CYCLE OF SELF-DESTRUCTION
By Steve Zeisler
Some of you have had the unfortunate experience sometime in your life of
watching someone get blind drunk. You can picture the scene: perhaps a reserved,
thoughtful young man finds himself getting more and more drunk at a party,
and he becomes an entirely different person. He becomes careless and loud
and pushy. Where once he treated women with a degree of reserve, he comes
on as God's gift to women. His speech becomes slurred, he has food spilled
all over himself, and drool dribbles out of the corner of his mouth. He
is shouting now at the top of his lungs: He knows exactly what he's doing.
Of course he can drive home if necessary. And why isn't everyone paying
attention? The greater the stupidity, the louder he says it and the more
certain he is that he is right.
Or you can imagine the same scene perhaps with a sophisticated, worldly,
wise woman, someone who is in control of every environment she's in, who
finds herself getting more and more drunk, falling over her high heels and
out of her clothes, her makeup askew, more and more loudly demanding that
people listen to the wisdom that she, in her own slurred speech, is declaring.
FOOLS CLAIMING WISDOM
These visual images may serve you as we come to Romans 1:18-32 this morning.
Let's read verses 18-23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness
and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because
that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident
to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His
eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood
through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though
they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became
futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing
to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible
God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed
animals and crawling creatures.
The problem Paul is elucidating for us is succinctly stated in verse 22:
"Professing to be wise, they became fools." Perhaps that statement
best characterizes our stumbling drunken friends if any statement would.
The more they are blinded by drink, their ability to think ruined by alcohol,
the more certain they are that they know what they are doing, the louder
is their protestation that they understand exactly what is going on. They
feel more delightful, wonderful, winsome, and authoritative than they have
ever been. Proclaiming to be wise, insisting that they know exactly what
they are doing, in that situation such a person more and more clearly evidences
Paul is talking about a world that is becoming blind and making choices
as foolish as those of the people I described at the party, a world that
has lost its moral compass. And the farther it gets from the truth, the
less able it is to control itself, the more likely it is to stumble and
fall. Yet, in the deepening darkness the voices of fools become more strident,
"We're in control, follow us! We're throwing off the shackles of the
past and leaving behind the religious failures of our youth. Now we're firmly
set on a course that's wise and bright!" Claiming to be wise, they
Verse 18 is the beginning point for this discussion, and we find two themes
and their relationship to each other here. "The wrath of God is revealed
from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress
the truth in unrighteousness." The rebel race of human beings of which
we're members has deliberately taken truth and rejected it, hidden it, denied
it, and suppressed it. The response of God is wrath. (The wrath of God is
not like the Norse god Thor's throwing thunderbolts at the planet; it consists
chiefly of letting us go and become who we will be without his intervening.
But we'll come to that in a moment.)
Verses 18 through 23 primarily describe for us the process of suppressing
the truth: What does it mean for people who ought to know better, who ought
to be sober, to become more and more drunk, foolish and blind? But before
we talk about suppressing the truth, verse 17 and this passage make very
clear that the truth that is being suppressed is powerfully advanced by
the world that God has made. It's not as if God is hiding the truth so that
it is easily missed--available to a fortunate few. The truth of God is everywhere.
He says in verse 17, "The righteousness of God is revealed from faith
to faith...." Every time you find a believing person whose action of
faith yesterday has led to more faith today, they are displaying the righteousness
of God. It is being made known in the life of someone you know.
Further, in verse 19, "that which is known about God is evident within
them...." because God made it plain; he actively makes himself knowable
in creation. Verse 20: "...since the creation of the world His invisible
attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen...."
He has announced his invisible power and divine nature in the world that
he has created, whether in the heavens or the vast beauties of earth, or
in the incredible intricacy of cellular structures that we see under the
microscope, or in whatever else we encounter in the created world. In all
these things basic truth about God is being declared.
And yet the choice of the rebel race is to deny the truth. In verse 23 it
says they exchanged the glory of God for an image. The term glory also indicates
revelation - God displaying himself in a powerful and illuminating way.
Glory is beautiful and aggressive; it is shouting its greatness. So in order
to suppress the truth you have to work at it, and yet work at it we do as
a race that does not want to bow before the God who has made us.
