These three messages are conceived as, first, defining money, sex, and power, second, defeating the dangers of money, sex, and power, and third, deploying the potentials of money, sex, and power — all of that under the banner: Living in the light.
So here we are at the second message, defeating the dangers of money, sex, and power, by living in the light. So we are going to pick up where we left off in Romans 1 because Paul makes the connection between exchanging the light of God for darkness and the distortion and destructiveness of sexual sin.
Let’s start with Romans 1:21–23,
Although they knew God, they did not glorify 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 creeping things.
The word “light” is not used in these verses. But the word “darkness” is at the end of verse 21 — “their foolish hearts were darkened.” And instead of contrasting that darkness with light, Paul is contrasting it with glory the light and the brightness of God’s beauty and perfections. Verse 21a: “They did not glorify him as God.” But, verse 23a: they “exchanged the glory of God for images.” So he is saying that, in our sinful, unregenerate condition, know God (in one sense — verse 21: “although they knew God”), nevertheless, we take the glory of God, so to speak, and trade it. Exchange it. And in doing so we push the light of the universe — the brightness, and beauty and meaning of created reality, and consign ourselves to darkness. Adam and Even though they were choosing wisdom, and they chose darkness and death. Verse 22: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” And we have been doing it ever since.
So living in darkness means seeing God minimally desirable, and seeing his creation as maximally desirable. That’s implied in the word “exchanged.” They exchanged the glory of God. When you exchange something, you express your preference. You express your greater desire. And if you prefer God’s creation over God, then you find God less desirable that what you prefer. And that is what it means to be in the darkness. The darkness is where you can’t see things for what they really are. If you see anything as more beautiful, more attractive, more desirable than God, you are in the dark. You are not seeing reality for what it is.
So living in the light, is seeing God as supremely glorious, supremely beautiful, and supremely desirable, supremely satisfying. In the light, you would never exchange his glory. You would cleave to his glory. He would be more precious to you than anything.
Now what’s the connection between sex and this exchange of the glory of God for images? This is what Paul turns to next. Four times in verses 23-28 he says that this exchange of God’s glory for other things — this preferring of human glories over God’s glory — is the root of disordered sexuality.
First, note the connection between verse 23 and 24: “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images . . . . Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” So the vertical dishonoring of God gives rise to the horizontal dishonoring of the human body in lust.
Second, note the connection between verses 24 and 25: “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.” The cause of the lust and impurity and dishonoring of the body is that they embraced the lie, the darkness that the creation ofGod is more satisfying than the glory of God.
Third, note the relationship between verses 25 and 26: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie . . . For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” So the reason for their dishonorable passions was they exchanged the true glory of God for the lie that he is not more desirable than anything.
And fourth, note the relationship between the two halves of verse 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God (=did not approve of having God in their knowledge), God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” They did not want God as the dominant reality in their minds. They did not want the glory of God as the supreme value in their hearts. Therefore they embraced sexual sin.
Could Paul have made it any clearer that the root problem in sexual sin is that we don’t love the light and beauty of the glory of God more than anything. We love the created image, not the reality. We love the lie, not the truth. We love the darkness, not the light.
The reason homosexuality is the focus here is probably because it gives the clearest illustration of how the exchange of the beauty we were made for vertically is reflected in the exchange of the beauty we were made for horizontally. Man exchanging woman for man. Woman exchanging man for woman. That horizontal exchange reflects the vertical exchange of the glory of God for the glory of images especially the one we see in the mirror, which is always the same sex as us.
This is exactly what Paul draws attention to in the way he uses the word “exchanged through the text: Verse 23: We “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images. Verse 25: We “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” Verses 26-27: “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.”
But even though the exchange involved in same sex attraction is a particularly vivid parable of the root of our sexually disordered lives in the exchange of God’s glory for what is not God, the connection applies to all our sexual sins: adultery — exchanging a spouse for a illicit partner; fornication — exchanging God’s call to chastity in singleness for unmarried sex; lust — the exchange of purity for pornography.
All of them — all of our sexual sinning is rooted in this: We don’t treasure the glory of God as supremely desirable over all things. We allow the darkness of the lie to persuade us that this illicit pleasure is more to be desired than God.
So the danger of sex is that, because our hearts are disordered vertically, and God is not our supreme desire, our hearts are also disordered horizontally and we prefer illicit pleasures to godly ones. In other words, when the planet of sex, which is itself a good thing, comes into the gravitational pull of an alien sun, it is drawn into illicit orbits. Only when the sun of God’s all-satisfying glory is the center of the solar system of our lives will sex find its beautiful, holy, happy orbit.
