Authority Fallen, Part II: Abdication
Series: Authority Redeemed
We were created with authority over the things God made, but in our fallenness, we abdicate that authority and those things begin to exercise authority over us.
Romans (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Thomas Schreiner
In this series of sermons we’re looking at the topic of authority in hopes of learning about how church authority is meant to function for when we complete the church planting process and become a particular church. But before we get to that specific application, we’re tracing the story line of the Bible as the theme of authority develops throughout, and we’re in the part of the Bible’s story known as the fall: So God created us to live under His absolute authority and to exercise an authority that images Him over the earth. He gave us authority. But we have fallen from that, and last week we saw one way we do that is we abuse our authority through oppression. This week, we’re going to focus on the other way we fall short in our use of the authority God has given us. Before I jump in though, let me just acknowledge that you may have noticed this passage addresses homosexuality. That’s not why I chose it; in fact, I almost didn’t choose it for that reason, because that’s not the main thing the passage is about or the most relevant part for this series of sermons. But, this passage is the clearest passage of which I’m aware in the Bible that summarizes the other way we fall short of exercising the authority God has given us, and we can’t simply avoid the parts of the Bible that are challenging. So I will address that when we come to it, but the big idea on which we’ll focus is that We abdicate the authority God has given us. How? We reject God’s authority, we worship the things over which God gave us authority, and then God gives us up to the authority of sin.
We reject God’s authority
Our passage begins with the statement that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. So yes, in the New Testament, even after the coming of Jesus, God has wrath, and it’s not just a wrath revealed from heaven against the people you don’t like, against the conservatives or the liberals, the powerful or the oppressed, but against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, which includes yours and mine. We read in verse 18 that by our unrighteousness, we suppress the truth. That means there is a truth we know, but we suppress it. What is this truth? Verse 19: What can be known about God is plain to us, because God has shown it to us. For His invisible attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world. In other words, God has revealed in the things He made that He exists, that He is eternally powerful, and that He is divine. Everyone who looks at the world intuitively assumes that it came from somewhere; things don’t just produce themselves. So the one who made it, who made time itself, must Himself be eternal, existing prior to time, He must be powerful enough to make it all, and He must not Himself be created: He must be divine. There has been a lot of philosophical ink spilled throughout human history on the arguments for and against the existence of God, but Scripture presents the knowledge of God as something more like the knowledge we have of the existence of other minds: It’s just there. We can’t help but think of it, even though there are plenty of interesting arguments against the existence of other minds as well. And so you find among any people group you study throughout the world there is religion, some kind of regard for some kind of divine being or beings.
And yet, we do make the arguments against His existence; why? Because in our unrighteousness we suppress the truth that is clearly revealed. Nonetheless, God has shown it: So we are, as verse 20 says, without excuse. Then verse 21 goes on to explain this even further: Although we knew God, we did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him. Think about this statement in verse 21. Scripture is saying here that everyone knows God. Remember a few weeks ago we saw from Genesis 1 that every human has a personal relationship with God? That’s what we’re seeing again here. Every human has a personal relationship with God, but every human has not honored Him as God or given thanks to Him. That’s why we are without excuse: We know Him, we know He made all this, we know He’s eternally powerful and divine, but we have not honored Him as such or given thanks to Him. One of the few sins it seems like just about everyone can admit they’re guilty of is we aren’t as thankful as we ought to be. And even when we do feel thankful, we often don’t give thanks to Him.
Similarly, though we may believe in God, we’ve not honored Him “as God,” as verse 21 puts it. The people described here probably all believed in God; modern Western civilization is like the only civilization in human history and throughout the world today in which many deny belief in God. The question of whether you believe in God or not certainly matters, but it’s not ultimate. James 2:19 tells us the demons believe in God, and they’re in hell. The question is not whether you’ve believed in God, but whether you’ve honored Him as God. Have you loved Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? That’s what Jesus says it means to honor Him as God. Has pleasing Him been the central concern of your life? Is He your ultimate source of joy? Is He the one you’ve looked to and trusted for your purpose and identity in life? Is He the one whose opinion of you matters most?
Our abdication of authority, then, begins with our rejection of God’s authority. At that point, most people today assume they’re free. That’s why we reject God’s authority, right? We don’t want to be constrained by it; we want to be “free” to do what we want to do. But we were made to worship and serve something; we can’t help it. So when we reject God’s authority, we turn instead to worship and serve the things over which God gave us authority.
