What's wrong with the world? That's a question that many people are asking, and there's no shortage of answers being given: the economic system, the education system, government, welfare, corporate privilege, declining morality, fundamentalist religion, and on and on. Every group has their idea of what's wrong with the world.
But think about those answers for a bit. It's not hard to see that they're not as comprehensive as they pretend to be. So let's really ask the question, "What's wrong with the world?" Not just America, but the whole world, from America to Algeria, from Ecuador to Eritrea, from Macau to Micronesia, every tribe, tongue, and nation. From the troubled suburban teens, to the aborigines of the outback, from the high-powered executive, to the witch doctors of the jungle, from the patient dying in the cancer ward, to the child being born, what's wrong with the world?
Don't even limit yourself to the past year. Can you ask this question in a way that includes all of human history, from the beginning of time, and all the way to the end of human history as we know it? When you ask "What's wrong with the world?" make sure you don't leave out the person you're most prone to leave out—yourself.
Read Romans 1:18-32
The world is in trouble
We see the trouble beginning in verse 18. The fundamental problem that all mankind faces is the wrath of God against the sinful man. All our sin, from the greatest to the smallest, is in direct opposition to the holiness and righteousness of God. His righteous response to our sin is a holy wrath. This isn't a passive, impersonal, mechanical response. No, this is the active, righteous, personal fury of a holy God against sin. This is the wrath that the unbelieving world is under.
Right away, we see the difference in the way Christianity and this world talk about evil. People have no problems recognizing the evil of crime, greed, or abuse. It's easy to see the way that those evils hurt and offend people. But that's not the ultimate problem. According to Romans, the ultimate problem of the world is not the way our sin hurts people, but it's the way our sin offends God. Why is this world in trouble? Why is God's wrath being revealed? We see three reasons in this passage.
The world suppresses the truth
In order for sin to work, there has to be a "suppression of the truth." The reason people sin is not because they don't know better. People sin because they have chosen to ignore, to suppress what creation is clearly revealing about God. We live in the universe that God has created, and throughout the universe, from the delicate flower, to the boiling hot sun, God has communicated to us his invisible qualities. There is not a blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice in our knowledge of God.
It's as if we've awakened in a magnificent art gallery, and though we've never met the Artist, in these ten thousand paintings, given for our enjoyment, we learn what he is like. I was walking home from work and walked past the Farmer's Market that meets on Thursdays. It was a gorgeous afternoon, clear sky, warm sun, cool breeze, music in the air, fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, children playing, laughter, and conversation. I was struck by this particular scene, by this "painting" as it were. Where did this richness, this beauty, and life come from? What kind of Artist is this? What kind of power must he possess? How good and generous must he be? How must we owe all that we are to him? That's just one small painting, but this art gallery extends for mile after mile, around this world, to the edges of the galaxies and beyond. All of it communicates to us the greatness of God.
As sophisticated as our questions and doubts are, the reason we have such a hard time seeing God in creation is not because of a shortage of evidence. The problem is with people, because of their fallen sinfulness. It's not as if people are sort of these morally neutral, objective seekers, who are trying to find God. No, people love their sin. It's wired into their very being. Because they love their sin, they can justify that love by denying, suppressing the reality of God.
Friends, why is God full of wrath towards sinners? Because every sin exists in the face of overwhelming evidence of his eternal power and divine nature, and every sin is a denial of who God is.
The idolatry problem
We see this in verses 21-23, the result of the suppression of the truth is this terrible decline into futility and darkness. Apart from a right understanding of God, there can be no right thinking, no right feeling, no right being. It all culminates in this horrible exchange of the glory of God, for man-made images—idolatry.
We hear this word idolatry, and we think of primitive people bowing to carved idols, and as Westerners, we have a hard time identifying with that. At its root, idolatry is this exchange of the truth of God for a lie, worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator. So it doesn't have to involve carved statues.
