Part 2: Us
Last week we began a new series called "What is the Gospel," and as you can guess from the title, the goal of this series is to answer the question: what is the gospel? What is the message of the gospel?
And last week we began by talking about four reasons why we are doing this series. First, we’re doing this series because we never want to be a church that assumes the gospel. We never want people to be able to spend time with us here and miss out on hearing the gospel. So as a church we should be regularly proclaiming the gospel and explaining what the gospel is.
The second reason for this series is that Christians need the gospel. The gospel is not just a message that saves us when we first become a child of God. It continues to have power that transforms us as we grow and mature in our faith. And so we never stop needing to be reminded of the gospel and to keep on going deeper in our understanding of the gospel.
The third reason for us to refocus on the gospel is so that we can grow in our discernment. There are and always have been imitation gospels floating around: messages that sounds like the good news but are really just counterfeits. And so we need to know the true gospel well enough so that a fake gospel, or an almost-gospel, or a gospel plus this or that, will never be able to dupe us.
And fourth, we need to clearly understand the gospel so that we can communicate it to others. The more that the gospel becomes crystal clear in our own thinking, the better we'll be at sharing it with all kinds of different people in all kinds of different settings.
And you’ll remember- that’s a goal in this series: any of us, by the end of the series, should be able to explain what the gospel is to someone else in a way that makes sense in 2 minutes or less. And that’s not a lofty goal- we all should be able to do that.
So those are the four reasons that we’re doing this series.
Last week we also introduced the very important concept of the four building blocks that make up the message of the gospel:
- Us and our problem
- God's solution to that problem
- What our response needs to be
And these four building blocks are like empty boxes. We need to put the right things in them, or else people tend to fill them in with their own ideas and understanding which may lead them to totally misunderstand the gospel.
So one of the best ways for the gospel to become crystal clear in our thinking is to understand these four boxes, and really understand what's in each box, and how the boxes build on each other. And that’s what we’re doing in this series.
So last week we looked at building block or box #1: that God is the creator, the king, that He is greater than us, and that He deserves all of our honour and thanksgiving and worship.
When we look at the Bible we see that this is where the gospel begins, because this is where everything begins. The Bible begins with “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
And as we trace the story throughout the Bible we see that God created everything for His own glory. God made everything, and God made us, in order that we might see everything He did and give Him glory for it. You might be familiar with Psalm 19, which says that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” And it’s not like that’s their side job. God made the heavens, and everything else, for the specific job of declaring His glory.
Or you should remember Romans 11:36 from a couple of weeks back. “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.”
God made all things, including us, for His glory. That’s the point of everything. So it shouldn’t surprise us that this is where the message of the gospel begins, by establishing God’s identity as our great Creator who made all things for His glory. He is the centre of the universe, not us. He made us, and He rules over us. He doesn’t need us, and He deserves our honour and thanks and worship.
And so once we have this foundation in place, we can move on to understand the second building block of the gospel, which is us. Who are we, and what is our problem?
We do have a problem. Everybody knows that. The fact that we have a problem is right there in the word “gospel,” which means “good news.” So if we have good news, it makes sense that there would be some sort of a problem to which the good news responds.
And here is why we see that it’s so important to lay the right foundation and put the first building block in place properly. Because once we understand that God has created all things- including us- for His glory, we can then make sense of what the Bible says about our problem, which is that all of us have refused to give God the glory he deserves. Every single one of us has rejected God and chosen to worship other things- especially ourselves- instead of Him. And because of this, we are in big trouble with our creator.
Let’s turn now to Romans 1 and see how this truth comes out in the text. Reading verses 18-21: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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. 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.”
We referenced this passage last week and saw how it stands at the beginning of the longest and most thorough explanation of the gospel in the Bible, which is the book of Romans. And right here at the beginning we see the very same truths about God as we saw in Acts 17: that He is the Creator and that He deserves our worship.
But these verses tell us more than that. They tell us that this truth about God is not hidden or hard to understand. People don’t have to think really hard to figure out that there is a great Creator behind all of this.
Verse 19 tells us that what can be known about God is plain to us, because God has shown is to us. And verse 20 tells us that tHis eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, or seen, in the created things ever since the creation of the world.
