In this series on universal human longings, last time we considered “worship and sanctuary” and concluded our hearts yearn to worship, and that need every person has can only be satisfied by the living water Jesus gives. Now in this second post on Romans 1:16-32, which is the classic NT text explaining God’s wrath on a world that rejects him, we’ll explore another foundational issue: how the gospel speaks to us as human beings searching for who we really are. But untangling all the questions people have about identity–God’s and ours–is difficult. No less a theological giant as John Calvin observed:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. [Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, page 1]
Thankfully, Romans 1:16-32 helps us connect the knowledge we have of ourselves and of God. It’s a passage that begs two questions: “Who are you? And how do you know who you are?” These are questions of identity, self-knowledge, and self-worth. Everyone builds their life on the answers to these identity questions. Why? Because you want to matter, to be important, to be significant, to be valuable for who you are. From the beginning of time every single person has tried to build his or her self-identity apart from the knowledge of God. But there is nothing you can get from other people, from other things, or even from yourself that can be a reliable basis of your core identity. All such attempts to craft our own identities ultimately fail us, because self-made identities are idols—they always crush us, judge us, and abandon us. Why? Because they are not based in reality. When people exchange the knowledge of God to make idols of human beings and other things, God reveals his wrath by turning them over to sin’s dehumanizing consequences which leave nothing uncorrupted: bodies, minds, and society. Return to your Creator who made you in his image and likeness.
The Tragic Exchange
Natural revelation suppressed (vv. 18-20)
Consider the wonderful things we know about God, without even consulting the Bible, just by observing and reflecting on the world and ourselves. We can deduce and infer from creation that the Creator is powerful, and this power must extend forever (eternal). Moreover, we can infer that the Creator is outside of the creation—thus he is supernatural, divine in nature. His eternal power and divine nature are invisible but not hidden attributes (cf. Jn 1:18; Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27). We can see he is a mighty God. He is a God of vast intelligence and attention to detail. He is a God of fine-tuned order and exquisite beauty. He controls immensely powerful forces. The cosmos tells us all of this. The human heart tells us even more since things that exist, such as our feelings, thoughts, appetites, and longings, cannot come from nothing. The existence of universally recognized moral laws require a Moral Law Giver. Thus we can read truths about God from what is written on our hearts: that God is love, that he is personal and relational, that he is holy, just, wise, good, kind, and true. He hates evil yet he is patient, gracious, and merciful toward his creatures before he punishes. This natural revelation is available to all human beings. How is this good news about your identity? Since God creates every single human being in his image and likeness, this tells us he wants people to reflect his glory. God’s plan is that your core identity be his glorious image-bearer.
But tragically, we ignore this knowledge. Natural revelation is clear to all, and that is why no one can claim an excuse for not knowing who God is and how he has made us. The fault is in those who reject the evidence of God in creation. It is knowable and understood through the natural abilities God grants through human reason. But people reject, suppress, and deny natural revelation. Why do we do it? The reason has always been the same: we go searching for a more fitting identity (Gen 3:5; “you will be like God, knowing good and evil”). Being a human creature, made only a little lower than the angels, was not enough. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, overreached because they wanted to be something more. Not content with God and how he made us, we follow our first parents every time we ignore what we know about God from natural revelation. And so we trade in what we truly know about God and ourselves for the hope of something better.
The glory of God for creaturely images (vv. 21-23)
Once we suppress God’s natural revelation, the next logical step is to break the first and second commandments (WSC 47, 51). Look at how foolish we become in exchanging God’s truth for a lie. When we actively suppress God’s truth, we passively become futile in our thinking, darkened in our hearts, and absurd in our worship. The way the Bible puts it is “claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Once a person makes this tragic exchange—the glory of God for creaturely images—his mind, heart, and affections stop working properly. How awful—he doesn’t even know what’s happening to him! To the extent that you suppress the truth you know deep down about God, you also become what the Bible calls a “fool”. A person first reveals himself as a fool in what he worships—we could say in what he seeks his core identity or what he idolizes. Here the Bible demonstrates great insight into the human heart (Pss 115:2-8; 135:15-18; Isa 44:12-28). By trading in God’s glory to worship a created thing, we inadvertently become like that thing, it becomes our identity. Theologian Greg Beale puts it this way: “What you revere, you resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” Translation: “What you worship shapes your identity; you will reflect what you worship.” How tragic that human beings, made only a little lower than the angels (Ps 8:5), made in the image and likeness of their Creator, would sell that birthright to worship birds, beasts, and bugs!
