The Gospel of God’s Grace #3

Why We’re Such a Mess

September 21, 1997 / Romans 1:21-32

The initial insight the gospel has for any one of us is this: We’re a mess. In that, however, there is nothing particularly unique to the gospel. Our own movies, books, plays, and newscasts tell us as much.

Against our tendency to minimize the problem or to hold out the hope that we will somehow find our own way out of it, the Bible is much bolder with its analogies. We’re not just "sick"; we’re dead. Paul wrote this: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient" (Eph. 2:1-2). And we’re not just "off track"; we are separated from God. Thus Isaiah wrote: "Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear" (Isa. 59:1-2).

The difference between the gospel and other media that point out the perilous human condition is that it holds out the prospect of a real solution to the problem. But unless we get past our pride and defensiveness, we cannot know God in his greatness or grace. Until we see ourselves as truly powerless and hopeless on our own, we will not accept Christ’s atonement as our only hope of salvation.

Paul has opened the Epistle to the Romans with the declaration of his theme at 1:16-17, and now he is explaining the necessity of the gospel. In this section of text, he is emphatic about the matter of human depravity. That’s the mess we’re in! We’re depraved — where the depravity is not hereditary and thus unavoidable but a result of the human decision to "suppress the truth by [our] wickedness" (cf. 1:18b). Where does all this come from? And where does it lead? Those are the questions addressed here.

The Fundamental Human Error: Idolatry

The Bible has more to say about idolatry than any other sin in human behavior. It is the fundamental error in all our lifestyles. Yet moderns somehow think of idolatry as a sin known only from ancient times. Hardly!

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 to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Rom. 1:21-25).

Paul has already argued that God’s existence and nature as the eternal, powerful, and divine being who has called all things other than himself into being are so apparent from the natural world that anyone is "without excuse" for failing to see and know as much. That he is eternal is easily seen; since material things cannot be either eternal of self-causing, the being who has brought them into being must have always existed. That this being is powerful arises from the conclusion already drawn; the eternal Creator who called the universe into existence did not do so from impotence but from unlimited power. Without question, such a being is divine (i.e., theiotes = worthy of worship); the consciousness of the Great Creator drives people to their knees in praise and thanksgiving.

As a child before a parent, it would be only natural to express gratitude to one’s maker. But, no, humankind has suppressed the truth, become foolish in our reasoning, and acted like fools by putting the creature above his Creator.

Please remember that in Scripture a "fool" is not a moron or illiterate person. He or she is the one who sets himself against God in rebellion and moral perversity. Her assertion that there is no God is not an uninformed or confused conclusion; it is a deliberate gesture of defiance from her total being. Here is David’s description of such a person: "There is no fear of God before his eyes. For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin" (Psa. 36:1b-2).

This deliberate defiance of God eventually brings people to idolatry. Once the intellectual foundation of human life has been torn away by the deliberate rejection of God, the next step is to elevate something else to the position God would have rightly filled in the human heart. In his own day, Paul observed a pagan world that had "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles."

With God shoved aside, man puts himself in first place. He worships images of himself or the animals beneath himself in the created order. Have you ever thought how museums are filled with pieces of great artistic merit that were originally conceived, executed, and erected in defiance of God? Many were originally created for use in pagan temples as icons, sexual fantasies, or tributes to the human form. Stuart Briscoe correctly points out that the "root" of this problem "is in man’s utterly arrogant preoccupation with himself."

We have institutionalized the same arrogant preoccupation with ourselves in accumulating and displaying our wealth, painting and applauding our daughters as exhibitionists at pageants, or toughening and cheering our sons at sporting events that evoke more passion than worship does for some people. I don’t mean to come across as Ebenezer Scrooge here, but when do we stop to think about some of the things we are doing? It is less a matter of the "message we are sending" than the lifestyle we are living. To be so preoccupied with ourselves is to exclude God. It is to value immediate experiences through the five senses more than the spiritual realities that can only be reached via the sixth sense of faith.

Western society has created the myth of "autonomous man" to justify the narcissism that boasts of self-help, self-assurance, self-promotion, and self-love. So both Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley sang and lived the credo "I did it my way." The rest of us appear to envy that spirit so much that we have all said, at one time or another, "It’s my life, and I’m free to do as I please." Autonomous man is a strange creature though. For all his vaunted freedom, nobody is more likely to be trapped than he. He gets tripped up by the very things he points to as proof of his freedom.

Does he reject history, the Ten Commandments, and the Bible in order to be free? So he creates drudgery for himself through more infidelity, more divorce, more abortion, more loneliness, more disease, and more wars. Does he seek his freedom in money? If he succeeds in getting rich, he lives in bondage to the fear of losing his wealth; if he doesn’t get rich, he lives in the prison of resentment and frustration. Does he expect to find freedom by refusing to make commitments? I know lots of people who have just lived together rather than get married because they wanted to be free and unfettered. Yet I have learned that freedom comes only in the context of commitment. Promises made and kept are the essence of liberation, for they free people from aimlessness and emptiness in life.

