn’t want Him in their life and He said, “Okay.”
Paul says it gets so bad that not only do they do unthinkable evil—they applaud others who do the same. Their consciences become seared that they slide so far into depravity they don’t know right from wrong and don’t care. Then all Hell breaks lose until a person ends up there.
Now if this is all of the letter to the Romans we read–we’d have this picture of God with His back turned…on a world suffering because He has let them have their foolish way. But if you read on…the amazing revelation of this letter is that these people who have insulted and offended and blasphemed God by their actions, people who have refused His grace and in utter thanklessness have wasted the lives that He has given them—these same people are the ones whom God loved and whom Christ came to die for. You see, the whole purpose of this scouting report is to show Paul’s readers—both then and now—how much God loves us. Paul wants us to understand to what incredible lengths God went to save us from our sin. With this 21 sin salute, he wants us to realize that this is the kind of person Jesus came to seek and to save. As he says a few chapters later, “While we were yet sinners….Christ died for us.”
Now—let me ask….can you sense the urgency we have to share the Gospel? Do you see why Paul was so eager to share it? People are literally LOST in their sins. More than anything they need us to throw them a rope and tell them about Jesus. As we come to our time of decision…I want to invite you into a time of self-examination. Believer—can you see any way that God’s orge wrath is falling on you? Perhaps there is a relationship you asked Him to stay out of or some behavior He told you not to mess with but you do anyway. If the Holy Spirit convicts you of that kind of thing, then pray. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So ask God to forgive you and give Him back the rope of your life. Others may want to bow and pray for friends of family members who have pushed God out. And if God is leading you to respond publically—to join our church family or profess your faith I Jesus…come.