What about money? How does the good gift of money, so full of potential for blessing, become destructive? How is it related to the exchange of the glory of God for other things?
Have you ever pondered the possibility that the first and the last of the ten commandments are virtually the same, and function as a kind enclosure or bracketing that makes everything in the middle possible in the right way? The first is “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). “Before me” in what sense? Verse 5 makes it plain: “I the LORD your God am a jealous God.” In other words, You Israel, are my wife. If your heart goes after another god, I get angry. Your heart, your loyalty, your love, your affection, your devotion, your enjoyment belong to me. Suprememly. So “You shall have no other gods before me,” mean: I will always be number one in your affections. You will delight in me more than any suitor that might come along. Nothing shall appeal to you more than I do. Embrace me as your supreme treasure and be content in me.
Then the last of the ten commandments is, “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). The word “covet” (תַחְמֹ֖ד, ἐπιθυμήσεις) means simply “desire.” So the question in defining what “covet” means is the question: When does desire for something like money or what money can buy, become bad desire? When does legitimate desire become covetousness?
My answer is: put the last commandment together with the first and you get your answer. The first commandment is: No gods before me; nothing in your heart competing with me; desiring me so fully that when you have me, you are content. What then would be the bad desire of covetousness? Answer: Don’t deserve anything in a way that would express a lack of contentment in God. Covetousness — desire that is going up because desire for God is going down. Covetousness is a symptom of losing contentment in God.
Let’s test this with Paul’s strongest words about money and how money relates to contentment. Look at 1 Timothy 6:5-10. Paul starts with a description of people very much like people in Romans 1, only now the issue is the disordered craving for money, not the disordered craving for sex:
. . . people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:5–10)
It is clear from that passage that money is dangerous. I know it’s not the money itself that destroys the soul. It’s the craving. The desiring. But Jesus said, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heave” (Matthew 19:23). Money itself is dangerous, because how quickly and easily it deceives us. Jesus says, “The deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matthew 13:22).
Handling money is like handling a live wire that can electrocute you. Paul’s words: Verses 9-10 — “Temptation, . . . snare . . . many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction . . . pierced with many pangs.”
But the key that unlocks this text is: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (verse 6). What is the protection against these deadly effects of money? Answer: Is your heart content in God? Are you deeply satisfied in God, so that this satisfaction, this contentment, doesn’t collapse when God ordains that you have much or little. Paul said, “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12). What was the secret? Profound satisfaction in Christ: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
So the danger of money is that it can deceive us into thinking and feeling that what it gives is more satisfying than God is. Few things lure us to exchange the glory of God more readily than money. Money beckons desire, desire becomes covetousness, contentment in the glory of God is lost, and contrary to the first and second commandments we become idolaters. Which is why Paul said in Colossians 3:5, “Put to death . . . covetousness, which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). And there is only one way to put a desire to death: Namely, with a stronger desire. And the only counter desire that honors God is a desire for God.
And so it is, finally, with power. Sex, money, and power. If we are living in the light, then the light of the glory of God is our supreme treasure, our joy, our satisfaction, our contentment. And this satisfaction in God is the great liberator from the bondage of lust, and this contentment in God is the great liberator from the slavery of covetousness. And so it is with the dangers of power.
The reason we abuse power is because we do not humbly delight in the glory of God’s right to all power. When we are blind to the glory of God’s passion to be known and loved as the source and sum of all power, we take it for our own and use it for ourselves. That is not why God created the universe. He created the universe and he governs the universe to put the supremacy of his power — not only his power, but not less than his power — his all-sustaining, all-providing, all-controlling power on display for our admiration and trust and pleasure. He means for it to be known. And he means for nobody, anywhere, at any time to claim any power that is not God’s power.
Romans 9:17. “For this very purpose I raised you up [Pharaoh] that I might show my power in you.”
Romans 9:22. “What if God, desiring . . . to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”
Jeremiah 16:21. “Behold, I will make them know my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the LORD.”
2 Corinthians 4:7. “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
2 Corinthians 12:9. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
John 19:10–11. “Pilate said, ‘Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me at all unless it had been given you from above”
The danger of all power is to deceive us into thinking that it is ours. It is not ours. It is God’s. All of it. And it is on loan to us to use for his great purposes. “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17–18).
And what is the remedy for the darkness of this deceit? Light. Living in the light. And what is the light of truth that must not be suppressed but exalted? The truth is this: That the glory of God is the brightest beauty, and the greatest treasure, the sweetest pleasure in all of reality, and is, therefore, never to be exchanged for anything, but embraced every day as more satisfying than any pleasure that sex, or money, or power can bring. This is the path of freedom. No other path satisfies us more, or glorifies God more.