It's when we search for fulfillment and purpose, in created things, rather than our Creator. When we devote our time, and our attention, and our ambitions towards worldly things, rather than God, that's idolatry. In other words, it is this tragic exchange of the glory of the immortal God, for the dust of this world. It is idolatry that characterizes this world. All of us were made to worship something, but having turned away from the one true God, we look for gods elsewhere.
So what are the idols of our culture, the idols of your life, and my life? Paul lists some idols in verse 23, but really what he's communicating is the wide range of idolatry—from mortal man, all the way down to reptiles. Our idolatry is pretty undiscerning; we can turn any created thing into an idol. From really good things: work, relationships, even service at church, to really low, debased things like pornography, drugs, and violence. As John Calvin said, "The human heart is a factory of idols … everyone of us is from his mother's womb, expert in inventing idols."
In every single one of those idols, people have given created things the place that only God deserves in their lives. With their lives, with their affections, with their choices, people are declaring that they love created things more than their Creator. This is idolatry, and this is why the world is under God's wrath.
The world loves sin
That's what we see in verses 26 to the end of the chapter. How will God punish this suppression of truth and idolatry? He will do a terrifying thing. Not fire from heaven. Not a devastating flood. No, he will give sinners what they want. He will give them over to their sin. When Paul talks about God's wrath being revealed, he's not referring to a future judgment that's coming. He's talking about the present. The world is experiencing the wrath of God for their sins. This wrath is a terrifying thing. God is giving sinners over to the destructive sins that they want and love.
This language of God giving people over is what we see in the Old Testament. Whenever Israel would worship the idols of surrounding nations, God's judgment meant that he would give them what they wanted. He would allow them to be enslaved and oppressed by the foreign gods and powers that they so loved. That's what's going on here, God is handing humanity over to the captivity they have chosen for themselves.
In giving people over to sin, God isn't imposing some kind of external evil onto us. Rather, this is the removal of God's gracious restraint over humanity, in order to reveal what actually exists within our hearts. What we find in there is a hatred for God, a love of sin, resulting in all kinds of destruction and further incurring the wrath of God.
Some of the most controversial statements here, are Paul's words about homosexuality in verses 26-27. This is a difficult topic in our culture today, and with just a few minutes to address this, there's much potential for misunderstanding. We need to understand some of what Paul is saying here, so let me make three points.
First, homosexuality is against God's natural design. Some people have interpreted the condemnation here as being against those who would practice homosexuality against their natural heterosexual orientation. In the wider context of creation, when Paul talks about natural and unnatural, he's not referring to someone's subjective sense of their sexuality, but he's referring to God's purpose for us and his created order. So when someone says, "But God made me this way!" that's not entirely correct. Yes, there is a sense in which this orientation might reside deep in your being, but that's a result of the corruption of our bodies because of sin. God made people in his image, male and female, and this is his good design. Homosexuality is against God's natural design.
Second, idolatry is the root problem of our lives, not homosexuality or any other sin. The deepest problem of our lives, whether we're heterosexual or homosexual, is that we have exchanged God for idols. Our failure to worship God is our deepest disorder, beneath all the brokenness of this world. Therefore, what we need first and foremost is not to repair our disordered sexuality, but to return to a right worship of God.
Third, and this is tremendously weighty, Paul highlights homosexuality because of the way it uniquely displays our idolatry. Throughout Scripture, man and woman in covenant sexual union is meant to be a picture of that covenant relationship between man and God. Embedded in creation, in this joyful and fundamental aspect to who we are, in marriage between man and woman, we have two who are different brought together in perfect unity. That's a glimpse of the kind of relationship humanity was meant to have with God. God is the one who is wholly other, wholly different from us, and yet this very God invites us into covenant relationship with him.
In our idolatry, we have turned away from God to ourselves. God will hand us over to what we have chosen. Rather than our sexuality being a picture of our relationship with God, it will be a picture of our idolatry, as male and female turn to images of themselves for sexual union, namely their own sex. What we see in the sexual revolution of our day and of all of human history, is the judgment of God, showing us how we have exchanged the glory of God for images of ourselves. God's wrath is being revealed against human sinfulness, and that means that our sexuality and our very being is now disordered, a picture of what humanity has earned by their idolatry.
