Man’s Foolish Exchange
Winnetka Bible Church
November 15, 2015
Series: God’s Glorious Gospel
Text: Romans 1:22–28
 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.  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. (ESV)
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Let us briefly review what has brought us to this point in the letter to the Romans. Paul begins his letter with a short biographical sketch highlighting his calling and apostleship for the sake of the gospel of God, which is the message of Jesus Christ who died and was raised. That’s verses 1–6. Then, he describes the church in Rome as those who are loved by God and called to be saints in verse 7. And he publicly thanks God for the incredible work of grace he has done among them in verse 8. Paul wants to visit them so that they may be “mutually encouraged,” and the way he wants to encourage them is by preaching the gospel to them (verse 15).
Why does Paul want to preach the gospel to Christians? Why is Paul unashamed of this gospel of God? He gives two reasons: First, in verse 16 he says the good news about Jesus is the power by which God saves and sanctifies. Second, in verse 17 he says that in the good news about Jesus, God’s righteousness is revealed through faith. That means that without the good news of the gospel, God’s righteousness is hidden. Without the news that a perfect Son of God died in the place of sinners, we cannot see how salvation is just.
Here is the question that Paul is answering in Romans chapters 1–12. Does God sweep sin under the rug? How can God save sinners and remain just? Does God have to play by his own rules? In the gospel, God displays his righteousness, because he crushes Jesus instead of crushing us. When God’s holiness meets the perfect obedience of Christ in our place, righteousness and justice is revealed. But what happens when God’s holiness meets the rebellion of man? What do we see when this same unchanging God encounters not the perfect obedience of Christ, but the haughty pride of man? What does God’s power produce when it collides with unrighteousness? Paul calls this God’s wrath, starting in verse 18.
Paul explains that man was made in God’s image with the capacity to see his fingerprint on all that he has made. But man shoves his fingers in his ears and closes his eyes to the truth about God that he cannot escape. And this provokes God’s wrath. But what is God’s wrath? And how is it being revealed? The Christians in Rome saw unrighteousness running wild all around them, but did they see God’s wrath? Notice the tense, God’s wrath IS revealed. This is not just looking forward to some great Day of wrath in the distant future. Just as God is right now revealing something of his righteousness in the preaching of the gospel, so too he is revealing something of his wrath.
So as we turn to verses 22-28, we have two questions for Paul to answer for us this morning: What is this sin that provokes God’s wrath? And is God letting it go unpunished?
I. The Exchange (22-23)
If I were to take a poll right now of this congregation and as you what sin is, I might get a lot of answers. (Probably a lot of lists.) Sin is lying, cheating, disobeying your parents, lusting, stealing, etc. And lists like that have value. They are scattered throughout the Bible. But here Paul wants to take us deeper into the essence of sin. Look in your Bible to Romans 1, verse 23: “[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
The unrighteousness of man, the suppressing of the truth that is kindling God’s wrath is exchanging God’s glory with images. This is called idolatry. Idolatry is what happens when you exchange the Creator God with created things. Anything you swap with God becomes your functional idol. There is nothing inherently evil about these objects. God made man, and birds, and animals, and yes, even creeping things. He finished making all these things and called them good. Indeed, they were very good. The problem with idolatry is not a problem of substance, but it is a problem of function. You are taking mortal, created things and placing it where only God belongs.
God does not have a problem with carvings and sculptures. He even told Israel to make all kinds of sculptures and carvings for the tabernacle worship. But the problem is when you start to bow down and worship a created thing as if you owe it something. God made man to have dominion over creation, to rule over it and subdue it. But we get it completely backwards when we start to let creation rule us. We may think today that we are more sophisticated than ancient people who bowed down to wooden or golden idols, as if idolatry were simply a matter of body posture. But idolatry is the exchange. Whatever you treat as you ought to treat God has become your idol. What is it that you are tempted to spend your waking and sleeping hours thinking about? What gives you a sense of comfort and belonging? What defines your worth and identity? What occupies your passions and excitement?
