Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
I was visiting a member in hospital and after I had spoken to her I went around the people in the other three beds. In one lay an old woman who was depressed and she said to me several times, “I want to die . . . I want to die.” “Well if you are going to die then you must get ready to meet God, and the way you meet God is to deal with him while you are still in this world. You must say to him, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’” “Oh, I’m not a sinner,” she said strongly. Now what did she mean by that? She wasn’t claiming that she was absolutely perfect. She meant that reports of her misconduct had not appeared in the newspapers. She had not been a criminal; she hadn’t indulged in sexual sin. Her response was typical of many people in Europe today.
1. WHAT IS SIN?
The answer to that question is what makes this text before us so fascinating, because Paul is explaining to us what sin is. Now people read these verses and they just remember one thing, the emphasis on homosexual actions and sexual deviation. They may also be struck quite rightly by the gravity with which Paul views unethical living, but they may also feel smug and self-righteous that no one could point the finger at them for doing things like that. But I want you to see the apostle’s judgments on other things, to notice what they are, those other examples of moral disobedience, but they are put in the same category as all the other deviations from the will of God. They are found cheek to jowl with what we think of as less significant sins – they are alongside terrible crimes like murder (v.29). We find here the phrase, “every kind of wickedness” (v.29), suggesting just how multifarious sin is. Manslaughter is here, of course, but so is the sin of envy (v.29) – coveting another woman’s slim figure, or the latest tablet that she has, or her boyfriend and there is anger because she has those things and you don’t – it’s green eyes. Then there is gossiping (v.29) – telling others of the secret falls of people you both know; “Did you realize this about him? Are you aware of what he did?” People speak to the detriment of other men’s reputations. Then there are even what the apostle refers to as “heartless” actions, people being formally correct and straight in what they say but totally lacking in tenderness and sympathy. That is simply another kind of sin.
When people think of the condition of the Roman world of the time of Nero, fortified by epics on television, and block buster movies about the Coliseum and the games and the gladiators, they all portray the most salacious and scatological aspects of life in the ancient world. We acknowledge that those things were there of course, but as I say, Paul is not exclusively concerned with such behaviour. For example, he mentions ‘strife,’ and we can see in Syria today a nation torn in two by old hatreds that recently have exploded into infamous cruelties so that hundreds of thousands of lives have been destroyed. But you don’t need to go to the eastern Mediterranean to discover that particular sin. Strife is seen in our town when the terms of a will are read and a family is split and all contact between the different branches broken for a lifetime. The second most common problem people take to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau after debt is neighbours, strife over noise and hedges and parking. Paul also speaks of ‘deceit,’ the claims or hints men drop of educational attainments they’ve never obtained, that they went to Cambridge, but it was two years in a teachers’ training college. Men claim a certain status – like singleness – that they don’t have – they are married men who are deceiving in order to compromise a woman. Or think of the vast world of sport and how it is corrupted by deceit. Think of Lance Armstrong, the seven-time winner of the Tour de France. He lived a deceiving lie, all day, every day, throughout his sporting career. What did he say? “I didn’t live a lot of lies, but I lived one big one.” There are hundreds of thousands of sportsmen who deceive just like that cycling cheat. Or think of the late Jimmy Saville the great fixer, knighted for his work, that wretched, evil, ugly deceiver. We all know about deceit because we are guilty of it in some way or other. Or there is ‘arrogance and boastfulness’ (v.30) which is everywhere today especially in the professing church. We have all observed that the people who have much to be proud about are the last people to refer to their achievements. We are amazed to learn of the academic record of people whom we thought were of average intelligence. They never spoke of their books or their awards.
Then notice that Paul describes this other category of wickedness, “they disobey their parents” (v.30). That is another mark of a depraved mind. Hear the mother, “You have opened this packet of biscuits.” “No, I haven’t,” her son says defiantly, when it was bound to be him. “Please tidy up your room! Get your homework done first. Don’t stay out late!” – they’re such sensible comments aren’t they? In the news this week we’ve heard of a girl who’s disappeared in York when she was out with her friends for the evening. It seems so sad, and then you discover that all those girls had been drinking heavily and they were coming out of a club at 2.15 in the morning and they were walking near a river when she disappeared – the CCTV cameras trace the stumblings of this raucous group, and then suddenly she is not part of the gang, and foul play is not being suspected by the police. They think that she fell in the river. “Don’t stay out late!” But who can say to her friends, “I must get home because I promised my mother I wouldn’t be out late”? Only nerdy girls do things because their parents asked them to.
