1:18 God’s wrath is not an uncontrollable, destructive emotion directed against those God dislikes. “Wrath” describes his just, holy response to sin and rebellion. From human perspectives that are shaped in a world permeated by sin and injustice, wrath and love are seen as polar opposites. In God, however, there is no conflict between his great love and his terrible wrath. Most humans know that something is wrong with the world, longing that it be put right. The multiplicity of religions and sects give a variety of explanations of why the world isn’t as it should be. They also prescribe a variety of logically incompatible solutions to right the wrongs. Both God’s love and his wrath are the guarantors that what is wrong will be put right. To deny or minimize God’s wrath is to obscure what he revealed in the death of his Son who bore God’s wrath in our place.
1:18 All people need the gospel because they are under God’s wrath, which stems from his holy revulsion to sin. Paul wrote this letter from the Greek city of Corinth—a city full of idolatry and immorality. Humankind originally knew God and fellowshiped with him (Gn 3:8a). The history of the world and of the OT reveals a subsequent regression and loss of moral knowledge. Since the garden of Eden, people have been unrighteous, and they have suppressed the truth.
1:18 God’s wrath focuses on those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” God’s wrath is not like human wrath. It is not an uncontrolled explosion of anger but a settled and consistent holy reaction to that which is contrary to the nature and will of God. His wrath is of a personal sort, directed toward offenses against Himself (“ungodliness”) and toward offenses against others (“unrighteousness of men”).
1:18 wrath. The divine Judge’s righteous retribution and personal revulsion evoked by moral evil.
is revealed. God’s judgment is not limited to the future; His antagonism to sin is already shown in the world. Its effects are visible even now.
ungodliness and unrighteousness. The order may be significant—since moral decay follows theological rebellion. Or Paul may be using the two words together to express one idea, wicked ungodliness.
suppress the truth. It is not that the truth is sought but cannot be found, but rather that, confronted with the truth (which is “clearly perceived,” v. 20), fallen humanity seeks to hinder and obstruct its influence, and is therefore “without excuse” (v. 20). The “excuse” in view is an appeal to ignorance.
1:18 the wrath of God Refers to God’s righteous judgment upon evil. In this context, the evil in view is immorality and the suppression of the truth about God. God reveals His wrath by giving people over to their sin, thereby allowing them to morally decline even further (Rom 1:24–28). This foreshadows His final judgment (see 2 Thess 2:9–12).
truth Elsewhere, the Greek word used here, alētheia, usually refers to the gospel (Col 1:5; 1 Tim 2:4); here, however, it refers more generally to the truth about God (Rom 1:25). Those who suppress the truth deny what is made obvious about God through creation (vv. 19–20) and do not acknowledge God as sovereign Creator.
1:18 The wrath of God refers to his personal anger against sin. God’s anger is not selfish or arbitrary but represents his holy and loving response to human wickedness. Some have understood God’s wrath in impersonal cause-effect terms, but that would be a deistic worldview rather than a biblical one.
1:18 wrath of God. This is not an impulsive outburst of anger aimed capriciously at people whom God does not like. It is the settled, determined response of a righteous God against sin (cf. Pss 2:5, 12; 45:7; 75:8; 76:6, 7; 78:49–51; 90:7–9; Is 51:17; Jer 25:15, 16; Jn 3:36; Ro 9:22; Eph 5:6; Col 3:5, 6). is revealed. More accurately, “is constantly revealed.” The word essentially means “to uncover, make visible, or make known.” God reveals His wrath in two ways: 1) indirectly, through the natural consequences of violating His universal moral law, and 2) directly through His personal intervention (the OT record—from the sentence passed on Adam and Eve to the worldwide flood, from the fire and brimstone that leveled Sodom to the Babylonian captivity—clearly displays this kind of intervention). The most graphic revelation of God’s holy wrath and hatred against sin was when He poured out divine judgment on His Son on the cross. God has various kinds of wrath: 1) eternal wrath, which is hell; 2) eschatological wrath, which is the final Day of the Lord; 3) cataclysmic wrath like the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; 4) consequential wrath, which is the principle of sowing and reaping; and 5) the wrath of abandonment, which is removing restraint and letting people go to their sins (for examples of this wrath, see Ps 81:11, 12; Pr 1:23–31; see note on Hos 4:17). Here, it is that fifth form, God’s abandoning the wicked continually through history to pursue their sin and its consequences (vv. 24–32). ungodliness. This indicates a lack of reverence for, devotion to, and worship of the true God—a defective relationship with Him (cf. Jude 14, 15). unrighteousness. This refers to the result of ungodliness: a lack of conformity in thought, word, and deed to the character and law of God (see note on 1:17). suppress the truth. Although the evidence from conscience (1:19; 2:14), creation (1:20), and God’s Word is irrefutable, men choose to resist and oppose God’s truth by holding fast to their sin (cf. Ps 14:1; Jn 3:19, 20).
