The Wrath of God
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in ungodliness, (1:18)
As Paul begins to unfold the details of the gospel of God in which His righteousness is revealed (see vv. 16–17), he presents an extended discussion of the condemnation of man that extends through chapter 3 and verse 20. He starts with an unequivocal affirmation of God’s righteous wrath.
The idea of a wrathful God goes against the wishful thinking of fallen human nature and is even a stumbling block to many Christians. Much contemporary evangelism talks only about abundant life in Christ, the joy and blessings of salvation, and the peace with God that faith in Christ brings. All of those benefits do result from true faith, but they are not the whole picture of God’s plan of salvation. The corollary truth of God’s judgment against sin and those who participate in it must also be heard.
For Paul, fear of eternal condemnation was the first motivation he offered for coming to Christ, the first pressure he applied to evil men. He was determined that they understand the reality of being under God’s wrath before he offered them the way of escape from it. That approach makes both logical and theological sense. A person cannot appreciate the wonder of God’s grace until he knows about the perfect demands of God’s law, and he cannot appreciate the fullness of God’s love for him until he knows something about the fierceness of God’s anger against his sinful failure to perfectly obey that law. He cannot appreciate God’s forgiveness until he knows about the eternal consequences of the sins that require a penalty and need forgiving.
Orgē (wrath) refers to a settled, determined indignation, not to the momentary, emotional, and often uncontrolled anger (thumos) to which human beings are prone.
God’s attributes are balanced in divine perfection. If He had no righteous anger and wrath, He would not be God, just as surely as He would not be God without His gracious love. He perfectly hates just as He perfectly loves, perfectly loving righteousness and perfectly hating evil (Ps. 45:7; Heb. 1:9). One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity, including much of evangelicalism, is the failure to preach and teach the wrath of God and the condemnation it brings upon all with unforgiven sin. The truncated, sentimental gospel that is frequently presented today falls far short of the gospel that Jesus and the apostle Paul proclaimed.
In glancing through a psalter from the late nineteenth century, I discovered that many of the psalms in that hymnal emphasize the wrath of God, just as much of the book of Psalms itself emphasizes His wrath. It is tragic that few hymns or other Christian songs today reflect that important biblical focus.
Scripture, New Testament as well as Old, consistently emphasizes God’s righteous wrath. Against those who scoff at Him, God “will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury.” The psalmist goes on to admonish, “Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled” (Ps. 2:5, 12). Asaph wrote, “At Thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse were cast into a dead sleep. Thou, even Thou, art to be feared; and who may stand in Thy presence when once Thou art angry?” (Ps. 76:6–7). Another psalmist reminded unfaithful Israel of what God had done to the defiant Egyptians who refused to let His people leave: “He sent upon them His burning anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a band of destroying angels. He leveled a path for His anger; He did not spare their soul from death, but gave their life over to the plague, and smote all the first-born in Egypt” (Ps. 78:49–51). Speaking in behalf of Israel, Moses lamented, “For we have been consumed by Thine anger, and by thy wrath we have been dismayed. Thou hast placed our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy presence. For all our days have declined in Thy fury” (Ps. 90:7–9).
The prophets spoke much of God’s wrath. Isaiah declared, “By the fury of the Lord of hosts the land is burned up, and the people are like fuel for the fire” (Isa. 9:19). Jeremiah proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched’ ” (Jer. 7:20). Through Ezekiel, God warned His people that “their silver and their gold [would] not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord. They cannot satisfy their appetite, nor can they fill their stomachs, for their iniquity has become an occasion of stumbling” (Ezek. 7:19).
In many well-known ways God expressed His wrath against sinful mankind in past ages. In the days of Noah, He destroyed all mankind in the Flood, except for eight people (Gen. 6–7). Several generations after Noah, He confounded men’s language and scattered them around the earth for trying to build an idolatrous tower to heaven (Gen. 11:1–9). In the days of Abraham, He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, with only Lot and his family escaping (Gen. 18–19). He destroyed Pharaoh and his army in the sea as they vainly pursued the Israelites to bring them back to Egypt (Ex. 14). He poured out His wrath against pagan kings such as Sennacherib (2 Kings 18–19), Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4), and Belshazzar (Dan. 5). He even poured out His wrath against some of His own people—against King Nadab for doing “evil in the sight of the Lord, and [walking] in the way of his father and in his sin which he made Israel sin” (1 Kings 15:25–26) and against Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, for questioning Moses’ revelations from Him (Num. 12:1–10).
God’s wrath is just as clearly exhibited in the New Testament, both in reference to what He has already done and to what He will yet do at the end of the age. The gospel of John, which speaks so eloquently of God’s love and graciousness, also speaks powerfully of His anger and wrath. The comforting words “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life,” are followed closely by the warning “He who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:16, 36).
Later in his epistle to the Romans, Paul focuses again on God’s wrath, declaring, “God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (9:22). The apostle warned the Corinthians that anyone who did not love the Lord Jesus was to be eternally cursed (1 Cor. 16:22). He said to the Ephesians, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). He warned the Colossians that because of “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry, … the wrath of God will come” (Col. 3:5–6). He assured the persecuted Thessalonian believers that God would one day give them relief and that “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, [He will deal] out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:7–8).
A disease has to be recognized and identified before seeking a cure means anything. In the same way and for the same reason, Scripture reveals the bad news before the good news. God’s righteous judgment against sin is proclaimed before His gracious forgiveness of sin is offered. A person has no reason to seek salvation from sin if he does not know he is condemned by it. He has no reason to want spiritual life unless he realizes he is spiritually dead.
With the one exception of Jesus Christ, every human being since the Fall has been born condemned, because when Adam and Eve fell, the divine sentence against all sinners was passed. Paul therefore declared to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He reminded the Ephesians: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph. 2:1–3).
In the brief scope of one verse (Rom. 1:18), Paul presents six features that characterize God’s wrath: its quality, its time, its source, its extent and nature, and its cause.
The Quality of God’s Wrath
of God (1:18a)
First, the quality of this wrath is seen in the fact that it is divine, it is of God. It is therefore unlike anything we know of in the present world. God’s wrath is not like human anger, which is always tainted by sin. God’s wrath is always and completely righteous. He never loses His temper. The Puritan writer Thomas Watson said, “Is God so infinitely holy? Then see how unlike to God sin is.… No wonder, therefore, that God hates sin, being so unlike to him, nay, so contrary to him; it strikes at his holiness.”
Unable to reconcile the idea of God’s wrath with his own ideas of goodness and righteousness, one liberal theologian made this claim: “We cannot think with full consistency of God in terms of the highest human ideals of personality and yet attribute to Him the rational passion of anger.” But it is foolish, not to mention unbiblical, to measure God by human standards and to discount the idea of His wrath simply because human anger is always flawed by sin.
God’s anger is not capricious, irrational rage but is the only response that a holy God could have toward evil. God could not be holy and not be angry at evil. Holiness cannot tolerate unholiness. “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor,” Habakkuk says of the Lord (Hab. 1:13). And as Paul declares, neither can love tolerate unholiness, refusing to “rejoice in unrighteousness” (1 Cor. 13:6).
