The Wrath of God
Wicked World, Angry God—June 7, 1981
Let’s look together this evening at the first chapter of Romans. Tonight we’re going to examine 1:18. And I believe as we examine this very critical verse we find the key that unlocks the gospel, the starting point of evangelism.
Now the Apostle Paul has announced his theme in verses 16 and 17 as we saw last week. He says: “I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” And that really is his theme. He called it the gospel of God in verse 1 because God is its source and the gospel of Christ in verse 16 because Christ is its culmination. And he says he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for in it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
We saw that that was in condensed form the thesis or the theme of the entire epistle to the Romans. And now as he moves to verse 18 he begins to unfold in great detail the substance of that theme. To help the Christian reader to understand the significance and the meaning of the fullness of the gospel of Christ. And it all begins in verse 18 with this statement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” The gospel message begins with astatement about the wrath of God. Frankly that’s diametrically opposed to most of our evangelistic technique. Most of our contemporary evangelism purposely avoids that theme. We talk about love and we talk about happiness and we talk about abundant living and we talk about forgiveness and we talk about joy, we talk about peace. And we offer people all of those things and ask them if they wouldn’t like to have all of those things. But we really very rarely talk about judgment. And I wonder in all of the times that you have presented the gospel to somebody, how many times did you introduce it by saying—By the way, did you know that the wrath of God is revealed against your ungodliness? I suppose Dale Carnegie; he has even affected our gospel presentation. We are in such a hurry to win friends and influence people that sometimes we bypass the starting point.
From Paul’s perspective, fear becomes the first pressure applied to evil men. Let them know about the wrath of God.
Now admittedly the wrath of God is a hard subject and I am not here to tell you that it’s an easy one. I find it myself very difficult to begin in speaking to people about Christ at this point. And yet it is the beginning of the gospel and the proper preparation for the announcement of grace. How can people understand anything about love if they don’t understand God’s hate? How can they understand anything about His grace if they don’t know about His law? How can they understand forgiveness if they don’t understand the penalty of sin. Men cannot understand. They cannot seek grace and salvation unless they are affected with the dread of the wrath of God that is upon them. Unless men sense they are in grave danger there’s no pressure applied to them to change.
Now, sometimes when you talk about God being a God of wrath, certain people get disturbed. And they don’t understand how God can be a God of anger and God can be a God of wrath and God can be a God of fury, a God of terror. But that’s because they don’t understand God. Let’s see if we can’t help ourselves to a deeper understanding of His wrath in perspective with all of His other attributes.
God’s attributes are balanced in His divine perfection. And they are perfectly balanced. If God did not have wrath and God did not have anger then He would not be God. God is perfect in love, on the one hand, and He is equally perfect in hate, on the other hand. Just as totally as He loves, so totally does He hate. As His love is unmixed, so is His hate unmixed. Of Christ, it says in Hebrews 1:9, “Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity.” And there is that perfect balance in the nature of God. As I mentioned, one of the tragedies of Christianity in our time is a failure to preach the hatred of God, the judgment of God. We’re so saccharine. We’re so sentimental. We’re so kind of mushy in our Christianity. When is the last time you heard a new song on the wrath of God? Heard one lately? I haven’t.
Just to prove a point in my own mind I have an old Psalter, an old hymnal from the end of the nineteenth century and I pulled it off the shelf and started to go through the hymnal and I found hymn after hymn after hymn on the wrath of God, on the anger of God, on the vengeance of God, on the judgment of God. Hymns that sounded very much like the imprecatory Psalms, where the psalmist is asking God to come down and condemn His enemies. People don’t write hymns like that anymore. People don’t extol the wrath of God. We don’t want to talk about that in our Madison Avenue approach to presenting the message. But we will never understand at all the profound reality of God’s love until we comprehend His hate. There has to be a-very clear delineation of what it is that God hates.
And may I add that it is not to say that God doesn’t love, but it is to say that you’ll never understand how great His love is unless you know how great His hate is. I mean, if you understand that God hates sin so profoundly then you will find it all the more amazing that He can love sinners. So that without an understanding of His hate, His love is crippled too in our thinking. Love and grace are favorite terms, are void of meaning if God does not hate.
Now in spite of our aversion to seeing God as a God of hate and a God of wrath, the Scriptures clearly emphasize this, and I want to take you on a kind of a jet tour through some Scriptures.
Psalm 2:1: “Why do the nations rage and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.” In other words, let’s get God, let’s do away with God, do away with His rule, He intimidates us, let’s eliminate Him. “But He that sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall He speak unto them in His wrath, and vex them in His great displeasure.”
Verse 12 says: “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry and you perish from the way when His wrath is kindled but a little.” In other words, when God just gets a little angry people perish.
Look at Psalm 76, another illustration. This is reflecting back on the judgment of God upon the Egyptian army. It says in Psalm 76:6: “At thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both the chariot and horse are cast into a deep sleep. Thou, even thou, art to be feared: and who may stand in thy sight when once thou art angry? Thou didst cause judgment to be heard from heaven; the earth feared and was still, when God arose to judgment.”
Look at Psalm 78:49. And here is God’s wrath poured out against the enemies of Israel again, verse 49: “He cast upon them the fierceness of His anger, wrath and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them. He made a way to His anger; He spared not their soul from death but gave their life over to the pestilence; and smote all the firstborn in Egypt; the chief of their strength n the tabernacles of Ham.” God was angry, God was fierce. God had wrath. God had indignation and God brought trouble … very severe.
Psalm 90:7, it says … and this speaks of man as he stands before a holy God; “For we are consumed by Thine anger, and by Thine wrath are we troubled.” Verse 11: “Who knoweth the power of thine anger? Even according to thy fear, so is Thy wrath.” This is the hymn book of Israel. And I would hasten to add that they had hymns about God’s wrath. It was equally a part of God’s nature.
The prophets spoke often of the wrath of God, the judgment of God. In Isaiah 9:19 it says: “Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts is the land darkened.”- And then this amazing statement: “And the people shall be as the fuel of the fire.”
Jeremiah also spoke of the wrath of God 7:20: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, God: Behold, Mine anger and My fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field and upon the fruit of the ground; and it shall burn and shall not be quenched.”
Ezekiel, the prophet of God, the nineteenth verse of the seventh chapter says that: “Not their gold, nor their silver shall be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord. They shall not satisfy their souls, neither fill their stomachs because it is the stumbling-block of their iniquity.”
Now those are just a few passages. But the Bible is filled with statements about the wrath of God. You see His wrath exemplified in the Old Testament, against the old world when He brought the flood, against the people at the tower of Babel, against the Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain, against the Egyptians. On many occasions against the Israelites, against the enemies of Israel, you see His wrath poured out against Nadab and the others, against the spies, against Aaron and Miriam, against Abimelech, against the family of Saul, against Sennacherib, and it goes on and on.
