“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, 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 people 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 a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Rom 1:18-23)
This is the charge of the Gentiles’ sin. What Paul’s talking about here is basically that even though the Gentiles knew God, they didn’t glorify Him or give thanks to Him, but exchanged His glory for the image of idols.
Then, the Gentiles might have asked this question, “How can we possibly know who God is unless we hear about Him?” Paul’s answer is that they can realize God’s existence through what He has made—His creation. Paul says that in God’s creation, His invisible qualities such as His wonderful wisdom and mighty power are clearly seen, so that no one can deny it.
That’s one of the ways we can feel God’s existence and His greatness. Whenever I see amazing natural landscapes in front of my eyes, I’m really amazed and overwhelmed by their greatness and they make me think that these things couldn't have emerged on their own, but that there had to be a designer. When we see God’s masterpieces, His creation, we see how great He is and how wonderful His unimaginable power is.
In fact, we don’t have to go far to see God’s greatness. When we see the sun going up and down every day, the seasons changing exactly the same time every year, flowers blooming and leaves falling, we can feel how great our God is.
So, there’s a way through which we know God. It's called ‘revelation.’ And, there are two different kinds of revelation: ‘general revelation’ and ‘special revelation.’ General revelation refers to the knowledge of God which can be discovered through natural means such as creation and conscience and special revelation basically refers to the Scripture through which we can get special knowledge of God.
So, There are basically two kinds of general revelation—one is observance of nature, and the other one is our innate conscience. Paul talks about the first one in Romans chapter one and the second one in the next chapter.
“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” (Rm 2:14-15)
Here, Paul talks about Gentiles who haven’t heard of the special revelation such as the Scripture or God’s law. He says that even though they don’t know God’s law, if they do things by nature according to their consciences—what’s written on their hearts—they are a law for themselves.
So, conscience is also one of the important tools through which God reveals Himself. All people have the ability to know what is good and evil even though they have different points of view regarding values and what sin is. We know that killing someone is bad. We know adultery is bad. They're not things we learned. We know them naturally through our conscience.
So Paul said that knowledge of God has been made plain because we have plenty of ways to know of His existence through creation and our conscience. The problem is that even though the Gentiles knew about God through these general revelations, they didn’t glorify Him. Rather, they worshiped His creation, but not Him. That’s the charge of the Gentiles’ sin.
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.” (Rm 1:28)
This verse best explains what sin is in the Bible. It’s to refuse to retain the knowledge of God. It’s to deny God’s existence. I remember a movie in which a man does really horrible things that I can’t even explain. However, what he said made a deeper impression on me than what he actually did in the movie. I don’t remember the exact wording but he basically said, “If there’s no God, there’s nothing I can’t do.”
That’s what sinners do. Even though they know that God’s alive, they try to deny His existence and live as they please. They deny God because they want to be gods of their own lives. That’s exactly what sin does.
You might remember how Satan tempted Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He said, “When you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gn 3:5)
So from this we know that the basic motivation for Eve to eat from the tree was to become like God. I think that’s the definition of sin in the Bible. It’s to refuse to live under God, but to live as if we’re the lord of our lives, turning away from Him who created us.
Sin is to refuse to retain the knowledge of God in our hearts. It’s to push Him out of our hearts so that we can live without any restriction. However, what sinners don’t know is that if they live free from God, they become slaves of sin.
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they 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 have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 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.” (Rm 1:28-32)
This is a list of sins. However, all the sins come from just one root—that is to refuse to place God in our hearts.
There’s one more thing we should talk about. If you read the second half of Romans chapter 1, you might notice that one phrase keeps repeating, which is “God gave them over…”
Rom 1:24 says, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts”
Rom 1:26 says, “God gave them over to shameful lusts”
Rom 1:28 says, “God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.”
That’s God’s first judgment. It’s to just give them over to sinful desires. Imagine that you continue to commit a certain sin that you know is sinful but nothing happens. Rather, everything works out really well for you. How would you feel? I might feel that God probably just overlooked my mistake and that it’s okay to do so.
However, what Paul’s talking about is that for God to give us over to something is actually His judgment. That’s a very dreadful thing. That’s how the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness.
In Isaiah 6:9-10, God says, “Go and tell this people: “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Is 6:9-10)
These verses are hard to understand when we think of them in the light of God’s characteristics. What we know about Him is that He wants to open His people’s ears and eyes so that they can see the truth and turn back to Him and be healed.
However, in these verses, God told Isaiah to make their ears dull and close their eyes. Why did God say such things? That’s because God’s judgment had already started. God had already tried all attempts to turn their hearts, but they didn’t listen. Finally, when God’s judgment started, God just gave them over to their sin. That’s the judgment of God.
So, it’s actually a blessing for us to realize our sinfulness. As I said last Sunday, once we realize our sin and its terrible result, we’ll return to God with spiritual hunger. When we lose our way, God continues to convict our souls through the Holy Spirit and punishes us so that we may turn back to Him. That’s not God’s judgment, but actually love.
“Do not lose heart when he rebukes you because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Heb 12:5-6)