Well, from the catalog of sin there in verses 29 to 31, it's clear that God's handing people over to sin is not limited to our sexual disordering, but it pervades every area of our lives, from relationships, to our words, to our hearts, to our actions. This is not meant to be a description of any one person. This is what characterizes fallen human society. So no one can escape this. Looking at this list you might be think, This is not me! I'm not a murderer, I'm not ruthless. Well, yes but have you ever lied? Have you ever gossiped? Have you ever disobeyed your parents? These are real evils and they incur the wrath of God.
What's striking is the way Paul lists all these sins right next to each other. Murderers are right there with the slanderers. God-haters are right there with the parent-haters. The inventors of evil are right there with the envious. People want to create categories of sins, sort of like the way the Catholic Church has Mortal and Venial sins. We all like to think that if we, stay away from the Mortal sins, murder, kidnapping, genocide, and we will be okay. We acknowledge venial sins are bad, but they're small sins and God will put up with them. That's not what we see here. From big sins to small sins, verse 32 tells us "Those who do such things deserve death."
How terrible will God's wrath be against this world? It will be a world utterly given over to the suppression of the truth, to idolatry, and to the wickedness it deserves. If you're not a Christian, does this sound like a description of the world you live in? Even more important, does this sound like a description of your life? If your answer is, no, is it because God has misunderstood you, or is it because you have misunderstood God? Could it be that you have been living under this terrible conspiracy, this suppression of the truth?
What I want all of us to take away from this text is not a to-do list, or an action plan. At least not yet. What we need to take away from this is, perhaps for the first time, the awful realization that we belong to a world that has horribly gone wrong, that has defiantly turned its back on the Creator in all manner of evil, and is now under the just and righteous condemnation of God. The world is in serious trouble. But that's not all. So are we.
Read Romans 2:1-29
We are also in trouble
In chapter one, Paul gives us a picture of the unbelieving world, which would've been the Gentile world of his day. You can imagine the murmurs of approval and agreement coming from his Jewish listeners. It's almost as if he's riling them up with that long list of sins at the end of the chapter … only then to turn on them. In whatever way these Jews were passing condemnation on others, they were actually condemning themselves.
This is how we have to hear the text also. Romans 2 is for any of us that for whatever reason, believe Romans 1 did not apply to us. Whether because of your good morality, or your upbringing, or your church attendance, or any other thing that you believe makes you the exception. If you did not feel the reality of your guilt before God, and the wrath of God that your sin exposes you to, then this is addressed to you.
God will not show favoritism
We see this in verses 5-11, when Judgment Day comes, there will be no partiality. Why is it that we think God plays favorites? Why is it that we think that he will show favor to us? God is a righteous judge. His judgment will be according to the truth. All the strictness and precision of justice that he will exact over the life of a Hitler, will be the same strictness and precision that he will exact over your life and my life.
Yes, he is a God that is rich in kindness, tolerance, and patience. The fact that you're alive and breathing today is evidence of that. But when Judgment Day comes, and it comes time to stand before the bar of heaven, there will be no favors given. There will be no bribes accepted. On that day, God's standard of justice will be crystal-clear, and those who do not meet it, will be sent away into trouble and distress.
How do we know if we think this way? According to verses 1-3 we have some guidelines. Do you find yourself being judgmental towards others? This is why judging is wrong. It's not because morality is relative and there is no such thing as good or evil. No, good and evil are very much objective realities. It is right to recognize evil around you. The sin of judgmentalism is when we pass condemnation onto others, thinking that we ourselves are not under that same condemnation.
We all have done this. We have all given ourselves a break for our own sin that we are not willing to give to others for their sin. If you find yourself being judgmental towards others, the solution is not to try and make sin relative. The solution is to stop belittling God's justice. Begin seeing your own sin for what it is. Take the plank out of your own eye. Then in fear and trembling, humbly offer yourself in love to help others deal with their sin as a fellow sinner.