You say—Well, that’s the Old Testament. That’s right, but God doesn’t change, the same thing is true in the New Testament as well. You see the wrath of God. In John 3, John—that wonderful gospel written by a man of love, that gospel that presents the Lord Jesus Christ in all His wonder and majesty and beauty—is yet a gospel that speaks of God’s wrath. John talks about it in several places, how that God’s wrath will be poured out but one particular one is at the end of the third chapter, the last verse: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God abides on him.” It is not well with people who do not know Christ. It is not well with them. The wrath of God abides on them.
And in the very epistle which is before us, Romans, Paul points out the wrath of God when in 9:22 he says: “What if God willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known endured with much long suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction?”
And so it goes. In Ephesians 5:6: “Let no man deceive you with vain words because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience.” The Bible says God will damn unbelieving men.
Colossians 3 says the very same thing. Second Thessalonians 1 is perhaps the most vivid of all. It talks about God coming in flaming fire and taking vengeance on them that know not God and obey not the gospel, who will be punished with an everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.
God is a God of wrath, people. He’s a God of anger. Now does that sound like a poorchoice of starting points for the gospel? Think about it. The bad news has to come before the good news, doesn’t it? It’s kind of like going to the doctor … and having the doctor say to you—I have bad news; you have a fatal illness that has killed many people. But, I have good news, a cure has been found and I have it right here. See the good news means nothing without the bad news. Right? You have to diagnose the disease before the cure means anything.
The bad news is—God hates. The good news is—God loves, but you have to start with His hate. First the diagnosis then the cure.
Now look again at verse 18, it says: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” Why is that—for—there? What is that there for? Well, it connects us to the previous passage. The previous passage says -Justification is by faith alone. Why? Because the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness. In other words, what that verse says is all men hold the truth unrighteously and are under the wrath of God. Therefore they have no capacity to justify themselves. So justification has to be by faith because all men, left to their own efforts, are under the wrath. Do you see?Justification is by faith, it has to be. It can’t be by works because by works all men are under wrath.
Paul says it another way, he says: “For all have sinned and … what?… come short of the glory of God.”
In Ephesians 2 it says: “And you who were dead in trespasses and sins.” That’s the way it is with everyone. “In time past you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works in the children of disobedience, among whom we all had our manner of life,” all of us in time past, “and the lust of the flesh, desires of the flesh and of the mind and were by nature the children of wrath.” Everybody born into this world is a child of wrath. Everybody born into this world is a victim of lust and desire toward evil things, everyone is born spiritually dead. We are all, says Paul, condemned already … or says John rather, condemned already because we believe not in Christ.
Frankly, folks, sentence has already been passed, the whole human race is damned to hell. We are all children of wrath under the judgment of God. Man is born condemned. All men are born into the world under the wrath.
So, we start with this classic statement. And just to give you a focus the passage on the condemnation of the human race starts in 1:18 and goes all the way to 3:20. So, we’re going to be in it for a while, and you’re going to see some things about why people do the … what they do, maybe you never saw before.
But let’s begin by just looking at the concept of wrath in verse 18 and this gives us an absolutely comprehensive perspective on it. Six features of the wrath are presented here. You can follow your outline and it will help you to keep your focus on those.
First, the quality of wrath … the quality, the essence of it. What kind of wrath is it? Well, it is the wrath of God, it is divine wrath and that is a very important beginning. It is divine wrath. It isn’t like anything else that we know in this world. It isn’t like your wrath or my wrath; it isn’t like when we get angry. It isn’t like when we get mad. We get angry and we get mad when we are offended. And, frankly, we have pride in the way. Our passion, our anger and our wrath is not like this, this is the wrath of God. And like every other attribute of God it is as perfect as His holy person. His wrath is righteous wrath. It is the right kind of wrath, it is holy wrath. The passion that we call anger in this world, the thing that we call wrath in this human world is always reflective of the evil heart of man. But we must not impose that on God.
One writer said, “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.” In other words, this writer was saying—God could never be angry because we know anger is a bad thing. But he is simply trying to say that God’s like us, and He’s not. Don’t push our concept of anger on God. God is angry in a holy way, ‘in a perfect way. God’s anger is not some capricious, irrational rage.
In fact, let me go a step further. And you’re getting a lesson in theology proper here about the nature of God. God could not be God and be holy and be holy good if He didn’t react to evil. Do you understand that? He has to. He can’t be God. You cannot be holy and tolerate unholiness. It can’t be done. That’s why Habakkuk the prophet said: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look upon iniquity.” God can’t tolerate it. And I’ll tell you something, the more Godlike you become; the more angry you will get at certain things.
Even in this warped world of men, indignation against wickedness is essential of human goodness. We expect people to get mad about certain injustice. For God is infinitely beyond that because even when we get mad about the right things it’s usually polluted by our sinfulness.
A classic illustration was Jesus in John 2 cleansing the temple, made a whip and just started whipping people all out of the temple. I mean, that’s a very dramatic scene. Do you want to know something? That was His first public act in Jerusalem. That is not the way you start a crusade. You don’t go into the religious places, take a whip and start flagellating everybody and overturning tables and crying about their sin, you’ll never get a crowd that way. You’ve got to send the advance committee, make it sound like harps and flowers. Jesus was furious because God was being dishonored. There was dishonesty there, there was cheating and lying and extortion and desecration.
So, don’t look at the low, irrational, selfish anger of men and then push that off on God. The wrath of God is always perfect, always. The wrath of men is always somehow compromised by the presence of sin.
Just to kind of fill up your thinking, listen to what the psalmist wrote: “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance. He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.” * Is that vivid?
You say—Wait a minute. You mean the righteous are so excited about God’s judgment that they want to wash their feet in the blood of the wicked? “So that a man will say—Verily, there is a reward for the righteous, verily He is a God that judgeth in the earth.” ** In other words, when God judges it is so right, it is so perfect; it is so absolutely holy that God’s people are seen as if they were washing their feet in the blood of the unrighteous. Incredible concept.
In Lamentations 1 the Lord is righteous, for I have rebelled against His commandment, hear, I pray you, all people, and behold my sorrow.” In other words, God is judging but it’s okay—I deserve it, He’s righteous. Remember what happened to Achan? God said when you go in to take Jericho, don’t steal anything? And Achan just stole everything in sight, just disobeyed. He came back and buried it all in the ground inthe middle of his tent. Joshua went to him and said Confess your sin, Joshua 7:19, “Confess your sin and give glory to God.” Now what did he mean by that? He meant that Achan was really going to get it. I mean, he was going to get it and he did get it. You know what happened? He died and all his family with him. Then they must have been implicated in the whole operation. But he says before you get your due judgment from God, you confess your sin. In other words, you say—I am guilty, what God does to me is the proper reaction of His holiness. You see? That’s the issue. In other words, don’t you ever impune God as if He did something impure, even when God is angry it is the right expression of His utter holiness.