You can link it with the next category Paul mentions, “senseless” (v.31) – what a waste! What folly! Then he joins together a trio of other kinds of wickednesses which are also all too familiar to us – “faithless, heartless, ruthless” (v.31). We know those vices only too well, and most of us have first hand painful experience of such attitudes from our acquaintance with our own hearts. A man announces to his wife that he’s leaving her because he’s met someone else. It is a bolt from the blue to her. She has never suspected that anything was wrong. What a wretch! How perfectly this trio of words applies to such rotters – “faithless, heartless and ruthless.” This man had made vows and solemn promises but he threw them aside when infatuation for another woman filled his mind. Think of Salome asking for the head of John the Baptist – “Faithless, heartless and ruthless.” Think of David arranging for Bathsheba’s brave young husband Uriah be deserted in a skirmish and allowed to be killed – “faithless, heartless and ruthless.” Those sins at first glance don’t seem worth linking to those other evil attitudes like “depravity” and “God-hating”. They seem trivial in comparison, but we are very familiar with them and we can see the weeping casualties of such kinds of wickedness.
Or again think of this striking phrase of Paul’s, “They invent ways of doing evil” (v.31). Movies and television are invented and immediately there is the birth of pornography. The world wide web brings the possibility of knowledge at our finger tips into our own homes, but immediately there are ugly sexual sins also brought into our living rooms, or people find new ways of deceiving you by emailing you claiming that they have millions of pounds to give to you if only you provide them with your bank account details. Drugs are invented so that pain and depression can be treated, but they are sold on the street to young and old and a new generation of addicts arise. Fallen man is so cunning that he can invent new ways of doing evil.
These verses are a dark mosaic of a decadent groaning world in which we live, and I ask you what is your picture of a decadent world? What kind of society do you think is one that has been given over by God? What kind of community brings down the wrath of God upon it? Isn’t it a society where sexual permissiveness abounds? Yes. Isn’t it somewhere where men are faithless, heartless and ruthless, where children defy their parents, where there is every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity? Is it a city which is full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice? Is it a country village in the Cotswolds, such a pretty place but in the village inn there are “gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful” (v.30). Is it a civilisation where men invent ways of doing evil? Paul tells us that a country characterised by those things is a community which is marked by the wrath of God. Paul tells us that that is a society given over by God. In other words, God says to man, “If that is what you hunger for, then you can have it,” and he abandons them to it. He gives them what they crave for, not only violence and sexual perversion but all those additional things too which destroy the sweet stuff of human relationships. And that is the glory and solemnity of this passage, that it highlights for us from God’s perspective, those things that men can dismiss because they are simply what everyone does; they are mere human frailties.
2. A SOCIETY’S MORALS REFLECT ITS FOUNDATIONAL BELIEFS.
And I would say that the acceptable behaviour of a society will reflect the foundational beliefs of that society. The Roman Empire of that day was polytheistic and idolatrous and immoral. The ethics of national life steadily reflected these precise features, what audiences laughed at in the theatres, what philosophers commented on in their writings, how the rich and famous behaved in their relationships with young boys, and women, and slaves. In was reflected in what was written on the walls of Pompeii when Vesuvius rained its ash down on the place and buried it.
So where do we stand today in Wales? Precisely in that situation of theological and ethical collapse. We have lived for the past hundred years on the moral capital of the Christian past. We are going further and further into uncharted territory. God is now marginalised from the media, and from education, and from child-bearing, and from the law. Our God has been banished. His Sabbath has not survived. The one by whom we spoke in the courts of law; the one who witnessed our marriages; the one to whom our doctors vowed they’d do no harm to the baby or the helpless or the elderly; the great author of the penal functions of the law of God; the source of knowledge, every fact being a God-created fact – this living God – he has gone, and so how can morals survive? How can politics survive if politicians of every single party spend billions that they have borrowed with no hope and no plans of how to repay the gargantuan debt because such plans call for sacrifice that would make them unelectable. They pass those worries on to the next generation while they grow fat on their salaries expense accounts. How can marriage survive the death of God? How can justice survive the demise of the law-giver? How can education survive in the death of the God of epistemology?
