Dr. Richard L. Strauss
October 21, 1990
Purpose: To help us understand the meaning of God's wrath and see how it is being revealed in the world today.
It's no fun to be around somebody who is mad. If they're ranting and raving and spewing their anger all over the place, we usually try to stay out of their way until the tempest is over. We would rather avoid anger at all cost. And that may be why we would prefer not to talk about God's anger. His love? That's a popular topic among Christians. But His wrath? We don't hear a great deal of talk about that—even though He says more about His wrath than about His love.
What is God's wrath, anyway? Maybe you heard the story about the little fellow who was sent to bed for not eating the two prunes on his plate. His mother and father told him that since he did not obey and do what they asked him to do, that wasn't pleasing to the Lord and he'd have to go right to bed. Later that evening there was a terrible storm—rain, lightning and thunder. The mother went in to see if the boy was alright, and she found him standing by the window with his face pressed against the glass, mumbling, "Boy, what a fuss over two little prunes."
That's how some people view God's wrath—a sort of holy temper tantrum, as though He were up there stamping His feet and rattling the heavens because we didn't please Him. But that's not it at all. Unlike our wrath, God's is not sinful, selfish, vindictive or uncontrolled. Our wrath is all of those things.
What is God's wrath? It is the natural and necessary expression of His holiness against sin, the perfect response of His perfect Being to wickedness. Because He is infinitely holy He cannot love what is good without hating what is evil and moving against it. And when He makes His move, the Bible views that response as His wrath. God's wrath simply indicates that He is against sin and cannot tolerate it.
Paul is about to introduce the subject of God's wrath into his letter to the Romans. He's been talking about the gospel—the good news that righteousness is granted as a gift which cannot be earned and is not deserved to those who will receive it by faith. Righteousness that fits us to enter heaven. We don't deserve it; we can't earn it. But when we express our need for it and we're willing to turn from our sin and receive the Lord Jesus by faith, God clothes us in His righteousness. That's good news.
But why do we need this good news? That's the question on his mind, and, he presumes, on ours as well. Well, the answer is: because we are all under the sentence of God's wrath. And that's how he gets into this unpleasant subject of wrath.
The Revelation of God's Wrath
The first word in verse 18 is "for." Why do we need this gospel in which the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith? Because "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). That's why. That's the revelation of God's wrath, in verse 18.
In Romans 1:17, it was the righteousness of God that was revealed, and it was revealed in the gospel: "For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith." Here in verse 18, it is the wrath of God that is revealed, and it is revealed in human experience. The tense is present, continuous action—right now. It keeps on being revealed.
And it's going to be revealed in the future. The wrath of God will be poured out during a future time of tribulation on earth called "the great day of God's wrath" (Revelation 6:17). And it will be poured out on unbelievers throughout eternity as punishment for their sin. God's wrath will be revealed.
But Paul is talking about something that is going on right now. God's wrath is continuously and effectively operating in the world all the time. And it is proceeding from heaven—the presence of God. According to God's inspired Word it's raining right now. And it isn't raining cats and dogs, and it isn't raining pennies. It's raining wrath from heaven.
Look again at the object of God's wrath: "all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in—or by their—"unrighteousness." Two things: ungodliness and unrighteousness. What are they?
Ungodliness refers to wrong attitudes about God—ignoring Him, disregarding Him, living as though He doesn't exist. We call it "secularism."
We seldom think of Mr. and Mrs. Next-door Neighbor as ungodly, because in many cases they are charming people, admired by all, active in community affairs, strong supporters of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and United Fund. Nice people. But, you see, God teaches us here that if they disregard Him, they are ungodly. And God's wrath is being revealed against that ungodliness.
Unrighteousness refers to wrong actions against God and others. Wrong attitudes about God inevitably lead to wrong actions—sinful actions. And all sin is an attack on the truth about God. It suppresses the truth. That's what it says there: "Who suppress the truth in"—or by—"their unrighteousness."
So here is the picture Paul paints for us as he begins this discussion of God's wrath. All over the world the truth about God is breaking out and springing up in various ways. It's springing up in different ways, different contexts, by different means, but people are holding it back. People are pushing it down, covering it up, squelching it—particularly by their sin.
And God's wrath is being expressed against that unrighteousness, constantly. Day in and day out, God's wrath is being poured out from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.
The Reasons for God's Wrath
But why? We still don't fully understand why. So after this statement about the revelation of God's wrath, Paul explains, secondly, the reasons for God's wrath.
The next word in the text of Scripture, in verse 19, is "because." See it? Don't miss little words like that. They help you understand the Bible when you read it. We're going to find out why God is pouring out wrath. "Because..."