And we see that in Romans. We see it right where we are. The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. And we’re going to see it over and over again in chapter 2, and in chapter 3 that God’s righteousness or God’s judgment is a righteous judgment.
I might just add here the word is orgee and it is a settled indignation not a momentary fury, God doesn’t blow His cork, God doesn’t just fly off the handle. It is a settled hatred by one who could never be good and loving unless He totally hated evil. The two are inseparable, you have both or neither.
Trench, the great commentator on language in the Word of God said: “Nor can there be a surer or sadder token of an utterly prostrate moral condition then the not being able to be angry with sin and sinners.” End quote.
And old saint by the name of Fuller wrote this: “Anger is one of the sinews of the soul; he that lacks it hath a maimed mind and with Jacob sinews shrunk in the hollow of his thigh, must limp.
Thomas Watson says: “Is God so infinitely holy? Then see how unlike to God sin is. Sin is an unclean thing. It is called an abomination. God has no mixture of evil in Him; sin has no mixture of good. It is the spirit in quintessence of evil, it turns good into evil, it has deflowered the virgin soul, made it red with guilt and black with filth. It is called the accursed thing. No wonder therefore that God hates sin.” He’s right.
So the quality of wrath is that it is a wrath of God and that’s different than any other kind.
Secondly, the time of wrath. Look what it says; “For the wrath of God is revealed,” is revealed. What does he meanis revealed? Literally is being constantly revealed. When is the time of God’s wrath? It’s constantly being revealed. God’s wrath is constantly being manifest. The verb apokalupto, from which we get apokalupsis or apocalypse, means to uncover, to bring to light, to make manifest, to make known. God’s wrath is always being made known. It’s visible to all of human history. It was revealed in the garden, wasn’t it? When Adam and Eve sinned and immediately the sentence of death was passed, the earth was cursed and they were thrown out of paradise. And the world had a great beginning lesson on the fact that God hates sin.
It was revealed in the flood when God drowned the whole human race except for eight faithful souls. It was revealed in the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. It was revealed in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire from heaven. It was revealed in the curse of the law on every transgressor. It was revealed in the institution of the sacrificial system and all of the services of the Mosaic Law. In fact, the whole creation groans and travails in pain under the judgment of God waiting for redemption.
You know, even the laws of men made against evil doers reveal the wrath of God? For all laws are based upon the mind of God. No one can plead ignorance, because the wrath of God has been revealed throughout human history.
And above all, I believe the greatest demonstration of the wrath of God ever given was given on Calvary’s cross. God hates so deeply sin that He actually allowed His own Son to be put to death. The greatest manifestation of the wrath of God. He poured out His fury on His own beloved Son. He would not hold it back even from His own Son. That’s how He hated sin.
Jeffrey Wilson, the British commentator, writes: “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.”
And the judgment on the cross sums up the world’s history. So, what is the time of the wrath of God? It’s constantly being revealed, all the time, all the time. Every time you turn around you see it. People live and die. Nations rise and fall. God judges sin.
You say to yourself as I said to myself about this point in my study—Now, wait a minute, there are some people who seem to kind of prosper in spite of this, right? There are some wicked people who seem to do so well and you ask yourself the question How can they live and get away with it? I mean, why does God let them live such wretched, dissolute, vile, sinful lives? Well, don’t forget Psalm 9:16 says: “The Lord is known by the judgment which He executed.” It will come. If God lets men prosper for a while in their sin, His bowl of wrath is just all the while filling up. If He lets them sin for a while it’s just that He’s sharpening the sword. The longer God pulls back the bow, the deeper the arrow plunges when He releases it. Judgment will come.
The story goes that the godly farmers in a western community were greatly shocked onesummer Sunday morning when they drove to the little church in the country. They found the man who owned the forty acres across from the church was in the middle of plowing his field, turning thefurrows. And he’ had been doing it all day and ignored the fact that it was the Lord’s Day. The people went on into the church and all the while they were in church they could hear the noise of all of his tractors. And so they were deeply concerned. He had worked all his other fields and purposely chosen to work the one by the church on Sunday to prove a point. He wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper, and pointed out that he had done all this on Sunday and yet he had the highest yield per acre of any farm in the county. And he asked the editor how the Christians could explain this. He didn’t feel God was involved at all.
The editor with great common sense printed the letter and followed it with this simple statement. “God does not settle all His accounts in the month of October.”
The quality of wrath, it’s God’s wrath. That’s different than any other kind. The time—constantly being revealed. The source -where’s the source of this wrath? Look what it says—“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” Heaven is the source. The wrath of God comes from heaven. Earth is dominated by heaven. Wrath is dynamically effectively operative in the world of men; it comes from the throne of God.
Now there are basically two ways that heaven revealsthe wrath of God. Think with me on these. The first is what I call moral order and the second we’ll call personal action. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven, first of all, through moral order. In other words, when God made the world, the physical and the moral world. He built into it certain laws. If you climb a tall building and jump off you go down. If you … it doesn’t matter what you want to do, you go down. It doesn’t matter what you think you’re going to do; you still go down, the law of gravity. There are laws. You go in a car 80 miles an hour, run into a concrete wall, and a law immediately takes affect. The law of an irresistible force and an immovable object. There are laws in the physical world, there are laws in the spiritual world and God has built into the world moral law. It’s the laws of consequence, if you will.
And I believe there’s a certain moral order in the universe. It’s a certain inevitability, to put it into modern terminology we could say—There’s a moral order in the world and when you violate that moral law consequences immediately take place.
J.A. Froude, the historian said: “One lesson and one lesson alone, history may be said to repeat with distinctness that the world is built somehow on moral foundations and in the long run it is well with the good, and in the long run it is ill with the wicked.”
Now the wrath is revealed from heaven then, first of all in the moral order. I mean, you do things that are immoral and you pay a price … you pay a price. Because the world is made on moral law. You live a dissolute life, degenerate evil life and there will be consequences. And it’s from heaven because heaven made the rules.
But secondly, and it goes beyond that, the wrath of God is not simply confined to moral order, there is also personal activity on God’s part. God is not just a cosmic force who made a law and just let it run its course. God gets involved. It is not just automatic judgment by an anonymous cosmic computer. God is involved and the Bible shows a very intense personal reaction to sin within the heart of the divine being. Yes, there’s moral order but yes, there’s a real personal involvement.
