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When you are talking to someone who is not a Christian and they are resistant or even antagonistic to the gospel, and you think you are getting nowhere, try asking them the question, “If I could prove to you beyond a reasonable doubt that Christianity were true — would you become a Christian?”

We might think this is a “no-brainer” question. After all, who wouldn’t want to become a Christian if it could be proved to be true? However, my experience is that it is far from being open to persuasion, many people don’t WANT Christianity to be true. They understand that if God truly exists, and if the Gospel is true, then our response to it matters. The truth of the Gospel carries significant implications for us in how we live our lives, after all, Jesus said “why do you call me Lord and yet don’t do the things I say?” (Luke 6v46). People will frequently reject Christianity despite any evidence we might present because of those implications.

This morning, I’m going to look at and try to tease out what Paul says about this in Romans 1v18-32, and then to apply it to people we see around us.

This is important because if we can understand WHY people won’t believe, and how that affects their lives, we have a fighting chance of witnessing more effectively to them.

The text

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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 people are without excuse.

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. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them.”

Last week we looked at the evidences for God, and I touched on the fact that faith is a choice. This week, I am going to pick up where we left off and look at WHY people don’t believe and then some of the consequences of that unbelief as they work out in our actions.

We already noted last week that in v18, Paul says people SUPPRESS the truth. He also elaborates this and shows us that truth is known. So, it’s not that people don’t know what the truth is, they suppress it. Later (in 2v15) Paul says the law is written on people’s hearts. For want of a better word, people ‘instinctively’ KNOW that God is real. Their rejection of faith is choice.

What is it that informs that choice, that drives our suppression/rejection of the knowledge of God?

J Warner Wallace suggests three reasons why anyone might reject a truth claim:

Irrational rejection of the Gospel

Firstly, we have irrationality

When you hear people say things like, “I just don’t get it,” or “It makes no sense to me,” or “I just don’t see the evidence for that,” you are probably dealing with someone who falls into this category.

People often criticise Christian believers for their acceptance of the Gospel without reference to what they call the evidence. It is quite common to hear unbelievers criticising people of faith for believing without or even despite evidence. Setting aside that this is a complete misrepresentation of what faith actually is according to the Bible, it is interesting to note that those same people will often refuse to engage rationally with the Gospel because they have already pre-determined what they ‘know’. They summarily dismiss arguments and evidence without even engaging with them. Far from being rational, this is deeply irrational — and hypocritical for that matter.

A second point about evidence, is this. Since people often claim to be only convinced by evidence, they must be held to that claim. Rejecting the arguments we make and then claiming we haven’t given evidence is not honest — we have to point out that giving an argument that people reject is not the same as not giving evidence in the first place.

We also have the right to assess WHY people reject the evidence, and if they are not intellectually lazy or dishonest, they will allow their choices to be subject to that kind of scrutiny. If someone’s reasons for rejecting the gospel are to be valid they must be rational, and not based on presuppositions, or some form of bias. After all, they are claiming to possess both of those characteristics (rationality and impartiality) — if they are claiming that they will follow evidence WHEREVER it may lead, it is not good enough for them to summarily dismiss it because it leads to a conclusion they don’t want to make.

Also when considering arguments and evidence, we must also understand that evidence stands or falls on its own merits, it is neither strengthened nor weakened by the person giving it. We are not in a court of law where the character of a witness might have a bearing on the strength of his testimony, we are dealing with facts, not opinions. John Lennox once said of something Stephen Hawkin wrote, “nonsense is still nonsense even if uttered by world-famous scientists”, the flip-side of that is “sense is still sense even if it’s uttered by a madman”. Hold people to the discipline of weighing arguments on their own strength, not on who makes them. In other words:

  1. Do not permit appeals to authority (= ‘it is true simply because the person saying it is clever or educated’), and, conversely,
  2. Don’t allow ad-hominen attacks (= ‘it is wrong simply because the person is stupid/uneducated/hypocritical etc’).

In other words “I don’t accept that argument because the people making it aren’t proper scientists”, which was said to me by someone in a discussion recently is, in essence, an irrational ad-hominem attack and not worthy of someone who claims to be impartial and scientific. It is not based on evidence, or on the merits of the argument itself, it is a personal opinion of the ‘opponent’. Interestingly, this person’s rationale for dismissing them as not proper scientists was that they were making the argument he didn’t agree with — which is, of course also circular reasoning, a logical fallacy.

