Teaching series from Romans

God's Bad News (Part 1)

Romans 1:16-32

Teaching t07934


Paul wrote this letter to the Christian community in Rome. Their beliefs were being challenged by the Jewish community, who evidently charged them with fundamental inconsistency with the Old Testament. This is Paul's response, which is also the most systematic presentation of the gospel--the good news of what God has given us through Jesus Christ--in the entire New Testament. Every Christian should be thoroughly familiar with the contents of Romans, especially the first eight chapters.

But Paul begins with God's bad news. From 1:18-3:20, he argues that everyone--Gentiles and Jews, pagans and religious, those with the Bible and those without it--is justly under God's judgment.

WARNING: "This passage is politically incorrect in the extreme. It contains content that is offensive to current cultural sensibilities." But before you write it off, consider that maybe we should expect God's Word to surprise and disturb and even offend us--unless we already know everything important.

Paul begins by addressing the plight of those peoples who don't have the Bible. "Certainly they are exempt from God's judgment because they have never had the opportunity to learn about God." Actually, Paul declares, they also are under God's judgment (read 1:18). Why? Because there are not in total ignorance. God has given them much truth about himself ("general revelation"), but they have willfully suppressed it.

What all people know about God (1:19-23)

Read 1:19,20. Paul speaks broadly of two avenues of knowledge about God through general revelation. Let's take them in reverse order.

One avenue is external (1:20 - "God made it evident to them . . . through what has been made"). And 2000 years of scientific investigation has strengthened, not weakened Paul's point.

As we look outward to the sheer size of creation (GALAXIES IN "VACANT" AREA OF HUBBLE'S FIELD1), and as we understand that all this mass began concentrated in a micro-pinhead that expanded in its first second to 20 light years across2, we know both intuitively and rationally that it requires a Creator who is both eternal and uniquely powerful ("his eternal power"). This is what led Johann Kepler to exclaim, "The undevout astronomer is a madman!"

As we examine the marvelous order and complexity of the universe--both macro ("Why is it so perfectly balanced gravitationally that it neither flew apart nor crunched back together . . .? This degree of balance has been likened to that of a pencil standing upright on its point."3) and micro (SLIDES OF PROTEIN STRUCTURE & CELL SURFACE), we know both intuitively and rationally that it requires a Creator who is uniquely intelligent. This is what Sir James Geans means when he says, "The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a giant machine."

Another avenue is internal (1:19 - "that which is known about God is evident within them"). What is he referring to? What is there within all humans that testifies to the existence of the God of the Bible? Paul doesn't say here, but he does later.

Read 2:14,15. Humans have an incurable sense of morality. Conscience is not a perfect moral guide, but it does testify to the reality of a moral standard to which we are personally accountable because it "stabs" us when we violate it. This in turn is testimony for the existence of a moral Creator, in whose image we have been made. In 1:32, Paul also says we know instinctively that we will give an account to God for our sins.

As we look inward, we also know that we are personal beings rather than mere machines. We instinctively value personal love relationships. Why do we value this? Where does our personalness come from? The best explanation is that we have been made in the image of a Creator who is personal and loving (TRINITY).

So without any Bible at all, human beings know that there is a God who is personal, moral, intelligent, eternal and powerful.

And therefore even people who have never seen a Bible should bow to God and worship him and thank him. But this is not the normal response (read 1:21-23). Although the memory of this God can be found in virtually every culture ever researched4, they normally reject the true God and replace him with a corruption. This means that our primary spiritual problem is not intellectual (or lack of sufficient evidence), but moral (we want to rebel and be autonomous).

Therefore, polytheism, pantheism, dualism, animism (not to mention atheism) are not beautiful expressions of human spirituality. They are not innocent speculations of truly ignorant people. Although they contain truth, they signify a willful and culpable suppression and rejection of the true God. Paul repeats this in 1:25,28a (read).

So can people who have never seen a Bible be saved? Paul is not addressing this issue directly; he is arguing (in a general way) that such people cannot plead ignorance. If they live in darkness about the one true God, it is a self-imposed darkness because they have rejected the light God has given them. Sincere Christians disagree on this question. I think the Bible implies that they can be saved, and that some are saved--but with important qualifications:

Not by merely being devout followers of their native religions. That is Paul's point--their polytheism (and pantheism and animism, etc.) is without excuse precisely because they signify a rejection of the knowledge of God. Such people would be odd-balls, swimming against the religious tide of their cultures.

Nor is simply realizing and acknowledging that this God exists sufficient to be saved, any more than realizing and acknowledging this after reading the Bible sufficient to be saved. There must be the choice to personally humble yourself God and cast yourself on his mercy.5

Nor does this negate the need for Christian missions (LAST WEEK). God has given humanity a great gift through his Son, and he wants all of humanity to hear about it! Furthermore, scripture implies that although all people have sufficient light to turn to God, more people will respond when given more light. It also indicates that those who have responded to general revelation will be much more blessed in this life if they hear the gospel (e.g., understanding and assurance of salvation; indwelling of Holy Spirit, etc.).

