By David Feddes
Once upon a time there was a land where people saw God’s hand in almost everything. They looked at animals and mountains, at stars and rainbows, at sunshine and cornfields, and saw the hand of God. They looked at great events of history and saw the hand of God. They looked at their own lives and saw the hand of God. Most people prayed in their homes. They worshiped in church every Sunday. They sent their children to schools that started each day with prayer and told about God and taught the difference between right and wrong.
But then things began to change. At first, people didn’t deny God openly. They just started to ignore him. Instead of looking at creation and marveling at God’s power and wisdom, they talked about “the laws of nature.” Instead of thanking God for the good things they enjoyed, they spoke of how they had earned it all through hard work. A deadly chain reaction followed.
A Deadly Chain Reaction
After a while, the old beliefs about God began to seem rather quaint. Why suppose there was a Creator at all? Couldn’t everything have come into being just by chance? Soon some of the smarter people came up with a whole new theory to explain everything without even mentioning God. Then somebody decided that schools must teach this new theory to all the children and not allow anyone to pray openly. Teachers weren’t allowed to talk about God or to teach right and wrong based on faith in God. Meanwhile, as schools banned all mention of God, churches started producing up-to-date gods and goddesses that would make people more comfortable than they were with the old God who insisted on holiness.
As the old faith faded, there was a sexual revolution. The new commandment was “If it feels good, do it!” It began to seem unfair to insist that sex is for married people. It seemed cruel to deprive single people of such a fun activity. For that matter, why limit married people to the same person their whole life? Divorce became common, as more and more people decided they would be happier with a new mate.
After that sexual revolution came a second sexual revolution. The whole notion of male and female seemed outdated. Women became sexually involved with other women, men with other men. Some had hundreds of different partners. They even had parades and special events to celebrate all this. Such behavior had once been considered unnatural and wrong, but now anyone who spoke against such behavior was considered unnatural and wrong.
Some nasty diseases spread rapidly as a result of the new attitude toward sex, but few people wanted to change their behavior. They just wanted a cure for the diseases.
Somewhere along the line, people decided they didn’t want to recognize any moral absolutes at all. More and more things that were once thought wicked and unmentionable became mainstream. Their favorite motto was, “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do!” People became more and more money-hungry, and in their greed they didn’t care whom they ripped off or stomped on to get ahead. It seemed everybody wanted what somebody else had. Violent crime and murder grew more and more common. Lawsuits jammed the courts; conflict became a way of life at every level of society. Lying became so common that nobody’s word carried any weight; anything important had to be written in a contract, and even contracts didn’t count for much. The whole atmosphere became malicious; gossip and slander were everywhere, in politics and in private life.
It seemed as though people had no conscience anymore. If anyone dared to challenge the “I can do as I please” attitude in the name of God, people just hated God all the more. They hated authority of every kind. Young people became more and more defiant and rebellious toward their parents. Those who bragged the loudest and invented the most outlandish behavior were often admired for having real “attitude.” Whether in a street gang or a business corporation, nastiness was the way to get respect.
In this deadly chain reaction, one thing led to another. Things went from bad to worse until people considered God a joke and applauded ungodliness. There was still a vague memory of God and of his warning that sin leads to death and hell, but most people just laughed at old beliefs about “fire and brimstone.” They not only did bad things but flaunted their behavior openly and made celebrities out of those who “lived on the wild side.”
God’s Wrath Revealed
Does any of this sound familiar? It might sound like a fair summary of what’s been going on in our society over that last several decades. But I didn’t get this sequence of events from reading newspapers or watching TV. I got it from the Bible. Everything I’ve mentioned is found in Romans 1, in the very order I’ve just described. The scariest thing about all this is that when the Bible describes this deadly chain reaction, it says that these are progressive symptoms of a society that is under God’s wrath. Here’s what the Bible says in Romans 1:18-32.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
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.
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.
Isn’t is chilling to hear such an exact description of where we find ourselves? First, people know God but suppress what they know and refuse to thank him or give him the honor he deserves. Then they come up with new theories about creation, leaving the Creator out of the picture. Then sexual looseness becomes common, followed by approval of gay and lesbian coupling. Finally, the entire social structure starts crumbling as everybody does what they please. The whole mess reeks of death and decay, but still the people act like this is normal.
