A Clear Diagnosis (Romans 1:18-32)
The Best News Ever
A Clear Diagnosis
October 9th, 2011
Way of Grace Church
I. The Undesirability of the Undiagnosable
Being sick is bad enough. But imagine, if in addition to this, doctors had no clear diagnosis to give you. Imagine if no one could figure out what was wrong with you. One doctor wrote this about these kinds of mystery illnesses:
“Patients with mystery symptoms tend to get lots of tests and shuffled to lots of specialists. More people than you might think are in this limbo of an illness without a diagnosis. This is frustrating for everyone. Patients get irritated with their doctors…Doctors, who like having answers and hate looking foolish, get frustrated with patients and wonder if the weird symptoms are all in [their] head.”
He goes on to write: “We all want to uncover the mystery diagnosis, but we have to acknowledge an unfortunate possibility: We sometimes won't find a diagnosis. There are diseases that are very common and ones that are very uncommon.”
Can you imagine? In most cases, regardless of how good or bad the news, just having a clear diagnosis is a blessing in itself.
This morning we are returning to the study we began last week, a study in which we are wanting to better understand this message the Bible calls “the gospel”. While the word gospel in the New Testament literally means “good news”, it's not a stretch to called this message “the best news ever”.
But last week we talked about the strange fact that this “best news ever” actually begins with some bad news. The Bible confirms what I think all of us already know: we are sick. Our world is sick and we are sick. And our sickness is fatal, physically and spiritually.
Now, if you ask most people the question, “What's wrong with the world?”, you will get a lot of different answers. Everyone seems to have a different diagnosis for our condition.
Some would say politics is to blame. Some would say it's greed and social inequality: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Some would say it's a lack of education or lack of motivation. Some would say this or that religion is to blame. Others would say secular humanism is the problem. Some would say corruption or prejudice or junk food or th media or materialism or intolerance. And the list could go on and on.
But how would you diagnose the world? How would you diagnose yourself? If you accept that you are, in some way, spiritually sick, then what's behind that sickness: bad luck? A bad childhood? Unjust circumstances? Something medical? Something psychological? People spend millions every year in medication and therapy trying to figure these things out.
But this morning, part of “the best news ever” is that we do not have to be in that limbo of having “an illness without a diagnosis”. God, the Great Physician, has given us a clear diagnosis of our condition. Turn with me to Romans chapter 1.
The Bible sums our sickness using one word: sin. Remember what Jesus said in the passage we looked at last Sunday and in our Growth Groups? Mark 2:17: On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."(Mark 2:17 NIV) There's that connection between sin and the analogy of sickness.
But what is sin? It's not a word we hear a lot about these days. I think people either talk about or dismiss sin as kind of a religious antique (“I heard they were living in sin!”) OR people swing to other side and connect the word with things like chocolate (“Oh, that stuff is just sinful” (or “sinfully delicious”)).
But what does the Bible teach us about sin?
II. The Passage: “Claiming to be Wise, They Became Fools” (1:18-32)
When your doctor gives you a clear diagnosis, you might go home and 'Google' the terms he or she used. But when it comes to our spiritual condition, there is only place we can look: the Bible (since it alone is God’s word to us). And one of the best passages about sin, about God's diagnosis of our condition is Romans 1:18-32. Let's look at that passage together.
What's so wonderful about this passage is that the book of Romans is the Apostle's Paul magnum opus in terms of explaining the message God gave him…the best news ever!
And right at the beginning of this book, Paul is making the case that everyone single one of us is sick and every single one of us has the same diagnosis. If we switch from the doctor talk to the lawyer talk, Paul is starting off the book of Romans by showing us how everyone, Jew and non-Jew, everyone (!) is guilty before God.
A. A Rejection of Truth (1:18-20)
So let's start where Paul starts his argument, in verse 18. Listen to what verses 18-20 teach us about our diagnosis of sin:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
What we learn from these verses is that sin always begins with a rejection of the truth. When people talk about those who have never heard the message of Christ, when people talk about the Australian bushman or the isolated Amazonian tribe, we have to remember that every single person who has lived, or is living, or will live, every person is given some 'light'.
Notice what Paul tells us in these verses. What has God made “plain” to every person, what has God “shown” them (v. 19)? He has revealed (v. 20) His “invisible attributes”, specifically his “eternal power” and his “divine nature”. And how has He revealed these things about Himself?
They are “clearly perceived” in “the things that have been made”. Creation (or as some call it “nature”) is God's first classroom. And every second of every day, God is teaching men and women about himself.
If the world had a beginning, the One who made it must be eternal. If the world has order and beauty, there must be a Master 'orderer', a Master Artist. If the universe is majestic, it can only be a shadow of the One who created it. If the world brings forth food through the sunshine and the rain and the animals, if these things are there for our good, then there must be a God of goodness who is the Great Provider. And what power this God must have! How big He must be!