1:18 As the next verse indicates, the truth is truth about God. Having departed from godliness and righteousness, people suppress the truth about God: that God is their loving Creator and deserves their worship and praise. Sinful people can mentally perceive the revealed truth of God (vv. 19, 20), but they have chosen to suppress it. They are without excuse. God’s anger is being revealed (the present tense) against sin and the suppression of the truth.
1:18. For the wrath of God is revealed … because of all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. The particle For (gar), beginning v 18, carries a causal sense and refers back to the clause “The righteousness of God is revealed” (present tense) in 1:17. Therefore, since God’s righteousness is presently being revealed (same verb and tense as in 1:17) this wrath must be understood as presently occurring. God’s present wrath is evidenced in vv 24, 26, and 28, as He lifts His protection and allows sin to run its course.
The Greek word for wrath (orgē) means “anger” and “strong displeasure.” When speaking of wrath in the NT, God is usually the subject, and it always appears to refer to His strong displeasure against sinful actions expressed in the present (as here) or at the future tribulation period (1 Thess 1:10; 5:9). Whether God’s wrath should ever be understood as eternal judgment is highly questionable since biblically human sin always manifests itself in time by ungodliness and unrighteousness.
Paul does not attribute humanity’s present condition to passive ignorance. Instead, humanity has actively chosen to suppress the truth in unrighteous.
1:18 Here we have the answer to the question “Why do men need the gospel?” The answer is that they are lost without it, and that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against the wickedness of men who suppress the truth in an unrighteous manner and by their unrighteous lives. But how is God’s wrath revealed? One answer is given in the context. God gives men over to uncleanness (1:24), to vile affections (1:26), and to a reprobate mind (1:28). But it is also true that God occasionally breaks through into human history to show His extreme displeasure at man’s sin—for example, the flood (Gen. 7); the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19); and the punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16:32).
For suppressing God’s truth (1:18).
1:18. This verse serves as a topic sentence for this entire section. In addition, it stands in contrastive parallel to verse 17. The continuing revelation (the verb is being revealed is in the pres. tense) of the wrath of God is an expression of His personal righteousness (which also “is being revealed,” Gr., v. 17) and its opposition to human sinfulness. Therefore people need the continuing revelation of “a righteousness from God” (v. 17) that He provides. God’s wrath is directed against all the godlessness (asebeian, “lack of proper reverence for God”) and wickedness (adikian, “unrighteousness”) of men, not against the men as such. (God’s wrath will also be revealed in the future; cf. 2:5.) God hates sin and judges it, but loves sinners and desires their salvation.
Failure to give God His due inevitably results in failure to treat people, created by God in His image, the right way. Conversely, people (in their unrighteousness toward others) continue to suppress (katechontōn, lit., “holding down”) the truth (cf. 1:25; 2:8) concerning both God and man. People had God’s truth but suppressed it, refusing to heed it. And these wicked ones did this in an attitude of wickedness (en adikia). This suppression of the truth is Paul’s first reason for God’s condemnation of the pagan world.
1:18. For explains why salvation is available only by faith (1:16–17). People are not able to establish a right standing before God because sin sabotages the attempt. Therefore a right standing before God comes only through reliance upon Christ. Revealed is the same word used in 1:17 for the manifestation of God’s righteousness to those who believe. God’s wrath is “fully disclosed” against humanity because all suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Paul introduces one reason for God condemning humankind. People possess some truth about Him but reject it.
1:18. The reason the righteousness of God “is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (1:17), is because the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men. Paul uses the exact same word (apokaluptetai, from whence comes “apocalypse,” or “revelation”) in both verses to connect righteousness and wrath. In both words, the revelation of which Paul speaks is a present passive form, indicating that the revelation is continual and that it is being done by God. Both revelations are intentional, not accidental, incidental, arbitrary, or circumstantial.
There should be no doubt about the close connection between the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans as stated in 1:16–17 (the power of the gospel, a gospel in which righteousness is revealed) and the declaration of his wrath in 1:18. The connection is weakened in the NIV because of the failure to translate the first word in verse 18, the conjunction “for” (gar). The reason God is calling Paul (and the church at Rome and the church today) to preach the gospel in which his righteousness is revealed is because humanity in general has suppressed God’s truth and righteousness. C. K. Barrett’s translation of 1:18 communicates the essence: “A clear signal of the revealing of God’s righteousness is the fact that his wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who, by their unrighteousness, hold the truth imprisoned” (Barrett, p. 32; emphasis added). What sinful human beings think they can suppress, God has chosen to spread through the foolishness of preaching, of which Paul is not ashamed to be a part (Rom. 1:9, 16; 1 Cor. 2:4; Gal. 2:7; Titus 1:3). This fact is at the heart of Paul’s subsequent questions in Romans 10:14: “How, then, can they call? And how can they believe? And how can they hear with someone preaching to them?” As long as the truth is suppressed by sinful men, no one will hear it!
