The Wrath of God

Romans 1:18-20
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, March 30, 2008
Copyright © 2008, P.G. Mathew

One wonderful thing about preaching through the Bible is that we cannot pick and choose: we must eat all that God has given us. Romans 1:18-20 speaks about the holy wrath of God, which many people would prefer not to think about. Yet if we do not like the idea of God’s wrath, then we cannot appreciate God’s salvation.

In our modern scientific, cultured, multicultural, and multi-religious times, who believes in the wrath of God? In fact, such disbelief is not new. Douglas Moo says, “Since the time of certain Greek philosophers the idea that God would inflict wrath on people has been rejected as incompatible with an enlightened understanding of the deity.”1 Moo adds that the old heretic Marcion in the second century AD omitted “of God” from the phrase “the wrath of God” in Romans 1:18. This dislike of the wrath of God is an ancient problem.

According to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the idea of a wrathful God is unthinkable to modern sophisticated Western man. To such people, God is a God of love, and a wrathful God is simply a projection of the idea of a stern Victorian father, or the relic of the cruel tribal God of the Old Testament, that bloodthirsty Jehovah God, and certainly not the God of sweet Jesus. Evangelicals, on the other hand, affirm the wrath of God in theory, but they refuse to preach it for fear of alienating cultured people who may come to church. Instead, they preach, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Come to our church, where you will hear only great music and soothing messages.”2 In fact, many twenty-first century preachers take polls to see what their people want to hear. People say they want to hear pastors to preach about their felt needs: how to be happy; how to be not anxious; how to get rid of bad habits; how to lose weight by eating; how to deal with loneliness, sexual frustrations, marital discord, co-dependency, and addictions to drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, and credit card abuse. No one says he wants to hear about the wrath of God, the sinfulness of man, the atonement of Christ, the cross, repentance, saving faith, the fear of God, obedience to God’s word, Satan, eternal judgment, or hell. They just want to be told that God loves them and will bless them, no matter what they do. They want a psychological cure for their problems.

Paul, however, does not preach such nonsense. He says he is a debtor to all the people of the world, owing them the gospel, and, therefore, he is eager to preach in Rome. Paul boldly declares that he is “not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16). The gospel of God reveals exactly what man needs and what he does not have, which is the righteousness of God. Why does man lack the righteousness of God? We find the answer in Romans 1:18-20. God gave man the knowledge of God in the book of creation. So man knows the true God, yet he constantly suppresses that knowledge of God and refuses to worship and serve him. Therefore, the wrath of God is revealed against man-against his ungodliness and his unrighteousness. The only deliverance and salvation from this wrath of God is for us to receive by faith the righteousness of God which we need and which comes to us freely in the gospel.

The wrath of God is integral to authentic evangelism. If we evangelize without speaking of the wrath of God, we have not evangelized. It is synthetic evangelism, and that person will remain a child of the devil.

The Wrath of God

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18). Paul begins this passage speaking of the wrath of God (orgê Theou). This wrath is not of man but of God, and is revealed from heaven (i.e., from God). Therefore, unlike human wrath or the devil’s wrath, God’s wrath is just, because it is of God.

The word “wrath” appears ten times in Romans alone; it is a controlling concept in this epistle. Yet many theologians, like C. H. Dodd, do not like this idea of the personal wrath of God. They say that wrath results from an inevitable, impersonal process of cause and effect, such as “A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). They would say that sin has consequences, but God has nothing to do with it; it is merely an outworking of the laws of the universe.

The God of the Bible, however, is not passive but active and personally involved in the affairs of his world. Because God is holy, he must punish sinners and he does. Yet because God is love, he also plans to save certain sinners from his wrath. He saves all who repent and believe in his Son.

Surprisingly, the Bible speaks more about the wrath of God than the love of God. For example, the psalmist writes, “You alone are to be feared. Who can stand before you when you are angry? . . . Surely your wrath against men brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained” (Ps. 76:7, 10). Hell brings praise to God. Elsewhere we are told, “We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan” (Ps. 90:7-9). Paul explains, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. . . . This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Rom. 2:5, 16).

