Who Needs the Gospel? Case Study #1
Scripture: Romans 1:18–1:32
We are going on a field trip this morning. We are all going to need to be very quiet. As soon as we are ready we are going to enter (by way of our imaginations) through a pair of heavy wooden doors into a courtroom. That is why we need to be quiet. Are you all ready? Then let’s go in. Quietly now, find yourself a place to sit near the back, where you can still see and hear what is going on.
What do we see? First of all, the judge is seated in his elevated chair at “the bench”. In the courtroom we have entered, the judge is God himself. The Judge of all the earth is presiding.
The second key figure in the courtroom is the prosecuting attorney. We soon discover that in this courtroom, the prosecuting attorney is Paul, the renowned apostle.
In our next three messages, we are going to sit in on three different cases. In each case, Paul, as the prosecuting attorney, is going to bring an individual, or actually a category of person before the court and argue the case against them.
In last week’s sermon, Paul introduced himself and his message. He called his message “the Gospel”, the good news. He summarized that message in a rather cryptic way in verse 17: 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.”
The title for my message today is Who Needs the Gospel? Actually, that’s my title for the next three messages. Today we are looking at Case Study #1. The next two weeks at Case Study #2 and #3. Who Needs the Gospel? Or let me ask the question a different way. Paul tells us in verse 17 that “in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith.” Who needs this righteousness? Who needs this righteousness from God that is by faith which is revealed in the Gospel? Let me start off by making a presuppositional argument. If you have your own righteousness, you don’t need this righteousness from God that is by faith. God is an absolutely fair and righteous judge. He will not condemn a righteous man. He will not condemn the innocent. So, if you are righteous, if you are innocent, you do not need to fear the judgment of God. If your own righteousness is adequate, you do not need the righteousness from God that is by faith. You do not need the Gospel.
Before we go further, we need to take a closer look at this word “righteousness”. The underlying idea is one of conformity to a norm or a standard. People are righteous when their personal and interpersonal behavior is consistent with an established moral and ethical standard. In Biblical terms, that standard is the Law of God. When measured by God’s Law, by God’s standard, does your lifestyle, your behavior, match up? Are you righteous, right according to the Law of God? If you are … then carry on as you are. You do not need the Gospel. However, if your own righteousness, as measured by God’s standard, is not adequate, then you need the Gospel.
So, the judge is in place and the prosecuting attorney rises and begins to argue his first case. Who is the first person Paul brings before the court? I am going to refer to him by a rather old-fashioned word. The word is pagan. I am using this word carefully according to a precise dictionary definition. Here is how Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines it. “1. A follower of a polytheistic religion. 2. One who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods; an irreligious or hedonistic person.”
That is the dictionary definition. Let me expand on the description of the pagan. First, he is a person who is out of contact with God’s written revelation. He may never have seen a Bible, either Old or New Testament. If he has seen one, he has probably never read it. If he has read it, he did so without any real interest or understanding. We might even expand this to say that this person has no “holy book”. No Torah, no New Testament. This has person has no word or book which says, “This is what God requires.”
Secondly, if the pagan has a religion (some do and some do not), then he is an idolater, worshipping images of his own making, or an animist, worshipping the spirits of ancestors or of trees, rocks and other things.
Thirdly, the pagan is a person who lives in open wickedness, pursuing his own pleasure. No one would describe this category of person as “good.” Listen to some of Paul’s words of description:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, (v. 18)
and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (v. 23)
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (v. 24)
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, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (v. 29-31).
So, do you get an idea of the kind of person who is now standing before God’s court? This description covered a large segment of the world when Paul was writing. It covers a large segment of the world today. The case against such a person looks very strong. But wait just a moment. If you are thinking carefully, you may have discerned a possible line of defense.
What is the pagan’s defense? Simply put, his defense is one of ignorance. “I didn’t know any better.” “No one told me.” If, by definition, this person has no written revelation from God, no “divine standard”, then how can he be held accountable for living a wicked life?
This is the defense the Paul moves quickly to remove. In fact, the defense is removed in the very first verse of the paragraph in verse 18. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
According to this verse, these people had “truth”. What truth did they have, and how did they know it? This is the argument Paul makes in verses 19-20.
Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 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,
The first source of knowledge about God available to the pagan is found in Creation – that which God has made. The question then arises: how much can be known and deduced about God from the created world alone? Now, I will be the first to admit that I am at a significant disadvantage in attempting to answer this question. I am at a disadvantage, because I have always had revealed truth about God. I was raised on the Bible from my earliest memory. I cannot filter out what I learned by looking at the creation and what I learned from God’s written revelation. But I didn’t write this. This is divine revelation, given by God through the Apostle Paul. And God’s assessment is that by looking at the creation, man has access to significant truth about God; truth about his power, truth about his divine nature, his “God-ness”. These things can be “clearly seen.” But here is the key. What did the “pagan man” do with this truth? That is what verse 18 tells us. He “suppressed the truth”. He held it down, pushed it away and ignored the truth about the one true Creator God.
Then the pagan did something else. He “exchanged” the truth. This is the thought Paul develops in verses 21-25:
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. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
This is important to Paul’s reasoning. Why do men worship idols? Common reasoning says that it is man’s effort to find God; to please him as best they know how. God says, “No!” Men turn to the worship of idols in an effort to suppress the truth and to turn away from the true God. The idol worshipper is exchanging the truth about God revealed in Creation and replacing it with a lie. Now, how can I say that? How can I look at a man bowing down in worship to his idols and judge him? Well, the simple answer is, “I can’t.” He may look perfectly sincere to me. But I didn’t write this passage. This is God’s assessment, not mine. And God knows what is in a man’s heart. God says that men and women do not worship idols out of ignorance, but because they have suppressed the knowledge of God which was available to them.
Furthermore, Paul makes a very important connection between this deliberate turning from the knowledge of God and the wicked lifestyle of the pagan. There is a particular phrase that is repeated three times in this text. The NIV translates it “God gave them over…” It is used in verse 24, in verse 26 and again in verse 28. The phrase is actually a technical legal term meaning “to turn over to the authorities for judgment and punishment.” We use similar language today, when we talk about “turning someone in” or “turning someone over to the police.”
But notice what it is that God “gives them over to”. In each case, God gives them over to their sin. In verse 24, we read, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. Do you see that? He gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts!
Look at verse 26: Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.
Now look at verse 28: 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. Paul then goes on to give that “laundry list” of sinful behavior that we read earlier.
In each reference, God is actually giving them over to their sin. Get this! It is critical to Paul’s argument. The sin itself becomes a means of God’s judgment. The sinner may think he or she is getting away with something. “Look! No one is stopping me!” They do not realize that sin carries in it its own punishment and its own destruction.
My brother, Jon, loved ice cream. My mother used to make ice cream and we had it for dessert regularly. But my mother always dished it up; two scoops each; never more. For Jon, that was never enough. Then one time while we were in the U.S. Jon was staying for a week or so with an elderly relative. He discovered, in her freezer, a full gallon container of ice cream. No one was looking. He got a spoon and started to eat right out of the container. It was good! He ate and he ate. Because there was no one to stop him, he just kept eating. He ate until he couldn’t eat anymore. And then he became violently ill. No one had to punish him. His sin became its own punishment. It was many months before he could look at a dish of ice cream again without feeling sick.
When we see someone who is practicing an openly wicked lifestyle, we must realize; they did not get that way over night. They didn’t get there by accident. They didn’t get there through ignorance. It has been a process of deliberate suppression of the knowledge of God that is available to them; of continued rebellion against the knowledge of God. And their arrival at that point of open wickedness is already a sign of God’s wrath and judgment against them. One of the ways God punishes people is to simply take his hands off and let them experience the full effect of their sin. The epidemic of a whole variety of “addictions” in modern society is a testimony to the punishing nature of sinful behavior. It starts with an excessive indulgence of physical desire. It then becomes a perversion of natural human desire for that which is unnatural. And it then becomes a corruption of the mind itself; what Paul refers to as a depraved mind. Nothing is wrong anymore. Do what you want. There are no standards. Righteousness does not exist. Do wrong and applaud others who do it as well.
