Bad News / Good News

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Romans 1:18-25
Romans 6:23

If you were asked for an explanation of all the world’s problems, what would your diagnosis be? If you were to suggest a cure, what would you prescribe?

What’s wrong with the world? That there is something wrong, radically wrong, would seem to be beyond doubt. The evidence is all around us, and there’s too much of it to deny. A hundred years ago many were optimistic about the progress of humanity. Things were rapidly getting better and better, people believed. It was surely only a matter of time, and not very much time either, before things like poverty and crime and war became obsolete. And then came the twentieth century with its indescribable horrors: wars great and small, systematic genocide, torture, intentional starvation, persecution and bloodshed on every continent on a scale that decent people could not conceive of in their worst nightmares. We have made great technological progress in modern times, but it doesn’t seem to have been matched by a corresponding moral progress. Indeed, in a bleak moment one is tempted to conclude that the chief result of all our progress has been to enable us to oppress and kill one another more efficiently. So what is wrong with the world?

If there’s widespread evidence of the problem, there is less agreement on its explanation. Some religions teach that the evil in the world is the result of a wicked spiritual power that is equal to and opposite God. Others say that evil and suffering are illusions caused by wrongful desire. Many modern people would blame the structures of human society, as Marx did when he attributed everything bad in the world to the existence of an unjust class system based on the ownership of private property. Marxism, the twentieth century’s most extensive and tragic experiment, has largely been abandoned today because people found out the hard way that changing human structures without changing human nature only makes things worse instead of better.

So what is the true explanation behind all the world’s problems? Many years ago a debate was raging in the pages of The Times of London over this very question. People wrote letters to the editor with all sorts of opinions and answers. And finally, a Christian named G. K. Chesterton offered his response to the question, “What is wrong with the world?” “Sir:” he wrote, “I am.” There, in just two words, is the Christian explanation for the problem of evil and the condition of the world. The answer is not primarily anything outside us or above us or around us; the problem is within us, in our own hearts and minds and wills. What’s wrong with the world? We are.

Listen to this more detailed statement of the Christian view written two thousand years ago by the apostle Paul in the first chapter of Romans:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts. . . . They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen

(Romans 1:18-25, niv).

The Christian message is the gospel, the “good news.” Specifically, it is good news about God’s power to save everyone who believes in his Son Jesus. “For in the gospel,” Paul has just said, “a righteousness from God is revealed . . . that is by faith” (v. 17). But if the good news is about a righteousness from God, there is also bad news about the unrighteousness of human beings, and this is the subject of the first main section of Paul’s letter. He begins in verse 18 with two words that characterize human behavior in its natural state: “godlessness” and “wickedness.” Taken together, these terms take us directly to the heart of the matter. The evil in the world is due to human sin; specifically, it is the result of the fundamental sin of which all human beings are guilty: they have rejected God. This is the Christian explanation of why things are the way they are. Behind every secondary factor that contributes to the misery or injustice in the world lies the root cause. By our own action we have been estranged, cut off, alienated from God, who is the only source of goodness and life.

PEOPLE HAVE REJECTED GOD

Paul explains how people have rejected God by describing two things they have done. “Men and women . . . suppress the truth” (v. 18) about God, he says. If people really wanted to know God, they could learn about him, because what can be known about him lies in plain sight in front of the whole world. God has made himself known through his creation. As the Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). Paul puts it this way: “God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (v. 20). The entire universe, the whole world of nature with its incredible order, complexity and design, points us to the truth of God. Whether we consider the vastness of a star-filled sky on a clear night or the marvel of human language, the grandeur of a mountain landscape or the beauty of a flower, the conclusion should be the same: a God of infinite wisdom and power does exist and is the source of all that we see. But people suppress that truth. They not only deny it; they intentionally seek to discredit it. “It’s all an accident,” says the modern materialist. “Life and the universe are merely the result of an evolutionary process running by chance,” as if what is complex and organized could spring naturally from chaos, or an irrational process could produce rational thought and human creativity.