Jesus twice cleansed the Temple because He was incensed at the money changers and sacrifice sellers who made His “Father’s house a house of merchandise” and “a robber’s den” (John 2:14–16; Matt. 21:12–13). He was furious that His Father’s house was flagrantly dishonored. Speaking in place of the sinful inhabitants of Jerusalem, Jeremiah acknowledged the rightness of God’s punishment of them, saying, “The Lord is righteous; for I have rebelled against His command; hear now, all peoples, and behold my pain; my virgins and my young men have gone into captivity” (Lam. 1:18). In confessing before Joshua that he had kept for himself some booty from Jericho that was to be reserved for the house of the Lord, Achan acknowledged that the punishment he was about to receive was just and righteous (Josh. 7:20–25).
Even in the warped and perverted societies of men, indignation against vice and crime is recognized as an essential element of human goodness. We expect people to be outraged by gross injustice and cruelty. The noted Greek exegete Richard Trench said, “There [can be no] surer and sadder token of an utterly prostrate moral condition than … not being able to be angry with sin-and sinners” (Synonyms of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], p. 134). God is perfectly so all the time with a holy fury.
The Timing of God’s Wrath
is revealed (1:18b)
Second, the timing of God’s wrath is seen in the fact that it is revealed, a better rendering being “constantly revealed.” God’s wrath is continually being revealed, perpetually being manifested. Apokaluptō (revealed) has the basic meaning of uncovering, bringing to light, or making known.
God’s wrath has always been revealed to fallen mankind and is repeatedly illustrated throughout Scripture. It was first revealed in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve trusted the serpent’s word above God’s. Immediately the sentence of death was passed on them and on all their descendants. Even the earth itself was cursed. As already mentioned, God’s wrath was revealed in the Flood, when God drowned the whole human race except for eight souls, in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. It was revealed in the curse of the law upon every transgression and in the institution of the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant. Even the imperfect laws that men make to deter and punish wrongdoers reflect and thereby help to reveal the perfect and righteous wrath of God.
By far the surpassing revelation of God’s wrath was that placed upon His own Son on the cross, when Jesus took to Himself the sin of the world and bore the full divine force of God’s fury as its penalty God hates sin so deeply and requires its penalty so that He allowed His perfect, beloved Son to be put to death as the only means by which fallen mankind might be redeemed from its curse.
The British commentator Geoffrey B. Wilson wrote, “God is no idle spectator of world events; He is dynamically active in human affairs. The conviction of sin is constantly punctuated by Divine judgment” (Romans: A Digest of Reformed Comment [London: Banner of Truth], p. 24). The historian J. A. Froude wrote, “One lesson, and only one, history may be said to repeat with distinctness; that the world is built somehow on moral foundations; that, in the long run, it is well with the good; in the long run, it is ill with the wicked” (Short Studies on Great Subjects, vol. 1, “The Science of History” [London: Longmans Green and Co., 1915], p. 21).
We wonder, then, why so many wicked people prosper, seemingly doing evil with utter impunity. But if God’s wrath is delayed, His bowl of wrath is all the while filling up, increasing judgment for increased sin, They are only storing up wrath for the coming day of wrath (Rom. 2:5).
Donald Grey Barnhouse recounts the story of a group of godly farmers in a Midwest community being irritated one Sunday morning by a neighbor’s plowing his field across from their church. Noise from his tractor interrupted the worship service, and, as it turned out, the man had purposely chosen to plow that particular field on Sunday morning in order to make a point. He wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, asserting that, although he did not respect the Lord or honor the Lord’s Day, he had the highest yield per acre of any farm in the county. He asked the editor how Christians could explain that. With considerable insight and wisdom, the editor printed the letter and followed it with the simple comment, “God does not settle [all] His accounts in the month of October” (Man’s Ruin: Romans 1:1–32 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], p. 220).
The Source of God’s Wrath
from heaven (1:18c)
God’s wrath is rendered from heaven. Despite Satan’s present power as prince of the air and of this world, the earth is ultimately dominated by heaven, the throne of God, from which His wrath is constantly and dynamically manifested in the world of men.
Paul frequently speaks about the wrath, indicating a specific time or type of wrath. Although the nasb rendering does not indicate it, there is a definite article before wrath in Romans 3:5, which should read, “who inflicts the wrath.” In chapter 5 he speaks of our being “saved from the wrath of God through” Christ (v. 9), in chapter 12 of our leaving “room for the wrath of God” (v. 19), and in chapter 13 of believers being in subjection to God “not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (v. 5). In his letter to Thessalonica he assures believers that Jesus delivers them “from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).
Heaven reveals God’s wrath in two ways, through His moral order and through His personal intervention. When God made the world, He built in certain moral as well as physical laws that have since governed its operation. Just as a person falls to the ground when he jumps from a high building, so does he fall into God’s judgment when he deviates from God’s moral law. That is built-in wrath. When a person sins, there is a built-in consequence that inexorably works. In this sense God is not specifically intervening, but is letting the law of moral cause and effect work.
The second way in which God reveals His wrath is through His direct and personal intervention. He is not an impersonal cosmic force that set the universe in motion to run its own course. God’s wrath is executed exactly according to His divine will.
Several Hebrew words which convey a highly personal character are used in the Old Testament to describe God’s anger. Ḥārâ is used ninety-one times. It refers to becoming heated, to burning with fury, and is frequently used of God (see, e.g., Gen. 18:30). Ḥārôn is used forty-one times. It refers exclusively to divine anger and means “a burning, fierce wrath” (see, e.g., Ex. 15:7). Qâtsaph, which means bitter, is used thirty-four times, most of which refer to God (see, e.g., Deut. 1:34). The fourth term for wrath is Ḥemâh, which also refers to a venom or poison, is frequently associated with jealousy and is used most often of God (see, e.g., 2 Kings 22:13). David declared that “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11). “Indignation” translates zā˒am, which means to foam at the mouth, and is used over twenty times in the Old Testament, often of God’s wrath.
Whether the cause and effect wrath or the personal fury of God is meted out, the wrath originates in heaven.
The Extent and Nature of God’s Wrath
against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, (1:18d)
The fourth and fifth features of God’s wrath concern its extent and its nature.
God’s wrath is universal, being discharged against all who deserve it. No amount of goodwill, giving to the poor, helpfulness to others, or even service to God can exclude a person from the all Paul mentions here. As he later explains more explicitly, “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin, … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:9, 23). Obviously, some people are morally better than others, but even the most moral and upright person falls far short of God’s standard of perfect righteousness. No one escapes.
Men’s relative goodness compared to God’s perfect standard can be illustrated by a hypothetical attempt to jump from the beach near Los Angeles to Catalina Island, a distance of some twenty-six miles. Some people could not manage to jump at all, many could jump a few feet, and a rare few could jump twenty or twenty-five feet. The longest conceivable jump, however, would cover only the smallest fraction of the distance required. The most moral person has as little chance of achieving God’s righteousness in his own power as the best athlete has of making that jump to Catalina. Everybody falls short.
The second emphasis of this phrase is on the nature of God’s wrath. It is not like the wrath of a madman who strikes out indiscriminately, not caring who is injured or killed. Nor is it like the sin-tainted anger of a person who seeks to avenge a wrong done to him. God’s wrath is reserved for and justly directed at sin. Asebia (ungodliness) and adikia (unrighteousness) are synonyms, the first stressing a faulty personal relationship to God. God is angered because sinful men are His enemies (see Rom. 5:10) and therefore “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).