Everybody knows that an incredibly great Creator has made this world that we see. And everybody sees His attributes on display as they look around them. What can be known about God is plain to them.
God designed this world to put His glory on display, and the world has done it’s job. Nobody has an excuse, like verse 20 says.
So when we tell people about the first building block to the gospel- that God is the great Creator- we are never telling anybody anything really new. Deep down inside, everybody gets this already.
Isn’t that how we heard Paul talking to the Athenians in Acts 17? He says things to them like “we ought not to think.” Like, “you guys should know this. It’s plain to you.”
The Essence of Sin
But the problem, is that even though we clearly see the truth, we don’t respond to it the way we know we should. But we do what verse 18 says, when it talks about men “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
We all see the truth and know the truth, but we suppress the truth. That word “suppress” might not be a word you use a lot, but you know what it’s like to suppress something. Like suppressing a laugh. You know, something is really funny but you don’t want to let it out so you work really hard to hold it in.
Or maybe you’ve tried to suppress a bottle or can of pop that’s been shaken, and it’s foaming everywhere, so you put your hand on it or you try to put the lid back on to keep it from getting everywhere. That’s what it looks like to try to suppress something.
Verse 18 tells us that every person surpasses the truth. The truth is there. The truth about God and who He is is plain to them. But they suppress it. They try to keep a lid on it. They hold it down.
So the question is: why would anybody want to do this? Why would people want to suppress the truth about God? And verse 18 tell us, when it says that we suppress the truth in “unrighteousness.” Or, a simpler word, sin. We suppress the truth in our sin. In our sin, we all try to put a lid on the truth about God.
Many Christians think that people choose to sin because they don’t know who God is. But what Romans 1 tells us is that people choose to not know God because of their sin. Sin comes first. And that sin causes them to suppress the truth about God.
This is a theme we see all over Scripture. Our thinking, our response to the truth, follows our desires. We believe with our heads what our sinful hearts want to believe. That’s what Romans 1:18-20 is telling us. The truth about God is plain to us. But we suppress it in our sin.
And the reason we do this is because we don’t want to worship God. Look at verse 21: "For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him.” We know that God deserves our worship. We know He deserves our honour and our thanks. But we refuse to do this.
Now when we stop worshipping God, it’s not like we stop worshipping altogether. God created us to worship. And what we see in verse 23 is that when we refuse to worship God, our hearts keep on worshipping. They just start worshipping other things.
Verse 23 says that people exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” And verse 25 says, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
This is the essence of our sin against God. We exchange His truth for a lie, and we worship the things that God has made instead of the God who made them.
Everybody worships. Everybody. You have never talked to someone who isn’t a worshipper. People in 1st Century Athens worshipped literal images of men and animals. Today, we worship images of people too, we just call them celebrities.
And we worship other things too, like money and possessions and pleasure and relationships and entertainment and hobbies and our jobs and power and control and most importantly, ourselves. Our own interests and desires and passions. We worship ourselves instead of the God who made is.
This was the original sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. They didn’t want to honour and depend on God. They wanted to be God. They exchanged the truth about God for the lie of the serpent and worshipped and served themselves more than God.
And we’ve all been doing it ever since.
This is the heart of what sin is. John Stott said that the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God.
And it’s this essence of sin that causes us to break God’s laws. We disobey God and break His commands because we’ve already refused to honour Him as God, so of course we’re not going to actually listen to what he says.
But at the heart of sin, at the heart of the human condition, is this deadly act of substituting ourselves for God.
The Severity of Sin
And this is why our sin is such a big deal. Because, like we’ve seen, God created us for Himself, for His glory. The whole reason that everything exists, the whole reason that we exist, is to honour and glorify God.
So our sin of of refusing to do that isn’t like breaking some little bylaw. It is a direct act of treason against the whole purpose that the universe exists and that we exist.
Our sin is us telling God that he’s wrong about everything. Our sin is us telling God that He’s not worthy of worship, that He doesn’t deserve our thanks, that He’s not so great after all.
And when we understand sin in this way, then we understand why God doesn’t just sweep it under the rug of the universe. Why he won’t just pretend it away.
Because if God ignored our sin or pretended it away, he would be agreeing with us. He would be agreeing with us that He isn’t really worthy of worship. He would be agreeing with us that He doesn’t really deserve our honour and our thanks. He would be saying, “You’re right.” And He would be joining us in our sin of dishonouring Him.