Whatever master you bow down to: whether it is your bank account, your sexual cravings, your appetite, the approval of others, or even your own accomplishments, that thing has been exchanged for the glory of God. That thing, or that person, is your idol.
But Paul goes even deeper. What is the root of all idolatry? Back up one verse: “(22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” The root of this exchange is man’s pride. Paul picks up language here that goes all the way back to the very fall of man. Eve looked at a created thing, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and saw that “it was to be desired to make one wise” and she took and ate. And she gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
What was so appealing about this fruit, surrounded by a garden of delicacies? Simply this: it could make you like God. That was the sweet promise of this first idolatry. Sure, it was good for food, but even more: it was a delight to the eyes. But not just that, it was desired for the same kind of wisdom only God had: the knowledge of good and evil. So in the very first act idolatry, our parents committed the great exchange. They did not want God on the throne. They wanted privileges that belonged only to God. They placed themselves in the place of God. And it was only a matter of seconds before shame and nakedness caused them to run and hide and cover themselves.
This is how sin works: it appears sweet and pleasurable on the outside, but it cannot satisfy. It’s like at Valentines day when you get the box of chocolates that makes us all functional gamblers. On the outside it looks so appealing, and you wonder what is inside. It might be caramel, or a truffle, or nougat. But then you bite inside only to find that it has orange flavor on the inside. Yuck! But sin is like that. On the outside it is delicious and appetizing, and you bite in to find that it is filled with vomit. It is filled with shame, and nakedness, and fear.
Paul calls this sin “suppression of the truth”. All created beings can look at the glory of God displayed in creation and know him. They know they should honor him as God and give him thanks for all the things he has made. But rather than thanking the Giver for the gifts, we honor and serve the gifts. Claiming to be wise, we become fools. Look at v. 25 where he articulates this again: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie [that’s suppressing the truth…] and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…”
To answer our first question “What is the sin that provokes the wrath of God?” It is idolatry—that is, exchanging creation for Creator. Against such unrighteousness, God is revealing his wrath. But how so? This idolatry is happening all around us every day, and the sun is still shining, people are continuing in their sin every day, often with little or no consequences. That brings us to our second question: Is God letting sin go unpunished?
II. God’s wrath: Sin off the leash
Paul’s answer is “No.” Three times in this passage he has this phrase: “God gave them up.” Verse 24 “Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts….” Verse 26, “God gave them up to dishonorable passions…” and verse 28, “God gave them up to a debased mind…” When we sin, we are telling the author of life that he doesn’t know what is best. That’s a pretty foolish choice. Actually, it’s dangerous. One of the mercies of God that all men experience every day is that he restrains and holds back the sinfulness and wickedness of man. So God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all idolatry when he lets sin go off the leash.
Sin and idolatry is destructive to the core. For God to simply release the dam of the floodwaters of sin is an act of wrath on the man’s pride that says to him, “You don’t know!” Rather than our prayer our maker being, “Thy will be done,” God looks down at man’s idolatry and says, “your will be done… go ahead, destroy yourself.” This is a terrifying reality to consider. If you are in this room this morning and think to yourself, “Perhaps God isn’t really angered by my sin. He isn’t doing anything about it,” hear this warning from Paul. It is an act of God’s wrath when he lets you off the leash. What a terrible thing to have your conscience seared, to have his reproving hand disappear.
Perhaps by God’s mercy he will afflict your conscience and draw you to repentance and trust in Jesus Christ. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart against him. Do not resist the Holy Spirit, friend. There may come a day when he simply lets you coast into your own destruction, and final judgment. Friends, here me here. Apart from the saving work of the gospel, the closest you will ever get to the pleasures of heaven is the fleeting candy coating of sin’s deceit, and then an eternity of nothing but the shame and pain and misery of knowing you traded pleasures forevermore for everlasting wrath.
This is what Asaph describes in Psalm 73, which we read from together earlier in this service. Asaph looks at the wicked and cries out: “You’re letting them get away with it God!”
“They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind…
They say, ‘How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the most high?”
