Or, Nature’s Light on Neutrality’s Lies
October 10, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
I am not just saying this because I’m a preacher, but there may be no more relevant paragraph in Scripture for sake of the believer’s perspective on the unbeliever’s perspective. If you’ve heard of the evangelism training program that walks another person down the “Romans Road,” which is a fine set of training wheels, this paragraph really ought to be the starting point (though it’s usually Romans 3:23). I know that preachers can oversell a text, but while it may not be my favorite paragraph, I think it is the definitive paragraph for giving insight to those who live away from faith and against faith.
These six verses, Romans 1:18-23, reveal the baseline of God’s problem with men. These verses reveal the root of idolatry, immorality, sexual perversion, and cultural collapse. These verses identify every unbelieving man’s greatest threat. These verses explain how men can be so foolish and why they are so committed to their foolishness. These verses reveal both the power and the limits of true scientific observation. These verses introduce the initial stages of God’s wrath. These verses explain why the power of the gospel is so gloriously necessary. These verses pull back the curtain on the common ground for our evangelism and apologetics. These verses provide the alternative, which isn’t a good alternative, to living from faith to faith.
To receive the truths in this paragraph by faith is to increase our confidence in the gospel, and also to answer questions about what happens to those who never hear the gospel. To receive these truths by faith begins to show those of us with faith what it means to live by faith. Here is why we need the gospel. Here are the consequences of receiving and benefiting from God’s gifts without giving Him credit.
If verses 16-17 provide the thesis to the epistle, they also begin the transition from the greeting to the main body of the letter. From here in 1:18 to 3:20, the tone changes from thanksgiving to an obvious theme of judgment. The righteousness of God is revealed in 3:21-8:39, and Paul has a lot to say about it. But 1:18 begins to describe the wrath of God. His wrath is present and future, here and forever. It is especially present among the Gentiles (1:18-32), the wrath deserved by Jews will follow shortly.
Wrath, especially God’s wrath, does not mean arbitrary or vindictive rage. He is not an angry drunk, He is not an out of control monster, like so many Greek gods. God’s “emotions” are perfect, and His responses are the only responses guaranteed to be appropriate in the universe.
His wrath is revealed, the same word and idea as in verse 17 about God’s righteousness. Wrath is unveiled, in the process of being exhibited, and it is from heaven. How high do the implications of this claim go in Paul’s mind? It’s more than literary flourish. It’s also provocative that wrath originates in heaven, rather than saying that righteousness does, though of course righteousness does as well. But what good is this qualification?
That God’s wrath is revealed from heaven may highlight how inescapable it is. All of earth is under heaven; there is no place below heaven that is not seen. It may also emphasize how perfect the wrath is; no bias or bribes are in effect. It may also emphasize the divinity of the wrath. It is called “the wrath of God,” and it is God on His throne in heavenly majesty and glory. God Himself unveils this God-ly attribute.
Many so-called “Christians” are ashamed of this part of God. Many Christians are so embarrassed that it’s common to hear a claim that wrath belongs to the God of the Old Testament. But wrath belongs to the God of heaven, and there is no other God.
If God is righteous, if God is “holy, holy, holy,” if God is omniscient, if God is true, then He must judge those He knows to be opposed to Him. This is His wrath. No one has more excellent wrath than Him. He is the standard of wrath, the ideal of wrath. This makes the truth that Jesus absorbs wrath for all who would believe even more gracious (Romans 5:9-10; Galatians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:10), and it makes the unveiling of it on sinners a reason for praising God. His wrath does not make Him less glorious.
Now we see what provokes God’s wrath. His wrath is opened up against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. This is one problem though it has multiple presenting symptoms. Wrath is due against any and every disobedience, but it all focuses here on the problem of denial.
Ungodliness fails to bear God’s image; it compares to falling short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and belongs with idolatry as in verses 21-23; it’s impiety. Unrighteousness fails to obey God’s commands, it compares to all men have sinned, they have transgressed (also Romans 3:23), and it belongs with immorality as in verses 24-32; it’s injustice. Sins of omission, sins of commission; lack of conformity and provocative defiance, breaking commands from both tables of the 10 Commandments, all of it deserves judgment.
But again, at this point, all of the above leads to the problem of suppression.
We will see what truth they suppress in verse 19. We will see the outward manifestation of truth-suppression in verse 21. But the reality is stated: men suppress the truth.
The word suppress is a fine translation. Even today we talk about suppressing memories or suppressing feelings. The word picture is more than just a conversation with a doctor. This suppression is active, it takes commitment, it provokes anxiety because it requires so much attention. Imagine a large coil or spring, and you lay across it with all your weight, and you’ve grabbed holds to pull down clamp it down. Or another illustration, imagine an overinflated beach ball, and you’re trying to keep it submerged, though it always wants to pop up. It always seeks the surface. You can’t let up for a moment, there can be no relaxing, or the game is up.
