The vital importance of bad news
It has been said that all heresy begins with a mistaken doctrine of sin, and although the subject remains unpopular, unfashionable and politically incorrect, it is vital to face up to the subject… which Paul does here. He has just announced the wonder of the Gospel “the power of God for salvation” – but that will make no sense at all unless we know what we need to be saved and rescued from. Thus v.18 has three surprises for modem man:
1. The Wrath of God
I was once at a clergy conference where we studied this verse and one of the group was so amazed he went home to see if the New Testament had anything else to say about the wrath of God. He humbly told us the next day that for the first time in his life and ministry he had discovered the reality and the seriousness of God’s wrath. For him, this was now no metaphor but was as personal as the love of God.
2. What Arouses God’s Wrath
This is the second surprise. We might have guessed it would be immorality, drunkenness and exploitation. God indeed hates these things but what the verse tells us is that it is the suppression of the truth that kindles His ire. This is stressed further in v.19 and v.28. Mankind refused to let God be God. We neither honoured Him nor thanked Him. I think it was Karl Barth who said that sin was basically ingratitude – the refusal to acknowledge our indebtedness to, and our dependence on, God. The result is we become like bats and moles that have eyes but through choosing to live in the dark have lost the capacity for sight (v.21).
3. God’s Wrath is Being Revealed Here and Now
We might have expected it to be revealed at the final judgment (2:3) but we are told in the rest of Romans 1 that whereas sin will bring judgment on the last day, here and now it is judgment that actually brings sins into the world. We need to notice the important distinction between ‘sin’, the virus of not acknowledging God, and ‘sins’, the symptoms that reveal the inner disease. This present judgment has an awful and frightening reciprocity. We give God up, and three times comes that dreadful death-knell that God gives us up (vs.24,26,28). We refuse to honour God (v.21) so He gives us up to dishonourable passions (vs 24, 26 RSV). We exchange the truth about God for images made to look like mortal man, birds, animals and reptiles (vs.23, 25) so God gives us up to the exchanging of natural relations for unnatural. It is not AIDS that is the judgment but the homosexual lifestyle. And lest anybody begins to think this is the only perversion, Paul adds a further list of perversions in vs.29–31. They all mark departures from true humanity. Not a single one of the vile things that Paul mentions in this 1st century letter is obsolete today, such is the relevance of the Word of God. Moreover, because each one of us is described several times in these verses we are in no position to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude towards those described in vs.24–27.
What we discover from this appalling chapter is that our rebellion against, and rejection of, the Lord God darkens our minds (v.21) so that we can no longer think straight. It depraves our morals and character (vs.24-31) and it ultimately destroys us (v.32). It is only when I face up to the desperate nature of my situation and humbly acknowledge that I deserve to be God-forsaken that the Gospel comes as Good News. We would love Him more if we realised how deep was the pit from which we have been dug, and quite how amazing His forgiveness is!
Jonathan Fletcher is a member of the full-time ministry team at Emmanuel, Wimbledon, in the diocese of Southwark