SUPPRESSING THE TRUTH
Suppressing truth about God is not becoming an atheist or even an agnostic.
There are not many atheists in the world, and agnostics, perhaps a few more
in number, are in a small minority as well. Most people who want nothing
to do with God, will generally admit that he exists, but he exists as a
sort of unformed benevolence, a higher power that is floating around someplace
and perhaps can be summoned like a spiritual butler to bring you things
when you need them. They can admit that God exists, but they will not pay
attention to him. What Paul is saying here is that when anybody begins to
suspect that the loving and righteous Person who created everything inhabits
the same cosmos as they do, the proper response is for them to fall on their
knees and thank him for their life and the world that they live in, and
to look for some way to live for his honor. The minimum response is to have
a sense of responsibility descend on them: They owe him something. They
may not know what it is yet, but they had better start finding out. But
mostly people suppress the truth by just leaving God at great distance,
feeling no concern and certainly no sense of duty toward him.
How does suppression proceed? Verse 21: "For even though they knew
God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile
in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened." The word
futile is sometimes translated vain. It's the same word used to translate
the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes, "Vanity of vanities! All
is vanity." It has the idea of hollowness, a preening emptiness.
He says further that their foolish heart was darkened. The rebel race loses
moral compass; it isn't able to make sound judgments anymore. And the darkness
descends; the blind drunkenness becomes blinder. Perhaps you've seen drivers
as dusk sets in or as a storm rises, who don't notice that it's getting
darker. The thoughtful driver knows that with rain pelting down the streets
are less safe and they can't see as easily, so they put the lights on, drive
a little more slowly, and pay attention to the fact that it's getting dark.
But every now and then some fool will go ripping by as if it isn't dark
or dangerous at all, and-claiming to be wise and becoming fools-they have
no idea how much darker the world is than just a few hours ago. So their
foolish heart becomes darkened and they are not aware of it.
A DEEPER DESCENT
Verse 23 gives a description of a descent into sin: "...[they] exchanged
the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible
man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures." The
slope downward is apparent. Having the option at the beginning of worshiping
God as he is-without limits, omnipotent, loving, merciful, glorious-they
rejected it. Then the next choice was to worship humanity, and so the ancients
would build idols that resembled human beings: strong, muscular figures.
But that didn't last very long. The gods and forces they worshiped next
resembled four-footed, domesticated animals: oxen and calves and so forth.
These were followed by figures of reptiles, snakes, and other creatures
that crawled on the ground. The attempt to build something in God's place
that would meet their needs failed at every point, and they chose something
worse. Thus the culture that is trying to suppress the truth gets darker.
Think of this century and the loss of faith as an influence in public life.
There was once a time when people growing up in this country had heroes.
If they weren't godly, at least they were heroic. When soldiers went to
war they were courageously doing the right thing; GIs were heroic figures
in World War II. Or cowboys as heroic figures saved damsels in distress.
Even politicians and sports figures were bigger than life and worth emulating.
Children could follow the examples set by parents and grandparents in making
a marriage and establishing a home. Human beings in all these areas have
become less worthy of emulation.
The descent described in Romans 1:23 can be seen in our culture. Today we
don't worship animals, but we tend to worship impersonal forces and technology
as a replacement for real human beings (who have replaced God) as the idols
who will meet our needs. Many of our contemporaries think, "I'll harness
the forces of nature and invent something that will change the world."
Silicon Valley is famous world wide as a Mecca for those who believe this
way. And the sad thing is that we're raising children in this country who
are ill-equipped even for that technological world. We've lost the ability
to teach and inspire them to learn even that much, and what they worship
now is more likely to be guns than anything else. The descent from God to
man to four-footed animals to snakes is very similar to the descent from
God to man to technology to weapons - violent authority that is based on
nothing more than terror and guns. The inner cities of our nation are raising
kids who look up to amoral criminals. And we say, "How can this happen?"
By exchanging the worship of God for the worship of something less than
ESTEEMED BY GOD
King David tells us how we ought to live. Psalm 8:3-9 is David's experience
of thinking about the world he lived in three thousand years ago:
"When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him rule over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
and all that swim in the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!"
