Wouldn’t you agree with that assessment of the human condition? We may look all good on the outside. But when we are honest with ourselves and we look inward, I think we can all agree that we are not good, that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. We are filled with selfishness, envy, lust, we don’t care about others when push comes to shove and the Bible calls this condition, sin. No one is righteous, not even one, we are all sinners, every single one of us. And God is holy. That means, we are in a heap of trouble.
This is the human predicament that we read about in Romans 1. God is good, but we are not.
Rom 1 – 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, 19 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, so that men are without excuse.
Romans 2 refers to God as a righteous judge. Because God is good, because He is holy, he must judge sin and punish sin. And we are not good, we are sinners. Therefore, the Bible says, the wrath of God is upon us. We’re in a heap of trouble. And what the Bible says here is quite surprising. It says, we are in this state because of our own choice. v19 — what may be known about God is plain to us. We look at our heart and we have an innate ability to know that something is gravely wrong with us. We have a moral conscience. For instance, we know that it is wrong to murder babies and this is not just because I grew up in America where we talk about equality, but this cuts across all cultures and is universally true — murdering babies is wrong. If there are moral absolutes, then this clues us into a moral universe that is only possible if there is a God who made it this way. Each of us has the ability to know God on our own simply by looking to our conscience. It says in v19 — it is plain to us that there is a God.
In addition, if that is not enough, God is the Creator of all things. v20 — God’s invisible qualities are all over his creation. We can’t look at the complexity of a human cell or the beauty and majesty of Niagra Falls without concluding that there must be a God. The Bible says — as we look at ourselves and as we look out at creation, men are without excuse. We all know there is a God.
Then, why aren’t we all Christians? Although the existence of God ought to be plain to every person, we don’t believe in God because v18 — men in their wickedness suppress the truth.
And due to that suppression of the truth of God’s existence and rightful claim over our lives, we read the effects of that willful choice to reject God in v21 —
Rom 1 – 21 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.
Futile thinking, foolish and darkened hearts, idolatry. And this leads to God’s judgment, God says, okay, you want to suppress the truth? You want to reject me? Then, you are on your own. God stops contending with man and he gives us over to the consequences of our choice to reject him.
If you recall, in one of my sermons, we talked about the tension between the sovereignty of God and human free will. God chooses some, He hardens others, he elects some and he doesn’t elect others, but at the same time, he gives us the freedom to choose, which means, we are ultimately held responsible. And to that point, these verses to me shed a new light on that tension. God chooses, but if we all have the ability to know there is a God and we are without excuse, then, the reason why some don’t respond to the gospel is on us. We are the ones who suppress the truth. This means the fact that some people are not saved has a great deal to do with our choice to reject God.
We see this same tension between God’s sovereignty and human free will in Romans 10.
Rom 10 – 19 Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.” 20 And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” 21 But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Historically, the chosen people of God, the Jewish nation of Israel failed to recognize Jesus as their coming Messiah. Therefore, the gospel message moved to the Gentiles. Does the mean that God rejected Israel? Yes, to some degree. But also in v21, we read that the whole time Israel was rejecting Christ, God was holding out his hands, hoping that they would come around.
In other words, like in Romans 1, here in Romans 10, Israel is without excuse. They suppressed the truth and rejected Christ and Christ became a stumbling block to them.
There is indeed a tension between the sovereignty of God and human free will, but at the same time, the accent here seems to be on our human will leading to a deliberate, rejection of God. And so God holds us responsible. Men are without excuse.
This begs the question, how then can anyone be saved? We have no excuse, we know there is a God, but we deliberately rejected him, and we became objects of God’s wrath and anger, which led to a depraved mind and darkened heart. If this is the human predicament, how can you or I or anyone else for that matter be saved?
The Bible actually says there is nothing we can do to be saved.
Rom 5 – 6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
You see, we are utterly powerless to do anything to move even an inch closer to God. Powerless. That means, I have no power. I have not a single iota of strength to move toward God. That’s why in the gospel God moves toward us. And I think this is a very significant difference between Christianity and all other religions. Other religions say you are not powerless. You can do something. Meditate, go on this pilgrimage, there are things you can do to move closer to God on your own strength. Christianity is different. The Bible says we are completely, utterly powerless. And the only way to be saved is for God to come to us. That is why Jesus was God in human flesh. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us because in a million years we could not save ourselves.
We have to be careful with our language when it comes to salvation. We are not the ones who are coming forward to accept Christ. There is no formula like pray this prayer and abracadabra, you are saved. Or just because we have mental assent about correct doctrine, that doesn’t equate to salvation. Or just because we were really sincere and we cried when we were in junior high, that doesn’t guarantee salvation. We are completely powerless to save ourselves. In fact, we know better, yet we continue to suppress the truth about God. Because we want to be god, we want to be in control, we want to call the shots. We want to be at the center of our lives. This is what it means to be a sinner. And even when we hear the gospel message of Jesus dying for our sins, that truth is not readily acceptable for proud sinners. The fact that there is nothing that we can do just rubs us the wrong way. We want to clutch onto a shred of dignity that we had a part in our salvation.
So for the preachers and Bible teachers here, let’s be careful how we present the gospel. We preach the gospel and then we move out of the way to let God do the work. There is absolutely nothing that we as preachers can do to save someone. And as listeners, there is nothing you can do to be saved except to cry out for the mercy of God and wait for Him to open up spiritual eyes and to save.
The gospel can only be understood by those who recognize their sin. And for us to recognize our sin requires divine initiative, God coming near to us and opening our eyes. Salvation is 100% an act of divine mercy. That’s why we say, we are saved by grace, not our works. And we respond to this gospel by repenting and turning away from our sins. That’s the first point — we are powerless even to recognize our need for the gospel until God convicts us of sin and our need to repent.