Sermon on Romans 1:18-23, preached on Sunday, 21 October 2018.
Sermon Recording: Click HERE to listen
Bible Readings: (OT) Psalm 86:1-17 / (NT) Romans 1:18-23
I. Bad news that saves
II. Bad news and its lesson
Imagine that you have a friend to evangelise. You’ve been praying for this unbelieving friend sometime by now and you really desire to see him come to Jesus and believe Him. One day, you finally have the opportunity you’ve been longing for – he is ready, and actually keen, to listen to you. You’re excited about this moment, and you begin and say to him, ‘My friend, you’re a hopeless sinner and because of your terrible and awful sins against God, God will punish you and throw you to hell to be burned there eternally, unless you repent from your sins!’ Imagine that you really and truly said this to your unbelieving friend. What do you think would happen? Would you succeed in bringing your friend to Jesus Christ, or fail at once and you’d have to wait, maybe, another decade for another chance? Or, would you lose that sort of opportunity forever? Or, from the start, should you not say such a message to your friend?
I asked you to suppose such a case because, in a sense, that is what our text passage for today is all about. In fact, this passage is the answer to the question I asked, namely, ‘Would you tell your friend such a message that he is doomed unless repent from his sins?’ This passage we’ve just read answers to a question like that with a clear ‘yes.’ This passage teaches us that telling our unbelieving friends bad news about their impending judgment due to their deadly sins is not only a right thing to do, but also a good and better way to bring anyone to Christ.
But this is clearly not the way we in Australia and others in most places on earth operate – we simply don’t begin offending our friends or neighbours, especially in sharing Jesus’ gospel with them. We begin politely and carry our conversation with gentleness and warmth, then, we end our time with courtesy – we never be rude to anybody. But, our text passage for today teaches us the exact contrary; the main body of this Letter to the Romans begins with bad news.
I want to point out today why – I mean, why the gospel message presented and explained in Romans begins with bad news about people, an offence to all. I’d like to do it with two points: first, ‘Bad news that saves’ and, second, ‘Bad news and its lesson.’
I. BAD NEWS THAT SAVES
So, let me begin with bad news that saves. First of all, the beginning of Romans’ main body is a surprise to us; it says, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” About the ‘wrath of God,’ Revelation, the last book of the NT, describes it well. According to Rev. 14:19, the wrath of God is depicted by a picture of a ‘great winepress’, and in 19:15 as ‘the winepress of the fury.’ In Rev. 15 and 16, God’s wrath is described as the seven deadly plagues such as ‘harmful and painful sores,’ ‘deadly blood of a corpse,’ ‘scorching fire that burns people,’ ‘darkness’ and ‘flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and earthquake.’ In a word, this is a declaration of the doomsday for the unbelievers, thus, a shocking message.
To be precise, this is much more straightforward, even cruel in a sense, than the case I suggested you earlier to suppose in terms of having an evangelistic opportunity with a friend. Thinking about this from an unbeliever’s point of view, what follows this verse is even more hair-raising. V. 19 says that God is plainly revealed in His creation and no one can miss this clear revelation. Then, vs. 20-23 say, “So [people] are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” God is angry, and His wrath is already revealed from heaven because people have already done these awful things. All in mankind have reduced their immortal Creator God to a form of creature which is an act of trampling God underfoot. Suppose once again that such a thing was done to a person like Prince Harry who is in Australia at this moment. It’s unthinkable! Then, how much deadlier would be a sin against God than to a man? Surely, this passage of vs. 18-23 is the doomsday proclaimed and, in this sense, it is absolutely bad news to all men. This is the introduction to the message of Romans.
Truth is that this is the message Paul the Apostle upheld and delivered in the name of Jesus the Lord with the first and foremost importance. To him, this bad news is the beginning of his message about Jesus and His salvation. In a sense, this bad news about God’s wrath toward sinful men is the gospel message he delivered and preached. You might wonder whether it is so, thinking, ‘Isn’t the gospel good news?’ Yes, you’re right; Jesus’ gospel that saves sinners is good news. But this saving good news of Jesus is bad news to the ears of sinners. Let me prove what I mean by some biblical evidence.