This process can be traced in the life of an individual. When I was in seminary in Portland, on several occasions I had the opportunity to preach in a Rescue Mission. Now, there are a number of reasons why someone might end up at a Rescue Mission, but for at least some of them, it was the destructive nature of their own sin.
I believe the same progression can also be traced corporately in the life of a family, of a community, of a culture and a nation. When people suppress the knowledge of God which is available to them and pursue a wicked lifestyle, God turns them over to their own excesses of evil. Families disintegrate. Cultures decay. Entire civilizations fall.
But the key note of this message is that it does not come from ignorance. Even at the end of that depressing and self-destructive sequence, they are still acting against the witness of God in their own hearts. Do you see that still in verse 32? 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. This is God’s assessment, not mine. This gives us a clue to a second source of knowledge which is available to the pagan. Not only does the pagan have the knowledge of God revealed in the created world. He also has an innate knowledge of God’s righteous decrees embedded in his conscience. Even at the end of this hideous downward spiral of sinful behavior, we are told that “they know God’s righteous decree” yet they continue to sin against it.
One of the principles of God’s judgment, of God’s courtroom, is that God will judge each man or woman, boy or girl in accordance with the knowledge each one had. Based on that assessment, where does the pagan stand? This is the summary of the matter in Paul’s own words in verse 20: 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.
That is the heart of the matter. “Men are without excuse.” God has not left himself without a witness, both in creation and in the conscience of each man. Everyone is responsible for what he/she does with that witness. Based on that witness, the pagan stands condemned; condemned, not by what he did not know. The pagan is not condemned for rejecting a gospel he never heard. No, he is condemned because of what he did know and because he suppressed that knowledge to pursue his own sinful and rebellious path. He is without excuse. He stands condemned in God’s courtroom.
Who needs the Gospel? The pagan does. He is in desperate need of the Gospel and the righteousness of God which is by faith.
What application shall we make of this message? My next line could be, “If you are a pagan…” But the reality is that pagans rarely come to church. If you are that rare person, and you believe that God will give you a free pass because you are ignorant of God’s standards, I trust this message has shown you the error of your reasoning. You are accountable to God for what you know. And simply by being in this service, you now know more than you did before. I would urge you to talk to me or to one of the members of our prayer team and ask them to share with you this “Good News” that Paul is talking about.
But as I said, such a person is the exception. Most people who fall in this category rarely darken the door of a church – or even know what a church is. That places the burden of responsibility squarely upon our shoulders. Who will tell them the Good News? If they will not come to us, then we must go to them. They desperately need the Gospel. Their ignorance is no excuse. They have enough knowledge about God to condemn them, but they do not have enough knowledge to save them. That is the task that God has entrusted to us as his followers.
I am going to conclude by jumping ahead in Romans. It will be many months before we get there, but it is something we need to consider now. It is found in Romans 10. Verse 13 tells us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That is the promise of the Gospel. That is the Good News. And it is available to the people we have been describing in the second half of Romans 1. But notice the verses to follow:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Who will tell them? We can. We must! May we echo the words of Paul from last week’s message:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…that is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.
Remember, Rome was a city filled with “pagans”. May God give us that same eagerness to make the Gospel known! May God give us beautiful feet!
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- This is the first in a series of three messages entitled “Who Needs the Gospel?” In describing the person standing before God’s court in the first Case Study, Pastor Cam used the word “pagan” and gave the following dictionary definition: “1. A follower of a polytheistic religion. 2. One who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods; an irreligious or hedonistic person.” How does this definition match up with the description Paul gives in Romans 1:18-32.
- What possible defense might this person use when standing before God’s court?
- Will the defense of “ignorance” stand up in God’s court? Why or why not? What does Paul have to say on the subject?
- What sources of knowledge about God are available to the “pagan”? What can he discover about God from these sources?
- Three times in this passage Paul uses the phrase “God turned them over…” Where are these references found? What did “God turn them over” to? What do we learn from this?
- “In God’s courtroom, each individual will be judged based on what he did with the knowledge he had.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Do you think this is a fair standard? What does this mean for the person in the remotest part of the jungle? What does this mean for us?
- Is there anything you have heard in this message or discovered in this passage that is new to you or which surprised you? What questions does the passage leave unanswered?