The last time we were together we entered a section of Paul’s letter to the Romans that is so up to date in its analysis of the human condition that it almost takes your breath away. We will see this in the coming weeks as it relates to theories of naturalistic evolution, and to the issue of homosexuality and certain sexually transmitted diseases, and we will see it as it relates to the insolence and arrogance and disrespect of many young people toward their parents and others in authority.
Today we will see it in the immediately relevant issue of the contemporary phenomenon of “the spin doctor” — the person whose job is to put his finger into the wind of public opinion and decide how to bend the facts to make them sound appealing, with little or no regard for truth. The people who live by polls, not principle. That is what today’s text is about.
“We soften our own sins with mild words and skewer others with hard words.”
But lest we become self-righteous (as Romans 2:1 warns us so powerfully: “You have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things”), know this: every one of us is a spin doctor by nature. Every one of us is spring-loaded to put his own failings in the best light and the failings of his adversaries in the worst light.
We soften our own sins with mild words and skewer others with hard words. Or worse, we see the sins of others and are blind to our own. And when the truth hunts us down and corners us, we will dodge and distort and evade and mislead and equivocate and lie. And when that doesn’t work to suppress the truth, we will shift to blaming and accusing and deflecting — anything to hold down the truth from having its full effect in our lives. That’s what Romans 1:18 is about. This so relevant it takes your breath away.
All of Us — Not just Politicians
Yet, we are not talking about politicians here. We are talking about humans in general. This is the way I am, apart from the work of sovereign grace in my life. This is the way you are, apart from God’s mercy. It would be fool’s play this morning to turn this text into a commentary on the gutting of truth in government. That application would be way too small and would let all of us here right off the hook — which is not what Scripture or preaching is about.
The issue this morning is your heart and my heart and how we suppress the truth in unrighteousness. This text is not about a class of politicians or a class of especially bad people. It is about humanity. The conclusion comes in Romans 3:9–10: “Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘there is none righteous, not even one.’” And verse 13 adds, “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving.”
So the issue this morning is about how people like us, who are bent from birth to distort and suppress the truth, can get free from this slavery and be saved. It’s all about pointing us back to Romans 1:17 — there is a free gift of righteousness from God for all who trust in Jesus Christ.
Here’s the text: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
There it is: ungodly people, unrighteous people — as we all are without grace — suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Now how does that work? What is that like in actual experience? And what is the remedy?
So we have several questions before us. Let’s begin with these: What truth is being suppressed? And what does it mean that we suppress it “in unrighteousness”?
What Is the Truth that We Suppress?
What is the truth that we suppress? The answer is given in the following verses. Read with me verses 19–21:
[We suppress the truth in unrighteousness], because that which is known about God [first clue: the truth being suppressed is something known about God] is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes [now he gets specific; here is the truth that is known about God from the created world], his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. [There is the objective truth about God that we suppress — his eternal power and deity — but now he tells us that there is another subjective truth, namely, the response we are supposed to have to this truth about God.] For even though they knew God, they did not honor him [literally, glorify him] as God or give thanks.
That is the truth: we should glorify and thank God.
“We do not supply God, he supplies us. And therefore we are to live in constant gratitude.”
So here is the truth that we suppress apart from God’s grace in our lives: There is a God. He is the Creator of all things and so not a god but the God. He is powerful — more powerful than all else — because he made all else. He is eternal because there was nothing outside him that could bring him into being. Therefore, we must exist to display his glory and not to compete with him for glory. And we must exist in absolute dependence on him. We do not supply him, he supplies us. And therefore we are to live in constant gratitude.
That is the truth that we suppress in unrighteousness. This is confirmed in verses 25 and 28. Verse 25: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie [notice, the truth that is being exchanged, gotten rid of, suppressed is truth about God], and [they] worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” This is the same as saying, “They did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but instead glorified the creature and took credit for what was owing only to God.” They exchanged God-worship for self-worship. They suppressed the truth that God is infinitely glorious and that we are totally dependent on him.
Or consider verse 28: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer [literally: they did not approve having God in their knowledge], God gave them over to a depraved mind.” Not approving to have God in their knowledge is the same as “suppressing the truth.” God is true, but we don’t want him in our knowledge, so we will suppress this truth. We will exchange it. Distort it. Hide it. Run from it. And finally, become blind to it.
That blindness is the point of Romans 1:21: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” In other words, part of our condition in suppressing the truth about God is that we become darkened. You don’t just hold it down because you see and don’t like it, but because you don’t even see it any more. This is why so many will say, “I don’t suppress the truth of God; I don’t think there is any truth of God to suppress.” Paul would say, “The only explanation for such a stance in this world that God has made is a darkened heart — blindness to divine reality.”
So let’s sum up what the truth is that we suppress. The truth is that God exists. He is eternal and infinitely powerful. He supplies us with all we have. Therefore, he is gloriously self-sufficient with no needs that we can meet. The truth is that our reason for being is to be thankful for all he has given us and to display his glory by the way we think and feel and act (see Psalm 50:23).