We worship and serve the things over which God gave us authority
So verse 23 says we “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” We didn’t just give up the worship of God; we exchanged it. Here the reference is to the common practice of people to literally bow down before and pay homage to images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. In Greek religion there were many gods: Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Aphrodite, Ares, etc. And these gods were depicted in carved images resembling mortal men, then worshiped. In ancient Egypt, they worshiped images of birds and animals.
So the list of images given in verse 23 comes from real history, but don’t miss where else it comes from. Recall how Genesis 1 describes our creation in verse 26: “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God gave us dominion, authority over the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, the livestock, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. Now we come to Romans 1, and what is it that we’ve worshiped and served? Images resembling mortal man, birds, animals, and creeping things: The very things God gave us authority over.
This began in Genesis chapter 3, when the first humans rejected God’s absolute authority and instead of exercising dominion over a serpent, a creeping thing that creeps on the ground, they listened to its voice and served it. As verse 25 of our passage puts it, they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, the lie of Satan, that God’s authority was not for their good, and that if they would just reject it, they could become equal with God themselves. It happened again after Israel was released from slavery in Egypt. Last week we looked at the ways humans have abused authority, and we saw that Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, abused his authority to oppress the people of Israel, but God redeemed it, and brought them out of slavery to Pharaoh in order that they might serve Him. But we also saw that wasn’t the end of the story. Just three months after God released them from their oppression through 10 crazy plagues and parting the Red Sea so that they walked through on dry ground, guess what they did? They built a golden calf, an image resembling an animal, and then here’s what they said about it: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Then they rose early the next morning and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings to this golden calf. In other words, they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling an animal. They exchanged the truth about God, the truth that not only was God their creator, but the one who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, for a lie, that this image resembling an animal brought them out of the land of Egypt, and worshiped and served it.
We tend to assume today that people do bad things because bad things have happened to them. And there is some truth to that: Certainly the kind of bad things we do are related to the bad things that have happened to us. But the Bible doesn’t place the ultimate cause there. Adam and Eve sinned against God when nothing bad had ever happened to them. They still exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator. If the people of Israel had sinned against Pharaoh, maybe you could explain that by saying how Pharaoh oppressed them. But God is the one who saved them from oppression, and He’s the one they sinned against. We are all victims of others’ abuse of authority on some level; some of you are far worse victims than others. And that’s a big deal; the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against the ungodliness and unrighteousness that was perpetrated against you; we talked about that last week. But none of us is only a victim. We are all without excuse before God. His wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
Now maybe you say, “But we don’t worship images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things anymore.” The first thing to notice about that is it’s a very white/euro-centric way of thinking; in reality many people throughout the world today still worship images. Here in Philadelphia even you can walk from here to Ridge and Green and walk past a Buddhist temple with a statue out front to which people pay tribute. But even if you don’t do so as overtly as that, don’t assume that you don’t at all. Why do our phones exert such power over us? Because they present stimulating images to us. And don’t you feel at times that though your phone is supposed to be a tool that you use, that the tool actually has the dominion over you, that you’re serving it rather than using it to serve God? Think about the people who are revered in our society: Is it not the attractive more than the virtuous? Why do we care what celebrities think about anything? What even made them celebrities? Their image. Why do people pay thousands of dollars to image consultants? Because we know people exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, and so if we can project the right image, we’ll win people to ourselves. What is a pornography addiction ultimately? It’s an enslavement to images of mortal man.
Verse 25 even expands the scope of idolatry beyond image worship to creature worship: We worship and serve the creature rather than the creator. How much of our lives is controlled not so much by images of people as by people themselves? There is a certain inner ring of which we want to be a part, someone we want to feel loved by, someone whose approval we crave. Or it may be foods or substances, things God gave us authority to use, but to which we end up enslaved. When Jesus talks about idolatry, his 1A example is money. Again, a gift from God we’re meant to use to serve Him, but of which we’ve become slaves. In Colossians 3:5, covetousness is even listed as idolatry. When we want or desire something which belongs to someone else, Scripture says we are worshiping that thing.