God’s wrath is his perfection, glory, and very nature. It is his holy hostility toward all evil in sentient beings, both angels and humans. God’s wrath expresses the settled and active opposition of his holy nature to everything that is evil. The God of the Bible is not both good and evil. John Murray says God’s wrath is “the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness.”3

To the Thessalonians Paul writes:

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. . . . They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (2 Thess. 1:6-9; 2:10-12)

Man knows the truth but he hates it, preferring evil and wickedness instead. Therefore the wrath of God is being revealed against him, as Jesus himself said (John 3:18-20). And because man hates truth, he hates the God of truth.

God’s Wrath Is Revealed

Paul says this wrath of God “is revealed.” The Greek word is apokaluptetai, a present passive indicative. It denotes a continuous revelation of the wrath of God. Just as the righteousness of God is continually revealed in the preaching of the gospel, the wrath of God is also being revealed continuously. These are two parallel yet antithetical revelations.

J. C. F. Schiller declares, “The history of the world is the judgment of the world.”4The wrath of God is revealed first in our conscience. When we do wrong, we experience remorse, misery, and pain unless we have killed our conscience through ever-increasing sin. Second, we experience physical consequences. A lazy student becomes a poor student; a sexually promiscuous person reaps diseases and passes those diseases on to his or her spouse; a drunkard ends up with poverty, loss of health, and destruction; a fornicator tears his or her family apart.

The fall of man introduced thorns, thistles, pests, pollution, pain, hard labor, restlessness, and universal death (Gen. 3). In Adam all died; because of his sin, man is now subject to spiritual, physical, and eternal death. These are all consequences of the wrath of God against sinners.

The history of the world is full of examples of the wrath of God being revealed. Consider Noah’s flood and the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Look at the history of the Canaanites. When their iniquity reached its fullness, God wiped them out (Gen. 15:16; Deut. 9:5). Look at the history of the children of Israel, who were also exiled because of their sin. The history of the world is a history of divine judgment (Dan. 2). Yet man refuses to recognize God as the Lord of history.

What about personal health? Paul writes, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). About the man who was living with his father’s wife, Paul instructs, “Hand this man over to Satan, so that his sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). How many people’s physical sickness could be a result of their sin?

Additionally, we experience moral degeneration (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Paul says that because of their rejection of God, God hands some over to a depraved mind to do whatever they want to do. Do people engage in continuous immorality on their own? Not always. Such behavior can be a judgment of God. God sometimes hands unrepentant sinners over to their evil desires.

We cannot understand the cross of Christ without first understanding the wrath of God because the cross not only reveals the love of God but also the wrath of God against sin. On the cross God’s wrath against his elect sinners was poured our on his own Son, the One who knew no sin.

God is revealing his wrath every day to every person, family, and nation: “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day” (Ps. 7:11). The Bible says all sinners are by nature objects of God’s wrath (Eph. 2:3; Rom. 9:22).

Another manifestation of God’s wrath is the public administration of justice by the state. Paul writes of the governing authority, “For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath, to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).

God’s wrath will be demonstrated on the last day, the day of judgment. The resurrection of Jesus Christ itself reveals the wrath of God and therefore his judgment of God (Acts 17:30-31): “In the past God overlooked such ignorance. But now he commands all people everywhere to repent, for he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice to mete out his wrath by the man he has appointed [Jesus Christ]. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Every time we preach about Christ’s resurrection, we are also declaring that one day God’s wrath will be poured out by the same Jesus Christ upon all who are unrepentant, arrogant, rebellious, stubborn, and fearless toward God.

