Romans 1:18-23- The Problem


This morning we begin a new series of sermons. We shall be looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans which is a letter which has had a huge impact on the history of the world. To give just two examples. First, it was through studying this letter that Martin Luther started the Reformation - a movement which had shaped the history of Europe. Second, it was in listening to a commentary on Romans that John Wesley knew his heart to be ‘strangely warmed’ and began the movement that came to be known as Methodism. A movement which some say was the chief reason the French revolution was not repeated in England.

We shall not have time to look at the whole of Romans but will be picking out certain key passages. However I would encourage you to fill in the gaps. In this letter Paul deals with the nature of God’s ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ and shows how it is for all people - Jew and Gentile alike. It is likely that there was tension in the Church in Rome between the Jewish Christians and the Roman Christians. And Paul ranges back and forth on how the Gospel impacts on both groups.

If this letter is all about ‘good news’ then it probably surprises us that right in the first chapter Paul starts speaking about God’s anger with the human race. “The wrath of God is being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings...”   Now this can raise all kinds of problems for us. Does God really get angry? Are human beings really that bad? Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about these questions. We need to be careful in understanding what it means for God to be ‘angry’. It does not mean that he has a ‘hot temper’ and is capricious or lashes out wildly. God is kind, loving and patient. And so if he is angry, it is quite different to a lot of our anger, which often comes when we are frustrated by things that affect us personally. But not all anger is like that. There is such a thing as ‘righteous anger’, anger at injustice, at activities which deface and spoil God’s world, at human behaviour which brings untold misery to others. Anger at such things is a sign that people care passionately about them. And that can lead people to act. John Bell, of the Iona Community, has written a hymn whose first line is, “Inspired by love and anger”. The first verse goes like this:

Inspired by love and anger,
disturbed by endless pain,
aware of God's own bias,
we ponder once again:
'How long can some folk suffer?
How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-interest
turn prayer and pity blind?'

When we stop and think about it surely it is right that things like that make God angry. Indeed as Tom Wright says, if God did not get angry about such things “he would not be a good God”. 

And so we come to our second question about what Paul says. Is it really that bad? Yes, there are a few evil people around, but surely most of us are alright. Tom Wright gives a good illustration to help us with this. He tells how he watched a large copper beech tree being felled. The tree had had to come down because the roots were rotten, but to have looked at the branches of the tree you would not have thought there was much wrong with it. There was a bit of fungus around the base, but it didn’t look too damaging. It was a big tree, about 200 years old, and most of it looked fine. But the experts said the fungus was killing off the roots and in another year or two the roots wouldn’t hold the tree up in a high wind. Wright says he wasn’t convinced at first, but once the tree was felled and was opened up he could see how the rot had spread up the inside of the tree. 

And Paul is saying that is the state the human race is in. Human beings are central to what God wants for his creation and when humans go wrong, all of creation suffers. And we do go wrong .... all too easily. I was reading last week that about 50% of people make New Year’s Resolutions. We want to be better people, and we genuinely want to change. But apparently most people who do make resolutions have given them up by about half way through January. We cannot live up to our own best intentions - let alone live up to what God requires of us. Just think of Jesus’ summary of the law - to love God with all our heart and mind and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We constantly keep missing the target. We can all too easily be like that beech tree - looking largely okay from the outside but heading for disaster on the inside. But why does Paul start with this. Surely he would do better to start on a positive note? Well, no, because the thing is we cannot fully understand or appreciate God’s good news until we fully grasp the bad news of our need. It’s like being ill. If we go to the Doctor it doesn’t help us if the Doctor tells us all the things that are right with us. What we need is an accurate diagnosis of what is wrong. If you get the diagnosis right you are more likely to get the proper treatment. And what Paul is saying is that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. It starts with our thinking and then works itself out in our behaviour. In verse 18 he  says that human beings ‘suppress the truth’, in particular the truth about God. God has revealed himself in creation. We see in creation something of his power, his majesty and his love. It should evoke our worship and praise. But instead we tend to worship the things God made instead of God himself. It may not be the idols of metal and stone of ancient times. But there is certainly the worship of money, sex and power - and many more things as well. And the truth is that whenever we make something else other than God the central thing around which our life revolves then we are destined for a great crash - either setting ourselves up for a big fall, or liable to ruin other people’s lives.  It is only when God is our first love, that we can love everything else in its proper way. That is why Paul writes in v. 22 “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools”. and in v. 25 “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.

We see then that it is not out of a fit of pique that God is angry with us. His anger is because of his passionate love, which knows we are constantly doing things which cause misery - or failing to do things that would make for harmony and justice for the human race and for creation. But just as with John Bell’s hymn, God’s anger inspires him to action. He rolled up his sleeves and got involved and our next sermon in this series will unpack just what he did about it. But until we have fully grasped and acknowledged the depth of our failure and sinfulness we will be unable to fully appreciate the wonder of what God has done about it. I have already given the illustrations about New Year’s Resolutions, and our failure to keep the summary of the law. But just in case you are not convinced why not see how you measure up the demands of love. Paul wrote his great hymn of love in 1 Cor. 13, try putting your own name in place of the word ‘love’ and see how it sounds .....

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