A long time ago I met a man for lunch who had a business proposal for me. I went in casual clothes and found him dressed to the hilt in an expensive suit. After ordering our food he started with “What are you living for?” No one had asked me that before, so I had trouble formulating an answer. While I was bumbling for words, he interrupted—scarcely able to control himself—“I want to make as much money as I can as fast as I can!” Then for the next 10 minutes he launched into his multi-level marketing speech about how he was going to be rich and happy, and how if I just signed on the dotted line I could be too. Do you know what stopped me for falling into that trap? Even though he presented himself as clean, driven, and successful—he had this look in his eyes like dollar signs. He was repulsive! His identity was so wrapped up in wealth that he looked like a cartoonish, talking dollar bill. That’s what the tragic exchange does to all of us who suppress the truth about God, who reject our design to reflect his image and likeness, and build our lives on other things. We become tragic shells of our true selves, and we don’t even see what we’ve become. What a horrible trade!
The Terrible Effects
Dishonored bodies (vv. 24-27)
Remember homosexuality is not the subject of this passage, and it is not the subject of this sermon either. It is only one point along the line of Paul’s logically arranged argument. When discussing sexual impurity, here the Bible uses the example of homosexual practice because it so obviously violates God’s natural created order. When people rebel against the image and likeness of God, and seek instead to root their identity in sexual desires, they will inevitably go as far as undermining the natural sexual relationship between God’s image bearers: male and female (Gen 1:27; 2:23-25). That is why thoroughly pagan cultures have almost always celebrated homosexuality as a higher cultic ideal than heterosexuality. Even the temple worship practices in ancient Israel and Judah fell so far—that’s what male cult prostitutes were there for (1 Kgs 14:24; 2 Kgs 23:7). Peter Jones of truthXchange has spent a lifetime researching and documenting this historical and worldwide phenomenon.
For some this teaching on homosexuality sounds like a particularly harsh, unenlightened, even homophobic judgment by God and his Apostle Paul. Despite our culture’s full-court press on everyone to celebrate everything LGBT, we must not demonize those who struggle with same-sex attraction (SSA). As the church in the global West begins to devote considerable attention to this topic, many Christians are discovering that people in our circles of friends, and in our families and churches experience SSA and desperately want help to fight their sexual temptations. Christians and church leaders are coming out of the closet of secrecy to bring their struggles to the light of Christ. Ministries like Harvest USA help sexual strugglers in Jesus’ name. If you or someone you know struggles with SSA, there is help and hope in the gospel of Christ. Please don’t keep your secret in the dark to fight temptation alone. Tell someone you trust and seek help.
Here is the point: homosexual practice potently illustrates a general principle: all forms of sexual impurity dishonor our bodies and violate God’s fundamental design for sex: procreation within the covenant of marriage. One of the terrible effects of the tragic exchange is we not only sexually sin in our bodies, against our bodies, and against other people’s bodies, we can even go so far as to sin against nature by flaunting God’s natural revelation about himself and humanity. Though natural revelation is sufficient to teach us that sexual (particularly homosexual) impurity dishonors our bodies, God also gave us special revelation in his written Word about homosexual practice (Gen 19:1-28; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Dt 23:17-18; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10).
Debased minds (vv. 28-31)
Having explained how God’s wrath manifests in the bodies of those who seek their identity in created things, Paul now turns to the way God reveals his wrath in their minds and hearts. Why does Paul make this transition? Because human sin is not confined to sexual sin. Here the Bible lists a catalog of evils that God gives people over to as a result of their turning away from him toward idolatry. When we choose not to acknowledge God, he gives us over to a debased mind so we’ll do debased things. What does Paul mean by a “debased” mind? Various translations render it a worthless, foolish, depraved, reprobate way of thinking that does not conform to God’s revealed purposes and values. Again, suppressing and exchanging God’s natural revelation for a lie. A person with a debased mind will less and less reflect the image of God, and more and more the image and likeness of his chosen idol. And he’ll adopt the terrible effects of his debased mind into his essential identity as not only character traits but justifiable attitudes and actions. The effects of a debased mind become who you are and define your purpose.
A close examination of this vice list (along with the sins in the rest of Rom 1:18-32) shows they break every one of the Ten Commandments. There is no ranking of sins in this list (murder is next to envy). The first sentence lists a few general terms for sins. The second sentence contains basic relational sins. The third sentence serves as a catch-all list of sinful conduct. Everyone can readily find themselves here. The point is no one can escape God’s verdict by arguing he is innocent of the flagrant pagan sins of idolatry and homosexuality.