Let me just give you an illustration, and I wan … I’ve got a lot of Scriptures I could show you, but let me just give you a quick one in Psalm 7:11, it says in verse 11: “God judgeth the righteous and God is angry.” God is angry. The Bible does say that God is angry, there’s not just a moral order, God is angry. And He’s not angry now and then, He’s angry with the wicked how often? “Every day.” You say—Really? Oh yeah, He’s angry every day. God is angry every day. God gets angry.
There is moral law, moral order but there’s also personal act as God expresses the wrath of a holy nature. And it comes from heaven because heaven has established the moral order, and it is from the throne of God that that wrath comes.
Fourth, the nature of wrath … what is the nature of wrath? What kind of wrath is this? Well, very simply stated, the wrath of God -that’s its quality; is revealed—that’s its time, constantly revealed; from heaven that’s its source; against ungodliness and unrighteousness of men that’s its nature. It is wrath against sin. You knew that. It’s not an uncontrolled irrational fury. God is not like a criminal who takes his vengeance out on the nearest person. It is discriminated, it is carefully pointed at the unrighteousness and ungodliness of men … asebia and adikia. What do these words mean? Ungodliness and unrighteousness.
The first word, although they really overlap and you could call them synonyms in the purest sense, they … he’s simply just using two words to show us that God is angry about sin. But there are some shades of meaning that I think are interesting. The first word refers to ungodliness. And that focuses on the relationship to God. God is angry because men are not rightly related to Him. They are ungodlies, you see. They’re not godly. Men are ungodly.
In Jude it says, “God is going to come and execute judgment on all and convict all that are ungodly among them, of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed.” Three ungodlies in a row. And then it says: “And of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” Four in one verse … ungodly … not rightly related to God.
It refers to impiety toward God. It refers to a lack of reverence, alack of devotion, a lack of worship. And it leads to idolatry. It views sin as a failure to reverence God.
The second word, unrighteousness, while it encompasses the first concept as well, leans toward the result of the first word. When you are not rightly related to God and don’t reverence God properly then your transactions with everyone else around you aren’t right either. And so ungodliness leads to unrighteousness. All sin, you see, first attacks God’s majesty and then His law. And the reason, and I really believe this, the reason men treat men the way they do is because they treat God the way they do. Ungodliness leads to unrighteousness.
People say—Oh, what’s happening, all the murders and all the crimes, and all the horrible things that are going on? Why is so man so inhumane to man? It’s because he is so unrelated to God. All human relationships and all human transactions are corrupted. And we’ll see more about that in the second and third chapter as well as the remainder of the first chapter.
So, God’s wrath is set against sin. Thomas Watson says: “Sin is to the soul as rust is to gold, as stain is to beauty.” Sin in the Scripture is called a menstruous cloth; it’s called a plague sore. Joshua’s filthy garments were a hieroglyphic of sin. And you know as well as I how God hates sin.
In fact, do you know that that’s the only thing God hates? That’s right. Did you know that? And no man will ever enter His presence with sin.
Fifthly, the extent of wrath. And this is a very brief point. You say -Well, I’m … I’m a pretty good guy. I mean, this … who you talking to, MacArthur? It’s not me; I belong to the Royal Order of the Goats. I give to charity. I mean, I … I’m basically a good person. Well, okay, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against … what’s the next word?… All. All? All. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Well, some people are better than others, but nobody makes it. I use to use the illustration of everybody going down to the beach and trying to jump to Catalina. Yeah, we’ll give you a running start, only 26 miles. You can run as fast as you want and as long as you want and jump. Some of us would get out about six feet, some of us might be stupendous broad jumpers and jump 26 feet, but nobody would get there. Sure people are different, some appear better than others. It’s too far to jump and so all ungodliness and unrighteous of men, nobody escapes … no one. This only needs to be a brief point because Scripture is so clear. You can’t escape.
I’m going to read you just something, you don’t need to turn to it, just listen to it. Ezekiel 17:15, talking about Zedekiah who made a covenant with God and then decided to break it and reached out to Egypt to help him when all he really needed was God, and that was his promise. “But he rebelled against him in sending his ambassadors into Egypt; they might give him horses and many people.” In other words, instead of trusting God he decided he needed Egypt’s help. And then it says: “Now since he did that, Shall he prosper? Shall he escape? Shall he break the covenant and be delivered?” Now listen to this, “As I live, saith the Lord God, surely in the place where the king dwells who made him king, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke even with him in the midst of Babylon he shall die.” He’ll not escape. Shall he escape? As I live the answer is—No.
I don’t care who you are the faintest trace of ungodliness and unrighteousness brings you under the wrath of God and shall you escape? No. No. Inescapability.
Finally, we’ve seen the quality of wrath, the time of wrath, the source of wrath, the nature of wrath, the extent of wrath and now the cause of wrath.
You say—How can God hold all these poor people responsible? I mean, I mean I was born into a sinful family, what do I know? Oh, you’d be surprised what you know. The end of verse 18: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the … what?… the truth in unrighteousness.” Now this opens up the entire next section and next Sunday night is going to be one of the most definitive messages probably you’ve ever heard as we look at the decline and fall of man. But he says the real problem and the cause of wrath is that men hold the truth in unrighteousness. Literally we would read it this way—Men who are constantly attempting to suppress the truth by their sin. Sin just is in the heart of man so strongly that it assaults the truth.
People say What about the heathen? What about this and what about that? Listen, the truth is there, as he will point out in the next passage, but men suppress it. Sin always assaults the truth. The fundamental truth of God and His Word is assaulted, there’s always an attempt to suppress it, to bury it, to obliterate it. It is the essence of sin, however, that the attempt is always futile, and men live with guilt in spite of their attempt. The knowledge of God is all over. And if the knowledge of God, listen, that I believe is available to every human being on the earth, I don’t care how obscure that individual is or how remote, I believe the knowledge of God is available and if it does its legitimate work and man allows it-to do that legitimate work it will keep a man from the excesses of sin and lead that man to God. But men suppress it. They love darkness rather than … what?… light because. what?… their deeds are evil. The fool is always saying—There is no God and why does he say that? Because he doesn’t want there to be a God because if there’s a God he’s in trouble.
It says in Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart there’s no God.” Why? “They are corrupt, they have doneabominable works, there is none that doeth good.” I’m sure they don’t want there to be a God to call them to accountability. Man tries to postulate that there is no God and if he doesn’t do that he says—Well, I’ll invent a God who can tolerate my sin. And he clearly avoids the true voice of God.