What does it all mean? It means we’re in deep trouble. According to Romans 1, these are the progressive symptoms of a society under God’s wrath. In hearing about this revelation of wrath, we hear three times the same dreadful refrain: “God gave them over… God gave them over… God gave them over.” The Lord shows his anger by letting people think their own thoughts and go their own way. The Lord shows his anger by letting people go further and further away from his light, further and further into darkness and ruin.
We are a society under God’s wrath. Politicians and pundits, psychologists and sociologists, can offer explanations for the breakdown of the family and the disintegration of the social fabric, and those explanations may have a bit of truth here and there. But the core of the matter is this: we are a society under God’s wrath. All the symptoms are there, exactly as the Word of God describes them. No other explanation will do.
The Root Cause
A lot of people these days are concerned about crime and family problems and the various ways our society and our personal life seem to be disintegrating. And they’d like to do something about it. They’d like to build more prisons, or get rid of guns, or improve education, or emphasize sexual morality, or crusade against drugs and gangs, or teach our children about creation, or get prayer back in the schools. Some of these things might be okay, but they only deal with symptoms. They don’t address the root cause. According to Romans 1, all our problems are part of a deadly chain reaction set off by our most basic problem: we have rejected God and are under his wrath. The first step in obtaining God’s mercy is seeing our need of it. Before we can escape the mess we’re in, we must know how we got ourselves into it in the first place. We must face the facts without any excuses.
Creation shines with the power and divine splendor of God. But sinful people don’t want to acknowledge him, so they suppress and distort the signals that creation sends them about God. And what’s the result? Romans 1 says that this provokes God’s wrath, and God reveals his wrath by letting them go from bad to worse. He hands them over to themselves and lets them sink deeper and deeper into their own mess.
The whole mess begins with a refusal to acknowledge God and give him the praise and thanks he deserves. That’s the source of all the other problems. Romans 1:18 says that God’s wrath is revealed against godlessness and wickedness. The order in which those two words occurs is very important. Godlessness comes before wickedness. There are many types of wickedness, but they’re all symptoms of the same problem: godlessness–an attitude that God doesn’t exist or, if he exists, that he doesn’t really matter very much in our lives.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn looked at the shambles Russian society made of itself, he summarized the problem in four words: “Men have forgotten God.” That applies to other societies as well, including ours: “Men have forgotten God.” This means that every type of moralizing, every effort to make individuals more virtuous, or to make a society more decent, isn’t addressing the real problem at all. It’s like using a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, or taking two aspirin to get rid of cancer. We don’t just need a little something to deal with a particular symptom of wickedness. We need somehow to be saved from God’s wrath and turned from godlessness back to God. Nothing less will do.
Let’s take another look at the scenario in Romans 1, this time in reverse order. The final verses show the dregs of degradation, where people are so brazen that they openly approve and encourage evil. Isn’t this happening right now? Gossip isn’t condemned; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry of trash TV and tabloids. Sexual perversion isn’t condemned; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry of pornographic magazines and movies. Abortion isn’t condemned by those in power; they promote it and help pay for it. Mixed-up families and rebellious youth are no laughing matter, but we laugh anyway at stupid sitcoms that mock the family. Strife and murder are glorified in film after film. The fashion world even gets into the act, peddling to kids everywhere the style of clothes that gang members wear, and encouraging girls to dress like prostitutes. We know God’s decree of death against such wickedness, but we flout it anyway. It’s the kind of situation God describes in Jeremiah, where he says, “Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush” (Jeremiah 8:12).
But maybe you say, “Who, me? That’s not my attitude at all.” Maybe you’re concerned about this open contempt for decency and this loss of conscience. You’re troubled by the breakdown of families and the violence in society. You’d like to see more love and peace. Meanwhile, though, you’re still convinced there’s nothing wrong with sex between consenting adults. You think it’s okay “as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.” But Romans 1 says, and history shows, that this attitude toward sex is part of the same deadly chain reaction which produces the violence and heartless behavior you dislike so much. And anyway, how can you say it doesn’t hurt anybody when so many are dying of AIDS and other diseases? As Romans puts it, they receive in their own bodies the due penalty for their perversion.
But maybe you recognize this. You’re troubled by the promotion of gay lifestyles and the widespread promiscuity, divorce, and destruction of marriage. You wish more people would get back to traditional morality, but you’re noncommittal when it comes to faith in God. In fact, you believe an evolutionary theory about human origins that doesn’t say much of anything about God, or you believe that the universe itself is divine. But Romans 1 says, and history shows, that accepting and spreading such beliefs has a devastating impact on sexual morality. Once again, despite your intentions, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.