Now you may think that I am a prophet of doom, but I must say this one thing. There has been found in the history of the world one fact, that democracy has been able to flourish only when it is based upon a Christian foundation. And I find in the whole history of western civilisation that rule of the people by the people and for the people can’t work effectively without the presence of high, moral and spiritual standards on the part of the masters, and in a democracy the people are the masters, and when people lose their theology and lose their God and lose their categorical imperatives, that there is an inevitable regression into anarchy. But even the anarchy itself will not be permanent because it will be found necessary to impose upon the disorder an order that tyranny alone can control.
That is why, in the abandonment and loss of theology, and the subsequent abandonment of the disappearance of absolute standards, we are facing a challenge to the permanence of democratic institutions themselves. We are finding ourselves, to say the least, on the threshold of total, social and moral breakdown. All the weekly statements coming from such organisations as the ‘Christian Institute’ and ‘Christian Concern’ are evidence for this. I am not saying for one moment that breakdown is inevitable. God in grace may arrest the decline and revive and restore, but one thing we have to remind ourselves continually, that western civilisation has no divine right before God. Almighty God has no need of us. The Christian cause does not need the western world. And should it please God to give us over as a consequence of our own sin and our suppressing the truth in our unrighteousness – then we will be dispensed with just as the seven churches in Asia Minor were abandoned.
3. PEOPLE ARE HELD RESPONSIBLE BY GOD FOR THEIR ACTIONS.
Then you see something else, as Paul describes these people, he says that God “gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (v.28). Their behaviour flowed from their state of mind, not from their genetic code and DNA, not from their upbringing, but from how the values received by their minds, judged and acted upon in what they did. Paul does not go on in the closing verses of this first chapter to describe a collection of sicknesses. Rather, the apostle is saying that they were “filled with every kind of wickedness” (v.29). What they do is reprehensible; they are morally responsible for their choices. It is not because of some biological, DNA, organic defect that they speak and act as they do but because they have deliberately given their minds to receiving these things and dwelling on them. So there is a new bondage, but it is not a bondage resulting from biological deficiency or from social pressures. It is a slavery resulting from a soul’s capitulation to a habit and state of mind.
We ourselves as believers must be so discerning as we stand before all the claims of people in authority who say in schools and colleges and in the media and in the National Health Service that Christians may not pass judgment on such behaviour, that there are simply some people who choose to behave one way while others in a contrary way. “Such behaviour should not be regarded as a sin; it is an illness.” Such statements are made in clear defiance of the teaching of this kind of passage. The Word of God is not saying, “Let me tell you about immoral men whose immoral actions have some medical basis and explanation.” No. People of sexual perversions and alcoholics and greedy men and women, and the violent are not people with biological problems. They are certainly people with tremendous problems, but they are moral problems; they are people with spiritual problems. Their enslavement is an enslavement of the will, and the moment we call it a kind of disease we do two things.
i] First, we undermine their sense of human responsibility because a person with measles is not morally blameworthy for being covered in measles spots. He could not help having this illness. He got it while a friend of his did not get it. It was pure chance. The determinist grip of a disease grabbed him. It got him while he was sitting by someone on a certain bus, or teaching in a class, and hence through the environment, and through a virus the illness got him. It was all out of his choice and his control. The poor man was helpless before it. A tiny virus simply trod on him and he was flattened on a bed for a week getting over it. I am simply pointing out to you the difference between getting an illness and behaving in the ways Paul describes in these last verses of Romans chapter one. We believe, “What a piece of work is man!” We believe that and stand in awe of the intelligence and bravery and creativity and mother’s love of people we have known and heard about. Then we will not say and we do not believe that a person is absolutely helpless before his temper, and his desires, and his greed, and the lusts of his mind and his flesh. Those forces are different. They are eminently resistible. I do not and cannot accept that people are trapped impotently before forces within them that utterly dominate their lives, and all they can do is go with the flow. I say that that attitude is quite degrading.