Ungodliness refers to lack of reverence for, devotion to, and worship of the true God, a failure that inevitably leads to some form of false worship. Although the details and circumstances are not revealed, Jude reports that Enoch, the righteous seventh-generation descendant of Adam, prophesied about God’s coming “to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him” (Jude 14–15). Four times he uses the term ungodly to describe the focus of God’s wrath upon sinful mankind.
Unrighteousness encompasses the idea of ungodliness but focuses on its result. Sin first attacks God’s majesty and then His law. Men do not act righteously because they are not rightly related to God, who is the only measure and source of righteousness. Ungodliness unavoidably leads to unrighteousness. Because men’s relation to God is wrong, their relation to their fellow men is wrong. Men treat other men the way they do because they treat God the way they do. Man’s enmity with his fellow man originates with his being at enmity with God.
Sin is the only thing God hates. He does not hate poor people or rich people, dumb people or smart people, untalented people or highly skilled people. He only hates the sin that those people, and all others, naturally practice, and sin inevitably brings His wrath.
The Cause of God’s Wrath
who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, (1:18e)
“But how is it,” we ask, “that God can hold everyone responsible for moral and spiritual failure, and be so angry when some people have so much less opportunity than others for hearing the gospel and coming to know God?” The answer is that, because of his sinful disposition, every person is naturally inclined to follow sin and resist God. This phrase could be rendered, “who are constantly attempting to suppress the truth by steadfastly holding to their sin.” Unrighteousness is so much a part of man’s nature that every person has a built-in, natural, compelling desire to suppress and oppose God’s truth.
As Paul declares in the following verse, “That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (v. 19). His point is that all people, regardless of their relative opportunities to know God’s Word and hear His gospel, have internal, God-given evidence of His existence and nature, but are universally inclined to resist and assault that evidence. No matter how little spiritual light he may have, God guarantees that any person who sincerely seeks Him will find Him. “You will seek me and find Me” He promises, “when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
But men are not naturally inclined to seek God. That truth was proved conclusively in the earthly ministry of Christ. Even when face-to-face with God incarnate, the Light of the world, “men loved darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:19–20). As David had proclaimed hundreds of years earlier, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). Sinful men oppose the idea of a holy God because they innately realize that such a God would hold them accountable for the sins they love and do not want to relinquish.
Every person, no matter how isolated from God’s written Word or the clear proclamation of His gospel, has enough divine truth evident both within and around Him (Rom. 1:19–20) to enable him to know and be reconciled to God if his desire is genuine. It is because men refuse to respond to that evidence that they are under God’s wrath and condemnation. “This is the judgment,” Jesus said, “that … men loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). Thus God is angry with the wicked every day (Psa. 7:11).
The Angry God
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
Today’s preaching is deficient at many points. But there is no point at which it is more evidently inadequate and even explicitly contrary to the teachings of the New Testament than in its neglect of “the wrath of God.” God’s wrath is a dominant Bible teaching and the point in Romans at which Paul begins his formal exposition of the gospel. Yet, to judge from most contemporary forms of Christianity, the wrath of God is either an unimportant doctrine, which is an embarrassment, or an entirely wrong notion, which any enlightened Christian should abandon.
Weakness of Contemporary Preaching
Where do most people begin when making a presentation of Christian truth, assuming that they even speak of it to others? Where does most of today’s Christian “preaching” begin?
Many begin with what is often termed “a felt need,” a lack or a longing that the listener will acknowledge. The need may involve feelings of inadequacy; a recognition of problems in the individual’s personal relationships or work or aspirations; moods; fears; or simply bad habits. The basic issue may be loneliness, or it may be uncontrollable desires. According to this theory, preaching should begin with felt needs, because this alone establishes a point of contact with a listener and wins a hearing. But does it? Oh, it may establish a contact between the teacher and the listener. But this is not the same thing as establishing contact between the listener and God, which is what preaching is about. Nor is it even necessarily a contact between the listener and the truth, since felt needs are often anything but our real needs; rather, they can actually be a means of suppressing them.
Here is the way Paul speaks of a felt need in another letter: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3). “What their itching ears want to hear” is a classic example of a felt need. In this passage the apostle warns Timothy not to cater to it. Obviously he himself did not structure the presentation of his gospel around such “needs.”
Another way we present the gospel today is by promises. We offer them like a carrot, a reward to be given if only the listener accepts Jesus. Through this approach, becoming a Christian is basically presented as a means of getting something. Sometimes this is propounded in a frightfully unbiblical way, so that what emerges is a “prosperity gospel” in which God is supposed to be obliged to grant wealth, health, and success to the believer.
We also commonly offer the gospel by the route of personal experience, stressing what Jesus has done for us and commending it to the other person for that reason.
The point I am making is that Paul does not do this in Romans, and in this matter he rebukes us profitably. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it like this:
Why is he [Paul] ready to preach the gospel in Rome or anywhere else? He does not say it is because he knows that many of them [the Romans] are living defeated lives and that he has got something to tell them that will give them victory. He does not say to them, “I want to come and preach the gospel to you in Rome because I have had a marvelous experience and I want to tell you about it, in order that you may have the same experience—because you can if you want it; it is there for you.”
This is not what Paul does.… There is no mention here of any experience. He is not talking in terms of their happiness or some particular state of mind, or something that might appeal to them, as certain possibilities do—but this staggering, amazing thing, the wrath of God! And he puts it first; it is the thing he says at once.
The reason, of course, is that Paul was God-centered, rather than man-centered, and he was concerned with that central focus. Most of us are weak, fuzzy, or wrong at this point. Paul knew that what matters in the final analysis is not whether we feel good or have our felt needs met or receive a meaningful experience. What matters is whether we come into a right relationship with God. And to have that happen we need to begin with the truth that we are not in a right relationship to him. On the contrary, we are under God’s wrath and are in danger of everlasting condemnation at his hands.
Wrath: A Biblical Idea
There is a problem at this point, of course, and the problem is that most people think in human categories rather than in the terms of Scripture. When we do that, “wrath” inevitably suggests something like capricious human anger or malice. God’s wrath is not the same thing as human anger, of course. But because we fail to appreciate this fact, we are uneasy with the very idea of God’s wrath and think that it is somehow unworthy of God’s character. So we steer away from the issue.
The biblical writers had no such reticence. They spoke of God’s wrath frequently, obviously viewing it as one of God’s great “perfections”—alongside his other attributes. Says J. I. Packer, “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigor with which both Testaments emphasize the reality and terror of God’s wrath.” Arthur W. Pink wrote, “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness.”3
In the Old Testament more than twenty words are used to refer to God’s wrath. (Other, very different words relate to human anger.) There are nearly six hundred important passages on the subject. These passages are not isolated or unrelated, as if they had been added to the Old Testament at some later date by a particularly gloomy redactor. They are basic and are integrated with the most important themes and events of Scripture.
The earliest mentions of the wrath of God are in connection with the giving of the law at Sinai. The first occurs just two chapters after the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments: “[The Lord said,] ‘Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger [wrath] will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless’ ” (Exod. 22:22–24).
Ten chapters later in Exodus, in a very important passage about the sin of Israel in making and worshiping the golden calf (a passage to which we will return), God and Moses discuss wrath. God says, “Now leave me alone so that my anger [wrath] may burn against them and that I may destroy them.…” But Moses pleads, “Why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people” (Exod. 32:10–12).