Paul talks a lot about wisdom, especially at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, which I will reference later.

Emotional rejection of the Gospel

The second reason people might dismiss the message of the gospel is Emotional

When you hear someone say something like, “Christians are so hypocritical,” or “My dad was a Christian and he was a jerk,” or “I know people who are Christians and I would never want to be like them,” you are probably dealing with someone who is responding emotionally based on some experience either current or in their past. In a nutshell, far too many people dismiss the message of the Gospel because of an unpleasant encounter with someone claiming to be a Christian, (or sometimes because of the presentation of Christians in broadcast and social media). They don’t consider the message of the gospel because, in their view, the messenger has obscured it. Frankly, sometimes, they have a point!

It is VITAL, it is CRUCIAL, that we live out our lives in accordance with the faith we profess. For me, this is one of the most compelling reasons for us to be concerned about ‘works’. One of my mottos, and I don’t apologise for the strength of the language, is this: “if you call yourself a Christian, damn well live like one!” We know from passages like the beginning of Ephesians that our works have absolutely no effect at all on our salvation (‘it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast’), but our actions and our lifestyles reveal where our hearts are, AND it is sobering to think that our actions might have an (indirect) effect on the salvation of another. I for one don’t relish the thought that someone else won’t consider or accept the message of the gospel because of the way I live as a Christian. The last thing I want is someone saying, “if being a Christian means I’ve got to be like Julian—I’m not interested!”

This emotional rejection of the gospel often reveals itself in attack and hatred towards Christians. If you’ve ever been teased or bullied or criticised personally as a Christian, the likelihood is that there is a significant amount of this.

Volitional rejection of the Gospel

Thirdly, we have Volitional (an old word describing the will) reasons. Inn other words, as I touched on last week, people CHOOSE to reject the Gospel.

When you hear someone say something like, “I’m a good person, so I’m not worried about God,” or “I just don’t have time to think about those kinds of things,” or “I wish Christians would just live their own lives and stop telling me how to live mine”, or even “I want to believe, I just cannot”, you may be dealing with someone who wilfully rejects Christianity because they are unwilling to change their life to embrace the truth.

I spoke about when I was finishing off last week. If you say that you “cannot” believe, you are saying that there is an aspect of faith over which you have no control. By implication, then, Christians don’t choose to believe either. In other words they “cannot” NOT believe. This makes any discussions about faith between believers and unbelievers pointless and unnecessary (which is exactly what unbelievers want).

I do not believe that is the witness of the Bible — either in the Old Testament or in the New — which is quite clear from Joshua 24v15 which says “choose the day whom you will serve” to Jesus calling us to “choose the narrow door” (Luke 13v24), to all of the passages which call us to live in accordance with the faith we profess. If we have no choice, why then does God give us self control? If we are not capable of choice, the gospel is meaningless.

God calls all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17v30), Paul says to Titus “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age”

No, belief is not uncontrollable in any sense. Someone who says they cannot believe is being disingenuous, the truth is they WILL not believe.

It is good to understand this, because when we are sharing our faith, seeing what drives people’s response to the Gospel will help us to be more successful.

Example: if someone’s rejection of the gospel comes from a bad experience or upbringing by a ‘bad’ Christian, no amount of reason or rational argument is likely to make any headway. They don’t need reason and argument, they need compassion and humility.

Or, if someone claims to be ‘rational’ but refuses to rationally engage with evidence, they clearly are not being rational, they are being both illogical and irrational.

So, linking this with the scripture, when asked what the greatest commandment is in Matthew 22v37, Jesus says, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’:

  • Heart: speaks to our emotions
  • Soul: speaks to our wills
  • Mind: speaks to our intellect

I want to add to these three and suggest another reason why people reject the gospel:

Spiritual rejection of the Gospel

We are in a spiritual battle, the Bible gives us lots of evidence of the spiritual dimension to existence, and the reality of the spiritual battle. Here are just a few of those references

  1. Ephesians 6v12, ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’.
  2. 2 Corinthians 4v4, ‘the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’.
  3. In John 3v5-8, Jesus is answering Nicodemus who is being a bit thick about spiritual things and says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. ”
  4. John also writes that the light has come into the world and people reject the light because their deeds are evil (John 3v19,20 ‘light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed’.)

