So far we’re seen that Paul wanted to go to Rome because he was eager to preach the gospel in that city. And he was eager to preach the gospel because in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. In other words, in the gospel the righteousness which comes from God and which is received through faith in Jesus Christ is revealed.
That’s the gospel. However, the wrath of God is also being revealed. According to Paul in verse 18, God’s wrath is being revealed every day against all the godlessness and wickedness of men and women and children who suppress the truth by their wickedness. And what’s the truth they’re suppressing? Well, Paul tells us in verses 19 and 20. It’s the truth that there’s a God who made all things and who deserves our thanks and praise. And though this truth is obvious to all — because everywhere the creation speaks to us of the God who made these things — though this truth is obvious to all, people have suppressed this truth. They’ve denied it. They’re pushed it out of their minds and thoughts. And so, Paul is saying to us that God’s wrath is being revealed, right now, against the ungodliness and the wickedness of men and women and boys and girls who have denied the truth that there’s a God who made all things and who deserves our thanks and praise.
How is God revealing his wrath every day? We touched on this last time, but I’ll say more about it today as we study verses 21 to 32. But before we do, let me mention to you the distinction which theologians draw between God’s particular or special grace and God’s common grace.
By God’s particular or special grace we mean God’s kindness to sinners which leads to salvation. So, we believe that by grace alone God pardons our sins and he accepts us as righteous in his sight. We didn’t deserve this. We didn’t do anything to merit it. But out of his sheer kindness towards us, and because of Christ the Saviour, God pardons us. That’s his particular, or his special, grace. And it refers to his kindness to particular people by which he delivers us from our sin and misery.
But then there’s God’s common grace. And this is his universal kindness towards all that he has made. It doesn’t lead to salvation, but because of God’s common grace, he displays his kindness in many ways to all that he has made. All of his creation — humans and animals — benefit from his kindness because he causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall and the crops and plants to grow so that we have plenty of good things to eat. The birds of the air don’t sow or reap or store away in barns. But our Heavenly Father feeds them. That’s God’s common grace, his kindness to all that he has made.
And God’s common grace also involves his restraint. God restrains the outworking of our fallen human nature. And so he prevents us from being as wicked as we would naturally be. He prevents us from falling deeper and deeper into sin. And so, just as a wise and loving parent will hold a child’s hand to prevent him from falling down the hill, so that Lord places his strong hand on us and prevents us from falling deeper and deeper into sin. We think the world is bad, but it would be so much worse if it were not for God’s common grace by which he restrains the sinful inclination of the human heart.
Now, why do I mention this distinction here? Because Paul is telling us in these verses that God’s wrath is being revealed every day. But the way he reveals his wrath against men’s godlessness and wickedness is not by sending thunderbolts from heaven to destroy the wicked. No, he reveals his wrath by withholding his common grace, and by loosening his restraining power over sinners, and by letting them fall deeper and deeper into sin and into the misery and sorrow it causes.
So, think of a child who is trying to run away from her father. And the father is holding her wrist. And the child is straining with all her might to get away. And then, the father relaxes his grip. He lets go. And the child suddenly falls to the ground. Well, here’s Paul telling us that God is angry with men and women and children for their godlessness and wickedness And so, he relaxes his grip. He lets them go. And so, they fall further and further into sin. Look at verse 24:
Therefore God gave them over….
Look at verse 26:
Because of this, God gave them over….
And then verse 28:
he gave them over….
God reveals his wrath every day by removing his restraint so that the wicked sink deeper into sin and misery.
They knew God
In the course of this passage, Paul uses the same pattern three times to show how God gives sinners over to their sin.
First of all, he tells us that the wicked knew God. Look at verse 21:
For although they knew God….
Then look at verse 25:
They exchanged the truth of God….
And then look at verse 28:
since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God….
Three times he tells us that they knew God. And this is what we were thinking about last time: they knew there’s a God who made all things, because that knowledge is obvious from what God has made.
They rejected God
Secondly, Paul tells us that they suppressed or rejected their knowledge of God and instead they worshipped idols. So, look at verses 21 and 23:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…. [They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images….
Then look at verse 25:
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie [that is, an idol]….