Paul tells us that all men are quite aware of this. They pass judgment on others for what they do. Paul says, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (v.32). You hear them crying out at the trial of a murderer, “I hope he rots in hell for ever” but they continue in other sins which are maybe even more reprehensible, and they laugh at the behaviour of others who cheat and lie and steal and fornicate as they do and get away with it. “Lucky dog!” they say with a smile and they continue in the sins that easily beset them.
ii] Second, this attitude to sins that they are mere illnesses is the philosophy of despair, necessarily, because it is claiming that our crimes and our drives are simply our natures! Think of it, not only do we steal but our natures are such we can’t prevent ourselves from stealing. Not only do we lie but we can’t help being liars, and that is how we are made; this is our condition, and medically it is irreversible. I am saying that that belief is the door to despair, and to totally unnecessary despair, because these people can be truly elevated by the grace of God and transformed. I can understand the despair of the pure evolutionist because he believes that men have always been behaving like this, Of course we reject that, believing that man was created upright and chose to fall into his current rebellion against God. Also the evolutionist denies that there is any supernatural power that operates from outside and comes into our lives and changes us personally, and again the evolutionist also believes that men and women are destined to always be like this. That is his despairing faith, that as we see it now so it was from the very beginning, and for ever it has to be just like this, world without end. Evolutionistic determinism rules! But that is not my faith, and that is why I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the power of the God who is greater than us and greater than our most powerful desires. Our gospel is not a gospel that can reverse a medical condition, but it is a gospel that can reverse a moral and spiritual condition. It can redeem man from his slavery to his lusts and to his despair.
One more thing, when we look at this catalogue of a “depraved mind’ and “every kind of wickedness” it is not only an expose of human sin, it is a catalogue of human misery. You look at that list and you think for a moment of the pain that lies behind it, the broken hearts, the shattered hopes, the battered wives and the lost childhood, all the sorrow and the anguish – think of that! What is it that all our text is describing when it set in the framework of Almighty God, the one who is light, in whom there is no darkness at all, the God of total integrity? I say that it is all a part of the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. These men knew the truth about God from creation and from conscience, and many from the preaching of Jesus Christ, and they proceeded to distort the truth. Then as the years past they found themselves at last in despair and misery. They were living in moral and social anarchy with all sorts of psychological and social problems for themselves, living in hopeless misery, surviving by drugs and on alcohol.
4. HOW GOD RESPONDS TO SUCH BEHAVIOUR AND WHAT MUST I DO?
We have to ask what is the response of God to this behaviour? What is his attitude to people he has loved, to whom he has given every good and perfect thing, whom he has sincerely urged to leave that broad road that is leading them to destruction. “Why will you die?” he often asks them. It is not his will that they perish, and he weeps over them as they reject his Son Jesus Christ and all his offers of mercy. He looks at them living in an abyss of misery and despair. He hears them mocking his Son hour after hour as he is hanging on a cross with nails though his limbs. What is his response to this? Paul sums it up in this chapter in one mighty monosyllable. It is the word ‘wrath.’ “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v.18). This wrath is being revealed in the processes of history. This wrath is revealed in the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God when he spoke of those who perished in disasters of his day and then he said, “Unless you repent you shall all likewise perish.” He often explained his warnings in terms of outer darkness, and the wailing of those there, and of fires that are not quenched or of a worm that does not die. He was concerned to bring our minds and affections to this reality.
What then is the plight of man today? It is not seen in his economic condition or his cultural barrenness or his psychological problems (though these are all there in our nation). But more important than all of that is that everyone who receives great mercies from God throughout his life, but who then proceeds to disdain the Giver and who does things in man’s own way – he is under the wrath of God and he faces a close encounter with him after death. One day I shall stand before the great white throne and the Lord will ask me, “Did you ever hear of me?” and it is impossible to deceive God. I have to tell the truth. So I have to tell him, “My conscience spoke to me of your righteous demands, and the heavens above declared how glorious you were. I saw with my eyes your eternal power and glory in your creation. I heard of your Son Jesus Christ and that he spoke to men sweetly saying, “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “And what did you do?” I shall reply, “I did nothing at all. I ignored it all and did things my way. “You mean that you are without excuse?” Silence. Every mouth is stopped. The whole of unredeemed mankind lies guilty before God.
