On April 26, 1998, John Piper preached a sermon on Romans 1:1. It was sermon number 1 in a new series he called “Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written.” He announced to his church it would be “a great ten years in Romans,” and people applauded. He would go on to complete the book in 225 sermons, in just 8 years, 8 months, finishing up on Christmas Eve, 2006. This Romans sermon series is now legend.
But back in the early months of the series, the church had to be prepared to plunge into Romans 1:18–3:20, a prolonged argument from Paul that diagnoses the world’s sin problems, and God’s righteous, wrathful response. This section alone would require 22 sermons. To prepare his congregation for such a heavy season ahead, Pastor John explained how hard texts about sin and wrath are vital for creating sages. Here’s a clip of him explaining from his August 30, 1998, sermon titled “The Wrath of God Against Ungodliness and Unrighteousness.”
For a couple of years, I have been throwing out from time to time a goal that I have for the church in the word sage. Through Sunday school, Wednesday night efforts, track-one TBI, small groups, preaching, worship, I want us to become a church in which we nurture and cultivate sages, sagacious people — that is, people who are wise, discerning, penetrating, people-loving, heart-knowing, God-exalting sages.
Grow in Wisdom
I’ve put it like this: all of you 20-, 30-, 40-year-old people should think — and I’m thinking of women and men. I’ve said it especially to some of you women. Some women wondered, “What’s my vision for my life spiritually as I grow older?”
Whether you are single or married, here’s one vision, one way to articulate to yourself why you’re on planet Earth: think of becoming a 60-year-old sage, to which hundreds of young women in their 20s and 30s and 40s will come streaming, because you penetrate, you see things, you understand things, you grasp things, you know nature, you know God, you know the heart, you know sin, you know ugliness, you know beauty, you know wrath, you know holiness, you know mercy. You know things. You’ve been into the human heart and worked around there and understood it and untangled the sanctity and the sin of the human nature. And people read all over you the aroma of wisdom.
And I just think the only reason that doesn’t happen more often than it does is that we don’t pray toward it, think toward it, work toward it, read toward it, listen toward it, act toward it, relate toward it; we just coast.
So, long after I’m off the scene, may some people in this room right now be remembering, “Remember 20 or 30 years ago when Pastor John Piper was here and he called us to be sages? There’s one, and there’s one; there’s one, and there’s one” — the men and women in their 60s and 70s and 80s, to whom people go because every time they go there’s a fountain of life. The lips of wisdom are a fountain of life (Proverbs 10:11).
Who drinks at your life? You are meant to be that. You are on the earth to become that way. And so many of you have low views of what you’re going to be when you’re older. Stop having low views. The Bible is written to make you wise unto salvation, and not just your own (2 Timothy 3:15). All of this is simply to tell you that to linger in the presence of an authoritative analysis of a human condition for some months is not an unhelpful thing to do if you want to produce sagacious, wise, penetrating, loving counselors to whom people go and get great help.
How Passion for the Gospel Ripens
Romans 1:18, which begins this whole section on sin, is giving us a support for the gospel. Do you see the word for or because at the beginning of verse 18? If you have the NIV, you don’t see it because they dropped it. Shame on them. I don’t know why they do that sort of thing, but if you have the NASB or RSV or KJV or one of the more literal renderings, you will see the word for or because at the beginning of verse 18, and it is absolutely essential for understanding the flow of the apostolic argument.
“If you understand wrath, and you understand sin and unrighteousness, you will desperately look for the gospel.”
The gospel is power because in it righteousness is revealed for you to have by faith — it’s God’s, not yours — so that you can have peace in your conscience, acceptance with God, hope for everlasting life. And you need that because the wrath of God is against your sin mightily. Do you get the connection?
Which means that if you understand wrath, and you understand sin and ungodliness and unrighteousness, you will desperately look for the gospel. You will want a shield from that wrath more than you want anything in the world. And it’s there in Romans 1:17. We’re coming back to it every Sunday. So, if you wonder, “Will you leave the gospel behind and only talk about the problem for several months?” The answer is no. Because the only reason Paul talks about the problem is to make you love the gospel.
Never Skip over Sin
And if you try to do an end run around this section and jump from Romans 1:17 to Romans 3:21, you won’t love the gospel. That’s being taught all over the world today in the name of Christianity. “Let’s just jump over this sin stuff. Let’s just jump over this wrath stuff. This is not encouraging; it is not going to make people want to come back to my church on Sunday morning.”
I don’t believe that, by the way, visitors, whoever you are. Frankly, I think you’d like an interpretation of death and suffering and moral degeneracy in our society. I think the world is kind of interested in questions like “Where’d death come from? And is there any hope to overcome it?”
So, I’m not worried about talking about sin and chasing anybody away. People leave for all kinds of reasons, and people come for the most strange reasons you can ever imagine. God brings you here this morning for this message. You’re here for this message, and I pray that you’ll be listening.
Don’t Run from Your Diagnosis
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). The first thing I want you to see in that verse is the two uses of the word unrighteousness — twice. Wrath is coming against our unrighteousness. And we are holding down or suppressing or hindering the truth in unrighteousness.
Surely Paul, in writing those two words, unrighteousness, means for us to connect them with the word righteousness in verse 17. And he wants us to hear that the reason we need a righteousness from God is because we are unrighteous. That’s what he wants us to hear in these words. So, don’t miss that connection.
In other words, you can see right off the bat that the bad news of verse 18 is meant to highlight the good news of verse 17. And if you don’t get your condition as unrighteous, you won’t love the awesome reckoning of verse 17. So, don’t run from these things. Don’t run from the diagnosis.