In this early and formative passage, Moses does not plead with God on the grounds of some supposed innocence of the people—they were not innocent, and Moses knew it—nor with the fantasy that wrath is somehow unworthy of God’s character. Rather Moses appeals only on the grounds that God’s judgment would be misunderstood and that his name would be dishonored by the heathen.
There are two main words for wrath in the New Testament. One is thymos, from a root that means “to rush along fiercely,” “to be in a heat of violence,” or “to breathe violently.” We can capture this idea by the phrase “a panting rage.” The other word is orgē which means “to grow ripe for something.” It portrays wrath as something that builds up over a long period of time, like water collecting behind a great dam. In his study of The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Leon Morris notes that apart from the Book of Revelation, which describes the final outpouring of God’s wrath in all its unleashed fury, thumos is used only once of God’s anger. The word used in every other passage is orgẽ. Morris observes, “The biblical writers habitually use for the divine wrath a word which denotes not so much a sudden flaring up of passion which is soon over, as a strong and settled opposition to all that is evil arising out of God’s very nature.”
John Murray describes wrath in precisely this way when he writes in his classic definition: “Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness.”
We find this understanding of the wrath of God in Romans. In this letter Paul refers to wrath ten times. But in each instance the word he uses is orgẽ, and his point is not that God is suddenly flailing out in petulant anger against something that has offended him momentarily, but rather that God’s firm, fearsome hatred of all wickedness is building up and will one day result in the eternal condemnation of all who are not justified by Christ’s righteousness. Romans 1:17 says, on the basis of Habakkuk 2:4, that “the righteous will live by faith.” But those who do not live by faith will not live; they will perish. Thus, in Romans 2:5 we find Paul writing, “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.”
But it is not only a matter of God’s wrath being “stored up” for a final great outpouring at the last day. There is also a present manifesting of this wrath, which is what Paul seems to be speaking of in our text when he says, using the present rather than the future tense of the verb, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” How is this so? In what way is the wrath of God currently being made manifest?
Commentators on Romans suggest a number of observations at this point, listing ways in which God’s wrath against sin seems to be disclosed. Charles Hodge speaks of three such manifestations: “the actual punishment of sin,” “the inherent tendency of moral evil to produce misery,” and “the voice of conscience.”
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones lists “conscience,” “disease and illness,” “the state of creation,” “the universality of death,” “history,” and (the matter he thinks Paul mainly had in view) “the cross” and “resurrection of Christ.”
Robert Haldane has a comprehensive statement:
The wrath of God … was revealed when the sentence of death was first pronounced, the earth cursed and man driven out of the earthly paradise, and afterward by such examples of punishment as those of the deluge and the destruction of the cities of the plain by fire from heaven, but especially by the reign of death throughout the world. It was proclaimed by the curse of the law on every transgression and was intimated in the institution of sacrifice and in all the services of the Mosaic dispensation. In the eighth chapter of this epistle the apostle calls the attention of believers to the fact that the whole creation has become subject to vanity and groaneth and travaileth together in pain. This same creation which declares that there is a God, and publishes his glory, also proves that he is the enemy of sin and the avenger of the crimes of men.… But above all, the wrath of God was revealed from heaven when the Son of God came down to manifest the divine character, and when that wrath was displayed in his sufferings and death in a manner more awful than by all the tokens God had before given of his displeasure against sin.
Each of these explanations of the present revelation of the wrath of God is quite accurate. But in my opinion Paul has something much more specific in view here, the matter that Charles Hodge alone mentions specifically: “the inherent tendency of moral evil to produce misery.” This is what Paul goes on to develop in Romans 1. In verses 21 through 32 Paul speaks of a downward inclination of the race by which the world, having rejected God and therefore being judicially abandoned by God, is given up to evil. It is set on a course that leads to perversions and ends in a debasement in which people call good evil and evil good. Human depravity and the misery involved are the revelation of God’s anger.
A number of years ago, Ralph L. Keiper was speaking to a loose-living California hippie about the claims of God on his life. The man was denying the existence of God and the truths of Christianity, but he was neither dull nor unperceptive. So Keiper directed him to Romans 1, which he described as an analysis of the hippie’s condition. The man read it carefully and then replied, “I think I see what you’re driving at. You are saying that I am the verifying data of the revelation.”
That is exactly it! The present revelation of God’s wrath, though limited in its scope, should be proof to us that we are indeed children of wrath and that we need to turn from our present evil path to the Savior.
Turning Aside God’s Wrath
Here I return to that great Old Testament story mentioned earlier. Moses had been on the mountain for forty days, receiving the law. As the days stretched into weeks, the people waiting below grew restless and prevailed upon Moses’ brother Aaron to make a substitute god for them. It was a golden calf. Knowing what was going on in the valley, God interrupted his giving of the law to tell Moses what the people were doing and to send him back down to them.
It was an ironic situation. God had just given the Ten Commandments. They had begun: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:2–6). While God was giving these words, the people whom he had saved from slavery were doing precisely what he was prohibiting. Not only that, they were lying, coveting, dishonoring their parents, committing adultery, and no doubt also breaking all the other commandments.
God declared his intention to judge the people immediately and totally, and Moses interceded for them in the words referred to earlier (Exod. 32:11–12).
At last Moses started down the mountain to deal with the people. Even on a human level, quite apart from any thought of God’s grace, sin must be judged. So Moses dealt with the sin as best he knew how. First he rebuked Aaron publicly. Then he called for any who still remained on the side of the Lord to separate themselves from the others and stand beside him. The tribe of Levi responded. At Moses’ command they were sent into the camp to execute the leaders of the rebellion. Three thousand men were killed, approximately one-half of one percent of the six hundred thousand who had left Egypt at the Exodus (Exod. 32:28; cf. 12:37—with women and children counted, the number may have been more than two million). Moses also destroyed the golden calf. He ground it up, mixed it with water, and made the people drink it.
From a human standpoint, Moses had dealt with the sin. The leaders were punished. Aaron was rebuked. The allegiance of the people was at least temporarily reclaimed. But Moses stood in a special relationship to God, as Israel’s representative, as well as to the people as their leader. And God still waited in wrath on the mountain. What was Moses to do?
For theologians sitting in an ivory-tower armchair, the idea of the wrath of God may seem to be no more than an interesting speculation. But Moses was no armchair theologian. He had been talking with God. He had heard his voice. He had receive his law. Not all the law had been given by this time, but Moses had received enough of it to know something of the horror of sin and of the uncompromising nature of God’s righteousness. Had God not said, “You shall have no other gods before me”? Had he not promised to punish sin to the third and fourth generation of those who disobey him? Who was Moses to think that the judgment he had imposed would satisfy a God of such holiness?
Night passed, and the morning came when Moses was to ascend the mountain again. He had been thinking, and during the night a way that might possibly divert the wrath of God had come to him. He remembered the sacrifices of the Hebrew patriarchs and the newly instituted rites of the Passover. God had shown by such sacrifices that he was prepared to accept an innocent substitute in place of the just death of the sinner. God’s wrath could sometimes fall on the substitute. Moses thought, “Perhaps God would accept.…”
When morning came, Moses ascended the mountain with great determination. Reaching the top, he began to speak to God. It must have been in great anguish, for the Hebrew text is uneven and Moses’ second sentence breaks off without ending (indicated by a dash in the middle of Exod. 32:32). This is the strangled sob welling up from the heart of a man who is asking to be damned if his own judgment could mean the salvation of those he had come to love. The text reads: “So Moses went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod. 32:31–32). Moses was offering to take the place of the people and accept judgment on their behalf.