And so this is the second way we fail to exercise the authority God has given us. The first, which we talked about last week, is that we abuse it. The second is that we abdicate it: Instead of ruling over the things God made and using them to worship and serve Him, we reject God, and worship and serve the very things over which He gave us authority. Some have been more perpetrators than victims of abuse, others have been more victims than perpetrators. But all have been perpetrators of this abdication. Do you see then how the wrath of God is justly revealed from heaven against this? The wrath of God is not a passionate fit of rage like ours; it is His settled, powerful opposition to all that is evil. Can you see why God would have a settled opposition to these things? He made everything, He made us, He gave us authority over everything He made, and made Himself known to us in all that He made, yet we have refused to honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, and have instead worshiped and served things He made. Imagine you loved someone, and you wanted to have them over for dinner just because you love them, so you clean up the house, you go out and get some of the good food, and fix up a nice multi-course meal for them. They come over, eat it, raid your fridge for more, and never say a word to you. Wouldn’t you rightly feel opposed to that? Even in our “tolerant” society, wouldn’t a therapist tell you you shouldn’t just let someone use you like that? Don’t we rightly feel anger at even bigger injustices, when we see peoples’ rights violated? But what about God’s right to be honored as God and thanked for all that He’s made and done? Wouldn’t it then also be right for Him to be angry about the violation of His rights?
So the wrath of God is justly revealed from heaven against us, and the way it is revealed is that God gives us up to the authority of sin.
God gives us up to the authority of sin
So catch the flow in this passage: First God reveals Himself in all that is made. Second, we reject Him. Third, our minds and hearts are darkened. Fourth, we worship and serve the things God gave us authority over. Fourth, verse 24: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” You see how fair that is of God, how just it is? It’s like if that friend comes over and eats all your food and you say, “Ok; if you want to eat my food without acknowledging me, I’ll let you eat as much as you want. But it will make you sick eventually.” So God says, “If you want to sin against me by rejecting my authority and worshiping and serving the things I gave you authority over, I’ll let you run free with those sinful desires. But they’ll lead to your dishonor in the end.” We refuse to honor God , so God gives us up to the lusts that will lead us to dishonor ourselves. We could say, then, that not only do we begin to worship and serve things God made, and so become enslaved to things; we also become slaves of our lusts, slaves to our desires, and worship and serve them. Those desires for the dishonorable and what in verse 26 is described as “contrary to nature” is what the Bible is talking about when it describes sin. So God’s wrath is revealed against our ungodliness and unrighteousness in that He gives us up to the authority of sin, to live under it. He gives us what we want, only it turns out these things become the source of our dishonor, not our honor.
And the first example given in the passage is sexual impurity, specifically in verses 26-27, homosexual sex. Now, this is obviously a hot button issue in our world today, and maybe a hot button issue for you personally, either because you personally identify as gay, feel attracted to the same sex, have engaged in homosexual sex before or are engaged in it now, because people you know and love identify as gay, or just because you’ve had the common experience of sharing the gospel and someone asking you, “But what about homosexuality?” So before I get into this passage, let me give a few disclaimers: 1.) I’m not going to say everything about this topic today that should be said about it. Homosexuality is not the main point of this passage or of the Bible, so I’m not going to make it the main point of this sermon. But if you have more questions about it, they matter. Please let’s talk after the service. 2.) While the desire for homosexual sex is one example of a dishonorable passion in this passage, it’s far from being the only one. Sometimes when people ask me whether I think homosexuality is wrong I want to say, “Yeah, but wait until you hear all the other things I think are wrong, many of which I’m personally guilty of.” 3.) I know Christians have often handled this issue poorly and have treated the actual people who feel attracted to the same sex with scorn. Nothing in this passage or anywhere in the Bible authorizes us to do so, and I am sorry if you have been a victim of that. 4.) If you identify as gay, feel attracted to the same sex, or have engaged in homosexual activity, you aren’t alone. In this church even we have members who have identified as gay in the past, who still today feel attracted to the same sex, and who have engaged in homosexual sex, but who have also found the Christian gospel to be good news for them, even though it requires them to put to death all their dishonorable passions, including this one.
Ok, so what are verses 26-27 actually saying? They are saying that the desire of a woman to engage in sexual activity with another woman, or of a man to engage in sexual activity with another man, is a dishonorable passion. It is a desire for something, as verse 26 puts it, that is contrary to nature. Recall the original sin, the sin beneath all these other sins: Exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images, exchanging the truth about God for a lie. The natural thing for humans to do is to worship and serve the Creator, rather than the creature. But having exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and serve the creature rather than the Creator, God gives us up to this passion for that which is contrary to nature. In the area of sexuality, that plays out by both men and women exchanging natural relations for those contrary to nature, women lusting after women, men after men, and acting on that. This is, as verse 27 describes it, the “due penalty” for their error.