But maybe you don’t accept any of the evils we’ve been talking about. You’re concerned about crime and societal strife, you support traditional sexual morality, you believe in God, and you think everybody should be taught about creation. But when it comes to your day-to-day living, you don’t pay much attention to God. You don’t marvel at his majesty, and you don’t thank him for the good things he sends into your life. If that’s the case, then you’re an atheist in your behavior, even if you’re not an atheist in your mind. There’s no use believing in God if you don’t honor him as God and give him thanks.
And that brings us back to where we started. Romans 1 says that even though God makes himself known to us, we don’t glorify him or give him thanks. We don’t respond to God’s kindness and love by loving him in return. That’s where all the trouble starts. The heart of the problem turns out to be a problem of the heart. Once our hearts refuse to love and worship and thank God, our heads begin to suppress what we know about him, and our hands start doing things that show how far we are from God.
So let’s not fool ourselves. Let’s not say, “Who, me?” You and I are implicated in all this. Some of us who still have some sense of morality or some religious loyalties would like to think otherwise. But right after Romans 1 describes the deadly chain reaction that results from ignoring God and provoking his wrath, the very next statement is this: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).
We do the very things that we condemn in others. Even if we don’t commit their exact brand of sin, we’re still up to our neck in the whole situation. Whether you’re a person who flaunts the most heartless or antisocial behavior, or someone who considers yourself basically nice but with a preference for sexual freedom, or a person who wants things to improve and thinks quality schools without God can make it happen, or the respectable type of person who harps on virtue and morality all day long, you’re part of the mess described in Romans 1, and you’re under the wrath of God.
What’s the Solution?
A lot of concerned people are saying that we need a stronger emphasis on morality. Maybe so, but if that’s all we have, it will just make the situation worse. A stronger emphasis on morality will make some people even more rebellious against authority and make the rest of us hypocrites. Why? Because as we talk about morals, we commit the ultimate immorality of ignoring God in our everyday life and suppressing anything we know about God that we don’t happen to find convenient.
A stronger emphasis on moral absolutes is not our greatest need. Our greatest need is to see our degenerating situation as a revelation of God’s wrath, and to realize that the deadly chain reaction will continue unless we are rescued from God’s wrath, changed at the very heart of who we are, and restored to fellowship with the God we’ve tried so hard to ignore. There have been various attempts to say that people aren’t really so bad, that all they need is a little more instruction in morality. Even some churches have downplayed talk about sin and God’s wrath and Jesus’ blood as the only way to be saved, and have said that people just need better role models and more information and education. How naive! Can anyone take such thinking seriously? The Bible’s diagnosis of the situation is 100% accurate, and the Bible’s solution is the only one that’s going to work.
What’s the solution? Nothing less than the power of God himself, unleashed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Romans 1, just before the apostle Paul describes the deadly chain reaction of ignoring God, he writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith'” (Romans 1:16-17).
Paul was enthusiastic about the gospel, because he knew that Christ is our only hope. Writing to people who lived in Rome, the capital city of the world’s greatest superpower, Paul could have been intimidated by the trappings of culture and power, but Paul saw through all that to a society that was rotten at its very core. The situation in ancient Rome was much like ours today. Rome’s only hope was the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, and that is still our only hope today. If our future depends on our virtue or on our ability to turn our lives around, the situation is hopeless. But the gospel introduces us to God’s cleansing power in Jesus’ blood and God’s life-giving power in Jesus’ resurrection, and the gospel calls us to faith in Christ.
God’s mercy in Jesus Christ—that is the gospel. That is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. Just as the source of all our problems is alienation from God, so the solution to all our problems is restored fellowship with God.
I haven’t given a very flattering picture of where we are or where we’re headed in our flight from God. That’s not because I like making people feel rotten, but because it’s God’s truth, and the sooner we face it, the better. The Bible shows that apart from a great rebirth through the gospel of Christ, things go from bad to worse. Without regeneration, there’s only degeneration.
Let’s close with a humble, heartbroken prayer from the Bible, a prayer of sinners have provoked God’s wrath, who have been given over to ever-increasing sin and ruin, and who now long for his mercy and salvation.
Lord look down from heaven and see from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags… you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are all your people (Isaiah 63:15,17;64:4-9). Forgive us and save us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.