Romans 1:19. "Because, what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them."
We are about to learn some reasons, which come in the form of successive steps down. Liberal theologians have long held to the evolution of religion from lower and more primitive, to higher and more noble forms: beginning from animism and fetishism, moving to polytheism, and then finally this noble and holy monotheism. On the contrary, the Bible teaches not the evolution of religion, but the devolution of religion. It started out pure and noble, but consistently degenerated to more degraded forms. Look at mankind's steps down.
They Knew about God (Romans 1:19-2)
It started when they knew about God.
Romans 1:19 again. "Because, what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them."
"Them" refers to the whole world generally, and particularly to the Gentile world. They didn't have the Scriptures as the Jews did, but they still had an awareness of God's existence. They didn't know everything about Him, but they knew He was real. He put within them an intuitive and instinctive knowledge that He was there. It's the easiest thing in the world to believe in God.
Polls in this country consistently run 94%, in that general ballpark. Ninety-four percent of the people in this country believe that there is a God. They don't always live like He's there, but they say they believe in a God. Ninety-four percent. You have to work at not believing in God.
It's instinctive and intuitive. God put it there. People know about God.
And here is the primary way God implants in us that intuitive knowledge of Himself: by His creation.
Romans 1:20. "For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, especially His eternal power and divinity."
Not Godhead. We don't learn about the Trinity from creation, but we do learn about His Godhood, His divinity. So that they are without excuse.
We learn from creation that there's got to be a God. The Psalmist said it so clearly: "The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).
Consider simple things like the distance of the earth from the sun, approximately 93,000,000 miles—just right to sustain life. The 23-1/2 degree tilt of the earth on its axis ensures seasonal changes without which much of the earth would be desert. The balance of 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen in the air we breathe is perfect for supporting life. An ozone layer in the atmosphere shelters us from deadly ultraviolet rays from the sun. Such perfect design requires an all-wise, all-powerful designer. We do not discover everything about God from His creation, but we do learn of His "eternal power and divinity" (literally). It would be foolish to deny that.
Once an unbeliever visited Isaac Newton, the great English scientist. Newton had a mechanical model of the solar system in his study. The man asked, "Who made this?"
"Nobody," Newton replied.
"You must think I am a fool," he said. "It would take a genius to make this."
Newton answered, "This is only a puny imitation of a much grander system. I cannot convince you that this mere toy is without a designer; yet you profess to believe that the great original from which this design is taken has come into being without a designer or maker."
His logic was difficult to refute. It's almost ridiculous to suggest that this all happened by chance. The universe itself testifies powerfully to the existence of God, leaving mankind without excuse.
They Turned Away from God (Romans 1:21)
They know in the depths of their being that God is real. But here's the next step.
Romans 1:21. "Because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened."
Knowing full well that there is a God, they willfully ignored Him, failed to give Him any glory, refused to give Him any thanks for what He had done for them. Even though they had experienced His wisdom, power and kindness in their own lives as He sustained them daily and met their needs, they turned their backs on Him and gave Him no credit. They live their lives as though He were not even there. They turned away from God.
And without God as part of their life-view, they lost their ability to reason clearly. Paul says, "They became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened." Their thinking became empty, their ability to understand life was plunged into the dark, they lost touch with reality. They became like blind people groping around in a dark room, trying desperately to find something that makes sense and gives meaning to life, but without success. Why? Because they turned away from God. And immediately, there were shades drawn over their minds. And that led to the final step.
They Embraced False Gods (Romans 1:22-23)
After knowing about God and turning away from God, they embraced false gods. When man turns away from the one true God, he will inevitably create other gods to take His place—and the result is idolatry.
Romans 1:22-23. "Professing to be wise they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man, or like birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things."
Paul repeats the same idea in Romans 1:25: "Who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever."
How foolish! To make images of lowly creatures to worship and serve, and ignore the Creator who made everything! Why, that's ridiculous! But that's what the great majority of the world does.
"Wait a minute now!" you protest. "That may apply to the primitive peoples of the world. They may bow down before images of wood and stone, but civilized people don't worship created things.
Oh, but they do. To worship is to ascribe supreme worth or value to someone or something. Supreme value and worth. And that's exactly what some of us do with our sports heroes, our movie stars, and our music celebrities whose images we nearly worship before the shrine of the sacred box, or the silver screen, or whatever it may be.
Maybe it's money and material things that we place above all else—a house, a car, a camper, a boat, a stereo, a video camera or some other thing. It may be power, prestige, success, beauty, or adventure that we give ourselves to.