You see, deep down, all of us know this. A lot of us know even more than what creation can teach us. But as verse 18 confirms, every single person, from the bushman to the businessman, all of us “suppress the truth”. Our impulse is to stifle the light we have. We try to bury it. We reject it. When it comes to creation, we speak of “mother nature”. We talk about random, blind evolutionary processes. We stand in awe of nature's wonders, but we stop ourselves from standing in awe of nature's Maker. But creation leaves us without excuse!
This is exactly what the serpent did with our first parents. He wanted them to begin questioning the truth, what God had told them. He was tempting them to reject the truth. And this is what we are tempted to do everyday: to believe lies about God, to believe lies about ourselves, to believe lies about reality, about our choices, about our consequences.
B. A Resistance to Worship (1:21)
But look at where this rejection of the truth leads. Verse 21:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Last week we talked about how things on earth are supposed to look. We talked about what 'healthy' looks like. When Jesus taught us to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, He was telling us heaven is healthy, heaven is untouched by the sickness of sin. And from Revelation 4, we saw that heaven, God's dwelling place, is characterized by three things: heaven is...
“1) a place where is God is recognized as being at the center of all things, 2) a place where God is understood rightly, where God is known in truth, and 3) a place where the creature's response to the Creator is one of undivided adoration and unceasing praise.”
What Paul makes very clear here in verse 21 is that human beings do not honor God or give thanks to Him. When it comes to God, we are not people of “undivided adoration and unceasing praise”.
When we reject the truth that God has given us, this always leads to our second point about sin: sin is a resistance to worship; a resistance to worshiping in truth, in light of the truth.
We are like children on Christmas who believe themselves to be orphans, and simply take for granted all the gifts under the tree. Even though our parents are right upstairs, we do not honor them as our parents and we certainly do not say “thank you”.
Whenever our eyes choose blindness to the truth, our tongues will always fail to praise God and give Him thanks.
C. A Replacing of God (1:22-25)
But look at what Paul goes on to tell us about this topic of worship. Verses 22-25:
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.  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,  because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
The fact that we are not people of “undivided adoration and unceasing praise” when it comes to God does not mean we are not people of “undivided adoration and unceasing praise”. No way! We adore and praise all sorts of things! Just because we fail to worship God does not mean we fail to worship.
Here Paul describes the impulse to what the Bible calls idolatry. The foolish exchange described here is the next point Paul teaches us about sin: sin is a replacing of God.
In Paul's time and before Paul's time, and in many places even today, men and women replace God with some kind of image or statue. As we see in verse 23, maybe it's a statue of a “mortal man” or a “bird” or an “animal” or some kind of “creeping thing”.
So that means we're off the hook, right? Since we don't bow down to a block of marble or a stone idol, we're off the hook, right? No, the “exchang[ing of] the truth about God for a lie” is alive and well today!
You see, we were created as worshipers. And if we don't worship God, we will worship something! John Calvin described the human heart as “an idol-making factory”. Instead of worshiping God, we worship things like money and sex and security and romance and family and sports and food and recreation and entertainment and technology and success and career and youth and physical beauty and science and all sorts of mindless distractions.
No, we don't have an actual shrine built to these kinds of things where we light candles and bow down. But things like these occupy our hearts and dominate our schedules and influence our finances and prevail in our words. We are driven by them, and our hearts break when we cannot have these things. Such things are the objects of our devotion.
Sin is not simply resisting true worship. It is replacing it with false worship.
D. A Rejoicing in Wrong (1:26-32)
Finally, look at what Paul reveals in verses 26-32:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;  and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips,  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
So our rejection of the truth leads to a resistance to worship God. And our resistance to worship God leads to a replacing of God as the object of our devotion and praise. And when this takes place, we find ourselves characterized by what Paul talks about here: sin is a rejoicing in wrong.
In verse 24, Paul already talked about the kind of sexual immorality that was connected in the ancient world to the worship of idols. But in verses 26 and 27 he focuses on homosexual sins.
Why does he spend two whole verses on these kinds of sins? Because these behaviors represent so plainly what is “contrary to nature”. Our rejection of what nature teaches us about God leads us to a rejection of what is “natural” in terms of our biology. Even though each of us arrives in this world because of “natural [sexual] relations”, sin can take us all the way to rejecting or minimizing what is natural.
And of course, Paul doesn't stop there. In verses 28-31, he provides us with a sizeable list of things that, as verse 28 puts, thing that “ought not to be done”.
From general descriptions like “unrighteousness” and “evil”, to specific sins like envy; from abhorrent sins like “murder” to more accepted sins like “gossip”, Paul goes to great lengths here to show us how our truth-rejecting, worship-resisting, God-replacing hearts overflow in so many different kinds of wrongs.