When I speak I shall say again, “Yes, I heard of the marvel of redeeming grace, God making his blessed Son sin for us – the one who knew no sin – that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” “You mean that you suppressed those truths of love and forgiveness?” “Yes.” So what am I in my guilt? I am a human being made in the image of God, created with a never-dying soul by God and for God to glorify and enjoy him, but I threw it all away. Then I must be judged fairly by God, all the factors of my guilt taken into consideration in a judgment of scrupulous justice, none to be condemned unfairly. Yet all mankind is to be judged; what they have sowed that they will also reap. The Lord Jesus said that on the crucial day many would hear the words, “Depart from me” while others would hear, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is the great bifurcation of human destiny lying before us, Jesus said, there will be the sheep and the goats, heaven and hell, glory and damnation – so said the Lord Christ.
And I shall never plead, “I didn’t know.” I shall never argue that I was caught in the grip of forces totally outside my control, that I was a helpless piece of flotsam tossed on the seas of eternity. No, I was a man in the image of God, and I know today what I shall know even more clearly in that great day, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done evil in your sight, and you are justified in every word of assessment and judgment you make of me.” Then you ask me what hope can there be for you today? What light and comfort can I offer you?” Much in every way. Very much. The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ you will be saved. If you entrust yourself to this merciful God he will abundantly pardon. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. You may have the propitiation of the wrath of God towards your wickedness, an appeasement is here through the cross of Christ. Jesus himself has dealt with the judgment of God towards sinners by bearing that judgment in his own body on Golgotha. How can you deal with it? What can you do to escape from condemnation? The tremendous reality is in God’s work, what he has done for us. God has set him forth to be the propitiation for our sins and for sins of sinners the whole world over until the very last day. We were damned in our guilt. We stood guilty in our condemnation and then we heard the voice of reconciling grace in the words of the Son of God. He made an offer of mercy to me because of what the Lord Jesus had done, that enabled God to remain just and yet to justify the ungodly. He obeyed in my place. He died in my place. He became the Lamb of God for me. He was lifted up for me. He took all the Father laid on him for me. He refused to come down from the cross for me. He bore all that my sins deserved. He exhausted all the condemnation that my wickedness merits. He entered the grave and rose the third day for me. He intercedes for me. He sends his servants throughout the world to offer salvation to me. Forgiveness is offered to me today; it is promised to all who accept it today. There is now no condemnation to those who entrust themselves to him, to those who say, “God be merciful to me a sinner. Forgive me in Jesus’ name; Father I have sinned against heaven and am worthy only of hell, but your Son bore hell for sinners that mercy might come to someone like me, even me, let your mercy fall on me today.
Do you understand why these words of our text in Romans 1 are in the Bible, this terrible description of man with his depraved mind, doing what ought not to be done, filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity? That you might appreciate that only the coming of Jesus Christ into the world and his being born under the law and his dying under its condemnation of all that is listed here in Romans one, that that alone could save the best of men and the worst. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for sin of the dimensions of this tremendous chapter of human cruelty and pain. I may be guilty of every sin in this catalogue of iniquity and many, many more, and yet I hear today that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses me from all my sin, every atom and molecule of sin and all the sins of omission. Sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. In him we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins. I long for us all to believe this truth today. Isn’t this the most serious of all our problems and isn’t the best news anyone can hear today is that there’s the reconciliation of a holy God and this is offered to me today through what Christ all by himself has done? Then receive it, O sinner, receive it. Receive this message! It is true, and neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. Jesus ready stands to save you. That is why he gave me this message to preach, and that is why he brought you here today that your estrangement with God might end, and that you may know complete forgiveness and the friendship of Jesus, your very own Saviour and advocate with God from this moment on. Take him! Receive him by faith! He will give you the right to be called a child of God and to call him Abba Father for ever and ever. Amen
2nd February 2014 GEOFF THOMAS