And that’s something He’ll never do.
Instead, what Scripture reveals is that when we sin against God, God responds to our sin with judgement. And this judgement proves to us and to all who are watching that God is as great and as worthy of worship as He said that He is.
And that is what verse 18 tells us, right at the beginning of the passage: that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against our ungodliness and unrighteousness.
This is the bad news that we need to understand before the good news of the gospel makes sense. God will not let us get away with dishonouring Him. Instead, He will uphold His glory by punishing sinners to the full measure of their sin.
And that means all of us. We all stand under God’s wrath and judgement.
Now I understand that nobody likes hearing that the person who made the world is angry with them and is going to punish them.
But neither does anybody like hearing that they have a dangerous health condition that needs immediate medical attention. But if someone does have such a condition, a good doctor doesn’t hide that truth from them because they don’t want to hear it.
Some truths we need to hear even if we don’t want to. And we will never come to terms with the gospel until we understand that apart from the good news of the gospel, this is our situation. We have earned, and we will receive the wrath of the Creator that we have rebelled against.
Now Romans chapter 2 talks about the day of judgement, coming at the end of history as we know it, when God’s wrath and fury will be fully revealed against all unrepentant sinners.
But Romans 1:18 in our passage today tells us that God’s wrath is revealed, present-tense- that it is being revealed from heaven over the course of human history.
And this present-tense experience of God’s wrath comes in a way that we might not expect. It’s explained for us in verse 24: "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.”
And verse 26: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions.”
And verse 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.”
These verses tell us that one of the primary ways that God judges humans is by giving them over to sinful desires. We want the wrong things and God doesn’t stop us from diving into them. That’s how His wrath is revealed against us. He doesn’t stop us from destroying ourselves.
And starting in verse 29 we see the result of God giving people up to their own sinful desires:
"They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 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.”
I have seen this passage bear itself out on small scale within individual lives. I have seen God judge people by giving them over to the very thing they want most and letting them become enslaved to it.
But I think we are also seeing this passage bearing itself out on a big scale today across our western culture. As we watch our society descending further and further into chaos and moral anarchy, we are tempted to ask, “Where is God in this?” And what Romans 1 tells us is what we are seeing is the wrath of God against our sin. God is giving us over to the things we want most, and those things are enslaving and destroying us.
This is us. This is our problem. This is the really bad news that we need to understand before the good news of the gospel will make sense to us.
For Us This Week
So how do you end a sermon like this? We’re going to spend all of next week focusing on the really good news that comes to us as a result of this bad news, but today I think it’s good for us, all of us, to really come to terms with the situation that we would be in without that good news.
All of us in this room who know Jesus should recognize right now that unless the mercy of God intervened in our lives to save us, we are no better than anybody else.
None of us have worshipped and served our Creator in the way that He deserves. None of us have loved the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. None of us have given God the glory that He deserves from us. We’ve all worshipped and served so many other things more than Him.
And maybe you’ve known Jesus for so long that you’ve forgotten that Jesus has saved you from God’s wrath. If Jesus had not shown mercy and took your place on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago, you would have nothing to look forward to but God’s wrath. This morning it’s good for us to remember that each of us is the sheep that wandered away from the fold, and if our Good Shepherd had not left the 99 and come out to seek and find us, we’d still be lost.
We have no hope apart from the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
And it’s so important for us to come back to this place and remember just how much God has forgiven us, because Jesus told us that those who have been forgiven much, love much.
If you want to love God more, think deeply about how much you’ve been forgiven.
Jesus also told us that our awareness of how much God has forgiven us should cause us to forgive and love others. We will have more mercy for those in our life who need it when we remember how much mercy God has shown us. We will have more forgiveness for those in our life who need it when we remember that God has forgiven us so much.
So it’s not bad for us to linger in this place, remembering the mercy of God towards us and how much he’s forgiven us.
We’re going to end here by singing “Rock of Ages,” a hymn that helps us talk to God about the greatness of our sin and how we have nothing apart from His mercy.
Let’s ask God to use this truth to stir up our love for Him, and that this love would spill over and cause us to be more merciful, more kind, and more loving with those we know as we leave this building and walk out into the weeks that God has prepared for us.