Romans 1:28–32 (NKJV)
28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, 30 backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; 32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.
Paul reminds us in Romans 1 that God is just. When peoples spurn Him, He eventually hands them over to utter debasement and societal instability. Their debased minds bear increasingly bitter fruit. Paul lists no fewer than twenty three fruits of a debased mind. Today we consider the third of these: wickedness. Paul writes that unbelieving societies are “filled with… wickedness.”
The Greek word behind the English “wickedness” is pon-e-ria which is also translated as evil, depravity, iniquity, even ugliness. In Mark 7:22 Jesus reminds us that, like other sins, wickedness (pon-e-ria) emerges from the heart. It is the fruit of a heart that neither loves God nor treasures His law. Etymologist Günther Harder writes that in the Bible those who practice wickedness “are those who do not seek Yahweh or His commands, who will not be guided by Him. Who is wicked is thus measured by God, by His commands, and by obedience to them. God determines what is evil, and in this sense evil is to be understood simply as that which is contrary to God” (TDNT). Majority vote doesn’t define evil; social convention doesn’t define evil; gallup polling doesn’t define evil. God define evil. Our task as humans is to conform our understanding to His.
The leader of wickedness is the devil himself. Those who practice wickedness (pon-e-ria) are children of the wicked one (pon-e-ros). So “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 Jn 5:19). To be delivered from wickedness, therefore, is to escape the snare of the devil (2 Tim 2:26). So Jesus instructs us, in the Lord’s Prayer, to pray that God would deliver us from evil (pon-e-rou) inspired as it is by the evil one, whose kingdom we want to see destroyed and uprooted.
So what does wickedness look like? The book of Deuteronomy describes the contours of wickedness with a repeated command: “So you shall put away the wickedness (pon-e-ron) from among you.” This wickedness includes idolatry (Dt 17:7), rebellion against judicial sentences (17:12), bearing false witness (19:19), rebellion against parental authority (21:21), sexual fraud and deceit (22:21), adultery (22:22), and kidnapping (24:7). In times of debasement, when God is handing a society over to judgment, such wickedness increases. For example, at the culmination of the book of Judges, a time of God’s judgment on Israel, the Benjamites commit a great wickedness when they rape and murder the Levite’s concubine (Judg 20:13). In Jeremiah’s day, also a time of God’s judgment, all segments of society – priests, prophets, kings, people – are characterized by wickedness (Jer 23:11; 32:32). And in Jesus’ day, the decisive moment of judgment for the people and city of Jerusalem, the Pharisees clean the outside of the cup but inside they are full of wickedness (Lk 11:39). They had no love for God nor for His law.
All this reminds us that it is God’s grace alone that preserves a society from wickedness. When we fail to honor Him and to listen to His voice, He justly hands us over to increasing wickedness. And, as wickedness increases, we incur even greater wrath for ourselves and disarray for our society. Is there no hope, then? No way of escape? There is only hope in Jesus Christ. We must confess our wickedness, repent of it, and seek the forgiveness of God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
So what of you? Have you welcomed the law of God, embraced it, and allowed it to shape your definition of wickedness? Or have you been swayed by the spirit of the age, the wicked one himself, into redefining wickedness by some other standard?
Reminded that societies under judgment are full of wickedness and conscious that we are seeing such wickedness grow in our day, let us confess that we have been listening to the lies of the wicked one, endeavoring to decide for ourselves what constitutes wickedness. And as we confess, let us kneel as we are able. We will have a time of silent confession followed by the corporate confession found in your bulletin.