On the preceding day, before Moses had come down from the mountain, God had said something that could have been a great temptation. If Moses would agree, God would destroy the people and start again to make a new Jewish nation from Moses (Exod. 32:10). Even then Moses had rejected the offer. But, after having been with his people and being reminded of his love for them, his answer, again negative, rises to even greater heights. God had said, “I will destroy the people and save you.”
Now Moses replies, “Rather destroy me and save them.”
Moses lived in the early years of God’s revelation and at this point probably had a very limited understanding of God’s plan. He did not know, as we know, that what he prayed for could not be. He had offered to go to hell for his people. But Moses could not save even himself, let alone Israel. He, too, was a sinner. He, too, needed a savior. He could not die for others.
But there is One who could. Thus, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). That person is Jesus, the Son of God. His death was for those who deserve God’s wrath. And his death was fully adequate, because Jesus did not need to die for his own sins—he was sinless—and because, being God, his act was of infinite magnitude.
That is the message Paul will expound in this epistle. It is the Good News, the gospel. But the place to begin is not with your own good works, since you have none, but by knowing that you are an object of God’s wrath and will perish in sin at last, unless you throw yourself upon the mercy of the One who died for sinners, even Jesus Christ.
18. For revealed, &c. He reasons now by stating things of a contrary nature, and proves that there is no righteousness except what is conferred, or comes through the gospel; for he shows that without this all men are condemned: by it alone there is salvation to be found. And he brings, as the first proof of condemnation, the fact,—that though the structure of the world, and the most beautiful arrangement of the elements, ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet no one discharged his proper duty: it hence appears that all were guilty of sacrilege, and of wicked and abominable ingratitude.
To some it seems that this is a main subject, and that Paul forms his discourse for the purpose of enforcing repentance; but I think that the discussion of the subject begins here, and that the principal point is stated in a former proposition; for Paul’s object was to teach us where salvation is to be found. He has already declared that we cannot obtain it except through the gospel: but as the flesh will not willingly humble itself so far as to assign the praise of salvation to the grace of God alone, Paul shows that the whole world is deserving of eternal death. It hence follows, that life is to be recovered in some other way, since we are all lost in ourselves. But the words, being well considered, will help us much to understand the meaning of the passage.
Some make a difference between impiety and unrighteousness, and think, that by the former word is meant the profanation of God’s worship, and by the latter, injustice towards men; but as the Apostle immediately refers this unrighteousness to the neglect of true religion, we shall explain both as referring to the same thing. And then, all the impiety of men is to be taken, by a figure in language, as meaning “the impiety of all men,” or, the impiety of which all men are guilty. But by these two words one thing is designated, and that is, ingratitude towards God; for we thereby offend in two ways: it is said to be ἀσέβεια, impiety, as it is a dishonouring of God; it is ἀδικία, unrighteousness, because man, by transferring to himself what belongs to God, unjustly deprives God of his glory. The word wrath, according to the usage of Scripture, speaking after the manner of men, means the vengeance of God; for God, in punishing, has, according to our notion, the appearance of one in wrath. It imports, therefore, no such emotion in God, but only has a reference to the perception and feeling of the sinner who is punished. Then he says that it is revealed from heaven; though the expression, from heaven, is taken by some in the sense of an adjective, as though he had said, “the wrath of the celestial God;” yet I think it more emphatical, when taken as having this import, “Wheresoever a man may look around him, he will find no salvation; for the wrath of God is poured out on the whole world, to the full extent of heaven.”
The truth of God means, the true knowledge of God; and to hold in that, is to suppress or to obscure it: hence they are charged as guilty of robbery.—What we render unjustly, is given literally by Paul, in unrighteousness, which means the same thing in Hebrew: but we have regard to perspicuity.
18 At the outset it is important to observe the correlation between righteousness and wrath. In parallel statements, both are represented as being “revealed” (apokalyptetai, GK 636, as in v. 17). As previously observed, full salvation in terms of divine righteousness awaits the future, being eschatological in nature; but salvation also belongs to the present and is appropriated by faith. Similarly, wrath is an even more obviously eschatological concept, yet it is viewed here as parallel to the manifestation of righteousness, belonging therefore to the present age. It is “revealed” or “being revealed” (so NIV, reflecting the progressive present tense). This means that the unfolding of history involves a disclosure of the wrath of God against sin, seen in the terrible corruption and perversion of human life. This does not mean that the price of sin is to be reckoned only in terms of the present operation of wrath, for there is a day of judgment awaiting the sinner (2:5). But the divine verdict is already in some measure anticipated in the present. “Paul regards the monstrous degradation of pagan populations, which he is about to describe (vv. 24–27 and 29–32), not as a purely natural consequence of their sin, but as a solemn intervention of God’s justice in the history of mankind, an intervention which he designates by the term paradidonai [GK 4140]—to give over” (Godet, 101).
Paul states that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.” It is difficult to accept Dodd’s assertion, 47–50, that we are mistaken to conclude that God is angry. Dodd notes that Paul never uses the verb “be angry” with God as its subject. He further points out that in the Pauline corpus “the wrath of God” appears elsewhere only in Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 3:6. Most of the time we encounter the simple “wrath” or “the wrath,” which appears intended, according to Dodd, to describe “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.” It is precarious, however, to make much of the fact that God is not directly linked with wrath in every Pauline reference. The context usually makes it clear when the divine wrath is intended. In the passage before us, the words “from heaven” are decisive. As Gustaf Dalman (The Words of Jesus [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909], 219) points out, “from heaven” in the Gospels means “from God.” Furthermore, since there is a wrath to come that will inevitably involve God, there is no reason why he should not involve himself in manifesting his wrath in the present. Human objection to the idea of the wrath of God is often molded, sometimes unconsciously, by the human experience of anger as passion or desire for revenge. But this is only a human display of wrath, and one that is corrupted. God’s wrath is not to be thought of as merely or purely an emotion but primarily as his active judgment (cf. 13:4–5, where its juridical character is evident). It is “the necessary response of a perfect and holy God to violations of his will” (Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002], 56).
The object of the divine wrath is twofold—the “godlessness and wickedness” of humanity. Paul explicates the first term in vv. 19–27 and the second in vv. 28–32. “Godlessness” (asebeia, GK 813) means a lack of reverence, an impiety that arrays a person against God, not simply in terms of neglect but also of rebellion. “Wickedness” (adikia, “unrighteousness,” GK 94) means injustice, relating to the immorality that destroys human relationships. The two together point to human failure regarding the commandments of both tables of the Decalogue. As Nygren, 101, puts it, “a wrong relation to God is the ultimate cause of man’s corruption.”
They “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (v. 18). Unrighteousness has a blinding effect not only on its perpetrators but also hinders others from seeing the truth. Presumably the truth referred to here is basically the truth about God (cf. v. 25). Suppression of the truth implies knowledge of the truth, and what this involves is explained next.