Even in English “suppress” is often violent: to forcibly put an end to; to prevent the development, action, or expression of a feeling, impulse, idea; to consciously inhibit (an unpleasant idea or memory) to avoid considering it (New Oxford American Dictionary).
All the Isms are mental weights and pulleys and ropes created by men to keep the truth buried. Scientism, Rationalism, Environmentalism, Socialism, Humanism, Atheism, these (and more) are props and tools to stifle the truth and maintain the lies. Men are committed to whatever fact-checking process that keeps the true-truth censored. So-called fact-checking intends to bury the facts.
Now we have the fourth verse in a row beginning with “for.” Here is the specific truth denied: For what can be know about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them.
The two truths are 1) God is. And 2) God reveals that He is.
Not everything about God is obvious, plain, clear; for example, creation says nothing about His triune nature, His mercy, and some others. But His existence is. Not all His attributes are immediately apparent, but a couple are, and they are impossible not to see. The truth that God is does not depend on a mediator, no prophet or professor or professional. He Himself has shown it. And men notice.
Now the fifth “for,” an explanation of the revelation of His actuality. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Where did He show Himself? How long has it been observable? How many know about Him? The answers, in order, are: in creation, since creation, everyone created. That about does it.
It’s ironic that His invisible attributes are clearly perceived, but clearly the visible demands an invisible answer. What we see cannot be fully explained only by what we see. The material universe does not, could not, exist like this by itself. The diversity and harmony and complexity provokes wonder and mystery that only can be satisfactorily explained by a God of the system.
Paul writes that two of this God’s attributes cannot be avoided: eternal power and divine nature. The God of creation must be older than and separate from the creation. He is other. The God of creation has sovereign power, and as the Maker of all things, He has exclusive authority over all things. There is a reasonable response to the Deity, and yet reasonableness is refused (see verse 21).
This reality depends on nothing other than reality. It is always there. It speaks constantly. It makes accountable. Not a single person since Adam to the present and for every generation to come, regardless of location or level of literacy, has an excuse. None can say, “Huh?” A man who says, “I didn’t know” is lying through his God-given teeth.
What’s more, God does not say that general revelation is able to save. Worship should be an obvious response to the obvious gifts from this obvious God. But the actual response of every man apart from grace is denial of the truth.
The hypotheticals and what-ifs, the questions concerning how we should feel about a primitive tribe hidden deep in the African continent, who never hears the gospel, are not reality. The only possible way that anyone accepts reality is as a gift of God.
The number one goal of sin is to keep us from attending to God. We are suppression experts, we are suppression artists, we are suppression slaves. We suppress like leopards have spots, and we can’t change it on our own.
When a society has much redeeming grace there is often much common grace. Unbelievers are not always as foolish as they can be, and this applies to cultures. There have been times when men referred to the Creator and the Almighty who did not live from faith to faith in Christ. Such blessed inconsistency on their part is undeserved, hence a grace, and a measured gift from God.
Even in our own Christian country we have seen the fruit of faith lived out and the spillover onto those without faith, for their good. The faithful, whether by neglect or by love of comfort or desire for the glory of men have desired the gospel fruit without the gospel faith, and it has taken less than a generation for popular suppression to return.
There are a number of applications to the truths here. I want to encourage you by discouraging you about our present context.
We live in the Greatest Conspiracy Ever. This is a religious conspiracy, not a political or medical one. The greatest conspiracy is acting like there is no God. It is a conspiracy of hubris. Hubris is excessive pride, and it comes from a Greek word that was regularly used in Greek tragedies to describe men with pride in their defiance of the gods.
We have ears to hear but we are screaming LALALALALA! This is a coordinated lie. The air we breath is suppression. It is worldliness. It is not neutral. Nature’s light is too bright. A man who claims to be objective, though he starts with denying the obvious, is lying. We are living among those on an epic journey of missing the point, not accidentally, but missing the point is the point. It’s like driving south on the beach at sunset, committing to only look to your left, and denying that the ocean and the sun exist.
It is no stretch to say that this is a global conspiracy. And so of stinking course men can be committed to lies about the effectiveness of masks and lies about the harmfulness of vaccines and lies about the legitimacy of elections, let alone about who is a man and who is an obvious man playing ugly dress-up. This is not QAnon or right (or left)-wing extremism. It is the way it is with men.
I have ZERO hope in arguments, data, media, or common sense. The lies of many men are obvious, and the existence of God is more so. But there is power in the gospel. The hope is not in more doctors speaking up, the hope is not in a politician with nerve and integrity. The hope is in GIFT.
The rebel’s resistance is resolute. It’s studious suppression. Men love darkness because it their days as their own. But they are fully responsible, and wrath is being revealed on their unrighteousness.
But for the grace of God we would all be wearing double-masks over our eyes desperate not to see God and God’s gifts, sweating (or swearing) any time the truth gets too near. Here we are in His grace, and in some ways, it is as easy as ever to stand out: just open your eyes. See God’s touch on everything. Give Him credit. Say His name. In all your ways acknowledge Him.
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:19–21, ESV)