To fail to grasp this connection is to fail to understand the urgency of Paul’s mission and message, both in his day and in ours: left to the will of human beings, the truth would only be suppressed (witness the former activities of the apostle himself!). Therefore, God breaks in, redeems some for himself, reveals the truth to them, and sends them out in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach the truth to others. This is the heart of the Great Commission which Paul was fulfilling: to gospelize (evangelize) the world.
God’s wrath is against those who suppress the truth, whether Jew or Gentile. God’s gospel (1:1) is for those who stand under his wrath, whether Jew or Gentile (3:23). At the exact same time that his wrath is being revealed (present passive indicative) his righteousness is being revealed (present passive indicative) in the gospel. It is his wrath, in fact, that makes his righteousness so obvious. But without the preaching and teaching of the doctrine of his wrath, it is impossible to see the fullness of his righteousness.
There is actually one fundamental, underlying reason for the wrath of God being revealed against man: man suppresses (again, present tense) the truth about God. In the case of those Paul is discussing here—pagans who have not had the benefit of God’s revealed will through the Law and Prophets—the truth they are guilty of suppressing is that truth revealed about God in creation (v. 20). Nothing is more evident about the heart of God than his desire for fellowship with those created in his image. God wants humankind to know him!
He has revealed himself in creation generally, and specifically through the verbal revelations given to Israel for the benefit of the whole world (Gen. 12:3). Therefore, when that which he purposely reveals for our benefit is suppressed, it is of the greatest offense. And to be sure, the suppression is not accidental; rather, it is very much intentional. In fact, the suppression of the truth about God by mankind is described with the same word which Paul and the writer to the Hebrews exhorted believers to forcefully hold to the truth about God (1 Cor. 11:2; 1 Thess. 5:21; Heb. 3:6, 14). Paul would never counsel anyone to hold to the truth of God casually. Therefore, this word (katecho) means to “hold fast, firmly,” or, in a negative sense, “restrain” (2 Thess. 2:6–7, NASB).
One of the most stinging rebukes Jesus Christ ever delivered was to those Pharisees who, having taken away the “key to knowledge” were preventing others from entering the kingdom (Luke 11:52). The Pharisees had become blind guides of the blind (Matt. 15:14). Instead of being stewards of the truth of God, revealing his glory and his promises and provisions to Israel and the nations, the Pharisees had become blind to the truth and were causing blindness in others besides. So perverted does suppressing the truth become that it reverses itself completely. Instead of championing the truth and leading others into it, those who suppress the truth ultimately applaud the devolution into sin by others (Rom. 1:32). No wonder Jonathan Edwards saw “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God!”
But what is this anger, this wrath of God that Paul says is being consistently revealed from heaven (Paul mentions wrath eleven times just in Romans)? Surely one of the most maligned of God’s characteristics, his wrath is not like the wrath of man. Humanly speaking, wrath calls to mind the severest form of anger, and anger produces images of those we know who demonstrate carnal, fleshly anger. We then apply that human tendency to God, and judge him for his wrath the same way we judge those in our lives who vent their wrath upon us. But nothing could be further from the truth.
God’s wrath may be thought of in two broad categories, one being the expected result of the other. There is a wrath of God that will be demonstrated during a period of time at the end of earth’s history when God judges sin and sinners. Paul speaks of that wrath in Romans 2:5, calling it “the day of God’s wrath” (see also Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; Rev. 14:19). It is when his righteousness, the same righteousness revealed in the gospel, will be realized by those who have not benefited from the realization of his righteousness in the death of Christ. By the end of history the wrath of God will have been brought to bear upon the sins of every person.
Those for whom Christ bore the wrath of God on Calvary’s cross will not experience the final outpouring of his wrath. But this point-in-time wrath of God is not the wrath Paul is referring to in this verse, though it is the logical result of it as viewed on a space-time continuum.
The wrath Paul refers to here is “the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness” (Murray, p. 35). Some have, and will always, object to God being “angry.” The difference (and it makes all the difference) between God’s anger and ours is that ours will always be compromised by sin whereas his flows from a sinless nature. That is not to say that a man or woman cannot express a form of “righteous” anger or indignation, but it is to say that it will never be totally righteous, whereas God’s is. In fact, it is actually easier to think of God’s wrath as an expression of what he is: love (1 John 4:8, 16).