Paul’s message is about ‘the wrath of God’ at least at ten places in Romans. Beginning from our text passage, he goes on in 2:5, saying this: “because of your hard and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” Next is in 2:8, “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” 3:5 asks a rhetorical question, “[Is] God … unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?” – meaning, He is perfectly righteous with pouring His wrath upon sinful men. Rom. 4:15 reads, “the law brings wrath,” meaning that according to God’s law, we all deserve God’s wrath. Let me give you one more proof verse – 5:9, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by [Jesus’] blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.” As you’ve heard from these verses of Romans, bad news about mankind is the gospel message the Apostle Paul preached and still does.
Then, is Paul the only person who preached the ‘bad news’ gospel? It may sound strange to say ‘bad news gospel’ because ‘gospel’ means ‘good news.’ So, ‘bad news gospel’ is by itself contradictory, but I believe you know what I mean by saying it. The good news for the sinners begins with bad news of God’s wrath. So, the question is, ‘Is Paul the only one who preached this ‘bad news’ gospel?’
‘No,’ is the answer. The whole Bible presents this ‘bad news’ gospel of God. Jesus our Lord did preach this ‘bad news’ gospel. Mt. 4:17 testified: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” The very first word our Lord said in His earthly ministry was ‘Repent.’ ‘Repent’ from what? From our ungodliness and unrighteousness, only to believe in Him the Lord. All apostles of the NT did follow the Lord and preached the same message. Peter on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem preached to all who had come to worship God, telling them what they had done by nailing Jesus on the cross. The crowd heard his message of bad news and were cut to the heart and asked Peter and all apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
The OT taught the same. Every message we read from the prophets of the OT is about the same ‘repentance,’ meaning that all men on earth were sinful and in need of escaping from God’s wrath. In Jer. 1:10, for example, God speaks: “See, I have set you [Jeremiah with the bad news you’re about to deliver] this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In this way, bad news had always been delivered to the sinful men before Christ, and the same bad news has been preached to all generations everywhere since Christ. Whoever heard this bad news and sought the way to escape the impending wrath of God has found the eternal haven in Jesus.
Is this message found from and limited to the Bible only? No, the same bad news has always been faithfully preached in Bible-believing Christian Churches. In church history, Augustine of Hippo of the 4th and 5th C preached it; Luther and Calvin of the Protestant Reformation declared bad news to people; John Knox of the same era in Scotland did the same; George Whitfield in the Revival era preached this bad news to lead people to see their ungodliness and unrighteousness before God; Jonathan Edwards preached it in his famous sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God.’ I truly hope that all of you are familiar with hearing this sort of message from the pulpit, because this is the unchangeable and unchallengeable gospel message of our Lord Jesus given to all sinners on earth for their salvation!
II. BAD NEWS AND ITS LESSON
At this moment, I need to pause for a moment, because any of you might disagree with what I said earlier about telling bad news to our friends, and say, ‘No, no, no! If you start your evangelistic conversation that way, telling bad news and God’s wrath, you’d probably see that person no more and you spoil the whole effort you’d put earlier, and you’d lose that fragile opportunity for sharing the gospel with your friend!’ In fact, such is the view some Christians uphold. Some preachers do avoid preaching on repentance, let alone God’s wrath, whereas people in pews hesitate to tell it to their friends. So, there’s a gap or difference between people’s thought and the Bible in terms of gospel presentation. Recognising what this difference means, thus, committing ourselves to the Bible’s way is the lesson for you and for me and for all Christians.
Talking about the Bible’s way, we need to remember one of the great Reformation mottos – that is, sola scriptura – in other words, Scripture alone is the supreme authority for our faith. We, Bible-believing Christians, read and listen to the Bible and follow its teaching. So, in preaching and delivering the message of God’s salvation, we must follow the Bible and deliver and preach the bad news about God’s wrath toward sinners. We begin with bad news, because Jesus Himself preached it; we begin with bad news of God’s impending wrath, because the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles and all the others in His church to preach this message.