Behold, these are the wicked! Always at ease!…
All in vain have I kept my heart clean…
For all the day long I have been stricken
And rebuked every morning.”
Asaph’s tender conscience torments him and God seems unjust because the wicked go unpunished. He says, “When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task… Until I went into the sanctuary of God, then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places. You make them fall to ruin.”
So perhaps you are here and you feel the constant pricking and prodding and conviction of sin, and your conscience will just never leave you alone. Be encouraged, brother or sister, that is a good sign that God is not giving you up to your sin. Let those proddings and promptings turn you to Christ and throw yourself again—or even for the first time—on his grace and love for you. My prayer right now is that, those who, like Asaph, feel stricken and rebuked by God will leave the sanctuary of God saying, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand, you guide me with your counsel.”
Paul’s example: sexual sin
In our text this morning, Paul goes to the clearest example of idolatry’s self-destructive cycle: sexual sin. He choses sexual rebellion not because it is the worst—it appears in lists in other places in scripture alongside many other sins in no discernible order—but in sexual sin we can clearly see the suppression of truth, the exchange of God for creation, and the suicidal streak of idolatry.
The first thing we see about sexual rebellion is that it dishonors your own body. Look at verse 24: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…” Elsewhere in 1 Cor 6:18, Paul says sexual immorality is unlike other sins because it is sin “against your own body.” This is creaturely rebellion at its most basic form. You are saying to the one who made your body, “I don’t trust you to tell me what to do with this thing.”
And so, because men and women want to exchange the truth about God for the lie, God in his wrath lets disorientation have its full effect. The great exchange of creature for Creator becomes mirrored in the micro-exchange as women exchange natural relations with men for other women, and men likewise exchange relations with women for other men. Paul says in homosexual activity, sin has become its own punishment. You are dishonoring your body, and the basic identity he gave you as a man or a woman. Look at the end of verse 27: “men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Let’s be clear here what the error is, and what the punishment is. According to Paul’s language here, homosexual activity is not the error that brings on God’s wrath. Rather, this homosexual activity is the due penalty for the error, which is idolatry. It is very important that you see this in the text. Look at the relationships between the “because” and “therefore” statements: (23) “they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…” Now the result: (24) “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts…” Or again, (25) “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie…” Now the result: (26) “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.”
What does this mean? Did God invent sexual sin? Hardly! It means that as men and women told God they would not honor him as God or give thanks for the good gifts, namely the of their own bodies, he let simply them misuse their bodies in a distorted abuse of sexuality. Dishonor God, God will dishonor you.
Here is why this is important: Paul is not singling out homosexual practice as the unpardonable sin against which he will pour out his wrath. God’s wrath is being revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. And that unrighteousness is ANY effort to suppress the truth. What truth? That you are not the master of yourself, God is. As God’s prosecuting attorney, Paul has indicted every single one of us apart from the hope of the gospel. No one is left standing in the wake of the tidal wave of God’s righteousness. Our text this morning is NOT an occasion for a political pep rally. It’s hard to cheer for your team when your face is in the dust. And we should all feel ourselves laid flat before the judge of all the earth.
There may be some of you here who yourselves are gripped with various degrees of homosexual desire. The first thing I want you to hear is that you are welcome here. We are a community of ransomed and redeemed idolaters, of all kinds. This is a church committed to reversing all wicked exchanges of men with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. At the cross of Christ, there is no room for boasting. But the second thing I want you to hear is that we are a people committed to letting the Creator define the terms of his creation, and that includes the clear teachings of God’s word regarding human sexuality. Homosexual activity is a clear declaration to God that you reject his authority as Creator, and you are substituting yourself in his place. In so doing, you are robbing yourself of joy, and you are stealing glory and authority that belongs to God alone.
So to our brothers and sisters at Winnetka Bible Church who are fighting the fight of faith with us against same-sex attraction, it was not an accident to call you our brothers and sisters. We are right here to link arms with you to pursue your joy in Christ and your growth in holiness. Hear me: there are no second class citizens in the kingdom of heaven, and your holy and celibate lifestyle is a billboard for the sufficiency of Christ that screams to a sex-crazed world, “Jesus is a better God.” You are welcome here. Let us fight with you.