God’s constant emotion toward those created in his image is love, but his love becomes severe in the face of sin. Even in the human realm, we would question the love of a father for a child who did not react “angrily” if that child were abused by another—or even if that child were abusing himself in sin. C. E. B. Cranfield puts it well: “His wrath is not something which is inconsistent with his love: on the contrary, it is an expression of his love. It is precisely because he loves us truly and seriously and faithfully that he is wroth with us in our sinfulness” (Cranfield, p. 29). Therefore, God’s love flows toward the human race continually.
The love of God is like a river of emotion flowing from his heart toward his creation. Whether that river is the “quiet waters” that bring refreshment (Ps. 23:2) or the “mighty waters” that rise against sin (Ps. 32:6) is the difference between his love and his wrath.
1:18 “for” Notice the number of times gar is used in the theme statement of verses 16–17—three times, and now it introduces Paul’s first point of the gospel (1:18–3:31), which is contrasted with the power of God unto salvation (1:16–17).
© “God’s anger” Verses 18–23 depict the pagan world of Paul’s day. Paul’s characterization of the pagan world is also found in Jewish literature (cf. Wisdom of Solomon 13:1ff. and Letter of Aristeas, 134–38) and even in Greek and Roman ethical writings. The same Bible that tells us of God’s love also reveals His anger (cf. vv. 23–32; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4–5).
Both anger and love are human terms which are applied to God. They express the truth that God has a way He wants believers to respond to and live. One’s willful rejection of God’s will (the gospel of Christ) results in consequences both temporal, as in this verse, and eschatological (cf. 2:5). However, God must not be viewed as vindictive. Judgment is His “strange work” (cf. Isa. 28:21ff). Love is His character, compare Deut. 5:9 to 5:10; 7:9. In Him grace and mercy predominate. Yet all will give an account to God (cf. Eccl. 12:13–14; Gal. 6:7), even Christians (cf. 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 5:10).
© “is revealed” As the gospel is a revealed truth (v. 17) so too, the wrath of God! Neither are an act of human discovery or logic.
© “who suppress the truth” This referred to human willful rejection, not ignorance (cf. vv. 21, 32; John 3:17–21). This phrase can mean (1) they know the truth but reject it; (2) their lifestyle shows they reject the truth; or (3) their lives and/or words cause others not to know and receive the truth.
|SPECIAL TOPIC: “TRUTH” IN PAUL’S WRITINGS
Paul’s usage of this term and its related forms comes from its OT equivalent, emet, which is trustworthy or faithful. In interbiblical Jewish writings it was used of truth in contrast to falsehood. Maybe the closest parallel would be the Dead Sea Scrolls’ “Thanksgiving Hymns,” where it is used of revealed doctrines. The members of the Essene Community became “witnesses of truth.”
Paul uses the term as a way of referring to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. Romans 1:18, 25; 2:8, 20; 3:7; 15:8
2. 1 Corinthians 13:6
3. 2 Corinthians 4:2; 6:7; 11:10; 13:8
4. Galatians 2:5, 14; 5:7
5. Ephesians 1:13; 6:14
6. Colossians 1:5, 6
7. 2 Thessalonians 2:10, 12, 13
8. 1 Timothy 2:4; 3:15; 4:3; 6:5
9. 2 Timothy 2:15, 18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4
10. Titus 1:1, 14
Paul also uses the term as a way of expressing his speaking accurately
1. Acts 26:25
2. Romans 9:1
3. 2 Corinthians 7:14; 12:6
4. Ephesians 4:25
5. Philippians 1:18
6. 1 Timothy 2:7
He also uses it to describe his motives in 1 Cor. 5:8 and lifestyle (also for all Christians) in Eph. 4:24; 5:9; Phil. 4:8. He sometimes uses it for people:
1. God, Rom. 3:4 (cf. John 3:33; 17:17)
2. Jesus, Eph. 4:21 (similar to John 14:6)
3. Apostolic witnesses, Titus 1:13
4. Paul, 2 Cor. 6:8
Only Paul uses the verb form (i.e. alētheuō) in Gal. 4:16 and Eph. 4:15, where it refers to the gospel. For further study consult Colin Brown (ed), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3, pp. 784–902.
18. For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who are constantly attempting to suppress the truth by (their) unrighteousness …
What kind of people is Paul describing in 1:18–32? There are those who maintain that since the word Gentiles is never mentioned in this section and since at least some of the sins here catalogued were committed by Jews as well as by Gentiles, we must conclude that the apostle is here referring to unregenerate men in general, not just to Gentiles.