Some people even ascribe higher value and worth to their pets than they ascribe to the Lord. At least, they give more time and attention to them than they give to the Lord. That would seem to indicate that. That's what Paul says here: "birds and four-footed beasts and creeping thing." And we wonder why almighty God is obliged to reveal His wrath. The reasons are clear enough.
The Results of God's Wrath
That brings us, thirdly, to the results of His wrath. See the next word in the text. Those words are important; just don't gloss over them. "Therefore..."
Now we're going to find out what God did because mankind willfully ignored Him, and then brazenly replaced Him. It comes in the form of a refrain that Paul repeats three times over in this passage. It says the same thing three times: verse 24, verse 26, verse 28. Are you looking at it? What is it? What did God do? Gave them up. Three times, "God gave them up." That's what God did.
In other words, He let them go their own way so that they might experience the full destructive consequences of their own sin. They wanted a life apart from God. He let them have it, with all the misery that it brings. They wanted a life of sin. He let them pursue it, with all the horrible results that go with it. In other words, he punished sin by allowing more sin, as strange as that may sound, and the ultimate result of more sin is always pain and suffering, heartache and misery, agony and death.
Do you understand it? The wrath of God which is continually being revealed from heaven is actually God removing His restraints and letting sinful people sin more and more and more, until their hearts are hardened and their lives are ruined.
Picture the alcoholic lying helplessly in the gutter, or the drug addict screaming for another fix, or the sex addict dying of an incurable sexually transmitted disease, and you will begin to understand God's wrath.
Look at the three specific things to which God gave them up.
God Gave Them Up to Immorality (Romans 1:24-25)
Romans 1:24. "Therefore, God also gave them up to uncleanness and the lust of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves."
Whenever idolatry has gripped a society, immoraily has been the inevitable result. When people start worshipping other people and things, they become obsessed with the physical—the gratification of their physical desires. They have separated themselves from God's love, and this is their desperate attempt to find love and acceptance by the only means they have left to them: physical expressions.
But the law of diminishing returns sets in; the more sex they get, the less satisfying it is. They need more and more, and it gets kookier and kookier, and yet it brings less and less satisfaction. It dominates their lives and holds them in bondage, even as it destroys their marriages, their families, and their health. And yet, they find it impossible to extricate themselves from this bondage. God gave them up. He didn't do it to them, He just let them have their way and suffer the natural consequences of their way. God gave them up to immorality.
Romans 1:18. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness."
God Gave Them Up to Abnormality (Romans 1:26-27)
Second, He gave them up to abnormality. Preachers get in trouble talking about this subject. But Paul talked about it, so I'm just going to tell you what he said.
Romans 1:26-27. "For this reason, God gave them up to vile passions; for even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise, also, the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another: men with men, committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error, which was due."
By "natural" relations Paul could have meant nothing else but what the Creator intended, the natural order of things as God established them. And "what is against nature" can mean nothing other than what is contrary to God's desire and design. That is very clear. The Scripture says that heterosexual relations are what God intended, and homosexual relations are contrary to what He intended. One is natural; the other is not natural. That's what it says. There can be no mistaking that. The world may try to convince us that homosexuality is an acceptable alternate lifestyle. But God's Word says it is abnormal, and sinful.
Now, some people may struggle with greater temptations in this area than others. Some obviously do, and I don't know why and I'm certainly not going to debate that issue—whether it's biological make-up or family up-bringing or what. Some do struggle more than others, and we need to be sensitive to them, gracious to them, and encouraging to them. But one fact is certain: to yield to those temptations is sin. And to begin yielding is to adopt a course which can lead to incredibly shameful acts with immensely dangerous health risks.
Homosexual males account for 61% of all reported AIDS cases. During the last 10 years in San Francisco the venereal disease rate has climbed to 22 times the national average. During that time period, 80% of the patients seen by venereal disease clinics were homosexual males, and 20% of them carried rectal gonorrhea (Focus on the Family Citizen, June 18, 1990, California Capitol Report, p.2).
Romans 1:18. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness."
God Gave Them Up to Depravity (Romans 1:28-32)
Look at the last thing to which God gave them up. He gave them up to depravity.
Romans 1:28. "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."
"Debased" means depraved, corrupt, unprincipled, and rejected by God. God gave them up to their own depraved reason, with all which that involves. And there follows a list of 21 vices—23 in the King James version—practiced by people who have chosen to disregard God. That is not to say that every unbeliever practices every one of these sins. But these are the things that generally characterize people who have turned away from God.
Romans 1:29-31. "Being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful."
Wow, what a list! If there is one word that sums up the majority of the things on that list, it's the word "selfishness." It is disregard and lack of consideration for other people. It's the "me first" philosophy that permeates our age. Look at just a few of them:
- Covetousness or greed—as when millionaire stock brokers take advantage of other people to get wealthier.