David is saying that when he looks at the heavens, he thinks of the majesty
of the God who spans them, who owns the universe, who has made and who controls
everything, who transcends human history. Thinking of the greatness of God,
he is awestruck at his majesty, and it is from that God that human worth
comes, "You have made human beings just a bit lower than that which
lives in eternal glory, a little bit lower than God." David, because
he has a great God, has a great reason for valuing himself, and for teaching
others about what life can be like.
Those who leave God behind also leave behind the potential for greatness
in humanity. They have exchanged the glory of what is incorruptible for
something that is corruptible, and it proceeds to corruption. The people
in the world today who are influencing those who will be adults a generation
from now are celebrities and media figures, not fathers or mothers or grandmothers
or grandfathers, worthy individuals who live lives of accomplishment. Most
celebrities are shameful and have very little to offer. So many look at
public religious leaders and see crooks. They look at politicians and see
liars. They look at sports and entertainment figures and see buffoons. Claiming
to be wise, we're becoming fools. We're educating kids to know more about
condoms than about how to live their lives. So Paul summarizes this as a
suppression of the truth, and it's something we are sadly too familiar with.
The second theme in this passage is God's reaction to the suppression of
the truth. It says that the wrath of God is revealed. He will act as we
continue to suppress the truth. He talks about himself in his universe,
and his light is shining in the hearts of people who know and love him.
Everywhere he is discussing himself, appealing, and making himself known.
And if the choice of the race that he has made to know and love him is to
reject him, he will finally display his wrath from heaven; he will accept
GOD'S WRATH REVEALED
Three times, in verses 24, 26, and 28, Paul says what it means for God's
wrath to be revealed. And again, we note, this is not an angry, petulant
God stomping his foot and demanding, "Pay attention to me or else!"
That isn't the picture. The wrath of God is described by the phrase, "He
gave them over." Verse 24: "Therefore God gave them over in the
lusts of their hearts to impurity...." Verse 26: "For this reason
God gave them over to degrading passions...." Verse 28: "And just
as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over
to a depraved mind...." He stops deflecting the consequences. His intervention
keeps the consequences from being as bad as they might have been. But eventually
he says, "Okay, you get what you want." And he gives them over
to the inevitable results of the choices they are making.
Now in verses 24 through 32 we find two ideas which summarize the consequences
that occur when God removes restraints. One of these we will talk about
this week and the other next week. Look at verse 24:
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to
impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them.
A discussion of 'bodily honor' (sexual lostness) is too important to treat
briefly in the time remaining today. If there is a cutting edge to the church's
interaction with the world we live in, this is probably it. So next week
we will consider the issues raised in verses 24-27.
But now let's turn to the second idea, in verse 28:
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer,
God gave them over to a depraved mind....
That's the second big problem: depraved minds that are no longer useful
for thinking moral thoughts with, that won't serve people in finding out
how to live.
...to do those things which are not proper, being filled with
all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, malice [evil]; full of envy, murder,
strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent,
arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding,
untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and, although they know the ordinance
of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not
only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
A LOST MIND
It doesn't take great insight to read this list, observe the world we live
in, and see a high degree of correlation. Consider the terror of the camps
in Bosnia in which Muslim women have been imprisoned and raped deliberately
in order to shame and impregnate them; the sheer venting of terror on people
who can't defend themselves because it's there to be done; the starvation
by the warlords in Somalia of their people and the brutalization of those
who are too weak to do anything about it; gang violence among youth of this
country in the suburbs as well as the cities; the unmitigated arrogance
of the wealthy and the powerful in the boardrooms of companies who love
nothing but money who will destroy competitors just because it's there to
be done. The world we live in is becoming depraved in its thinking, and
likes being that way.
Paul draws an awful conclusion in verse 32: "...although they know
the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of
death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those
who practice them." Initially they required suppression of the truth
about God; in order to serve themselves they had to lie, run from the truth
about God, deny his existence. Now they have come full circle, and they
are perfectly willing to acknowledge God and everything he stands for; and
what he stands for is everything they are not, and they deserve to die for
what they are doing, but they don't care. They know the ordinance of God,
they choose with a stiff neck and a raised fist to disobey him, and they
enjoy recruiting anyone who will listen to join them in their defiance of
God. The depraved mind, being unable to reason morally, having no light
with which to guide itself anymore, comes to a rebellion against God that
is overt and that would like nothing more than to invite someone else to
join in its darkness.