There is some truth in this. See on 2:1. On the other hand, is it not also true that several traits here mentioned are far more characteristic of Gentiles than of Jews? Note, for example, image worship (verse 23), and see also verses 26, 27. Moreover, to a large extent the people here described derive their knowledge of God not from special but from general revelation (verses 19, 20). Besides, 2:1 clearly marks a transition to the discussion of another group of people, namely, the Jews (see 2:17). This too seems to indicate that up to this point Paul has been speaking chiefly about Gentiles. Finally, does not 3:9 prove that the apostle had been speaking about two groups, namely, Gentiles and Jews (there mentioned in reverse order)? We conclude therefore that in 1:18–32 the reference is mainly to Gentiles, though it is true that not all Gentiles were guilty (or equally guilty) of the enumerated vices.
The word “For” should not be left untranslated. It indicates the relation between verses 16, 17, on the one hand, and verse 18 on the other. The reasoning is probably along this line: No other way to be saved is available than that of accepting the gospel by faith, for since the wrath of God rests by nature upon man, the latter is completely unable to save himself, whether by performing the works of the law or by any other means.
What is meant by God’s wrath? See also John 3:36; Rom. 9:22; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10. God’s wrath is his settled indignation. It differs from fury, which generally points in the direction of rage, sudden outbursts of anger. Whenever God’s wrath is mentioned in the New Testament the final manifestation of divine vengeance is either indicated or, as here, is at least in the background.
“… is being revealed …” What is meant is that this wrath is revealed in action; for example, by means of the deluge (Gen. 6–8), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the plagues upon Egypt (Exod. 6–12), and the bowls of wrath (Rev. 16). In each case Scripture shows that these manifestations of wrath have their origin in heaven. It is God, dwelling in heaven, who vents his wrath upon the perpetrators of “ungodliness and unrighteousness.”
These two concepts—ungodliness and unrighteousness—must not be viewed as completely separate entities; as if, for example, the first pertains exclusively to the religious sphere; the second only to the moral realm; or as if the first concerns merely the first table of the law; the second, the remainder of the law. Both represent sin, rebellion against God. The first views sin as want of reverence for God; the second, as want of reverence for his ordinances, his holy law. That the relation between these two is very close is shown by the fact that at the close of verse 18 one term, unrighteousness, covers both concepts.
“… of people who are constantly attempting to suppress the truth by their unrighteousness …”
Elsewhere too Scripture teaches that the wicked make an attempt to suppress the truth. The fool is constantly trying to convince himself that “there is no God.” To Ps. 14:1 and 53:1 add Ps. 73:11; Rom. 2:15. Even when he is confronted with the voice of God addressing him by means of special revelation, he still refuses to capitulate. See Mark 6:20, 26, 27. In fact, as it was in the case of Herod Antipas, so generally, the more conscience warns, the more the sinner hardens himself.
Ver. 18. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.
The wrath of God:—
- Its objects. 1. Unrighteousness. 2. Impenitence.
- Its revelation. 1. In the conscience. 2. In the Word of God. 3. In Divine providence.
III. Its consummation. 1. Certain. 2. Terrible. (J. Lyth, D.D.)
The wrath of God:—I. Of a holy God, whose hatred of sin is infinite. II. Of a just God, who cannot but punish sin according to its true desert. III. Of an omniscient God, whose eye there is no eluding, who is “greater than our hearts and knoweth all things.” IV. Of an almighty God, whose ability to punish no created power can resist. V. Of an unchangeable God, whose nature must continue eternally opposed to sin, whose knowledge no forgetfulness can ever impair, and whose power eternity cannot weaken! “Who knoweth the power of His anger?” (R. Wardlaw, D.D.)
Wrath in God and wrath in man:—
- The difference of wrath as it is in God and as it is in man. 1. In man it is an exciting passion. It shakes him to the very centre of his being. It is seen in his countenance; sometimes in a ghastly pallor, and sometimes in scarlet fire. Not so in God; it wakes no ripple on the infinite rivers of His being. He is ever of one mind. 2. In man it is a malignant passion. It burns with a desire to make its object miserable. But there is no malevolence in the heart of God. “Fury is not in Me.” “God is love”; and all His other attributes are but so many forms of His love. All His threatenings are but love raising its warning voice to prevent His creatures from falling into ruin. 3. In man it is a painful passion. The man who treasures anger inflicts a greater injury on himself than he can on the object of his hate. But nothing can disturb the peace of the “ever blessed God.” 4. In man it is a selfish passion. Man’s wrath is excited because something has occurred which he supposes injuriously affects him in some way or other. There is nothing of this kind in the wrath of God. No creature can injure Him.