And then verse 28:
they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God.
From the world around them, they knew there’s a God who deserves our praise and thanks. But instead of worshipping him, they turned away to idols.
Before moving on, we should note that Paul is talking about people who probably regarded themselves as being very religious or spiritual. After all, look again at verse 25 where Paul tells us that they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator. They worshipped and served. These people would have regarded themselves as being spiritual people who gave themselves over to worship and service.
And, of course, it’s the same today, isn’t it? How often do we hear people say that they regard themselves as being very spiritual. They don’t go to church. They don’t read the Bible. But they still regard themselves as being spiritual. When we lived in the Republic, I’d hear about people who went to psychic fairs, where you could buy crystals and talk to healers and learn all about mind, body and spirit therapies. And, of course, there’s an openness now and an interest in what other religions teach. Paul was referring to pagans who regarded themselves as being very spiritual. And it’s the same today.
And, of course, they also regarded themselves as being wise. Look at verse 22:
Although they claimed to be wise….
You know, they thought they were very wise and that they had thought deeply about the world and about life and its purpose. And they thought they knew the truth. They thought they had it all worked out. But what does Paul say about them?
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.
And they became fools because instead of retaining the knowledge of God, they turned away to worship and serve idols.
Three times Paul tells us that they knew God. Then three times he tells us that they rejected the knowledge of God. And, then, three times he tells us about God’s wrath and how God gave them up to their sin. So, verse 24:
God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity.
God gave them over to shameful lusts.
he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.
Notice from verse 24 that, although God gave them over to sexual impurity, we cannot say that God caused them to sin. We can’t say that, because the sinful desires which led to their sexual impurity were already there in their hearts. God gave them over to what they were already inclined to do. He removed his restraining hand. He loosening his grip. And they did exactly what they wanted to do.
In verse 24 Paul tells us that God gave them over to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. Now, Paul doesn’t mention what kind of impurity he had in mind. So perhaps, in verse 24, he simply means any kind of sexual immorality. But then, in verses 26 and 27 he goes on to refer to homosexuality. And, he makes clear, homosexuality is the product of their shameful lusts and it involves abandoning natural relations for unnatural relations. So, God gave them up to their sinful passions; and their sinful passions led them into sexual sin. However, the wicked also fall into other kinds of sin. And so, we have this long list of sinful behaviours and attitudes in verses 29 to 31.
And, again, although Paul was describing what life was like in the first century AD, what he says here applies very much to our own day, and to how people have turned away from worshipping the true God, and they’ve fallen into increasing immorality and into homosexuality and they’ve been filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips and slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful. They invent ways of doing evil. They disobey their parents. They are senseless. Faithless (or unfaithful). Heartless. Ruthless. And, of course, not only do people do these things and live like this, but they’re not ashamed of it and instead they approve of these things:
There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s perfectly natural and right. And how dare you suggest that these things are wrong?
Every day the wrath of God is being revealed. And he reveals his wrath by removing his restraining hand and by letting the wicked fall deeper and deeper into sin and into all the misery and sorrow that comes from it.
So, what’s the answer to all of this? Well, go back to verse 15 and Paul’s eagerness to preach the gospel, because the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, because in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, the righteousness that comes from God and is received by faith. Instead of suffering the wrath of God, sinners can receive the righteousness they need so that they have peace with God. And the way to become right with God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ which is what Paul preached.
Now, many today think there are other answers. And from time to time I get phone calls and emails, asking me to come to this event and to that organisation and to hear this, the latest big idea to solve the problems in society. And, of course, because of God’s common grace, he’s able to work through many of these things for the benefit of society in general. But the real answer to God’s wrath is the preaching of the gospel. To many it seems foolish. To others it seems weak and ineffective, a waste of time. But no, because it’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, because God works through the preaching of the gospel to reconcile sinners to himself. And so, we ought to believe in the power of preaching. And we ought to pray for it. And we ought to keep praying for it, asking God to give sinners the desire to hear the preaching of his word; and asking God to work through the preaching of his word; and asking God to rescue the wicked from his wrath, and to show them the same grace and mercy which he has shown to us.