The Washington Monument was begun in the year 1848 but not completed, inaugurated and opened to the public until several years later. It stands 555 feet, 5 1/8th inches tall, and on the aluminum cap atop the monument (where, of course, no one can see it or will get a glimpse of it) are displayed two words: "Laus Deo!" -- "Praise Be To God!" It is meaningful that these two words should occupy the highest place in our nation's capitol.
We should observe that this is also the highest obligation in each one of our lives. Our first responsibility is to recognize and acknowledge God for who he is and then to conduct ourselves in light of that acknowledgment. If we could do that, it would bless our lives so much. The wise man in Proverbs 3 so long ago said, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes. Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones." If we acknowledge God truly, trust him, and then respect him in our behavior, he says it will be healing to our flesh and refreshment to our bones.
On the other hand, what happens if that advice goes unheeded? What occurs in an individual life and then consequently in a society when God is not acknowledged and thanked and respected as he ought to be? There is no more sobering illustration of the way this develops than what Paul lays before us in Romans 1. This thought-provoking passage has so many themes and lessons in it that we can't probably in a lifetime of study get around to each one of them. But the theme of acknowledging God as our highest obligation shines through in this passage in a vivid way.
Beginning in verse 18 of Romans 1, Paul, who has just said that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, verse 17, now says that the wrath of God is revealed in the course of human events. He says, "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. 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. 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 reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lust 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. 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 decreed at those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them."
You will agree, won't you, that this is a sobering passage. I want you to consider how it fits with what we have mentioned about the need for us to acknowledge God in our lives.
Observe that this passage starts by focusing on the reality of the living God. The first thing that stands out is that what can be known about God is plain, as verse 19 says, to anyone who will see it. And Paul says it is plain in the things that have been made. This is a theme that occurs often in the scriptures. The Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 3:4 that just as every house, every building is built by somebody, the one who built all things is God. If you look at a house you are considering purchasing, chances are there will be available somewhere information about who the builder of that house was. You will know instinctively that the house did not just happen to exist there. And the Hebrew writer's reasoning is, "If we can see that with one little building in a great big world, how could we not see the same truth with the entire universe which is far more impressive and more complex?"
In Psalm 19:1 and following it says that "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork." And it says those things speak in a language which can be heard in every voice and in every tongue all over the world, and they proclaim the existence of the creator. In the New Testament in Acts 14 they came to the place where people were trying to worship Paul and Barnabas as Mercury and Zeus. Paul has to stop them from that and to insist that there is a living God, not a god that people have made, but a living God. And this God has not left himself without witness, but has made himself known in fruitful seasons in the lives of people and in good gifts for people to enjoy. Later, in Acts 17, at Mars Hill in Athens, surrounded by the wisest philosophers of the day, Paul got up and recognized their altar to the unknown God, just in case they have left one out somewhere. Then he announced that there is a living God who does not live in houses made with man's hand, but that this living God is the one in whom we live and move and have our very being and that we should be seeking him in our lives. That ought to be our priority.
And so Paul is using that same line of reasoning here in our passage, and he is saying that from the things that have been made that are visible, we should be able to conclude some things about the invisible God. He says that we should be able to see first of all, God's eternal power. Anyone, according to Paul's thinking, should be able to look at the world and to see that whoever made this was mighty. Whoever made this had great power. Whoever designed this and caused this had a kind of ability that is far beyond anything else that any of us have known. And then Paul says we should be able to read the book of nature and to conclude some things about God's divine nature. He is Deity. He is not just another creature. He is not a man, certainly. He has a kind of wisdom and a kind of unchanging nature and a kind of presence and of being which makes him divine, eternal, great and mighty in every sense of the word. And Paul says the evidence is such that we are without excuse. He is not saying in this passage that we can look around us at nature and see God's will. That comes through the revelation of his word. But he is saying we can look around us and see God's existence and recognize in view of that, that we are accountable, that we are responsible. What he is saying when he says we are without excuse is that all of us are responsible to this living God.
Now in view of that, it stands to reason that there are some things that should take place in our response to what we see and know of God. One thing is that we ought to honor Him, verse 21 says. To glorify God means to give him the place of which he is worthy, to recognize him in the place which he occupies. Our kids at camp sing the song, "Above All Else." And they will say in that song, "We place you in the highest place." And that is what it means to glorify God. "High above all else," because that is the place he occupies and that is the place of which he is worthy.
Next, we should be people who give thanks to God. If we have been given gifts by him, and if we live and move and have our being in him, and if he has loved us and cared for us and provided for us, then surely we should be moved to gratitude to give thanks to God. Anyone knows that at some point he needs to pause and express his gratitude for the way he has been blessed. Surely that is reasonable.
And then the third thing is that we should see fit to acknowledge God in our choices and in our conduct, as verse 28 would seem to indicate. We should consider God worthy of thought in our lives, worthy of attention in our service, and worthy of respect in our conduct. That is the beginning theme that overrides this entire passage. God is, and we are without excuse for not glorifying him and thanking him and acknowledging him in our lives.
Unfortunately, the second theme that stands out is that those obligations have not been upheld or met. Instead of recognizing what God makes plain and responding to that, mankind as a whole has developed a futile mind, a foolish way of thinking. We have sought our own reasoning instead of what God has revealed and have therefore become empty as beings.
Paul's contention here in Romans 1 is that some foolish exchanges have been made. He says first that we have foolishly "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles" (verse 23). In other words, we have engaged in an effort to make God into what we want him to be. We have turned from the God of the Bible to gods to suit us. Gods that make no demands on us morally. Gods that do not puzzle us or threaten us or inconvenience us.