18 In light of the stark contrast between the “revelation of the righteousness of God” (v. 17) and “the revelation of the wrath of God,” we would expect v. 18 to begin with a strong adversative—“but” or “however.” Instead, v. 18 is linked to the preceding verses with the word “for,” which normally introduces a reason or explanation for a previous statement. It may be that the word here has lost its normal causal meaning and that we should simply ignore it (note that it is untranslated in NIV, TEV, and NJB). Some scholars, however, think that the close biblical connection between righteousness and wrath allows Paul to claim the reality of God’s righteousness because the wrath of God is present. But Paul is not using the word “righteousness” in v. 17 in a way that would make this connection likely. It is best, then, to retain the usual force of “for,” but to view it as introducing the answer to a question implicit in what Paul has just said: Why has God manifested his righteousness and why can it be appropriated only through faith? Viewed in this light, this conjunction introduces the entire argument of 1:18–3:20—which, indeed, is encapsulated in v. 18.
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. The second-century Christian heretic Marcion omitted “of God” in v. 18, and many others since would like to omit the verse altogether. In our day, C. H. Dodd is representative of those who have rejected or drastically modified the traditional conception of God’s wrath. Criticizing the conception of a God who personally exercises wrath as “archaic,” he argues that Paul’s “wrath of God” is no more than “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.”30 But such a conception of God has more in common with the Greek philosophical abstraction of God than the biblical presentation of a personal, active God.
In the Bible wrath is an aspect of God’s person, as is clear from the many OT texts that make the “kindling” of God’s wrath the basis for his judgment. God’s wrath is necessary to the biblical conception of God: “As long as God is God, He cannot behold with indifference that His creation is destroyed and His holy will trodden underfoot. Therefore He meets sin with His mighty and annihilating reaction.” The OT regularly pictures God as responding to sin with wrath;32 but, particularly in the prophets, the wrath of God is associated with the Day of the Lord as a cosmic, climactic outbreak of judgment. Although Paul works with this same conception of God’s wrath, he stresses the working and effects of God’s wrath. Paul speaks of wrath as a present reality under which people outside Christ stand, and often, following the OT prophets, predicts the outpouring of God’s wrath on the future day of judgment.34 If the main verb in v. 18 is a “futuristic present,” Paul could here also be predicting this climactic outbreak of wrath at the end of history, as in 2:5. But the verb is most likely depicting a present-time situation.36
If, then, Paul presents God’s wrath as a present reality, how are we to understand that that wrath is now being manifested? And what is the relationship between the two “revelations”—of the righteousness of God in v. 17 and of the wrath of God in v. 18? Taking the last question first, a determinative issue is whether the verb “reveal” means “reveal [a truth] to the mind” or “manifest [an action] in history.” One provocative interpretation that takes the verb in the first sense is associated with Karl Barth. He argues that the revelation of both God’s righteousness and wrath takes place in the preaching of the gospel. For the gospel proclaims the cross, and Jesus’ death on the cross reveals both the possibility for a new righteousness and the seriousness of God’s wrath against human sin. Although this view does justice to the parallelism between vv. 17 and 18, it suffers from some fatal objections. Barth’s interpretation also requires that “reveal” have a cognitive sense: “make known, disclose.” But as we have seen, this same verb in v. 17 has a “historical” sense: “come into historical reality” (from the “hiddenness” of God’s purpose). It is probable that this is the meaning of the verb in v. 18 also, especially since the object of this “revealing” is not people but the sins of people, or people as sinners: God’s wrath is revealed “upon all godlessness and unrighteousness of human beings.”
If, then, “reveal” indicates the actual inflicting of God’s wrath, when, and how, does it take place? Although God will inflict his wrath on sin finally and irrevocably at the end of time (2:5), there is an anticipatory working of God’s wrath in the events of history. Particularly, as vv. 24–28 suggest, the wrath of God is now visible in his “handing over” of human beings to their chosen way of sin and all its consequences. As Schiller’s famous aphorism puts it, “The history of the world is the judgment of the world.” It is this judgment of the world that the present infliction of God’s wrath is intended to reveal. For the present experience of God’s wrath is merely a foretaste of what will come on the day of judgment. Furthermore, what both the warning of “wrath to come” and the present experience of wrath demonstrate is the sentence of condemnation under which all people outside Christ stand. It is this reality that Paul wants to get across to this readers here.
What, then, of the parallel between vv. 17 and 18? Some would go so far as to make this exercise of wrath a part of the righteousness of God. But only if righteousness is taken broadly as an attribute of God is this possible, and we have seen good reason to reject this interpretation. On the other hand, the parallel with v. 17 may suggest that this condemning activity is particularly bound up with the eschatological breaking in of the new age in Christ. Though it is clear that God has inflicted his wrath in the past,43 the inauguration of “the last days” means that the final, climactic wrath of God is already making itself felt. The wrath of God falls more deservedly than ever before on people now that God’s righteousness in Christ is being publicly proclaimed.
Paul’s mention of the fact that God’s wrath is being revealed “from heaven” adds weight to what Paul is saying: it “significantly implies the majesty of an angry God, and His all-seeing eye, and the wide extent of His wrath: whatever is under heaven, and yet not under the Gospel, is under this wrath.” Paul specifies two objects of God’s wrath: “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.” Some distinguish the two words, arguing that the former refers to sins of a religious nature and the latter to sins of a moral nature.46 Paul would then be following a sequence similar to that of the Decalogue, which focuses on a person’s duty to God in the first four commandments and on one’s duty to others in the second six. Moreover, it is claimed that 1:19–32 picks up this same sequence, as Paul concentrates first on people’s rejection of God (vv. 19–27) and then on the disruption of human relations that flows from this rejection. The point would be, as S. L. Johnson puts it, “immorality in life proceeds from apostasy in doctrine.”49 Although this interpretation is attractive and theologically sound, it does not have sufficient basis in the meaning of the words Paul uses.
Paul further characterizes the people who are guilty of “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” as those who “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness.” “Truth” in the NT is not simply something to which one must give mental assent; it is something to be done, to be obeyed. When people act sinfully, rebelling against God’s just rule, they fail to embrace the truth and so suppress it.52 In this case, as Meyer says, they “do not let it develop itself into power and influence on their religious knowledge and moral condition.”
1:18 / The wickedness of men is now contrasted with the “righteousness of God” in 1:17. The Greek word translated wickedness, adikia, is the negative of the “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) of God in verse 17. Thus, the Greek draws an unmistakable parallelism between the revelation of God’s righteousness (v. 17) and the revelation of God’s wrath against human unrighteousness (v. 18). The object of God’s wrath is the suppression of the truth. The truth Paul has in mind is probably not truth in general (although suppressing truth in any form is bad enough), but the truth of God. “Sin is always an assault upon the truth,” says Cranfield (Romans, vol. 1, p. 112). God’s wrath burns against perverting the truth, for once people stop believing in the truth, as G. K. Chesterton once said, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything! Sacrificing the truth of God leads to the denial of reality (v. 20), a lie (v. 25), a depraved mind (v. 28), and the approval of unrighteousness (v. 32).
Wickedness, appearing twice in verse 18 and again in 1:29, 2:8, and 3:5, dominates Paul’s treatment of the guilt of humanity. In the Greek text verse 18 is introduced with the conjunction “for” (gar, omitted in niv), which links verses 18ff. with verses 16–17. “For” adds a necessary corollary to what Paul has already said about salvation, namely, that one cannot be made right with God other than “by faith from first to last” (v. 17). Paul is thus not getting sidetracked on the sorry state of the world, but is demonstrating that apart from faith there can be no receiving of grace.