- Strife—a quarrelsome disposition and the turmoil it brings, as in the escalating family conflicts and violence we see today. It's been there all the time, but for some reason, it seems to be getting worse.
- Evil-mindedness, or "malice" as some translation render it [New American Standard Bible (NASB), New International Version (NIV)]—the desire to hurt others, as in vicious and unprovoked attacks on innocent and helpless victims, and an alarming increase in child abuse.
- Inventors of evil things--—taking special pleasure in dreaming up creative ways of destroying others; like the pornography business with its sado-masochism, which has even resulted in death. People seem to dreaming up wild ways to destroy other people.
- Unloving (astorgos), "without natural affection" the King James says, and that's a good translation; that's what the word "astorgos" means: literally without feelings of natural tenderness. What an apt description of the abortion tragedy: 1.5 million babies murdered annually in this country by their parents. Isn't that without natural affection? Or the divorce tragedy, where one out of every two marriages ends in a divorce court. Without natural affection.
And listen to how Paul sums up all this depravity.
Romans 1:32. "Who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them."
It's bad enough to be guilty of these things, but even worse to applaud and encourage others who do them. These are the people who contribute to the establishment of public opinion favorable to sin, and so promote even greater wickedness (Cranfield, 38).
That's a good explanation of Romans 1:32. Those people who contribute to the establishment of public opinion favorable to sin, and so promote even greater wickedness. And they have invaded our educational system and they have dominated our media.
People who are creating a climate in our nation more favorable to sinful behavior. That's worse than doing it, Paul says. For the wrath of God is being continually revealed from heaven against ungodliness and the unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. It shouldn't be a surprise to anybody.
Why does God give a civilization over to this kind of thing? Ray Stedman suggested, and I quote, "He does it because it is only when darkness prevails, and despair and violence are widespread, that men are ready to welcome the light" (p. 33). I like that assessment. Only when darkness prevails, and despair and violence are widespread, are men ready to welcome the light.
And maybe that's exactly where you are today—sick of your sin and the misery it brings. And you're ready to make the great exchange, to turn from that sin and God's wrath, and receive His righteousness.
There are three exchanges clearly mentioned in this passage:
- Those who have exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for images (verse 23)
- Those who have exchanged the truth of God for the lie (verse 25)
- Those who have exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (verse 26)
But there is actually a fourth exchange implied: those who are willing to exchange the wrath of God for the righteousness of God. His righteousness, which fits us for heaven, is a gift, received by faith.
Romans 1:17a. "The righteousness of God, revealed from faith to faith, for it is written, 'He who is just by faith shall live.'"
Maybe you're ready to live. To enjoy freedom from this bondage of sin right here on earth, culminated by entrance into God's holy heaven, where there are joys forevermore. Are you ready to make that exchange? If you've never done it, we encourage you to do it right now. Oh, don't put it off.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Are you willing to turn from your sin and receive Jesus Christ and His righteousness, by faith?
Let's bow our heads prayerfully in His presence. With our heads bowed, eyes closed, just to shut out distractions, in these important moments, may I ask you if you have come to know Christ as your personal Savior. You've made this exchange. You've turned from your sin to the Savior, put your faith in Him and His sacrifice at Calvary in your place. If you're not sure, will you do that right now? It's a matter of faith. The Bible doesn't teach anywhere that you need to walk to the front of a church or follow any religious ritual. It's a matter of faith that takes place in your heart and your mind. It's going to change your life. People will know about it and hear about it, they'll see it. But it all starts right where you are in the quietness of your own soul and the sanctuary of your heart. You need to trust Jesus Christ and receive Him as your Savior from sin. Will you do it? Just quietly in your own soul you pray:
"Lord, I'm a sinner. I believe that Jesus died in my place and paid for my sin. Come into my heart and save me, Lord Jesus."
Lord, I pray that some will reach out by faith right now and receive Your gift of divine righteousness, all wrapped up in a beautiful package that includes the forgiveness of sin and everlasting life. And all found in the person of Jesus Christ, our living Savior. Oh, Lord, I pray that those who have not yet come to know Him will avail themselves of these quiet and possibly tender moments, to put their faith in the Lord Jesus as Savior from sin.
And I pray that we, as believers, will avoid these same destructive patterns in our lives, crowding out thoughts of You with other things. Not glorifying You as God, and not giving You thanks daily for the good things you do for us. Oh, Lord, I pray that we'll focus our attention on You and allow You to be the major part of our lives—in fact, life itself for. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
Continue to ROM 03: Guilty as Charged!