WORST THINGS FIRST
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
— Romans 1:18-32, ESV
They always tell you the worst things first. There have been symptoms and there have been suspicions. There have been examinations and there have been tests. Then, you sit down with the oncologist, and she spills it out. You have cancer. It will kill you.
Of course, there are other things to talk about, too. There are treatments. There are surgical remedies. There is hope. But in order to fight the good fight, you have to deal with the honest, gut-wrenching, worst things first.
Cancer has become a universal curse. Virtually all of us have dealt with it, if not personally, then with a loved one. My first brush with sickness and death occurred when cancer took my paternal grandmother, who had practically raised me up to the age of ten. A few years later it took my maternal grandmother. Since then I’ve lost countless family, friends, and fellow church members. Just this week I attended two funerals. Yes, it was cancer that took them both.
Cancer can kill the body, but in the courageous words of the late Jim Valvano, “It cannot touch my soul.” However, there is a worse state and worse fate that can. What could be worse than cancer and death? It is sin, which left unchecked results in something worse than death, namely, “the wrath of God.”
Paul in Romans has already mentioned the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, by way of introduction. Later in this letter he will plumb the depths of the love, grace, and mercy of God which takes the gospel and makes a person right with God. But in order to receive salvation and all the wonderful things that go with it, we have to face the worst things first.
Worst Things First
The letter to the Romans now moves from introduction to instruction. How exactly is it that the gospel can make a human being right with God? The best news ever known to man is about to unfold! But, we have to deal with the worst news first.
If Paul had been a twentieth century evangelical, verse 18 might have read something like, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Instead, the steely-eyed Apostle puts stylus to papyrus and blurts out, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” It looks like God is angry with us and has a terrible plan for our lives.
The conjunction “for” is important because it ties our current text together with the thematic context of 1:16-17. It is vital for us to be “not ashamed of the gospel,” but rather “believe,” trust and obey and keep on trusting and obeying, in order to receive “salvation” and “the righteousness of God.” Otherwise, “the wrath of God” will fall on us.
“Wrath” is not a fun word. It is fairly common in the New Testament, appearing 36 times in 12 of the 27 books. It is most prominent in the final book of the Bible, The Revelation, where it is used 5 times in apocalyptic pictures of the end of the final judgment. Apart from genuine acceptance of the gospel, when your time on earth is done, or when God is done with the earth as we know it, God’s “wrath,” His personal indignation and ultimate punishment, will be “revealed from heaven” and poured out upon you.
Many roll their eyes and think, “OMG,” what have I done that is so terrible to deserve such punishment? It is a little word we have not met yet in Romans. It will appear in 3:9 and 45 times more afterward. It is sin.
Sin is the cancer that mutates and makes man militant against his Maker, leaving the the almighty God, bound to His holiness and His word, has no choice but to destroy it completely, including the person in which the sin, the cancer, went unchecked and untreated through life. “Wrath” is a fate worse than death, and when a lost person comes to face it, they will most certainly wish, to coin a biblical phrase, they had never been born, and lament the fact they were never born again.
The sin we will deal with in Romans is mostly hamartia, a missing of the mark. It is not so much doing wrong (although a list of harmful sins are provided in this text and elsewhere), but failing to do what is right. Here, among the worst things first, we learn that “the wrath of God” is for not being godly and not being righteous, “ungodliness and “unrighteousness.”
Unbelieving is a failure to believe, to actively and persistently trust the gospel and obey God. “Ungodliness” is the failure to be godly, to pursue the God who has revealed Himself in creation and in the revelation of His word and His Son, Jesus Christ. “Unrighteousness” is the failure to be right with God and do what is right. Otherwise, one will simply “suppress the truth” revealed in God’s word and in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Paul states that unless you are an incognizant child or an incoherent adult, unable to think reasonably and deeply about creation and a Creator, you are “without excuse” to not pursue God, not discover His word, not acknowledge His gospel, not accept Him and live under Him grace and guidance as Savior and Lord. The result is a life spent in “futile” pursuits, “foolish” thoughts and actions which are “corruptible,” non-lasting, useless, lost. As a different Paul wrote, money cannot buy you love, not God’s love. Success doesn’t supersede to the next life. Pleasure in the wrong things will result in unimaginable pain, namely “God’s wrath.”