Decadent societies (v. 32)
When moral standards rooted in natural revelation disappear, society will soon disintegrate. One may interpret this list as examples of fracturing or antisocial behavior. Every person by design has an internal moral sense that testifies to their conscience that certain acts deserve God’s moral judgment and his wrath leading ultimately to death. But when disdain for God’s righteous standard continues without repentance of mind, heart, and body, then the threat of divine judgment ceases to function as a restraint. Here is the crowning tragedy this passage concludes with: even though people know what is wrong in the sight of God, they still do what they know to be wrong and also approve of those who do the same!
Why do people do this? When you give approval and applause for the sins of others, you get approval for approving! It’s like a “Right Side of History” merit badge you did nothing to earn except take a side, but you get to wear it proudly to the praise of the world. Approving of other people’s sins—sins that you are not particularly oriented to yourself—is in some ways worse than committing those sins yourself (Jas 3:1). Encouraging others to sin reveals the extent of a person’s rebellion against God. It is a reject of God’s image and likeness that dehumanizes you and others. When you think about it, what better description of rebellion against God is there? Of course what this does is foster a culture of identity politics pitting two sides against each other over every issue imaginable. If you take the side of approving those who practice sin, then you are tolerant, enlightened, or as the current slang goes, you are “woke.” If you take the side of disapproval, then you are an intolerant, fascist bigot. A morally decaying society is one that is being torn apart at its foundations by people who divide the world into good guys and bad guys—and it never fails that “I” am always one of the good guys. But if the problem is framed as Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil, Progressive vs. Bigot, then our self-made identities will eventually tear us to pieces. Identities fashioned contrary to God’s design are society-fracturing by design. We’re seeing it in our day just as Paul saw it in the Greco-Roman world of his day.
Does it sound like Paul exaggerates the terrible consequences of sin for rhetorical effect? Then listen carefully to what Charles Hodge, the 19th century Princeton theologian, says in his Romans commentary.
The crimes here mentioned were not of rare occurrence. The heathen were filled with them. They not only abounded, but in many cases were palliated [made light of] and even justified. Dark as the picture here drawn is, it is not so dark as that presented by the most distinguished Greek and Latin authors, of their own countrymen. Commentators have collected a fearful array of passages from the ancient writers, which more than sustain the account given by the apostle.
In other words, the Bible’s assessment of the terrible effects is dreadfully accurate.
The Teleological Answer
Recover the truth you instinctively know about God and yourself (vv. 18-21)
Although we were created in the image and likeness of God, through our own idolatry we have exchanged God’s image and likeness for new identities. While this exchange may have looked like a good deal for us at the time, it turned out to transform us into moral monsters. Rather than imaging God’s truth, beauty, and goodness, idolatry ends up recreating you in a counterfeit image: in lies, ugliness, and moral wretchedness. Do you see how and why we humans suppress the truth about God? Do you see how believing the lie ends up destroying us—how God hands us over to dishonoring our bodies, to debased minds, and to contribute to society’s decay? Do you see how when you recover and embrace the truth about God and yourself, only then do the beauty and goodness that you long for become a part of who you were designed to be?
Repent of your foolish identity exchange and every sin that follows (vv. 22-32)
You will never be wiser than God. Stop trying and just admit you’re a fool! Every time you trade in your made-in-God’s-image identity you lose. It’s a bad trade because no human identity can top one that reflects the image and likeness of your Creator. When you seek your identity in anything else, God just gives you over to the terrible consequences. With a megaphone as big as the world God announces the terrible effects of sin you feel are a sign that his wrath is on you. The only way to escape God’s wrath is to repent, to turn away from those beliefs and actions that you hoped would secure a better identity, and turn to God.
Return to your glorious Savior who made you in his image and likeness (vv. 16-17, 23)
Did you catch the allusion to the Genesis creation account in verse 23 (mortal man=male & female, birds, animals, creeping things)? It’s a siren call from Eden, where we were created in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness with domain over the creatures. The allusion reminds you that your self-identity should be a reflection of God’s righteousness since you are made in his image and likeness. The righteousness of God is not learned through natural revelation. The teleological answer points back to God’s design for you in creation revealed in natural revelation. But you can’t get back to the beginning from here. There is no path back to the Garden of Eden. To get to the Promised Land you have to return to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. By God’s design his righteous image-bearers shall live by faith.
God does indeed “give us over” to our sin when we try to build our self-identities apart from him. But wrath and “giving us over” are not the essence of God’s identity. He is known for another kind of “giving”, a much more powerful “giving” that is central to his core identity. God reveals the essence of his self-giving love for all those made in his image and likeness.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [Jn 3:16-17].
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, which reveals the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
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