But I really believe that there’s no problem with the people who ask the question—How are the heathen to know? I believe that God has revealed Himself to every individual and if individuals, wherever they are, no matter how remote they are, do not suppress that truth by the love of sin that will … that truth will protect them from the excesses of sin and eventually lead them to the truth of God by His gracious providence. But men don’t do that. They avoid the truth of God.
All men possess enough of the germs of divine truth and moral law to preserve them from hell, but they’ve halted the growth and development of those by the love of sin. And the wrath of God waits.
If you’re not a Christian the wrath of God waits for you. Dr. Barnhouse had an apt illustration and I’ll close with this. He said, “The wrath of God is like a great water impounded behind a dam. He said, I can remember the first time I ever saw Hoover Dam, one of the greatest of all dams on earth. It has been thrown across the waters of the Colorado River and these waters have backed up for miles and penetrated into every little cove and valley. And thus it has been with the wrath of God. The first time there was ever a sin committed; the wrath of God was stored up against that sin. And as men lived upon the earth and as their hearts grew more wicked and the outbreak of their sin more violent, the store of wrath grew greater and greater, held back by the patience of God which lies across the valley of His judgment like a great dam across the river. And in His eternal foreknowledge God the Father foresaw all of the sin that would be committed after the time of Christ, your sin and my sin, and He stored His wrath against it behind the dam of His patience. And the wrath of God against sin that even today has not yet been committed is also stored up waiting for the day when His patience shall burst into its holy end. For thousands of years that dam has held and God has held back His wrath. Occasionally throughout human history He stooped to dip His hand into the pent up flood and pour a few drops of wrath on some, especially vicious outbreak of rebellion. But for the most part God seemed to overlook the sins of man in the centuries before the cross. It looked maybe as if sin was tolerated, but it was just piling up.”
You know, the dam broke one day, and it broke at Calvary. And it broke on Christ and drown Him in all the sea of sin. And it will break again and it will drown all those men who are not in Christ. Christ took the judgment for those who believe. For those who do not believe, they will take their own judgment. And the wrath of God awaits them. Because they hold the truth, no matter what they claim, but they hold it and suppress it because of their sin.
Now listen, that is where the gospel begins. But remember, there is good news and the good news is Christ has taken the full fury of God’s wrath, if you’ll accept His gracious substitution for you.
Father, we’re grateful tonight that we’ve been able to look at this theme, hard, fearful and yet so important. It’s easy for us to get callous. Help us to be as if this were the first time we ever heard this, to rush out to warn men and women, young people of coming wrath. May no oneleave this place tonight under judgment, condemnation, but may they accept the gracious provision of Christ who took that stored up dam of fury at Calvary’s-cross and may they climb to that island of safety so that when the dam breaks again at the great white throne they’ll already have entered into the paradise prepared for them.
While your heads are bowed for just a moment, let me encourage you that if you don’t know our Lord Jesus Christ tonight this would be the time, no time like the present. No one knows how much time you have. This is a serious message, very serious. More serious than any message I could give, but that’s where we are in the text. And I know the Lord has purpose for it. Maybe you’re that purpose. In the silence of your heart you can open your life to Christ, ask Him to remove you from the wrath to come, accept the fact that He bore your sin in His own body on the cross and freed you if you put your faith in Him.
Father, may this be a night of salvation in the hearts of many. Not just in this place but all around this country and the world where Your name is lifted up, may this be a day when heaven rejoices over souls that entered the Kingdom, stepped out from under the wrath of God into the protecting love of Christ. God, we know You’re angry over sin, we know how You hate sin but O how You must love to have hated sin so much and yet put it all on the One You loved, Your own Son the Lord Jesus for us. O how You must love. Thank You for that love, forgiving love, merciful love, gracious love. We pray that no one will leave without receiving that from Your good faithful hand. We thank You for this time together, we praise You for all that You’ve accomplished in Christ’s name. Amen.
The Wrath of God Against Ungodliness and Unrighteousness
August 30, 1998
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”
“There Is None Righteous”
Today we take a major turn in the letter of Paul to the Romans. Romans 1:16–17 is the theme of the letter: the gospel is the power of God to save believers from the wrath to come. And this gospel—this good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection—has that power to save believers from God’s wrath, because in the gospel, day by day, week after week, year after year, God keeps on revealing his righteousness as a gift to be received by faith and for faith, so that those who have their righteousness from God (and not themselves) will not perish but have everlasting life.
Now having described the greatness of his theme, which he will come back to and unpack in wonderful and profound ways in future chapters, Paul enters on a description of human sin and God’s wrath in Romans 1:18–3:19. In Romans 1:18 to 32 Paul speaks of the condition of the gentile world apart from the gospel and apart from saving grace. Then in Romans 2:1–3:8 Paul deals more or less directly with the Jewish condition. Then in Romans 3:9–10 he draws his summary conclusion like this: “What then? Are we [Jews] better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE.’ ” That is the point of Romans 1:18–3:10. Then Paul piles Scripture upon Scripture in Romans 3:10–19 to support his point of universal sinfulness and guilt and rebellion against God in every human heart.
He wraps up the section with this summary in Romans 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the Law [the Old Testament Word of God] says, it speaks to those who are under the Law [the Jewish people], so that every mouth [all the nations, all the Gentiles] may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God.” We will talk later in this series about why God chose to silence the world by dealing mainly with the Jews. But that is the truth. Paul seems to mean if the Jews, with all their advantages of divine revelation, have not been righteous before God, but only sinful and guilty (3:9), how much less will the Gentiles be able to open their mouths and protest that they have been righteous before God.
Then Paul explains in verse 20: no matter how beneficial the Law of God should have been, when it is misused the way many in Israel misused it, it only compounds the problem of sin. He says, “[Jews and all the world are under silence in their guilt] because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” Neither Jewish Law nor Gentile idolatry gets anybody right with God.
Then in Romans 3:21 Paul returns to the theme of 1:17, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested.” You see how similar this is to Romans 1:17—in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. And from here on Paul is unpacking the greatness of the gospel of God’s gift of righteousness.
So what we have in Romans 1:18 to 3:20 is a demonstration of sin and guilt in the heart and life of every human being, both Jew and Gentile. The beginning of that section is what we are taking up this morning at Romans 1:18.
Why Several Sermons on Sin?
Now what should I respond if someone were to say, “Oh no! We are going to be slogging our way through sin and guilt for months. This is going to be really oppressive”? To that person I want to say three things:
- Superficial diagnoses lead to false remedies.
Superficial diagnoses lead to false remedies and no cures. If you want to find true remedies for a disease, and if you want to bring a lasting cure to the people who are diseased, then you need more than a superficial grasp of the disease itself. Those who care most about a cure for AIDS or cancer, spend almost all their time studying the disease.
- Understanding sin and wrath will make you wiser.