We Get the Blessing and He Gets the Glory
In other words, the truth is that the universe is radically God-centered: it comes from him, it exists for the display of his glory. And human life is supposed to be radically God-centered — not by working for God as if he were a needy deity, but by our being thankful to him and exulting in the grace that so much good comes to us, even amid terrible suffering.
Don’t miss the implication here, because it relates so deeply to the truth we cherish here at Bethlehem. Here is the truth: there are two great demands of God on the lives of all humans — (1) that we exult in God’s bounty to us (that’s thankfulness), and (2) that we reflect or display his glory. Don’t miss this. It is right there in verse 21: “Even though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks.” It means that God has created a universe in which we get the blessings and he gets the glory. And the way God gets the glory is by our exulting in him as the all-sufficient Giver of all things.
You might ask: Why did Paul not stress here that the failure of mankind is the failure to glorify God and trust him? Why the stress on gratitude and not faith? I believe the reason is that trust, or faith, is related to how God will deal with us in the future. But natural revelation — what we can learn about God from nature — does not communicate clearly the promises of God. The promises of God come through the special revelation of Scripture, which is why trust or faith in God’s promises becomes so central in how we glorify God according to the Scriptures (see Romans 4:20).
“Our reason for being is to display the glory of God every day.”
So here is the truth: God exists. God is eternal and infinitely powerful. God is the giver of every good gift. And therefore our reason for being — our chief duty, the end for which we were created, and the commandment written on every heart — is to display the glory of this great God every day, hour by hour, as we live in the exultation over his bounty to us.
And that is the truth that we hate and suppress in unrighteousness.
“Who Suppress the Truth in Unrighteousness”
Why do we do this? The key is given in the words, “in unrighteousness.” Verse 18b: “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
Why did Paul not say in verse 18b, “who suppress the truth in ungodliness”? The answer is that the truth being held down is godliness. That’s what we have been talking about: godliness. Glorifying God and thanking God — this is godliness. It would not mean much to say, “who suppress godliness in ungodliness.”
But in the context of Scripture it means a lot to say, “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Unrighteousness is life orientation that goes with ungodliness — with rejecting the truth of God’s glory as central to your life. So how does this work?
There are several places where we see how it works. Let’s take one from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians and one from the teachings of Jesus.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is describing the end of the age and the great apostasy and deception that will come on the world in those days. He says that the lawless one will come (2 Thessalonians 2:10) “with all the deception of unrighteousness[adikia, same word as in Romans 1:18] for those who perish.” Please note that unrighteousness deceives; it suppresses the truth. He continues that they are perishing “because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.”
Those who are deceived in unrighteousness do not receive the love of the truth. They suppress the truth and evade it. They don’t love it. Why? He continues in verses 11–12: “For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but [and this is crucial] took pleasure in unrighteousness.”
Why did they reject the truth and suppress the truth and not love the truth? Because they “took pleasure in unrighteousness.” When you love sin, you cannot love the truth. The truth is too threatening. It threatens to take away your illicit pleasures. I would venture to say that virtually all falsehood comes from this: a stronger affection for the pleasures of sin. That is what unrighteousness is: loving sin more than loving God and his truth.
So you see that the issue of truth is an issue of the heart before it is an issue of the head. When the heart is in love with self-exaltation and independence and the pleasures of sin, the mind will inevitably distort the truth or suppress the truth in order to protect the idols of the heart. What is needed is not just new ideas or more information, but a new heart. And a new set of passions and desires and pleasures.
Look at this one more time in John 3:19–21. You are going to hear the same analysis of our sinful hearts and why they suppress the truth of God. Jesus said, “This is the judgment, that the light [truth!] has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil.” Notice: it’s a love-and-hate issue. People love darkness. Why? Jesus said it is because their deeds are evil. That is, they are unrighteous. Light and truth would expose that. Darkness conceals it. Therefore, we suppress the truth and so protect the ugliness of our desires with darkness.
Jesus goes on in verse 20: “For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” There it is. Why won’t we come to the light, the truth? Because of unrighteousness. We hate the light. We evade it if we can. And if we can’t, then we twist it and distort it and give it a self-justifying spin. And in all of this we suppress it.
Not Mental Deficiency, but Moral Deficiency
“We suppress the light of God’s glory and power because we love the darkness of our own independence.”
So here is the great lesson to be learned: the reason the mind evades, twists, distorts, manipulates and suppresses the truth of God is not mainly that we are mentally deficient, but because we are morally deficient. We suppress the light of God’s glory and power because we love the darkness of our own independence. We love our sins, our self-determination, and therefore we suppress the truth that God is God and that we are to depend on him and live for his glory.
And this, Paul says in Romans 1:18, is why the wrath of God is being poured out. This suppression of the truth of his glory and his power and his deity and his goodness, because of our love affair with unrighteousness, makes him furious. And we should tremble.
Is there any hope for us? The hope lies in verses 16–17. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” In other words, because we are unrighteous, and in our unrighteousness suppress the truth, our only hope is that the righteousness God demands from us would be freely given to us, namely, God’s own righteousness, to be received by faith. That you may have this morning because of the death and resurrection of Jesus who paid the debt so that everyone who believes in him might be saved.