And so we have the worst things first. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” The cancer of sin which causes people to ignore the gospel, disobey the word of God, and partake of the blessings of creation in ways the Creator condemns, will metastasize and bring men to a fate worse than death.
Worst Case Scenarios
The worst news can only be cured by the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly preached and fully accepted. God the Great Physician has provided this remedy by His grace through faith in the person and work of Christ. However, in the words of the great divine Matthew Henry, “If the patient will not submit to the methods prescribed, but willfully does that which is prejudicial to him, the physician is not to be blamed.”
If a cancer patient storms out of the oncologist’s office, refusing any remedy for their cancer, what is the doctor to do? At first she might reach out to the patient and urge them to come back. She might even contact family and friends, or send messengers. At some point, however, the doctor must give up.
So does God. The grandeur of creation and the grace of revelation calls you to the cure. But some people, most people, will not have it. As Jesus uttered the good news in one word, “Tetelestai,” it is finished, so God seals the worst news with one word, “Paradoken,” I give up!
For those who live for lust, God gives up. “God gave them over in the lusts.” Lust is actually a neutral word, meaning strong desire, meaning it can be good or bad, depending upon the desire. Here it is obviously the latter. It describes a person who has allowed sin and selfishness to govern their lives, apart from the curb of God’s word and the cure of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The love their bodies and the things which bring pleasure to it, rather than surrendering their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls to God. This simple, secular variation of sin cancers everyone from the adulterous hedge fund mogul making millions to the crack addict living in squalor. Simply love yourself more than God, and “the wrath of God” will be poured out on you.
For those who live for passion, God gives up. “God gave them over to degrading passions.” Passion is close to lust, but a little different. It really means feelings that lead to actions, and again it is used quite negatively here. Do you remember the song, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right”? How many multi-millions of times have men blundered into sin, allowed their cancer to spread, because it felt like the right thing to do? And while homosexuality is clearly a sinful passion described in these verses (liberals who engage in linguistic gymnastics to justify homosexuality cannot explain this text away), giving in to and living for fornication, or adultery, or any other sexual sin that dishonors God and destroys human beings will land you in the lake of “the wrath of God.”
For those who live in avoidance of God, neglect of His word, disregard for His church, God gives up. “God gave them over to a depraved mind.” Depravity is another biblical word for the cancer of sin that is universal in all of our genes. Depravity unaltered by grace can indeed lead to the litany of sins named here, but depravity is mainly an indifference and avoidance of God and the things of God. One does not have to be a monster to be depraved, one only needs to be a cognizant and reasonable human being who willfully rejects the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Enjoy it while you can, for there is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, only “the wrath of God.”
Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for cancer. It just about kills you to save you. Some, and I am placing no blame here, refuse the awful and painful procedure, choosing rather to enjoy as much as possible the few remaining days of their lives. Cancer wins out, at least in this life, and death is inevitable.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only cure for sin, its predicaments and its punishments. It requires you to die, to self, in order to be born again into new life with Christ. The vast majority of humans refuse it, choosing rather to live for their lusts, feelings, and enjoying their indifference of God. Not only is death certain, but so is “the wrath of God.”
Jonathan Edwards preached perhaps the most famous sermon in history in 1741. You probably know the title. “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” He certainly presented worst things first, then offered the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and called for repentance and faith. Salvation came to the souls of multitudes. A true “Great Awakening” occurred in the American colonies. Edwards’ legacy and the link to saved souls and reformed churches lasts until this day.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to see such a great awakening today? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see souls saved, churches reformed, families united and strengthened. These would be great things indeed! Perhaps God will grant such wonderful things; but, only if we deal with the worst things first.