Sometimes (often even) someone’s resistance to the Gospel is rooted in this, and the ONLY way to make headway here is through spiritual means. That is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10v4 that ‘the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds’. It is also why the armour of God is couched in spiritual terms (truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, the word of God).

In today’s passage, Paul cites two basic sources of our faith choices …

From 1v21-23 ‘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. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.’

A change in our thinking and our choices.
‘Their thinking became futile’ / ‘although the claimed to be wise, they became fools’

Jesus embeds the mind into the greatest commandment, he says ‘love God with all of your heart, all of your soul and all of your mind’ in Mark and Luke, Mark adds ‘all of your strength’ to the list.

My point here is that far from throwing away your brain and reason to believe (this is what many atheists—or even anti-theists—claim Christians have done), the Bible calls in a number of places for us to use our minds and think carefully about the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 1v18-25 is a key reference here … ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’

These verses and what Paul says in today’s passage in Romans both make a connection between wisdom and foolishness. Interestingly, the ‘world’ is very aggressive in calling Christians fools and seeing themselves as wise. No change in the last 2,000 years, then!

Paul also talks about our lives coming out of our hearts, he said that their rejection of God brings / comes out of a dark and foolish heart.

Jesus tells us that it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks, and the bible says we must forgive people ‘from the heart’

Secondly, Paul then describes the consequence of rejecting God and in a nutshell it is ‘Chasing after physical gratification’. He says God ‘gave them over’ in fact he says it three times …

  1. Romans 1v24 ‘Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts’.
  2. Romans 1v26 ‘God gave them over to shameful lusts’.
  3. Romans 1v28 ‘God gave them over to a depraved mind’.

This phrase is very much about God letting them follow their own desires.

(I quite often come across the belief amongst unbelievers that Christians think God is going to ‘send’ people to hell if they don’t believe in Him. THIS. IS. NOT. TRUE. It is a twisting and a distortion of our faith. God sets a choice before you (so, for example, Jesus talks about wide roads and narrow roads, and wide gates and narrow gates), God tells you the consequences of those choices, you then choose which road you will travel on. Your eternal destination is the outworking of the choice YOU made, if you end up in hell, God didn’t send you there – you chose to go there.)

Today’s passage which I have seen wheeled out quite a lot in recent years is often narrowed in focus to only one thing Paul lists … Sexual relations (Paul makes a distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ relations here, and it is ‘unnatural’ desires which are seen as the result of a rejection of God). In our modern culture where absolutely everything is measured and judged according to sexual politics From divorce, to abortion, to transgender ideology, to alternative lifestyles. Sainsburys last year had posters which specifically said ‘if you do not agree with the modern ‘pride’ movement which not only defends, but actively promotes homosexual and other lifestyles — you are not welcome in our shop’. So, according to a national supermarket chain, I have to agree with the ideologies and aims of the pride movement before I am welcome in their shop.

We cannot deny that this passage does indeed reference human sexual activity, but we must also note that Paul doesn’t only cite lusts and sexual desire as characteristics or consequences of Godlessness – he lists a number of other things which result from suppression of the knowledge of God, and which also put people’s eternal future in jeopardy …

Greed / Depravity / Envy / Murder / Strife / Deceit / Malice / Gossip / Slander / Hatred of God / Insolence / Arrogance and Boasting / Disobedience to parents (a euphemism for the rejection of the values of the previous generation?)

And they lack Fidelity, Love and Mercy (interestingly, it is not the presence of Sin but also a lack of righteousness which characterises rejection of God).

Read also what Paul says to Timothy (2 Timothy 3v1-7)
‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.’

See the similarities?
This is a sobering and very accurate description of the society we live in today. And people say the Bible is archaic and irrelevant to today!

This chasing after personal physical gratification is something which the Bible warns against, and we have to note that though the world around us, and often people in the church seem to focus in on our sexual proclivities or activity, I would suggest there are many more millions of people who are likely to walk blindly into hell because their lives are characterised by one of the other things Paul lists in this passage — by an order of magnitude. For every ONE transgender or homosexual person you meet, you will probably meet dozens or even hundreds who fall foul of gossip or slander or greed or deceit.

Paul paints for us in these early sections of Romans a very bleak picture of the state of the human soul without God, what it is like, how it acts and its ultimate destruction.

We must remind ourselves that Luther discovered the truth of the grace of God in Romans! Hang in there and the answer to all this will be revealed.

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