There are some vivid pictures of this process in scripture. In Isaiah 44 there is the picture of the fellows who are working - one a metal smith, one a woodworker. They work and get tired and weary, and finally one of them goes out and cuts down a cypress tree. He chops up that tree, takes part of it, makes a fire, and cooks himself something to eat in order to regain his strength. He then fashions the other part of that tree into a god and bows down and worships it and says, "Deliver me, deliver me." And Isaiah says he is a guy "feeding on ashes." In Jeremiah 10 there is a picture of a fellow who goes out into the forest and cuts down a tree. He decorates that tree with gold and silver, and then he sets it up as his idol. Jeremiah says it is like "a scarecrow in a cucumber patch." It can't hear, it can't speak, it can't live, it can't do anything, but it is that man's god. That is a foolish exchange. To exchange the living, immortal God whose eternal power and divine nature is plain for something like that is a poor exchange.
Secondly, Paul says in our text here that we have exchanged in general "the truth of God for a lie" (verse 25). We have in consequence of our previous trade now worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. The real and the genuine has been traded for the false and the empty, and man, as a result, is left with no higher object than himself and no deeper meaning or purpose in his life than self-serving searches for pleasure. It is a poor trade again, from a God who is supreme and could give meaning to one that leaves us empty.
And then third Paul says that we have "exchanged natural relations for those which are contrary to nature" (v. 26). In reading this text, it is obvious that Paul believes that nature is a powerful testimony to God's will. The natural world testifies, he says, to God's everlasting power and his deity. And, according to what he says here, nature also is a powerful testament to God's will regarding human relationships, and especially family relationships. But when we do not acknowledge God, we misunderstand ourselves and we soon have trouble with our relationships.
The world in which Paul lived bore powerful testimony to the truth of what he is saying. I brought with me something from William Barclay's writings. He says that by the time Paul wrote this passage in Romans 1, he was saying nothing but what secular writers had already said. Seneca said, "Women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married." Roman high-born matrons dated the years by the names of their husbands, and not by the names of the rulers. Juvenal could not believe that it was possible to have the rare good fortune to find a matron in Rome with her chastity unsullied. Clement of Alexandria spoke of the typical Roman society lady as "girt like Venus with a golden girdle of vice." Juvenal wrote, "Is one husband enough for Iberina? Sooner will you prevail upon her to be content with one eye than with one husband." He cites the case of a woman who had eight husbands in five years. He cites the incredible case of Agrippina, the empress herself, the wife of Claudius, who at night used to leave the royal palace and go down to serve in a brothel for the sake of sheer unsated lust. "They show a dauntless spirit in those things they basely dare," he observed. Barclay says that vice did not stop with the crude and natural vices. Society from top to bottom was riddled with unnatural vice and he says 14 out of the first 15 Roman Emperors were homosexuals (Romans, p. 24-25).
What Paul is saying in this passage is that when God is not acknowledged, some poor exchanges take place. And those poor exchanges lead to the third theme that is here and that is the debased mind that results from this process working its course. This, friends, is how Paul says that the wrath of God is revealed in the present world. The wrath of God is not merely something that is reserved for a day, although there is a judgement day, the day of wrath, Romans 2:5 says. But what Paul is saying is that the wrath of God works itself out in the here and now by what occurs in the lives of the sons of disobedience.
There is a process in which God gives them up. He gives them up to impurity (v. 24). He gives them up to dishonorable passions (verse 26). He gives them up to a debased mind (verse 28). In other words, God allows us to choose and then he gives us the natural consequences of those choices we have made in rebelling against him.
C.S. Lewis in his book, "The Problem of Pain," years ago wrote that the lost "enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded and are self enslaved." The description of this that occurs in verses 29-31 is amazing. When you look at what happens here to the person's own heart, to the state of his mind, to what he is willing to say about people and to people, and then at the insulant, haughty, boastful attitude, and then to the heartlessness, the sheer, cruel heartlessness that develops, then you see the wrath of God at work in human life.
The worst of it is the kind of mind that finally is produced. It is a mind which knows the decree of God that those who practice destructive unrighteousness deserve to die, verse 32 says, that judgement rightly falls on those who do such things, that God's judgement is righteous. These persons know this, Paul says, and yet he claims they still willfully do these things. They choose a lifestyle which is full of all manner of unrighteousness. An then, worse yet, the concluding convicting thought is that they give approval to those who practice such things. When we admire and applaud and congratulate the evildoer of this passage, then we are engaging in the worst of the spirit that Paul is portraying for us here.
Someone has written: "The American culture is journeying through the muck and the smut, looking for lower ground, not of necessity but of depravity. Unless we change course and soon, our destination is either moral anarchy and social chaos or the surrender of all our freedoms to big brother in exchange for his promises to protect us from ourselves" (Linda Bowles). That statement deserves thought from all of us. There is a real God who has been foolishly exchanged for a lie and the consequences need to be considered if we are going to build a world worth living in.
The amazing thing about this passage is that that is the kind of society Paul was excited about preaching the gospel in the midst of. That is the kind of world in which he said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." Paul believed the gospel had a power that could impact and change for the better even that kind of a society and culture.
You and I want to be convinced of that fact today, starting with our own lives. The good news of what God has done for us in Christ can change us, can let us acknowledge God with our attitudes and our lives and can let us serve him faithfully from now on.