The wrath of God (v. 18) is revealed along with the righteousness of God (v. 17) and is inseparable from it. Although they may seem like opposites, both righteousness and wrath comprise the gospel. God’s anger appears to contradict what we know of his love and forgiveness. Wrath, at least in human experience, connotes vengeance and retaliation fueled with self-interest, which erupts in irrational and injurious excess. But God’s wrath is different. It is not an arbitrary nightmare of raw power. It is guided by God’s covenant relationship with his people. God’s wrath is divine indignation against the corruption of his good creation. When understood in this way, God’s anger does not jeopardize his goodness; rather, it is a corollary of it, for if God were not angered by unrighteousness he would not be thoroughly righteous (see Eph. 2:3–5). God’s wrath is thus not an aberration of his divine nature, but the result of holy love encountering evil and unrighteousness.
God’s wrath is not always apparent in the course of history. Bad consequences do not necessarily follow bad actions; good things sometimes befall them, and conversely, bad things sometimes befall good actions. We cannot say that the wrath of God is simply a nemesis, the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe, as does C. H. Dodd (Romans, pp. 21–24). Nor must we try, as did ancient Jewish rabbis, to divorce wrath from God by ascribing it to angelic intermediaries. God’s wrath is rather a judgment from heaven. It is grounded in God’s righteous perspective on evil and his power over it. God’s wrath is not synonymous with historical catastrophes, as Hegel, for example, regarded it, but it is divine judgment in history. God’s wrath is witnessed supremely in Gethsemane and Golgotha, where, in the forsakenness of his Son, God took the extreme penalty for sin on himself!
Wrath and righteousness, therefore, are equally expressions of God’s grace. If in what follows we hear the gavel of condemnation, it is only to hush all human protestations and self-justifications so that the acquittal of grace may be heard. The Judge condemns in order to save. Only those who know that they are lost will look for help. The good news of free salvation can be heard only by those who have first been briefed on the hopelessness of their case.
As an expression of holy love in the face of human evil, God’s wrath is directed not against persons, but against their godlessness and wickedness. Its object is that which specifically opposes the divine goodness and will. The adjective all may suggest that Paul understands godlessness and wickedness rather synonymously, but the words carry different nuances. The Greek asebeia entails the denial of the holy or unrighteousness, here rendered godlessness. Paul may be thinking of those offenses against the majesty of God which are found in the first four commandments (Exod. 20:1–8). Adikia (niv, wickedness), on the other hand, means immorality or self-righteousness and is an offense against the just ordering of human relationships as required in the final six commandments (Exod. 20:12–17). God’s wrath is directed against whatever fractures divine and human relationships, whether in motive or in deed.
Ver. 18.—For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold back the truth in unrighteousness. Here the argumentation of the Epistle begins, the first position to be established being that all mankind without exception is guilty of sin before God, and therefore unable of itself to put in a plea of righteousness. This being proved, the need of the revelation of God’s righteousness, announced in ver. 17, appears. “The wrath of God” is an expression with which we are familiar in the Bible, being one of those in which human emotions are attributed to God in accommodation to the exigencies of human thought. It denotes his essential holiness, his antagonism to sin, to which punishment is due. It expresses an idea as essential to our conception of the Divine righteousness as do the words, “love” and “mercy.” Wrath, or indignation, against evil is as necessary to our ideal of a perfect human being as is love of good; and therefore we attribute wrath to the perfect Divine Being, using of necessity human terms for expressing our conception of the Divine attributes. When the Name of the Lord was proclaimed before Moses (Exod. 34:5, etc.), it was of One not only “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” but also “that will by no means clear the guilty.” This last attribute is the same as what we mean by the Divine wrath. This “wrath of God” is said in the verse before us to be “revealed from heaven.” How so? Is it in the gospel, as is God’s righteousness (ver. 18)? Against this view is the change of expression—ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ instead of ἐν αὐτῷ—as well as the fact that the gospel is not in itself a revelation of wrath, but the very opposite. Is it in the Old Testament? Possibly in part; but the marked repetition of ἀποκαλύπτεται in the present tense seems to point to some obvious revelation now; and, further, the first part of the proof, to the end of the second chapter, does not rest on the Old Testament. Is it what the apostle proceeds so forcibly to draw attention to—the existing, and at that time notorious, moral degradation of heathen society, which he regards as evidence of Divine judgment? This may have been before his view; and, as he goes on at once to speak of it, it probably was so prominently. But the revelation of Divine wrath against sin seems to imply more than this as the argument goes on, viz. the evident guilt before God of all mankind alike, and not only of degraded heathenism. It is difficult to decide, among the various explanations that have been offered, on any specific mode of revelation which the writer had in view. Perhaps no particular one exclusively. Commentators may be often unduly anxious to affix an exact sense to pregnant words used by St. Paul, who so often indicates comprehensive ideas by short phrases. He may have had before his mind various concurrent signs of human guilt, and the Divine wrath against it, at that especial time of the world’s history; all which, to his mind at least, brought conviction as by a light from heaven. And the gospel itself (though in its essence a revelation of mercy, so that he purposely avoids saying that wrath was in it revealed) still had been the most powerful means of all for bringing home a conviction of the Divine wrath to the consciences of believers. For its first office is to convince of sin and of judgment. Cf. the words of the forerunner, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” On all such grounds we may conceive that the apostle spoke of the wrath of God against human sin being especially at that time plainly revealed from heaven; and he desires to bring his readers to perceive it as he did. For now was the time of the Divine purpose to bring it home to all (cf. Acts 17:30, “The times of this ignorance God winked at, but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent”). “All ungodliness and unrighteousness” (ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν) comprehends all evil-doing, in whatever aspect viewed, whether as impiety or as wrong. The phrase, τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν κατεχόντων, is wrongly translated in the Authorized version, “who hold the truth.” If the verb κατέχειν allowed this rendering here, it would indeed be intelligible in reference to the knowledge of God, even by nature, which all men have or ought to have, though they do not act upon it, and the very potential possession of which renders them guilty. This is the thought of what immediately follows. Thus the sense would be, “They hold, i.e. possess, the truth; but they do unrighteousness.” But whenever κατέχειν means “to hold,” it denotes a firm hold, not a loose hold, such as would be thus implied. It occurs in this sense in 1 Cor. 11:2 (“I praise you that ye keep the ordinances”); and 1 Thess. 5:21 (“Hold fast that which is good”). We must, therefore, have recourse to a second sense in which the verb is also used—that of “keeping back,” or “restraining.” Thus Luke 4:42 (“The people stayed him, that he should not depart from them”) and 2 Thess. 2:6 (“Ye know what withholdeth”). The reference is still to the innate knowledge of God which all men are supposed to have had originally; but the idea expressed is not their ‘having’ it, but their suppressing it. “Veritas in mente nititur et urget: sed homo eam impedit” (Bengel).
1:18 ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ θεοῦ ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ, “for the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.” γάρ, “for,” can express simply connection or continuation of thought without specifying what precisely the connection is (BGD). That a connection of thought is certainly intended is clear from the parallel structuring of vv 17 and 18. But the ὁργὴ θεοῦ ἐπὶ ἀδικίαν as against the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ εἰς πίστιν (v 17) strongly suggests that the connection is as much of contrast as of cause (Stuhlmacher, Gerechtigkeit, 80; and Kertelge, Rechtfertigung, 88; despite Gaugler and Herold, 329–30). However, see on 1:17 (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, final paragraph) and Schlatter, 52–54.