Profound understanding of sin and wrath will make you a far wiser person about human nature—your own and others. And if you are wiser about the nature of the human soul, you will be able to fight your own sin more successfully, and you will be able to bless others more deeply with your insight and counsel. I have pled with women and men in this church in recent months that what we need to nurture and cultivate here at Bethlehem over the next decades is sages—men and women who ripen with years into deeply sagacious people: wise, discerning, penetrating, deep lovers of people and deep knowers of human nature and God’s nature, who can see deeply into the tangle of sin and sacredness that perplexes the saints and threatens to undo us. If you run away from the study of sinful human nature—if you say, I don’t like to think about sin—then you run away from yourself, and you run away from wisdom, and, worst of all, you run away from the deepest kinds of love.
- Knowing the nature of sin and wrath will cause you to cherish the gospel.
Probably the most important thing I would say, and the most firmly rooted in Romans 1:18, is that knowing the true condition of your heart and the nature of sin and the magnitude and justice of the wrath of God will cause you to understand the mighty gospel, and love it, and cherish it, and feast on it, and share it as never before. And this is crucial because this is the way the gospel saves believers. If you don’t understand the gospel, if you don’t cherish it and look to it and feed on it day after day, it won’t save you (see 1 Cor. 15:1–3; Col. 1:23). Knowing sin and wrath will help you do that.
Which brings now to the beginning of Romans 1:18. Look at the connection between verses 17 and 18 (which the NIV inexcusably omits), namely, “for” or “because”—Verse 17: “[In the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (18) For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Why does Paul introduce verse 18 with the word “for” or “because”?
He does this in order to show that everything he is going to say about sin is meant to support the gospel of verse 17. He does not mention the gospel for the sake of sin. He deals with sin for the sake of the gospel. Understanding sin is the foundation that upholds the preciousness of the gospel, not vice versa. His main aim is not to lead us from gospel to sin, but from sin to gospel. If you have been caught in a crime and are facing trial, and I say to you, “I have a letter here from the Hennepin County Court that they have dropped the charges against you, because you were guilty and liable to severe punishment,” what’s the point? The point of saying that you were guilty is to help you understand and cherish the good news that the charges are dropped. That’s the point of “for” at the beginning of verse 18.
So the way I hope to deal with all the sin in Romans 1:18–3:20 is to let it point us back again and again to the preciousness and the glory and the necessity and the freeness and the joy of the gospel of the gift of God’s righteousness. My prayer is that we would escape superficial diagnoses, and that we would cultivate a profound understanding of fallen human nature (which we all struggle with), and that we would come back again and again to the necessity and beauty and freeness of the gospel of justification by faith alone. If these three things can happen, I don’t think our time in these chapters will be oppressive, but rather gospel-exalting, hope-giving, and love-producing, as we grow to know ourselves and our God and our gospel more and more deeply.
We Need the Gospel Because the Wrath of God Is Being Revealed
Now how does Paul begin this section in verse 18? He begins it by giving the reason that gospel and a gift of God’s righteousness is necessary. It’s necessary “because the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” We need the gospel of Romans 1:16–17, we need the gift of God’s righteousness, because God’s wrath is right now being poured out on the whole world of ungodliness and unrighteousness. Notice the double use of the word “unrighteousness” in verse 18. God’s wrath is being revealed against “unrighteousness” and the truth is being held down in “unrighteousness.” Surely Paul means for us to see that in relation to the revelation of the righteousness in verse 17.
In other words, the reason we need God to reveal HIS righteousness to us in the gospel and give it to us as a gift through faith is because we are unrighteous and resist the truth in unrighteousness and, therefore, God’s wrath is against us. We need righteousness. We don’t have it. God’s wrath is being poured out on us in our unrighteousness. Is there any hope? Yes, the gospel is the power of God to save because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. We can have a righteousness that is not our own, namely, God’s.
Three Ways the Wrath of God Is Being Revealed
Now we should ask, “How is the wrath of God being revealed?” The first thing to notice is that the word “is revealed” is the very same word and tense as in verse 17. There “the righteousness of God is being revealed.” Here “the wrath of God is being revealed.” In both cases it is a present tense, continuous action. In other words it is happening now, not just in the future. There is a day of wrath coming (Romans 2:5, 8–9; 5:9). But in advance of that final outpouring of wrath, God’s wrath is also present.
How? In three ways at least that we learn about in Romans.
- Universal human death is revealing the wrath of God.
From Romans 5 we see that universal human death is a revealing or a manifestation of the wrath of God. Death is the judgement of God on the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the human race rooted in Adam. In the middle of Romans 5:15 we read, “by the transgression of the one [namely Adam] the many died.” Then in the middle of verse 16 death is called a judgment and a condemnation: “For on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation.” So you can see that death is seen as a judgment and a condemnation, that is, as an expression of God’s wrath against sin. Then in the middle of verse 18 you see it again: “Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men.” So the first answer is that the wrath of God is being revealed against human sin in universal human death.
- Universal futility and misery are evidence of God’s wrath.
From Romans 8 we see that universal futility and misery are evidence of God’s wrath against human sin. Start at Romans 8:18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (19) For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. (20) For the creation was subjected to futility.” Stop there and consider what that means before we read on.
I think it means that the sufferings he speaks of in verse 18 are inevitable in this fallen world. And specifically it means that you may plan well for retirement, and the year before you plan to enjoy it you have a stroke, and all the planning seems futile. You work with your own hands for years to build a simple home, and the week before you move in, lightning strikes, and it burns to the ground. You labor all during the spring to plant your crops and when the grain is just ready to sprout, a flood takes it all away. The creation was subjected to futility. In verse 21 it’s called “slavery to corruption.”
Now read on in Romans 8:20 to see where that subjection to futility came from: “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope.” This means that God subjected the creation to futility. Satan and Adam could not be the one who did this, because Paul said it was done “in hope.” Neither Satan nor Adam in the Garden of Eden was planning for the hope of the human race. They simply sinned. But God showed his wrath against sin and subjected creation to futility, not as the last word, but in hope. There would come a day when the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). But the misery and futility of the world we live in is owing to God’s subjecting creation to futility, and is a testimony to his wrath against sin.
- The sinking degradation of human behavior reveals the wrath of God.
So the first way God’s wrath is revealed against ungodliness and unrighteousness is in universal human death. The second way is in the futility and misery and suffering of creation. The third is the one most immediately in Paul’s mind here in Romans 1, namely, the sinking degradation of human thinking and behavior. You see this three times in Romans 1:24–28.
After describing the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man in Romans 1:19–23 Paul says in verse 24, “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” In other words, God reveals his wrath against sin by giving people up to be more sinful. Again in verse 26: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions.” And again in verse 28: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.”