To understand this descent into hell is important, but remember the theme
of the book of Romans that we began with last week in chapter 1 verse 16:
"I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation."
We're going to continue for the next three weeks to look clearly at why
the problems are as grievous as they are in order to be sure that the answers
are going to make sense to us. The painful announcements must make us feel
pain. The darkness has to be seen to be really dark in order for the light
to do its work. But clearly the light does its work: "[The gospel]
is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes."
I was struck by a couple of stories in the news this week. One is the story
of Westley Dodd, a man who was executed in the state of Washington, hung
at his own request because he had hung in a brutal fashion one of the victims
he had murdered; and he thought it was fitting that he should die the same
way. He was a rapist and grisly murderer of children. He was interviewed
after having been sentenced to death, and he said, "I'd better die
because if you let me out I'll do it again." He meant that he got a
thrill from raping and murdering children. There was a vile quality to Westley
Dodd's life that would be hard to outdo. He invited outrage, in effect laughing
at death: "Yes, I know the things that I do deserve condemnation, and
yet if you were to let me out, I'd do them again."
THE WICKED AND THE LOST
In the very last days of his life, someone, I've read, gave him a Bible
or tract or spoke to him in person (I'm not sure of the details), and this
powerful gospel of God for salvation was made plain to him. And one of the
last things he said was, "I've never known peace in my whole life,
but now through my faith in Jesus Christ I know peace with God for the first
time, and I'm looking forward to spending eternity with Christ." Most
of us will respond to Dodd's eleventh hour conversion with a degree of outrage:
He absolutely does not deserve this! He is a despicable, evil, vile man.
And I'm a little embarrassed, frankly, to be associated with a gospel that
applies to people like that at the end of their life.
But the outrageousness of it is exactly the point. The vilest person you
can think of, who genuinely believes that Jesus loved and died for them
and replaced their wicked and evil heart with a beautiful heart of Christ,
receives life in him. And the marvel of that, of course, is that the vilest
thing that we ourselves have ever done, the most wicked thing of which we're
guilty, the awful hidden crimes that are ours and that no one else knows
anything about, are forgiven, too. The gospel borders on scandal precisely
because it is powerful enough to give new life to someone like Westley Dodd.
The second story that struck me is the story of James and Jennifer Stolpa,
who made news this week as well. If you set out on purpose to get more lost
than they did anywhere in the contiguous forty-eight states of this country,
you couldn't do it. Northwest Nevada is as far from civilization as it is
possible to get in this country. And they did so in the most extreme conditions
of a terrible winter storm. In desperation they prayed for help, and God
answered their prayers, strengthening the young man to walk forty-eight
hours in chest-deep snow across fifty miles of barren wilderness. At the
end of his strength, one person saw him waving, and he was able to retain
enough of his mind to articulate where his wife and baby were. They went
back and saved them, and the child was the least harmed of the three. The
point, it seems to me, is that you cannot get so lost that God can't respond
to your prayers and find you. If this family wasn't too lost for him to
hear their prayers, nobody can get too lost! In the most extreme need-confusion,
uncertainty, not knowing how life got to be the way it is, feeling the vertigo
of falling and having no idea which way to even fling out your hand for
help-prayers to the Lord God for help are answered because the gospel is
If someone as evil as Westley Dodd is acceptable because of the blood of
Jesus Christ, and if someone as lost as Jennifer and James Stolpa can find
help by praying to the God of the universe, then even though we have to
confront a world that is destroying itself, we do so with enormous hope
and a message that is life-giving. The suppression of the truth of the glory
of God continues unabated in our culture. If this culture is not worshiping
snakes or that which is deeply and awfully subhuman now, it is very close
to it. Yet we pray to a God who answers prayers, who forgives the despicable,
who answers the cry of the lost one. And we say again, "I am not ashamed
of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who
Catalog No. 4290
January 10, 1993
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