God will judge according to our obedience
We are in trouble because God will judge according to our obedience. This is what we see beginning in verse five. What will be the standard of God's judgment? "God will give to each person according to what he has done."
Those who persist in doing good will be rewarded with eternal life. What is this good that we're to do? Starting in verse 12, we see that it is obedience to God's Law, obedience to that moral standard that is a reflection of God's holy character. As those created in God's image, we were made to reflect the character of God by our lives, by the way we live, talk, love, and work. The way we do that is by living according to the revelation of the Law that God has given us, first in our hearts and consciences, but also in the Scriptures. In other words, how we live matters. On Judgment Day, God will judge us according to how we live, whether in obedience or disobedience, because that will reveal the kind of people that we truly are.
As much as the Jewish people agreed with this for the unbelieving world out there, they failed to apply it to themselves. Rather than seeing the Law as something to obey and to order their lives by, they saw it as a token of God's favor, a charm of protection and superiority. They placed their confidence in having the Law, even while they disobeyed it.
Friends, it's easy for us to shake our heads at this, but is this not what sinful nature does? As evangelicals who put a high priority on the Word of God, we especially need to hear this. We hear preaching week after week, we hear Bible teaching on the radio and on our podcasts, we read the Bible in our devotions, we memorize Scripture, we sing and listen to songs with Bible in them, we study the Bible in small groups, in discipling relationships, all of these things are good. But, ultimately the only thing that will matter on Judgment Day is whether you have obeyed what God has commanded so clearly, in his Word. Are you turning away from sin? Are you living in obedience to God's Word?
We might waver in answering those questions, but there will be no wavering when it comes time for God to answer that question. It will be crystal-clear to him on the last day, those whose obedience brought honor to him, and those whose disobedience blasphemed his name.
Outward religion is not enough
We are in trouble because our outward religion is not enough. That's what we see there in the discussion about circumcision at the end of the chapter. One of the easiest, and deadliest, substitutes for true obedience to God's Law is an outward conformity to a religious standard. It's easy because it doesn't require us to deal with our sin. If all I have to do to be saved is to get circumcised, or to say a prayer, or walk an aisle, or join a church, no problem. Sign me up. Then let me go on my merry way and live however I want. It's deadly because outward religion cannot make us right with God. God will not judge us according to any outward conformity or physical act, but he will judge us according to our obedience to his Word. I wonder what outward religious acts are we depending on?
If you somehow felt the first chapter of Romans did not apply to you, what you need to realize is that all the condemnation that you would gladly heap on the world out there, every bit of it applies to you also for your sins. Your imaginary favor before God will not save you. Your knowing about God's Word will not save you. Your outward religion will not save you. No all those props have been knocked out from under your feet, and you are left on the same ground as the rest of humanity.
The whole world is under the wrath of God. And so are we.
This is where the gospel begins, by exposing our desperate need before God. If you don't begin here, you don't have the gospel. All of humanity, Jew and Gentile, moral and immoral, religious or irreligious, stands utterly condemned before God because of our sin. Every human division, race, culture, language, wealth, education, class, is obliterated by this one massive commonality: we are sinners, all of us, and we need to be saved by God.
The gospel is for sinners. Therefore, the church is for sinners. What we have in the church is not a gathering of those who have their lives together. What we have is the one place on earth specifically designed for sinners of every kind, of every background, of every record. This is the one place where sinners can be brutally honest about their sinfulness and be safe, because that's whom the gospel is for.
I pray that the church would become a place where sinners come, and as they hear testimonies, as they hear conversations, as they see pastors and members humbly confessing their weaknesses, and messy people owning their failures, that sinners coming in would ask, "People can do that? We're allowed to confess that here?" They would find out that it really is okay, that such openness and honesty about our brokenness really is allowed, because we have the gospel. I pray that there would be a culture of grace, where sinners would confess their sin and talk about their sin and repent into the safety of the gospel.
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.