George Sweeting tells of an incident from a family trip to Niagara Falls. It was spring, and huge blocks of ice were floating down the river and over the falls. Dead fish were embedded in many of those blocks of ice, an gulls by the score were riding the ice and feeding on them. As they came to the brink of the falls, they would spread their wings and fly out of harm’s way.

Sweeting tells of seeing one gull that seemed to delay flying off. It was enraptured with the fish carcass on which it was gorging. Then, right on the edge of the falls, out went its wings. But by then its feet were frozen into the ice. The weight of the ice was too much, and the gull plunged into the abyss to its death. How like our own experience as human beings. We gorge ourselves on life’s delicacies until we are frozen to them, addicted to them, enslaved by them. Our freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness can too easily become our bondage to their trappings.

The Inevitable Outcome: Alienated Lives

The final and inevitable downward step is taken when humanity’s deliberate rejection of God brings him to a lifestyle that alienates from God, others, and one’s own true self. A long catalog of human vices comes at the end of chapter one.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile 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. (Rom. 1:26-32).

Notice that the emphasis here is still on the fact that people do such things not in ignorance but as defiance of God’s will. Even if a given culture has no written revelation, most of these sins are apparent as evils through the innate moral sensitivities (i.e., conscience) God has placed within us. Step one was to remove God from intellective life, step two was to enthrone self over God for veneration, and step three is living out the thesis that human life is lived best in following the lusts and passions of our flesh. It is neither ignorance nor innocence that marks such a path. It is rebellion.

It has to be of some interest in our cultural setting that the one vice singled out for special attention here is homosexuality. There are few issues on the national agenda that get more attention than what has come to be known as "gay rights." It is part of today's political correctness to champion every issue that relates to same-sex relationships. But political correctness and moral correctness are not always equivalent.

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is a holiness code for Israel. There is no doubt about its view of homosexual behavior: "Do not lie with a man as with a woman; that is detestable" (18:22). Just how detestable it was is evident from the fact that under the theocracy of Israel, people who violated this prohibition were put to death for their sin (cf. 20:13).

There are many elements of the holiness code in Leviticus that do not carry over into the New Testament. Perhaps the strong condemnation of homosexual activity is one of them? But, no, the covenant that was ratified by the blood of Jesus at Calvary repeats the Old Testament proscription against it. Paul labels lesbian and homosexual behavior "shameful lusts" (Rom. 1:26-27) and warns that such persons will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

If anything, homosexuality was much more common and much more public in the first century than today. Plato was homosexual, and one of his dialogues that has some beautiful prose about the nature of love (i.e., The Symposium) is in praise of same-sex love. Fourteen of the first fifteen emperors of the Roman Empire were homosexual, and Nero once gave a parade in Rome in honor of his favorite male lover. Perhaps Paul felt compelled to point to this sin specifically because such cultural pressures were at work in his day to make people accept and approve that lifestyle.

There is certainly cultural pressure to that effect again in our time. Our culture praises tolerance, inclusion, and pluralism as its ultimate values. So the politically correct posture is to hold that no one has the right to criticize anyone else’s behavior as morally wrong. Ellen continues to put the issue in the face of television viewers in their own homes, and the Kevin Kline movie In & Out is unquestionably an agenda movie. Interestingly, both use humor to make their point and to break down resistance to it. To hold a biblical view of homosexuality is to be labeled judgmental and arrogant. But the world-view of historic orthodox Christianity still has categories. The Word of God is true, and whatever is incompatible with Scripture is wrong. Some behaviors are right, and others are wrong.

Anyone struggling with this issue should make the same distinction that exists in the mind of God. There is a difference between homosexual inclination — whether one argues for its genetic, psychological, or cultural origin — and homosexual activity. The sin is not with the inclination but with giving in to it. The former is temptation; only the latter is sin.

The good news from Scripture is that there is hope for homosexuals in the power of Jesus Christ to pardon and empower people for righteousness. No worse than many other sins in some ways and yet likely much harder to overcome than most, the church must be a healing community where drug addicts, bigots, greedy people, and homosexuals can experience divine grace being mediated through people who have received grace for their own brokenness before the Lord.

According to Paul, all sin expresses a fundamental disorientation of mind and heart. Someone who is alienated from God, truth, and reality gets involved in things that both express alienation and intensify it even more. The starting point for dealing with sin — whether homosexuality, arrogance, malice, or any other — is to realign one’s life with God through receiving the truth he has revealed in Christ and to read reality through his holy eyes.

The most important thing about Paul's teaching about homosexuality is this: He knew people who had been delivered from their homosexual lifestyle. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul reminded its members of their past lifestyles. Before becoming Christians, some of them had been "male prostitutes" and others "homosexual offenders" (1 Cor. 6:9). "But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11). The message of the cross to a homosexual is the same as to a greedy elder or gossiping church member: Your lifestyle outside the will of God can be redeemed and overcome. God loves homosexuals. God has a place in his heart and in his church for those who are struggling with this (or any other) sin. And his church must not look down its collective nose at them as "hopeless cases."


The root of all our problems is still pride, and we haven’t really thought of many new ways to flaunt our arrogance since Paul’s day. We still get disoriented when we take our eyes off God, refuse to hear his truth, and live to our lusts.

We’re a mess because we’ve rejected God. And things will never change until we turn back to him.

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