Against All Ungodliness and Wickedness

Paul says this wrath is being revealed “against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” (epi pasan asebeian kai adikian anthrôpôn). God’s wrath is revealed against all sinners and every sin we commit. Not even one is exempt from God’s just and holy wrath. Every sin is called to account; not one is ignored. In Romans 1:18-3:20 we see God’s history of human sinfulness, not man’s history of man. No, Romans gives us God’s true history by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Darwinism, which is the controlling philosophy of sinners today, rejects God and God’s truth about man; thus, God’s wrath revealed against man.

God sees man in Adam, a sinner. Man’s greatest problem is his wicked heart that rejects God. Because of this innate evil, man engages in wickedness against God, others, and, ultimately, himself. Jesus clearly identified this problem of the human heart, no matter how sophisticated, cultured, educated, philosophic, or religious a person is:

After [Jesus] had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body? . . . What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.'” (Mark 7:17-23)

God’s wrath is revealed daily against this godlessness of man. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Ps. 14:1). A godless man is a fool who negates God. The word of man becomes his standard, so that he can be god and do whatever he pleases. (PGM) The philosophical foundation of every sinner is a negation of God and his law. If God does not exist, we can do whatever we please.

Godlessness, therefore, comes before evil deeds. The essence of sin is godlessness, which is the mother of all wickedness. Without godliness, morality is impossible in the world. If we hate God, we will hate others and, ultimately, we will hate ourselves. Paul summarizes it this way: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18). In other words, unbelievers do not see God, so nothing restrains them from sinning. They think, “If God is not, I am free to do whatever I desire.” But all sin is against God. David said: “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). All sin, whether against God or man, is finally against God because sin is the violation of God’s law. Everyone sins against God and his word. Godlessness is seen in idolatry, which in turn produces immorality.

All Men Know God

Paul then tells us this fallen, sinful, arrogant, wretched, godless, wicked man knows God (Rom. 1:19-20). Man cannot plead ignorance of God, for God himself gave man a revelation of himself. God reveals himself in creation and created man with a capacity to know God in creation. Even fallen man knows God. Paul declares, “What may be known of God is plain to them, because God had made it plain to them” (Rom. 1:19). If God has made it plain, do you think anyone can come to God and say, “You failed in making it plain to me”? Even fallen man has the capacity to know God from God’s works that surround us moment by moment. God has not failed in revealing his knowledge to man. This means that every human being, whether rich or poor, man or woman, young or old, slave or free, knows God. No one is ignorant of God and everyone is accountable to him every day and on the last day.

We cannot see the invisible God; he is infinite spirit and we are fallen, finite creatures. Yet God has graciously revealed himself to us in creation. Paul explains, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Just as we can look at a painting and the painter’s signature, and discern something about the painter, so all men can observe creation and perceive God in his creation.

The psalmist exclaims, “O LORD, our LORD, how majestic is your name in all the earth! . . . When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man, that you are mindful of him, the son of man, that you care for him? . . . O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1, 3-4, 9). Psalm 19 also makes clear this idea of God’s revealing of himself through his creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard” (Ps. 19:1-4). What is creation proclaiming? God is! God is Creator, God is holy, majestic, wise and almighty.

Through phenomena man discovers God’s noumenal qualities. The first quality known of God is that he is a person. How can we be persons and God not? God is an eternal person of eternal power. God is creator and has infinite wisdom. He is the true God, not a created god. He is self-existing and independent of all his creation, yet he is also the sustainer of creation. And this God is holy. Paul writes: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). All people can discern that this God is holy, and, therefore, we must conclude that all creatures must worship and serve this God. There can be no atheist in God’s universe; everyone knows God. Greg Bahnsen says, “They cannot be conscious of themselves, says Calvin, except they be at the same time conscious of God as their creator.”5

The revelation of God is all around man as well as within his own constitution as his conscience. John Frame states: “Natural revelation informs us of the existence of God, ‘his eternal power and divine nature’ (Rom. 1:20), and his moral law, that is, his norms (Rom. 1:32).”6 It is authoritative revelation by which men will be judged.” God has taken initiative to reveal himself to man and has succeeded. Every man knows God and is accountable to him. Man has evidence of God’s existence and his fundamental qualities, so man sins against the knowledge he has. Man’s problem is not intellectual but moral. So he refuses to worship and serve God. James Boice says, “There is enough evidence of God in a flower to lead a child as well as a scientist to worship him.”7 We do not need to use a microscope to study a cell or a telescope to study stars to get this knowledge of God from creation. The entire nature itself tells us to look beyond nature to nature’s Creator. The heavens declare the glory of God.