You see, this is why idolatry is so destructive: we are turning up our noses to the Giver of all the gifts of creation. Sexuality is a gift from a generous God. He invented it. When you ignore the instructions of the Giver, the gift malfunctions. This is tragic on two accounts: First, you have declared yourself to be an enemy of one so powerful he merely had to speak a word for the entire cosmos to come into being. What a dreadful enemy! Second, you are ignoring the gift-maker’s own instructions for the operation of his gift. Sure, you might be able to tinker around with it and find a pleasurable use or two, but surely it will be nothing in comparison to its intended function.
It would be like having control of the cockpit of a 747. At your disposal you have the ability to fly anywhere in the world. But instead, you amuse yourself by watching a flashing red light and turning on the radio. How foolish would you seem! This applies to us all. Whatever idol you are chasing, whether it is sex, or money, or relationships, or food, or influence. Whatever pleasures your idolatry is offering, whatever glory you hope to acquire, it pales in comparison to the glory of God and the pleasures at his right hand forevermore like a match in the blazing noonday Sun.
Do not be deceived: if you pursue creation instead of the Creator, you will lose them both. But if you treasure and pursue the Giver, it is in his very nature to give. You can enjoy the gifts as they were intended, rather than abusing them. C. S. Lewis said it this way: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
Sexuality is a great gift from the Creator, but it makes a pathetic little god. If you need proof of that, just look at constant state of dissatisfaction in our culture that bows at this altar more than almost any other. Like the prophets of Baal, they can never seem to get their idol’s attention. Keep God as God, and let the panoply of his provisions create thanksgiving in your heart. Thanksgiving is the opposite of the exchange, is it not? Look at verse 21, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”
Don’t walk out of here so worried about committing idolatry with the things of earth that you try to somehow renounce every good gift God has given you. That would not honor the Giver any more than treating the gift as your god. Let stuff be stuff. It will make a terrible god and you’ll anger the real one.
III. Conclusion: You become what you worship
To wrap up, I’m going to introduce a theme that will get further developed as we finish Romans chapter one. But we see in this passage a theme that permeates the Bible: you become like what you worship. G. K. Beale says is this way: “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” Look at verse 28:
“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.”
From cover to cover, the Bible repeatedly references idols as deaf, mute, dumb, blind, breathless, lame, lifeless things. And according to Psalm 135 “Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.” Whenever the bible describes sensory malfunction as the spiritual state of men and women, it is a description of idol worship. “Seeing, they do not see, and hearing they do not hear.” When you trade the glory of the incorruptible God for images resembling corruptible creatures, you cease to reflect the incorruptible image of God, and instead reflect the corruptible image of created things.
So ultimately, you do not have a sin problem, you have a worship problem. You were designed to reflect the glory of God, but you will reflect something no matter what. Something will sit in the God-seat of your heart. It will either be God, or something else. To quote Matt Papa, “We never begin worship. We aim it.” If the indictment against man is devastating in Romans 1, and it is, the glory awaiting the believer is even more astonishing when we get to Romans 8: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:29)
How does this happen? How does God reverse the corrupting, blinding, debasing influence of idolatry? Paul does not stop this letter in Romans 1. He wants to take us somewhere. Turn a few pages to the beginning of chapter 12, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. “ So compare with me our passage with Romans 12:1–2 for a moment. In Romans 1:28, Man does not even approve to have God in his mind, and so God gives him over to an debased mind. But in Romans 12:2, the mind is renewed and literally, “by testing you may approve the will of God.” What a transformation!
Before, we were degrading our bodies in dishonorable sacrifice to the altar of sexual perversion, but now, in Romans 12:1, we are presenting our bodies in worship to God! What changed? What happened? What kind of power can cause that kind of complete 180? Well, I can tell you this, if I were to have access to that kind of power, I would not be ashamed to proclaim it. Where in this book do we see such an utter display of God’s power?
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “the righteous shall live by faith.”