READ : Romans 1:18-25
It’s pretty obvious that there is something wrong with the world we live in. To be more specific, there’s something wrong with human nature. For evidence of that you need look no further than the daily news. You should also know that the problem can never be fixed unless it is first correctly diagnosed, something the apostle Paul does for us in the closing section of Romans chapter 1.
What’s wrong with the world? That there is something wrong, radically wrong, would seem to be beyond doubt. A hundred years ago many were optimistic about the progress of the human race. It was surely only a matter of time, people believed—and not very much time either—before things like poverty and crime and war would become obsolete.
And, then, along came the twentieth century with its dictatorships, its wars great and small, systematic genocide, torture, persecution, famine. There was a brief moment around 1990 when the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War made some people think that perhaps world peace was finally achievable. One scholar even predicted “the end of history,” in the sense that widespread conflict between worldviews and systems was now a thing of the past. That seems laughable to us today living in a post 9/11 world.
It seems our great technological progress hasn’t 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 seems to have been to enable us to kill one another more efficiently. In Iraq, for example, cell phones are used now to set off car bombs. So what’s wrong with the world?
If there’s widespread evidence of the problem, there is less agreement as to its explanation. Some philosophies teach that the evil in the world is the result of a wicked spiritual power 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 to the existence of an unjust class system based on the ownership of private property.
The Christian View
But the true explanation behind all the world’s problems lies deeper. Many years ago a debate was raging in the pages of The London Times. People wrote letters to the editor with all sorts of responses to the question: “What is wrong with the world?” Finally, a wise Christian named G. K. Chesterton offered his answer, “Sir,” he wrote, “I am.” There, in just two words, is the Christian explanation. It’s not primarily anything outside us or above us or around us or behind us; the problem is within us, in our own hearts and minds and wills. What’s wrong with the world? We are.
Listen to what the apostle Paul wrote in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth …. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him … Therefore God gave them up … because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!
Paul begins with two negative words that characterize human behavior in its natural state: “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.” Those two terms take us to the very heart of the matter. The evil in the world is due ultimately to human sin; specifically, it is the result of the fundamental sin of which human beings are guilty: namely, ungodliness, or the rejection of God. And that leads directly to all the misery and injustice in the world: to the unrighteousness.
People Have Rejected God
Paul explains how people have rejected God by describing two things they have done. First, men and women “suppress the truth” (v. 18) about God. If people really wanted to know God, they could, Paul argues, because what can be known about him lies in plain sight in front of the whole world. The apostle puts it this way: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his … eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived … in the things that have been made” (v. 20). In other words, the entire universe, the whole world of nature with its incredible order, complexity and design, points us to God. Whether we consider the vastness of a star-filled sky on a clear night or the beauty of a spring flower, the conclusion should be the same: a God of infinite wisdom and power must exist, a God who made it all. But people suppress that truth. That is, they not only deny it; they intentionally seek to discredit it. “It’s all an accident,” says the materialist. “Life and the universe are merely the result of a mindless process operating by chance.”
But people’s rejection of God goes deeper than just the level of conscious thought. It’s more than that they don’t accept the truth intellectually, more even than that they suppress it. Ultimately people reject God because they don’t want to worship him. “For although they knew God,” says the apostle, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (v. 21). The human tragedy lies in our refusal to let God be God. Notice, our fundamental problem is 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 or over our heads. No, our problem is that we don’t want to acknowledge God as God, to give him the honor and thanks and obedience that are his due. People reject God because they choose to assert their own wills rather than surrender to his.
In further analyzing this problem, the apostle tells us three things about this rejection of God. First, he says, it is universal. Every human being has done it, from the beginning of the world until now. Paul’s language here is general. It is simply “men” or “humans” who do this. Second, Paul says that this human rejection of God is deliberate. It’s an intentional action. And third, it is inexcusable. Because they should know better but choose instead to deny and defy the living God, people everywhere are left, says Paul, without excuse (v. 20).
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, you see, have consequences, and this action by humans has had two terrible results. When people rejected God, something happened inside of them, first of all, in their minds and in their hearts. “They became futile in their thinking,” Paul writes, “and their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). People became fools. This is why we can no longer find God on our own, apart from his self-disclosure. God’s Spirit must open our eyes and minds to the truth, because our unaided reason is darkened by sin. Then, Paul adds, people did something else. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and they began to worship created things rather than the Creator (v. 25). 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—magic crystals, racist doctrines, genetic perfection, you name it. In the same way, people who won’t worship God don’t end up worshiping nothing. They end up worshiping anything and everything, especially themselves.
But we haven’t heard quite all the bad news yet. There is a second result of the human rejection of God, and that is the reaction that God himself has. Three times in the closing verses of Romans 1 Paul uses the ominous phrase, “God gave them up.” What he gave the human race up to was the consequences of its own sinful choice. Because people rejected him, God abandoned them to their own twisted desires, “to do what ought not to be done” (v. 28), says Paul. The result is that the world and its inhabitants, as Paul adds, “have become filled with every kind of wickedness” (v. 29): evil, greed, envy, murder, strife, sexual perversion—the list goes on and on.
Here at last is the full truth, and it’s bad news. Because people have rejected him, God has rejected them. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (v. 18). God’s wrath, his utterly holy, utterly righteous hatred of evil, is directed against a rebellious humanity, and he has allowed human depravity to play itself out, with the results that we see all around us every day.
How could a good and loving God do such a thing? The answer, paradoxically, is that he did it because he is good and 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.
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 other people, or a poor upbringing, or whatever, you will never find their real solution. The gospel starts with bad news: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 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 call even now?