Let me again pause because some might still not be fully convinced and say, ‘Um, I think as long as the main point of the gospel which is the love of God available for everyone is presented and shared, it should be alright. Why bother preaching the wrath of God anyway? It scares people away. I’m sure that would shut the church door and scare people away forever.’ Some others might think further and say, ‘Well, if we attract as many people by some other means, such as less offensive message which may encourage people to have a higher self-esteem and a joy of fellowship with friendly, not offensive, Christians as they listen to good music and participate in various social events in church, leaving the message of God’s wrath to be taught later, we could at least keep some of them and make them believers. When that happens, then, we talk about repentance. How about that?’
This idea has more followers than the previous one. Despite its popularity, however, this idea has one major problem – that is, it doesn’t have a biblical warrant. Never in the Bible do we find a suggestion for leaving bad news to be preached and shared with sinful man later or after his conversion. If we could leave it for later presentation, when would that be? After all, no man can be saved without realising his desperate need of a Saviour, and no man can seek a Saviour without realising his sinfulness and the seriousness of God’s impending wrath. So, there’s no ‘conversion’ without hearing bad news first, without turning away from one’s sins first.
The gospel of the Lord Jesus begins from revealing the true heart of a sinner. God never pats sinner’s shoulder and says, ‘Come and join Me Sunday morning; come to My delightful service; come and have a good time with Me and with My children; come and enjoy cheerful music, cheerful message.’ No, God doesn’t do that. Rather, He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” as in Mt. 4:17 and “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” as in Mk. 1:15. What time does He mean that is fulfilled? The time of God’s judgment. So, “repent and believe in the gospel!” Our message of the gospel cannot be, ‘Oh, don’t worry but just come to the Lord; He loves you and wants to give you all His blessings. Repentance? Don’t worry about it.’ Rather, our message is always the same: ‘You must repent because you are a sinner before God, like all the others in the world. And believe the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, who forgives the sins of the repentant sinners, and receives them as His own by giving them His righteousness and eternal life!’ By the way, why must we bring bad news to people – our family members, friends and neighbours? Because such is the way of the Bible; because that is the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
Yet, I still can think of some sceptics’ argument; they would say, ‘Isn’t that too literal interpretation and application of the Bible? Can’t we preach the gospel in any other way?’ The biblical answer is, ‘no.’ There’s no other way because presenting bad news and starting from bad news is the gospel message of God. The inspired apostle clarifies this in 1 Cor. 2:2, saying that he knows nothing except ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified,’ meaning, Jesus’ atoning death for the sinners who are ungodly and unrighteous, thus, doomed with God’s wrath!
If any last objector asks and says, ‘Wouldn’t it be irresponsible that we just speak about God’s wrath without considering our audience? How would such a strong message be received by their stubborn heart and bear fruit? Shouldn’t we ease down its offensive remark?’ Well, my answer to such a question is this: ‘Why worry?’ God has proclaimed His salvation this way from the beginning up to this day, and how many souls has He saved? The exact number of people He decided to save have been saved, hearing this bad news. The work of saving souls belongs solely to the Holy Spirit. We simply preach the gospel that begins with bad news about the ungodly and unrighteous sinners which intrinsically leads their hearts to Jesus the Lord and Saviour. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, according to the plan of the Father and in the name of the Son Jesus. Sow the seed, and see the work of God in the lives of people! Then, praise the Lord for His marvellous saving grace!
We must follow God’s word and share the good news of Jesus with all people around us. We begin this by delivering bad news about their sins and God’s wrath stored up for them. Let us begin and let God work in His power and grace. We never take lead in this, but let God’s word be our only guide, never omitting anything the word of God teaches us. Heretics alter God’s word; liberals prune it; but we who are Bible-believing Christians listen to and follow our Lord’s voice only. So, when we deliver and declare bad news, never be worry or afraid of people’s reactions, but, wait to behold a great saving work of God in the lives of sinners like you and me! ***