People suppress the truth about God. That’s one way they reject him, but they also do more. “Although they knew God,” meaning that people have always known something of God or have been dimly aware of him, and have benefitted from his wisdom and power and goodness even when they did not recognize him, “they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (v. 21). People’s rejection of God goes deeper than just the level of thinking. It’s more than that they don’t accept the truth, more even than that they suppress it. Ultimately people reject God because they do not want to worship him. The human tragedy lies in our refusal to let God be God. Notice, the fundamental problem isn’t an intellectual one, it’s a moral one; it’s rooted in our will, not our mind. It’s not that we can’t manage to believe in God. It’s not that we lack enough evidence; on the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence, all of it right under our noses. No, our problem is that we do not want to acknowledge God as God, or give him the honor and praise, the thanks and obedience, that are his due. People reject God because they choose to assert their own wills rather than surrender to his.

In his analysis the apostle tells us three things about this rejection of God. First, it is universal. Every human being has done it, from the beginning of the world until now. Paul does not single out a particular group for criticism here. It’s not as though he is exempting anyone, including himself, from the charges he levels in these hard verses. It would be easy to imagine somebody saying, for example, that those who follow a different religion are suppressing the truth about God and refusing to worship him. But Paul’s language here is general. It is simply “men” or “humans” who do this, Christians as well as non-Christians, Jews and Gentiles both, the educated and the illiterate. Second, the human rejection of God is deliberate. It is an intentional action. This isn’t something that has happened accidentally or inadvertently; it is something people have chosen and continually choose to do. Third, it is inexcusable. Because they should know better but choose instead to deny and defy the living God, people are left without excuse. As one version translates, “Their conduct is indefensible” (v. 20, reb).

A DOUBLE CONSEQUENCE

Having described the basic human problem as the rejection of God through the double action of suppressing the truth about him and refusing to worship him, Paul goes on to explain a double result of this. Actions have consequences, and this action by humans has had two terrible ones. When people rejected God, something happened inside of them, in their minds and in their hearts. “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened,” says Paul (v. 21), and they began to worship idols. People became fools. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and they began to worship created things rather than the Creator (v. 25). Idols don’t have to be statues or images. Idolatry is just as prevalent in the so-called advanced nations of the west as it was in the apostle’s world with all its temples and shrines. The idols of modern secular men and women might be things like money or possessions or property or their own bodies, or they could be intangibles such as pleasure or power or status, but they are idols all the same. Anything other than God that is valued and sought instead of God is an idol. It has been said that those who won’t believe in God don’t end up believing in nothing; they end up believing in anything. In the same way, people who won’t worship God don’t end up worshiping nothing. They end up worshiping anything and everything. How foolish to think that something other than the God who made us for himself can ever ultimately satisfy us or make us happy or help us in times of trouble.

We haven’t heard quite all the bad news yet. There is a second result of human rejection of God, and that is the reaction that God himself has to this action. If something happens in us when we turn away from God, something else happens in God. Three times in the closing verses of Romans 1 Paul uses the ominous phrase, “God gave them over.” What he gave the human race over to was the consequences of its own sinful choice. Because people rejected him, God abandoned them to their own twisted desires and their depraved mind “to do what ought not to be done” (v. 28). The result is that the world and its inhabitants, as Paul says, “have become filled with every kind of wickedness” (v. 29): evil, greed, envy, murder, strife, sexual perversion – the list goes on and on, and the closing verses of this section of Romans read like the table of contents of today’s newspaper in any city of any country in the world.

Here at last is the full truth. Because people have rejected him, God has rejected them. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” (v. 18). God’s wrath, his utterly holy, utterly righteous hatred of evil, is directed against a rebellious humanity. He has allowed human depravity to play itself out, with the results that we see all around us today.

How could a good and loving God do such a thing? The answer, paradoxically, is that he did it because he is good and he does love us despite our rejection of him. He has abandoned humanity to its sin – not entirely, or the world would literally be hell – but enough to make us realize our desperate need. For only then can the first glimmer of hope be seen. To receive the gospel cure, you must accept the gospel diagnosis. If you don’t understand the problem, you won’t have any interest in its solution. Jesus said those who are healthy don’t need a doctor, only sick people do. Those who are healthy don’t even want to think about a doctor; they have no need. As long as you are convinced that the problems of the world, or of your own life, are someone else’s fault, that they can be blamed on “the system,” or society, or other people, or a poor upbringing, or whatever, you will never find the real solution. The gospel starts with bad news: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a). But it tells us the bad news so that we will want to embrace the good news that “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23b). The revelation of God’s judgment on sin isn’t intended to destroy us but to awaken us, to call us back to him. Can you hear that even now? Turn to him in faith and hope!