So these are three of the ways that the wrath of God is being revealed now in this age against the universal (3:9) ungodliness and unrighteousness of man. He has consigned all to death, he has subjected all to futility, and he has given many over to the degradation of their own minds and hearts.
Wrath Mingled with Mercy
There remains time perhaps for one burning question: Is that God’s only response to the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men? The answer to that question is No—neither in the case of unbelievers or believers.
Take the case of unbelievers. Wrath is always mingled with mercy in this age of hope. Look at Romans 2:4–5. Here he speaks to those who are missing this great truth: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (5) But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
Yes there is kindness in the midst of wrath. God is always doing more than one thing. Jesus said, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Paul said to the pagans of Lystra, “[God] did not leave Himself without a witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). He said this to people who were dying and suffering and sinning under the wrath of God.
God warns with his wrath and he woos with his kindness. He speaks both languages: severity and tenderness. Do you recall how Jesus interpreted the coming of John the Baptist as a severe, leather-girded, locus-eating, desert-living, adultery-condemning prophet, on the one hand, and his own coming as a party-going, wine-making, child-healing, sin-forgiving savior, on the other hand? He said, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” Instead, you said, “John has a demon and Jesus is a glutton” (Matthew 11:17). The gospel came with both languages, but they would not hear.
O, unbeliever, God is speaking to you in your pain to warn you, and God is speaking to you in your pleasure to woo you. Don’t misread the voice of God.
Death and Suffering and Sin in the Life of a Believer
And to believers, what is our case? According to Romans 1:17 we have the gift of God’s righteousness by faith. God’s punishment of us was poured out on Jesus who died in our place (Romans 8:3). Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:9 says, “God has not destined us for wrath.” What then are our death and our suffering and our sin? Are they still the wrath of God against us? If not what are they?
The answer is that death and suffering and sin are not the wrath and condemnation and punishment of our heavenly Father. Each one is fundamentally altered by the gospel of Christ crucified in our place.
- Death is a gateway into paradise.
For believers, the sting and victory of death have been removed. “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55–57). For believers, death is not the wrath of God toward them; it is the last gasp of a defeated enemy who unwittingly opens a door to paradise.
- Futility and suffering are pathways to holiness.
For believers, futility is removed from suffering. For those who love God and are called according to his purpose “all things work together for our good” (Romans 8:28). Punishment is transformed into purification. Destructive forces become disciplinary forces. And the seeming chaos and futility of life’s calamities become the severe, but loving, hand of our Father in heaven, as we learned last year from Hebrews 12.
- The power of sin is replaced with a love of righteousness.
Finally, not only is the sting of death replaced with hope; and the futility of suffering replaced with meaning; but the dominion and degrading power of sin is replaced with a love of righteousness (the point of Romans 6). God does not give us over to a depraved mind, he gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore let us awaken to the truth of Romans 1:18 that the wrath of God is being revealed now in this age against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man. We can’t understand the world or the gospel without that truth. But let us also awaken to the truth that God is revealing something else at the same time. He is revealing the gift of righteousness for all who will believe on Christ. And with that righteousness there is no wrath or condemnation on us any more. For you (whoever you are!), who believe, death becomes a gateway to paradise; suffering becomes a pathway to holiness; and sin becomes a dethroned enemy that we fight by the power of God’s Spirit.
So let us flee the wrath of God, and take refuge in the precious power of the gospel of God. Amen.
The Wrath of God Against Holding Down the Truth
September 13, 1998
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Up-to-Date Analysis—Spin Doctors
The last time we were together we entered a section of Paul’s letter to the Romans that is so up to date in its analysis of the human condition that it almost takes your breath away. We will see this in the coming weeks as it relates to theories of naturalistic evolution, and to the issue of homosexuality and certain sexually transmitted diseases, and we will see it as it relates to the insolence and arrogance and disrespect of many young people toward their parents and others in authority.
Today we will see it in the immediately relevant issue of the contemporary phenomenon of “the spin doctor”—the person whose job is to put his finger into the wind of public opinion and decide how to bend the facts to make them sound appealing, with little or no regard for truth. The people who live by polls, not principle. That is what today’s text is about.
But lest we become self-righteous (as Romans 2:1 warns us so powerfully: “You have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things”), know this: every one of us is a spin doctor by nature. Every one of us is springloaded to put his own failings in the best light and the failings of his adversaries in the worst light. We soften our own sins with mild words and skewer others with hard words. Or worse, we see the sins of others and are blind to our own. And when the truth hunts us down and corners us, we will dodge and distort and evade and mislead and equivocate and lie. And when that doesn’t work to suppress the truth, we will shift to blaming and accusing and deflecting—anything to hold down the truth from having its full effect in our lives. That’s what Romans 1:18b is about. This so relevant it takes your breath away.
All of Us, Not just Politicians
Yet we are not talking about politicians here. We are talking about humans in general. This is the way I am, apart from the work of sovereign grace in my life. This is the way you are, apart from God’s mercy. It would be fool’s play this morning to turn this text into a commentary on the gutting of truth in government. That application would be way too small and would let all of us here right off the hook—which is not what Scripture or preaching is about. The issue this morning is your heart and my heart and how we suppress the truth in unrighteousness. This text is not about a class of politicians or a class of especially bad people. It is about humanity. The conclusion comes in Romans 3:9–10, “Both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “there is none righteous, not even one.’ ” And verse 13 adds, “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving.”
So the issue this morning is about how people like us, who are bent from birth to distort and suppress the truth, can get free from this slavery and be saved. It’s all about pointing us back to Romans 1:17—there is a free gift of righteousness from God for all who trust in Jesus Christ.
Here’s the text (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.”
There it is: ungodly people, unrighteous people—as we all are without grace—suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Now how does that work? What is that like in actual experience? And what is the remedy?
So we have several questions before us. Let’s begin with these: What truth is being suppressed? And what does it mean that we suppress it “in unrighteousness”?
What Is the Truth that We Suppress?
What is the truth that we suppress? The answer is given in the following verses. Read with me verses 19ff.
[We suppress the truth in unrighteousness], because that which is known about God [first clue: the truth being suppressed is something known about God] is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. (20) For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes [now he gets specific; here is the truth that is known about God from the created world], His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. [There is the objective truth about God that we suppress—his eternal power and deity—but now he tells us that there is another subjective truth, namely, the response we are supposed to have to this truth about God.] (21) For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him [literally, glorify him] as God or give thanks.
That is the truth: we should glorify and thank God.
So here is the truth that we suppress apart from God’s grace in our lives. There is a God. He is the Creator of all things and so not a god but the God. He is powerful—more powerful than all else, because he made all else. He is eternal because there was nothing outside him that could bring him into being. Therefore we must exist to display his glory and not to compete with him for glory. And we must exist in absolute dependence on him. We do not supply him, he supplies us. And therefore we are to live in constant gratitude.