The repetition of ἀποκαλύπτεται is obviously deliberate (cf. particularly Schmidt). It conveys the same idea of heavenly revelation (here explicitly—ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ), that is, from God. And the eschatological overtone is confirmed by the fact that the ὀργὴ θεοῦ is of a piece with God’s final judgment (2:5, 8; 3:5; 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9; in Jewish thought divine wrath is not a particularly eschatological concept—but note Isa 13:9, 13; Zeph 1:15, 18; 2:2–3; 3:8; Dan 8:19; Jub. 24.30); God’s final judgment is simply the end of a process already in train (cf. particularly 1 Enoch 84.4; 91.7–9)! The clear implication is that the two heavenly revelations are happening concurrently, as well as divine righteousness, so also divine wrath; to take the second ἀποκαλύπτεται as future (Eckstein) destroys the parallel and draws an unnecessary distinction between God’s wrath and the divine action in “he handed over” in παρέδωκεν (vv 24, 26, 28). In the OT the wrath of God has special reference to the covenant relation (SH), but here the implication, quickly confirmed (vv 19 ff.), is that Paul is shifting from a narrower covenant perspective to a more cosmic or universal perspective, from God understood primarily as the God of Israel to God as Creator of all. However, if the covenant is seen as God restoring Israel to man’s proper place as creature (for the Adam theology of the section, see on 1:22), then Creatorly wrath can be seen as the full scope of the other side of the coin from covenant righteousness (cf. Isa 63:6–7; Sir 5:6; 16:11); and see also 2:5.
The ὀργὴ θεοῦ was a familiar concept in the ancient world—divine indignation as heaven’s response to human impiety or transgression of divinely approved laws, or as a way of explaining communal catastrophes or unlookedfor sickness or death (TDNT 5:383–409). Paul takes up this well-known language as a way of describing the effect of human unrighteousness in the world (vv 19–32), though clearly, in Paul’s view, “wrath” is not something for which God is merely responsible, “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe” (Dodd; Macgregor, 105; similarly Hanson, Wrath, 85, 110), nor merely an attitude of God (far less a vengeful attitude of God), but something God does (see Travis, 37–38). The parallel with “the righteousness of God” would be sufficient indication of this, especially when taken in conjunction with other references to God’s wrath later in Romans (3:5; 9:22; 12:19), and the repeated παρέδωκεν of vv 24, 26, and 28 puts the issue beyond dispute (cf. Ladd, Theology, 407; Robinson, Wrestling, 18–21; Maillot, 62). Not merely a psychological or sociological process is in view but a process on earth in which heaven (οὐρανοῦ) is involved.
That a degree of irrationality or incalculability was often manifest in the operation of divine wrath was also evident to classical thought (as expressed particularly in the concept of “fate”—see, e.g., OCD). Jewish thought is familiar with the same feature, but within its monotheistic system found it more of a problem; cf. 2 Sam 24:1 and 15–16 with 1 Chron 21:1, 14–15; Job 19:11; Ps 88:16 (TDNT 5:402); and the apocalyptist’s puzzled “How long?” Paul too is conscious of the same problem (3:5; 9:22). Here he expounds the concept in highly moral terms (vv 19–32), but these verses contain the beginning of an answer which he elaborates later in terms of the individual (chaps. 6–8) and of humankind as a whole, Jew and Gentile (chaps. 9–11). In brief, his resolution is that the effect of divine wrath upon man is to show that man who rebels against his relation of creaturely dependence on God (which is what faith is) becomes subject to degenerative processes. Deliverance from these comes through returning to the relation of faith. Such a return does not mean that wrath ceases to operate against man in his fleshliness, but that it becomes part of a larger process whose end is liberation and redemption from all that occasions and involves wrath; cf. Herold—“The eschatological judgment of wrath comes about in accordance with covenant and promise, because it will lead to redemption and to salvation” (Zorn, 301). That this fuller understanding of God’s wrath emerges from the gospel (or at least Paul’s expression thereof) is true, but the actual operation of wrath Paul affirms to be clearly visible in human behavior (Althaus; Michel; Bruce; Travis, 36; against Barth, Shorter; Leenhardt; Schenke, 888; Cranfield; cf. Filson, 39–48; Kuss; Wilckens). For the eschatological dimension of “wrath” see above under ἀποκαλύπτεται and on 2:5.
πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων, “all impiety and unrighteousness of men,” is an all-embracing phrase. In Greek thought it would include hostility to or disregard for what was generally accepted to be good religious practice (typically failure to observe the state cultus) and unlawful conduct toward others (TDNT 1:154). That Paul intends a clear distinction between the words is unlikely, as also the suggestion that he had in mind the two tables of the law (as suggested by Schlatter, 49, and implausibly elaborated by Wilier, 12ff.; but see TDNT 5:190). Such sins were all of a piece in Jewish thought and the phrase is comprehensive, not analytic (cf. Philo, Immut. 112; Spec. Leg. 1.215; Praem. 105). In fact ἀσέβεια is hardly used by Paul (only here and 11:26 in the undisputed Paulines; ἀσεβής only in 4:5 and 5:6), whereas ἀδικία is the more dominant concept (1:29; 2:8; 3:5; 6:13; 9:14; also 1 Cor 13:6; 2 Cor 12:13; 2 Thess 2:10, 12), and, as its repetition here shows, it clearly embraces the full range covered by the more comprehensive phrase in itself.
Not least in significance is the fact that the ἀδικία of men is clearly set in antithesis to the δικαιοσύνη of God (v 17; note also 3:5; cf. 1QS 3.20). “Unrighteousness” is thus more precisely defined as failure to meet the obligations toward God and man which arise out of relationship with God and man. That the two aspects of unrighteousness go together and follow from failure to recognize and accept what is man’s proper relation to God is the thrust of what follows. It is this unrighteousness on the part of men which makes necessary the initiative of God’s righteousness. Moreover, the fact that the argument can be transposed from the narrower question of Jew/Gentile relation within the saving purpose of God to that of humankind as a whole, and precisely in terms of the play on δικαιοσύνη/ἀδικία strengthens the view of Käsemann, C. Müller, and Stuhlmacher that God’s righteousness is his power and faithfulness as Creator. The πᾶσαν has a polemical edge, since Paul has in view his devout Jewish contemporaries who thought that as δικαιοί they were distanced from all ἀδικία (see on 1:17 and Introduction § 5.3.1). That is to say, v 18 already looks to the fuller exposition of ἀδικία in chap. 2 and thus serves as the opening statement of the whole section (1:18–3:20).
τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων, “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” ἀλήθεια, “truth”—specifically of God (v 25), but here probably intended more broadly in the sense of “the real state of affairs,” things as they actually are (TDNT 1:243). The idea of “holding down, suppressing” (κατεχόντων—BGD), “holding back, restraining” (Murray; see also on 7:6) the truth implies not only the willfulness of man (vv 19–20, 23, 25; so also 2:8), but also that truth not thus suppressed would have effect. In particular “the truth of God” in a Jewish or Jewish-influenced context would carry the connotation of God’s reliability and trustworthiness, Paul thus already prepares the way to tie in the theme of universal indictment with the special issue of God’s faithfulness as Israel’s covenant God (see further Introduction §4.2.2 and on 1:17 [ἐκ … ἐκ …] and 3:3–4, 7). The indictment here is that failure to acknowledge God as Creator results inevitably in a sequence of false relations toward God, toward man, and toward creation itself. See further on 1:25.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (pp. 67–69). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 47–48). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.