But let us return to Paul's argument. People without the Bible are justly under God's judgment because they have suppressed the truth God has revealed to them. How does God express this judgment?

God's present judgment (1:24,26,27,28b-32)

Notice the verb tense in 1:18--"the wrath of God is revealed . . ." Although they also will face God's future, final judgment unless they repent (1:32), they are experiencing some aspect of God's judgment right now. Paul repeats the same phrase three times to describe God's present judgment (read 1:24,26,28)--"God gave them over."

When Paul speaks of God "giving them over," he doesn't mean that God actively pushes people further away from himself, or that initiates temporal judgments (AIDS). He is echoing Ps. 81:11,12 (read). God "lets us go," he allows us to experience the natural consequences of rebelling against the structure of reality. Regardless of what we say we believe, we still are made in God's image and must live in God's universe. And when we suppress the truth and rebel against reality, this does not change reality; it just damages us. "We cannot ultimately break God's laws; we break ourselves upon them."

This principle applies not only to individuals and cultures that have rejected general revelation; it also applies (maybe even more so) to individuals and cultures which have rejected special revelation (OLD TESTAMENT ISRAEL; WESTERN CULTURE).

Paul speaks of three general manifestations of God's present judgment. They are not the only manifestations, but they are the most obvious. Many of us have experienced them in our own lives and families, and we are presently experiencing them in our culture.

Read 1:24. When people who are created for a relationship with the invisible God turn away from him, they usually look to visible, tangible experiences to fill up the void left by God. This creates a vacuum of insatiable desires--what Paul calls here "the lusts of their hearts to impurity." "Impurity" here does not refer only to sexual immorality (NIV), but encompasses all inordinate lusts, including other sensual sins (e.g., ALCOHOL; DRUGS; GLUTTONY; SLOTH) and materialistic greed. Do these experiences satisfy and fulfill the human heart? No, they produce enslaving addictions (law of diminishing returns), broken health from those addictions, and increasing emptiness and loneliness, damage to families, etc.

When people who are created for healthy personal intimacy with God (and other people) turn away from him, they usually turn to sexual immorality. Read 1:26,27. I think Paul mentions homosexual sin here as the most obvious violation of God's design for sexuality.6 But this violation also includes heterosexual promiscuity, adultery, pornography, etc. Do these practices satisfy and fulfill the human heart? No, but those who practice them "receive in their own persons the due penalty of their error." This refers not only (or even primarily) to STD's, but the personal fragmentation, guilt, gnawing hunger from false intimacy, damage to families, etc.

When people turn away from the truth about God, this creates tremendous cognitive dissonance--tension between what we know and how we live. There are ultimately only two ways to resolve this dissonance--either bow to God and adjust your behavior, or twist your thinking more and more from reality (and sanity). This is what Paul calls a depraved mind (read 1:28). A depraved mind is a mind that is no longer used not to learn about God and his will so we can follow him, but to rationalize rebellion against God and his will. Damage from a depraved mind includes an increasingly seared conscience, increasing moral confusion, attraction to philosophies that justify autonomy, etc. And as this spreads into a life, a family, a culture, the horrors of 1:29-32 become more and more commonplace and acceptable (read). This is the tragic state of our own culture.

But the Bible doesn’t end with this dark picture. There is also good news from God . . . 

Good news from God

Why does God "give you over?" Not because he is disgusted with you--but in the hope that we will come to your senses and turn to him (summarize PRODIGAL SON).

God wants you to turn to him and say what this son said. And when you do that, you will discover that that's all he ever wanted you to do. He knows your dilemma better than you do, and he has already made provision for you through Jesus Christ. Read 1:16,17. The gospel has answers for every person, no matter how much truth you have suppressed, no matter how much you have broken yourself on God's law.

The moment you receive Jesus' provision by faith, God permanently forgives you and begins to heal your broken life. It's your move!


1 See National Geographic, Vol. 191, No. 4 (April, 1997), p. 11.

2 See National Geographic, Vol. 196, No. 4 (October, 1999), p. 20.

3 See National Geographic, Vol. 196, No. 4 (October, 1999), p. 25.

4 See Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura: Regal Books, 1981).

5 For an interesting anecdote that illustrates both of these points, see Watchman Nee, What Shall This Man Do? (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1971), p. 41.

6 For a balanced, biblical and compassionate treatment of this issue, see Thomas Schmidt, Straight and Narrow (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), and his tape "Homosexuality and Christian Morality."

Copyright 1999 Gary DeLashmutt