And in verse 32, Paul emphasizes the deliberateness of all this. People cannot simply say, “I didn't know what I was doing” or “I wasn't thinking!” or “I'm just acting out because of what I've been through”
No, Paul reminds us that all of us explicitly or implicitly endorse these behaviors, even though, deep down, we know that such things deserve a just response.
Our lack of truth and our lack of God always leads us to a lack of true morality, because when we exchange God for idols, and when we exchange the truth for a lie, we also exchange God's morality for our own broken, moral compass.
III. Why a Clear Diagnosis is So Helpful
This morning, God has not only confirmed our condition, He's also explained it. We are not in that “limbo of an illness without a diagnosis”. God has blessed us with a clear diagnosis. But we need to remember why a clear diagnosis is so helpful.
Let me give you three reasons why God's diagnosis is so important:
First of all, God's clear diagnosis helps us to understand the extent of our condition.
For most of us, the word “sin” is summed up nicely by verses 26-31. These are the kinds of sins we're familiar with. And because we limit our definition of sin to what we do in light of this or that moral code, we are more likely to either 1) label ourselves as basically “good” because there might be only a few things on Paul's list that apply to us; because our 'goods' generally outweigh our 'bads'. OR 2) we think that simply changing this or that behavior will help us overcome our illness.
But this is like a person with pneumonia treating their condition with just cough syrup, because he or she thinks the cough is the main thing.
But God's diagnosis goes right down to the heart. God's diagnosis exposes our motives and our affections and our desires and our priorities. And when God exposes the lies we believe and the idols of our heart, we begin to see just how sick we are.
If the opposite of sin is always embracing the truth about God, and always worshiping God and giving thanks, and always rejecting idols, and always honoring God in our thoughts, words, and actions, which of us can claim to be 'healthy'?
The second reason God's diagnosis is important is that God's clear diagnosis helps us to understand the seriousness of our condition.
One of the things we did not touch on as we explored these verses is the kind of language we find in verses 18, 24, 26, 28, and 32. Did you notice what those verses tell us about God?...
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven...Therefore God gave them up...to impurity...For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions...God gave them up to a debased mind... God's righteous decree…those who practice such things deserve to die.
If you had a fatal disease, wouldn't you want your doctor to tell you the truth about the seriousness of your condition? That's what God is doing here. Because God is perfectly separate and pure and good and just, He cannot simply ignore truth-rejecting, worship-resisting, God-replacing, wrong-rejoicing men and women that He created...in His image. No, He has to indict us, and find us guilty, and sentence us to eternal punishment.
And as we see here, not only will God one day confront us and condemn us according to His justice, but even now His wrath, His holy anger against sin, is demonstrated when He hands us over to the sins we foolishly crave. In His grace He restrains us from the full darkness in our hearts. But that restraint can be taken away in light of our continuing rejection and resistance and replacing.
Our condition is degenerative and painful and fatal. It doesn't get more serious than this.
Third and finally, God's clear diagnosis helps us to understand the treatment for our condition.
Let me remind you of why we're talking about this depressing, disturbing, and difficult subject. We're talking about all this because this is the necessary introduction to “the best news ever”. Paul's letter to the Romans doesn't end in the middle of chapter 3. It doesn't end with the sickness of sin. No, Paul has to talk about the sickness of sin in order to talk about the cure which is Christ!
If I somehow knew that certain people had a fatal disease and I went to their house and offered them treatment, I would probably be chased off or have the door slammed in my face...IF...IF...I did not first convince them that they were truly sick. And not only sick, but sick with the worst kind of disease.
You see, when people aren't willing to embrace God's clear diagnosis of what's wrong with us, when they instead embrace their own diagnosis, they will turn to treatments that are ineffective, even harmful.
If you have cancer, or you have AIDS, or you have small pox, or you have the Ebola virus, you can't simply take Robitussin or two aspirin. But that's what we do when turn to self-help and religious obligations and medications and education and exercise and romance and all of our self-salvation projects.
No, the reason a patient longs for a clear diagnosis is so that he or she can hear about a clear treatment. And when the diagnosis is sin, then there is only one cure.
In Acts 3:12, after healing a man who could not walk, Peter and John said this to the astonished crowd: "Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?”
They went on to declare this in Acts 4:“...let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.12And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:10-12)
How are you diagnosing yourself this morning? Your self-diagnosis is usually clear from the kind of treatment you're pursuing. What do you need? What are you desperate to have? What are you chasing? How are you medicating yourself?
The best news ever must always begin with accepting the bad news about sin. And when we accept God's diagnosis, we discover that because of His grace, and simply through faith, we can receive and we can live by God's cure for sin: Jesus Christ.
We'll talk more in the next couple of weeks about this cure. But let's pray and ask God to help us embrace, and continue to embrace His diagnosis of our desperate condition.
other sermons in this series