- The agreement of wrath as it is in God, and as it is in man. 1. Repugnance. Wrath in man raises his whole nature against the offence, or the offender, or both. There is at once a recoil, and an antagonism. Is there nothing answering to this in the wrath of God, in relation to sin? There must. Wickedness is repugnant—(1) To His nature. He is essentially holy, and moral evil in all its forms must be necessarily disagreeable to Him (Prov. 6:6). (2) To His procedure. The construction of the universe, the moral constitution of souls, the essential conditions of happiness, personal, social, and national, show that God’s whole conduct as Creator and Governor is opposed to sin. As wrath in man separates him from his offender, wrath in God detaches Him from wickedness. He has no fellowship with wrong. 2. Retribution. There is in the wrath of man an avenging instinct. There is this retributiveness in the wrath of God. Not as a passion, but as an eternal and unalterable principle. The principle of retribution runs through the whole universe, so that the wrong never fails to meet with punishment. Thus the wicked now and here are “going away into everlasting punishment.” Every sin is a step adown. Every sinful feeling is a nest where the furies hatch their swarming brood. Conclusion: This subject—1. Corrects a theological error. The error is that Christ’s death was an appeasement of Divine vengeance. Christ’s mission was the effect, not the cause, of God’s love. 2. Supplies a terrible warning to sinners. “Be sure your sins will find you out.” 3. Urges the necessity of regeneration. The only way to avoid wrath is to avoid sin, the only way to avoid sin is by repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (D. Thomas, D.D.)
On ungodliness and unrighteousness:—I. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and impiety of men. This description of sinners use the name of God irreverently, in vain, and for criminal purposes. It is a consequence of such impious representations, to arraign the dispensation of Divine mercy by a Mediator, and to become incapable of salvation, by an unrighteous rejection of the best means Infinite Wisdom has appointed for its attainment. II. The wrath of God is also revealed from heaven against every species of injustice and crime. Under injustice I comprehend every injury done to character and to fidelity, as it respects promises and engagements; and it may be extended to every mean and insidious art by which another is overreached and circumvented.
III. In what manner the judgments of God are made known and executed. Man, by the moral constitution of his nature, is susceptible of various and intense punishment; and his corporeal frame subjects him to another species of it. The constitution of things is adapted to the nature of man, and is either adverse or friendly in proportion to his obedience or disobedience to the laws of his Maker. (A. Stirling, LL.D.)
God’s wrath against wickedness:—
- The world’s abounding wickedness. 1. Its exhibition. (1) Men have renounced their Creator, receiving His gifts without acknowledging His kindness, and wilfully withholding from Him both homage and thanks. (2) The renunciation of Jehovah soon led to gross and palpable idolatry. Men must worship something; and when they refused to acknowledge God, they were driven to find substitutes for Him. For awhile they were content to adore the works of His hands; but ere long they set up the works of their own. So low did they sink that they worshipped images of themselves. Nothing has been too mean, or too obscene, for man to worship. He has taken and set up for his god that which he should only have shrunk from in disgust or cast away with shame. (3) With idolatry is connected—(a) The most reckless profligacy of manners. (b) Abandonment to every selfish and malignant passion. 2. Its guiltiness. It was wilful. Men had the truth, but stifled it in their unrighteousness; and therefore they were “without excuse.” The race began with a sufficiency of Divine knowledge; but it interfered with their bad passions and propensities, and so they resolved to adapt their theology to their base practices. This disposition, started at an early period, was maintained by every succeeding generation. In each age the light diminished; but still in each enough remained to convict the human conscience of wrong. “God left not Himself without witness.” Ever since the creation of the world His “eternal power and Divine supremacy” have been displayed in the material universe. Besides which, other means of religious instruction have always been accessible. Once in Judaism, and since in Christianity, God has maintained a testimony for Himself. Hence the wickedness of the world brings with it an infinite culpability.
- God’s anger revealed against it. 1. Its mode. This is various. It was declared of old by the prophets. It was displayed in the great crises of the world’s history, as the Deluge, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the overthrow of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, and the downfall of Babylon, &c. Besides, there were the acknowledged miseries of life bewailed by philosophers and poets; could these be pondered by the thoughtful without the conviction that God was “angry with the wicked every day”? Above all there was death. Was it not in His wrath that the Almighty consumed the nations? All these evidences of God’s anger, backed by the internal monitions of every man’s conscience, were patent to all long before the time of Paul, but they had all been cast into the shade by a still mightier and more convincing demonstration furnished by the gospel of Christ. 2. Its burden. The thing revealed is that He hates sin, and is resolved severely to punish those who practise it. Each individual who persists in his iniquity will die, and after death be judged, condemned, and banished into “the outer darkness,” &c. So also there is a day of wrath appointed for the world at large. Conclusion: Let the subject—1. Convince you of sin. 2. Inspire you with salutary fear. 3. Turn you to the gospel of Christ. (T. G. Horton.)
