Take a moment and think about the best gift you ever gave someone at Christmas. It may not have been that expensive, but most certainly would be meaningful. I remember saving up and getting my then-girlfriend and now-wife Michelle the very popular (at least in 1979) add-a-bead necklace—remember them? I was so proud of that present!
Christmas reminds us of the greatest gift. Yes, we have commercialized the season and turned it into an advertisement for the American dream of counsumerism. But at its heart, Christmas is about God’s gift to us.
When we think of biblical passages that remind us of the season we of course go to the early parts of Luke or Matthew, or perhaps to Isaiah. But Romans 1 also serves to remind us of the reason for the season.
The latter part of Romans 1 comprises part of a larger section from 1:18-3:20 where Paul makes the case for the guilt of man in the face of the righteousness of God. He makes it clear that we simply cannot save ourselves. We cannot earn or merit a right standard with God, as our sin is too wicked. We are either saved by works or by faith—we cannot have it both ways.
Paul transitions from the theme in verses 16-17 to his point:
“For the wrath of God…” God’s wrath is not some capricious, erratic hostility, but God’s measured response to the wickedness of sin.
He hates sin, let us be clear about that.
We needed a Christ-child because of our sin. We can avoid driving through some dangerous neighborhoods, but that does not cease them from being real. We can ignore the effects of abortion or abuse, but our avoidance does not mean they are innocent practices. We can attempt to downplay our rebellion, but that does not change reality.
The purpose of this passage is not to give us a club to be homophobic or to assault lost people. It is to demonstrate how we, and all humanity, are guilty before God. This passage deals with Gentiles. In Chapter 2 Paul will get to the Jews.
The Gentiles are without excuse before the righteous God and guilty because they
1) Suppress the truth about God (1:18-20) Note that Creation shows us God as the Creator (v. 20). But our hearts take us away from God and cause us not to seek Him but to suppress Him. Most people do not reject the gospel intellectually, but volitionally. They do not want to humble themselves before a holy God. Humanism says man is basically good, and can do wrong. Biblicism says man is inherently wrong, but can do some good. Your starting point will determine your understanding of the need for grace. The Bible unambiguously states that it is our nature to suppress truth rather than to embrace it.
We need the Incarnation to radically alter our situation.
2) They exchanged God’s glory for idols (1:21-23) This reveals the stupidity of sin, that the created would fashion substitutes to the Creator to worship for themselves. Idolatry is all around us; we do not need a statue to be idolators. As one interpreter observed: “Man the worshiper became man the philosopher, with the result an empty head and a darkened heart.” We were created to worship, and if we do not worship God we will manufacture idols, and our hearts are a remarkable idol-manufacturing facility. The man who is bored in church will scream at a ball game. A woman who is not stirred by reading Scripture is mesmerized by a sale. If we do not seek the glory of God we will seek glory in something.
Therefore, three times the passage says “God gave them over” to their own sin, with tragic result:
1) To sexual impurity (1:24) The response to sin is to follow it based on our passions. The step from idolatry to immorality is a short one, because immorality is a form of the idolatry of self.
2) To idolatry (1:25) We created idols to worship to justify our sin. We may even manipulate the Scriptures to justify our lifestyle. The LIE is that we can be our own Gods. Matthew Henry said, “It was the greatest honour God did to man that he made man in the image of God; but it is the greatest dishonour man has done to God that he has made God in the image of man.”
3) To unnatural sin like homosexuality (1:26-27) This sin was rampant in Paul’s day and has become part of our mainstream culture today (just watch an episode of virtually any TV show today). By any normal observation there is something completely unnatural about homosexual sin. It does not make sense, except in the context of depravity. This is not a license to hate homosexuals, for a homosexual needs Jesus as I did as a young, lost Baptist. But this passage is a recognition that depravity left unchecked takes a person places they would never have imagined at the start.
4) To a depraved mind (1:28-31) Paul names many sins, though the list is not exhaustive. Ultimately we convince ourselves that what is evil is actually good, turning everything upside down. Note here that Paul lists sins beyond homosexuality. It is a mistake to see this passage as simply a diatribe against homosexuality; you and I have committed at least some of the sins he names here. And the greatest issue lies not in the list of sins, but in the depraved nature of our hearts. Our Christian subculture likes to categorize sins we do not commit openly as evil sins, and sins we commit as, to quote Jerry Bridges, “respectable sins.” This passage should make us humbly realize how desperately we all need a savior.
The result of this idolatry and depravity is the judgment of God, and a blindness to consequences (1:32) Not only do we live in our depravity, but we take others with us on the road to hell. Paul describes people who are evangelists for evil. We are all evangelists: we all promote something: our watered down Christianity, our idolatry of self, or Christ.
What does this have to do with Christmas? In a sea of various Christmas stories that tell generalized moral tales of kindness and gift giving, or perhaps even forgiveness, we are reminded that Jesus Christ did not come as a baby in the manger to help us forgive more or to be more compassionate. He is not a glorified Santa Claus. No, he left glory to live and serve and die brutally for our sins because we are more wicked than we can imagine, and left to ourselves will destroy ourselves and take others with us.
The wonder of the Incarnation can only truly be enjoyed only as we understand the horror of our depravity. This Christmas season, thank God that he has provided a rescue from our sin through the baby in the manger.