This is a general revelation, meaning something that everyone throughout the world can understand. It is a natural revelation, meaning a revelation through natural order, not the supernatural revelation we receive in Jesus Christ. It is also a continuous revelation; it has been ongoing “since the creation of the world.”

Suppressing the Truth of God

What do unbelievers with this knowledge that is coming to them daily, continuously, moment by moment? “[They] suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:19). Paul uses the term tên alêtheian, meaning “the truth (of God).” Man knows the truth of God’s existence and his basic qualities, and is supposed to love that truth and do it. But here we discover that man is continuously and actively suppressing God’s truth by actively doing wicked deeds. Man uses increasingly wicked acts to smother and, if possible, put out the fire of the knowledge of God that wells up within him.

As Adam and Eve did, so also fallen man sins against the knowledge of God. Truth asserts itself and man suppresses it by evil deeds. He resists truth by doing more evil. In Romans 1:23, 25, 26, 28 we read that man exchanges the truth that God exists for the lie that God is not so that he can freely engage in evil. Later Paul tells us that man is an enemy of God (Rom. 5:10; 8:7). Yes, he experiences God’s common grace daily. God’s sun rises and his rain comes upon the wicked also. Paul says, “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Paul spoke to the citizens of Lystra about God’s common grace and provision of food for all his people (Acts 14:15-17). Yet having received all these things, they are interested in destroying him.

Paul concludes that man is without excuse (Rom. 1:20). He has no defense. Later he writes, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law so that every mouth may be silenced” (Rom. 3:19). Every mouth will be stopped. Man cannot say he did not know about God. He has no excuse either this day or on the last. It is not as if man does not try to come up with excuses. In fact, he writes books and manufactures religions to deny the truth. These are but vain attempts to come up with an excuse to not acknowledge God. Man can defend himself before men, but he cannot defend himself before God.

We have no excuse for impiety and depravity: God’s just and holy wrath is being revealed against the impious and the depraved daily.

The Good News

So far we have only spoken bad news. The true state of mankind is filled with darkness and gloom. But there is a beam of light that penetrates and overcomes the darkness: it is the revelation of the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ from heaven.

Is there any hope for the wicked? The answer from heaven is a resounding yes. Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, gave himself up for sinners on Calvary’s cross. His death was propitiatory, for it turned God’s wrath away from us and moved God to be gracious toward us. God the Father poured out his just and holy wrath that was against us, not upon us but upon his own Son, that he may be just in justifying the ungodly. Our sins are counted against Jesus and his righteousness is put into our account.

Before he went to the cross, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Then he prayed, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Finally he cried out the cry of dereliction: “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). There was an answer: It is because God loves sinners.

God’s wrath is just, holy, and certain. It must fall either on Jesus or on every sinner who refuses to trust in Christ. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). If we have trusted in Christ, there is no longer any condemnation or death for us, but only justification and life. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom. 5:9).

May God help us to rejoice in this great salvation! And may he pray grant authentic repentance and saving faith to all who are outside of Jesus Christ, all who are objects of his just and holy wrath. May such people trust in your Son who suffered God’s wrath for every believer.

1 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 99.

2 See D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 1: The Gospel of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House/Ministry Resources Library, 1985), 328-329.

3 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959, repr. 1997), 35.

4 Quoted by F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans (rev. ed.), Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963, 1985, repr. 2000), 79.

5 Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analyses (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1998), 456.

6 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2002), 754.

7 James M. Boice, Justification by Faith: Romans 1-4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 143.