The revelation of the wrath of God:—
- The wrath of God. 1. Its nature. It is no easy thing to speak of wrath in connection with God. Among us it is known to be a passion, and seldom a righteous passion. But it is not a passion in God: “Fury is not in Me”; in Him it is principle, the love of order, a determination to maintain equity, a resolution to punish sin. It results, therefore, from the perfection of His nature. The legislator is not angry when he promulgates his laws, nor the judge when he pronounces sentence. But the case is that society cannot be maintained without laws, and laws are nothing without penalties and sanctions. In all well-ordered countries crime is punished; and can it escape in the empire of a Being who is “righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works”? And this we contend to be essential to the very character of God. We could not esteem nor love Him if we supposed that He viewed equally truth and lies, honesty and injustice, cruelty and benevolence. 2. Its dreadfulness. If “the wrath of a king” be, as Solomon says, as “the roaring of a lion,” what must the wrath of God be? “Who knoweth the power of His anger? Even according to Thy fear so is Thy wrath.” In many cases the evil is far less than the fear; and when the reality comes it is found to be nothing compared with the apprehension. But here the reality will equal, will surpass all imagination.
- The revelation of this wrath to our very senses. 1. To our faith. This is done by the Scriptures. There hell is naked before it, and destruction has no covering; there faith beholds the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. 2. To the conscience. Thus it is revealed in those uneasinesses and apprehensions which attend the commission of sin. When Joseph’s brethren were in the hold, they said one to another, “We are verily guilty,” &c. What was there here to remind them of Joseph? Oh, there was enough. Inhumanity deserves and demands punishment, and conscience knows it. And when Belshazzar saw the handwriting his face gathered terror, the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another. Why? How does he know but that it is an eulogium upon his character, or an announcement of the raising of the siege, or a prediction of the extension of his reign? There was something within him that foreboded of evil; and the interpreter, therefore, only came in to confirm the exposition of his own feelings. So was it with Herod, who, when he heard of the fame of Jesus, said, “It is John the Baptist.” 3. To our senses. All nature abounds throughout with tokens of God’s displeasure against sin. And before we dismiss this part of the subject we will observe that, while the existence of this wrath shows us the holiness and justice of God, the revelation of it displays His mercy and His grace too. He would not take you sinners by surprise. He has revealed the wrath before that you may escape it.
III. The objects against which this wrath is revealed. 1. Ungodliness. Ungodliness comprehends all the sins against the first table of the law. The ungodly do not fear God, do not love Him, worship Him, confide in Him. God is not in all their thoughts; they practically say unto Him, “Depart from us; we desire not the knowledge of Thy ways.” 2. Unrighteousness. Unrighteousness comprehends all the sins against the second table of the law. Unrighteousness is injustice in your regards and in your dealings with your fellow creatures. 3. All ungodliness, and all unrighteousness—the concealed and the open, the refined and the gross. You do not worship a graven image, but then you take the name of your God in vain.
- The class of victims peculiarly obnoxious to it. “Who hold the truth in righteousness.” 1. The heathen themselves never lived up to the light they possessed. This is the charge directly brought home against them by the apostle in this chapter. 2. It was not otherwise also with the Jews, they never practised what they knew. This is the charge the apostle brings against them in the next chapter. 3. There is not a man that lives up to his own principles; he does many things which he knows to be wrong, and he omits many things which he knows to be right. The plea of ignorance therefore can only be admitted in the case of idiots. The original is, “who imprison the truth in unrighteousness”; that is, the truth would speak in them, and struggles to be heard; but it is confined, imprisoned. Fashion, the god of this world, the love of fame, the love of money, the love of pleasure, these are the jailers that confine the truth in prison. Saul knew it belonged not to him to offer sacrifice; his conscience told him, therefore, that it was a sin; he struggled hard, but yielded. “I forced myself.” Herod knew John and revered him, yet for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he sent and beheaded John. It was the same with Pilate. Conclusion: 1. What then shall we say to the state of many born in a land of light, who have from children known the Holy Scriptures? With what accusing and condemning consciences you have forced yourselves on, you and God only know. I have read of a captain who, when he found his men begin to waver, threw himself on the ground, and exclaimed, “Well, if you will flee, you shall tread me under foot.” Conscience has done the very same with regard to some of you. 2. Let me beseech you to practise what you know. Do you believe that covetousness is a sin? Let the conviction go free; be ready to distribute. If you believe it your duty to make a profession of religion, and to join the Church of God, why, then, go immediately and give up yourselves, not only “to the Lord,” but “to His people,” and be concerned to walk in all the ordinances of the Lord blameless. 3. Is there nothing else revealed from heaven but the wrath of God? We deserve nothing else; but is there no way of escape from it? We have a revelation of mercy and of grace too. Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come. (W. Jay.)
The revelation of wrath:—
- It is here assumed, the position being presently fully established, that all men are both unrighteous and ungodly. 1. They are ungodly. For, being the creatures of God, they owe to Him perpetual allegiance and service. Those who withhold this violate their moral obligations, and rob God of His due. 2. They are unrighteous. Indeed, it is hardly to be supposed that it could be otherwise. The more completely men are cut off from the fear of God the less regard do they have for the rights and happiness of their fellows. Besides, the claims of God being first and supreme, there can be no true righteousness where those claims are denied.