That is the truth that we suppress in unrighteousness. This is confirmed in verses 25 and 28. Verse 25: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie [notice, the truth that is being exchanged, gotten rid of, suppressed is truth about God], and [they] worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Which is the same as saying, “they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but instead glorified the creature and took credit for what was owing only to God.” They exchanged God-worship for self-worship. They suppressed the truth that God is infinitely glorious and that we are totally dependent on him.
Or consider verse 28: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer [literally: they did not approve having God in their knowledge], God gave them over to a depraved mind.” Not approving to have God in their knowledge is the same as “suppressing the truth.” God is true, but we don’t want him in our knowledge, so we will suppress this truth. We will exchange it. Distort it. Hide it. Run from it. And finally, become blind to it.
That blindness is the point of Romans 1:21ff. “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” In other words, part of our condition in suppressing the truth about God is that we become darkened. You don’t just hold it down because you see and don’t like it, but because you don’t even see it any more. This is why so many will say, “I don’t suppress the truth of God; I don’t think there is any truth of God to suppress.” Paul would say, “The only explanation for such a stance in this world that God has made is a darkened heart—blindness to divine reality.”
So let’s sum up what the truth is that we suppress. The truth is that God exists. He is eternal and infinitely powerful. He supplies us with all we have. Therefore he is gloriously self-sufficient with no needs that we can meet. The truth is that our reason for being is to be thankful for all he has given us and to display his glory by the way we think and feel and act (see Psalm 50:23).
We Get the Blessing and He Gets the Glory
In other words, the truth is that the universe is radically God-centered: it comes from him, it exists for the display of his glory. And human life is supposed to be radically God-centered—not by working for God as if he were a needy deity, but by our being thankful to him and exulting in the grace that so much good comes to us, even amid terrible suffering.
Don’t miss the implication here, because it relates so deeply to the truth we cherish here at Bethlehem. Here is the truth: there are two great demands of God on the lives of all humans—1) that we exult in God’s bounty to us (that’s thankfulness), and 2) that we reflect or display his glory. Don’t miss this. It is right there in verse 21: “Even though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give thanks.” It means that God has created a universe in which we get the blessings and he gets the glory. And the way God gets the glory is by our exulting in him as the all-sufficient Giver of all things.
You might ask: Why did Paul not stress here that the failure of mankind is the failure to glorify God and trust him? Why the stress on gratitude and not faith? I believe the reason is that trust, or faith, is related to how God will deal with us in the future. But natural revelation—what we can learn about God from nature—does not communicate clearly the promises of God. The promises of God come through the special revelation of Scripture, which is why trust or faith in God’s promises becomes so central in how we glorify God according to the Scriptures (see Romans 4:20).
So here is the truth: God exists. God is eternal and infinitely powerful. God is the giver of every good gift. And therefore our reason for being—our chief duty, the end for which we were created, and the commandment written on every heart—is to display the glory of this great God every day, hour by hour, as we live in the exultation over his bounty to us.
And that is the truth that we hate and suppress in unrighteousness.
“… Who Suppress the Truth in Unrighteousness”
Why do we do this? The key is given in the words, “in unrighteousness.” Verse 18b: “… who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
Why did Paul not say in verse 18b, “… who suppress the truth in ungodliness”? The answer is that the truth being held down is godliness. That’s what we have been talking about: godliness. Glorifying God and thanking God—this is godliness. It would not mean much to say, “… who suppress godliness in ungodliness.”
But in the context of Scripture it means a lot to say, “… who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Unrighteousness is life orientation that goes with ungodliness—with rejecting the truth of God’s glory as central to your life. So how does this work?
There are several places where we see how it works. Let’s take one from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians and one from the teachings of Jesus.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is describing the end of the age and the great apostasy and deception that will come on the world in those days. He says that the lawless one will come, (verse 10) “with all the deception of unrighteousness (adikia, same word as in Romans 1:18) for those who perish.” Please note that unrighteousness deceives; it suppresses the truth. He continues that they are perishing “because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.” Those who are deceived in unrighteousness do not receive the love of the truth. They suppress the truth and evade it. They don’t love it. Why? He continues in verses 11–12: “For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but [and this is crucial] took pleasure in unrighteousness.”
Why did they reject the truth and suppress the truth and not love the truth? Because they “took pleasure in unrighteousness.” When you love sin, you cannot love the truth. The truth is too threatening. It threatens to take away your illicit pleasures. I would venture to say that virtually all falsehood comes from this: a stronger affection for the pleasures of sin. That is what unrighteousness is. Loving sin more than loving God and his truth.
So you see that the issue of truth is an issue of the heart before it is an issue of the head. When the heart is in love with self-exaltation and independence and the pleasures of sin, the mind will inevitably distort the truth or suppress the truth in order to protect the idols of the heart. What is needed is not just new ideas or more information, but a new heart. And a new set of passions and desires and pleasures.
Look at this one more time in John 3:19–21. You are going to hear the same analysis of our sinful hearts and why they suppress the truth of God. Jesus said, “This is the judgment, that the Light [Truth!] has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Notice: it’s a love-and-hate issue. People love darkness. Why? Jesus said it is because their deeds are evil. That is, they are unrighteous. Light and truth would expose that. Darkness conceals it. Therefore we suppress the truth and so protect the ugliness of our desires with darkness.
Jesus goes on in verse 20: “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” There it is. Why won’t we come to the Light, the Truth? Because of unrighteousness. We hate the Light. We evade it if we can. And if we can’t, then we twist it and distort it and give it a self-justifying spin. And in all of this we suppress it.
Not Mental Deficiency, but Moral Deficiency
So here is the great lesson to be learned: the reason the mind evades, twists, distorts, manipulates and suppresses the truth of God is not mainly that we are mentally deficient, but because we are morally deficient. We suppress the Light of God’s glory and power because we love the darkness of our own independence. We love our sins, our self-determination, and therefore we suppress the Truth that God is God and that we are to depend on him and live for his glory.
And this, Paul says in Romans 1:18, is why the wrath of God is being poured out. This suppression of the truth of his glory and his power and his deity and his goodness, because of our love affair with unrighteousness, makes him furious. And we should tremble.
Is there any hope for us? The hope lies in verses 16–17. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” In other words, because we are unrighteous, and in our unrighteousness suppress the truth, our only hope is that the righteousness God demands from us would be freely given to us, namely, God’s own righteousness, to be received by faith. That you may have this morning because of the death and resurrection of Jesus who paid the debt so that everyone who believes in him might be saved.