But then, as I said, this is not the only sin. In verse 28 we read again that God gave them up, and 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. I counted at least 8 of the Ten Commandments that are violated in that list; maybe we could find all Ten if we thought about it more. And here’s the culmination of God giving us up to the authority of sin, verse 32: 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 not only do all know God by nature, but all know something of God’s righteous decree, both that some things are wrong, and that there is a just penalty of death for those who practice them. And yet, though we know this, we not only do the very things we know are wrong; we give approval to those who do!
And so we see another way we abdicate the authority God has given us. Recall a couple weeks ago we said that Adam was the first priest, given a responsibility to work and “keep” the garden, the first temple. That word for “keep” is the world translated “guard” for priests in later temple texts, and they were to guard it from what was unclean. In Adam’s case, that would have meant keeping the serpent out, or at least speaking the truth in the face of the serpent’s lies. It means calling the unclean unclean, and calling the clean clean. But what do we do instead? We take the very things we know God hates, and we not only do them; we approve of them. Commentators struggle a bit with this because by placing approval at the end of the list of things to which God gives us up, it makes it seem like approving of the sins listed in this passage is worse than doing them. Why would that be the case? Because when you do evil, at least you can still call it evil, confess it, and turn from it. But when you’ve reached the point of calling it good, you really are under the authority of sin. It’s like when oppressed people begin calling their oppressors good because they feed them sometimes. We’re so deep under the dominion of sin that we approve of it. And in so doing, we prove we’ve abdicated the authority God has given us.
Are you starting to get the picture Scripture is painting? It’s not a picture of basically good people who sometimes do bad things. That’s how everyone naturally thinks of themselves. The picture of Scripture is far more realistic: We are people born under the authority of sin. Though we were made to exercise dominion over the earth, we’ve abdicated that authority, and now each of us are born under the dominion of sin. What can help us? Will great knowledge help us? If we learn what the right things to do are, and why they’re right, and if we learn about the punishment for those who don’t do them, then we’ll start acting right, right? That’s the religious answer. But look, this passage says we already know all that! We know God, we know His righteous decree that those who do such things deserve to die, and we not only do them, but give approval to them! More knowledge and more guilt can’t save us. What if we just stop thinking of ourselves as sinners, and instead start thinking of ourselves more positively? Will more self-esteem save us? No; we have a real sin problem; denying it won’t save us. Do we just need better laws? Those are good, but no: The problem in this passage is not that the laws of the Roman Empire were unjust; it’s that all people have rejected God, worshiped the things He gave them authority over, and therefore God gave them up to the authority of sin. More just laws won’t save us.
So what will? If God is the one who gave us up to the authority of sin, then only He can bring us back from it. So just as God came to release His people from slavery in Egypt Himself, to take them to be His own, now God has come to release us from slavery to sin, to take us and make us His own once again. God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were still the very people described in these verses, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us. On the cross the wrath of God against all our ungodliness and unrighteousness was revealed, as that ungodliness and unrighteousness was imputed to Christ, and God poured out His wrath on Him, giving Him over to death. But in so doing, God also revealed His love. Then when sin tried to exercise dominion over Christ, He rose victorious over it, and now not even death has any claim on Him, or on any who are united to Him by faith. So how can we be set free? Believe in Jesus; believe that when He died on the cross, it was your sins for which He died, your sins for which He was buried, and your sins He overcame when He rose from the grave. He satisfied the wrath of God for you, and there is therefore now no condemnation, no wrath of God, for those who are in Christ Jesus. If you believe in Him, you have been buried with Him, and a new person now lives in you, one with the resurrected Jesus. You can now put your dishonorable passions under your feet by the power of His Spirit. So honor Him as God. Give thanks to Him, especially for His redemption of you in Christ. And put your sins under your feet by the power of His Spirit in you. Exercise dominion over your passions and over the things God has made; stop letting them exercise dominion over you. Instead of worshiping and serving the things God made, use the things God made to worship and serve God. Jesus has set you free.