- This being so, what aspect does the administration of the God of nature assume towards ungodliness and unrighteousness. Is it one of complacency? or of indifference? or not rather of active and resolute antagonism? Paul is not here writing of a revelation of righteous wrath which is to be made at the close of human history, but of one which is present and preparatory. It is made openly and incontestably “from heaven.” Not that it comes glistering down from on high as the shaft of livid lightning. When M. Arnold affirms that “there is an eternal Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness”; and when the Psalmist exclaims that “the face of the Lord is against them that do evil,” they but set forth, in varied form, the truth that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” For heaven is the throne of God; and that throne is but the symbol of His supreme legislative and executive dominion. From that heaven—that throne—the wrath of God is being perpetually revealed—1. In the human conscience. What but the manifested power of conscience, as an actual revealer of the wrath of God from heaven, gave occasion to the Proverbs, that “the wicked trembleth at the shaking of a leaf,” and “fleeth when no man pursueth”? Why fled our first parents, but that conscience had already revealed a coming wrath? Why that whispering, pallid terror in those ten bronzed Bedouins in the Egyptian treasure-city? (Gen. 42:21, 12). Why does that agitated man in the temple treasury so vehemently press those officials to take from him his thirty pieces of silver? And why, when he finds that it cannot be recalled, does he hasten away to hang himself? Who knows not that conscience has compelled many a man to reveal secrets of iniquity, from whom no rack or torture could have extorted the disclosure? And though many a guilty conscience becomes so accustomed to its load as to be little incommoded thereby, it requires but that startling touch which Providence may, at any moment, give to cause it to awaken from its slumbers. 2. In the general moral sentiments of mankind—those sentiments as they are exercised in reference to those who invade human rights. It is quite true that, as human nature now is, it is not safe to leave the administration of justice in private hands. Therefore society has combined for the purpose of maintaining private rights by public power. This power for the administration of justice is ordained of God (chap. 13:1–7). And hence the penal laws and all the instruments of punishment are but so many mediums, through which the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. 3. In the general course of providence, or of God’s own administration of the universe in reference to men. (1) While those vices which terminate upon the individual himself, or which elude the vigilance of society, are subject to the remorse of conscience; and while those which prey upon the general community are repelled and punished by the officers of public justice; those which arise from the perversion or over-indulgence of bodily appetites are sooner or later overtaken and avenged by bodily disease and death. Now all these bear unmistakable testimony to the fact that the face of the Lord is indeed against them that do evil. But have we not also further proof of this in His more general government of nations and the race? Do we not find that so soon as any nation has become morally degenerate Providence has at once planted His standard and “hissed” for the gathering forces which should humiliate and punish that people? 4. In the Scriptures. In the Pentateuch the principles of the Divine government, including the revelation of wrath against sin, are clearly set forth. In the prophets those principles are so expounded and enforced as to warn against misapprehension and perversion; while in the historical books, the principles not only receive abundant illustration from God’s actual treatment both of Gentiles and Jews, but the additional information is given, on God’s own authority, that such and such calamities which had overtaken particular men and nations were revelations of His wrath from heaven against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the sufferers. By these Scriptures the general truth is established beyond all contradiction, that “verily there is a God who judgeth in the earth”; and that, “though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished.” Conclusion: But—1. It should ever be remembered that this revelation of wrath is but preparatory and predictive. It is neither perfect nor universal. Many criminals remain undetected, and, in this respect, unpunished, and sometimes the innocent are wrongfully convicted and punished. The whole effect, therefore, of the present revelation of the wrath of God from heaven is to remind us that we are under moral government; and that all are hastening onwards towards that day in which “every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” 2. And in prospect of that final retribution, this present revelation of the wrath of God from heaven may prove to us what ample and tremendous powers of punishment are provided for the unrighteous and ungodly. (W. Tyson.)
Who hold the truth in unrighteousness.
Holding the truth in unrighteousness:—The word “hold” signifies “to restrain or hold back.” Under the influence of “unrighteousness” they restrained or held back the truth from exerting its proper power. They laid it, as it were, under arrest, because its imperative dictates were such as opposed the inclinations of their depraved hearts. It is not merely that they kept the truth to themselves—holding it in concealment and captivity, and instead of disclosing to others what they knew, criminally leaving them in error and delusion, which some of the philosophers have justly been charged with doing in regard to the unity and other attributes of the Divine Being; but more generally that both philosophers and others refused to frame their lives even according to such knowledge of truth as they actually possessed, or had the ready means of attaining. They acted towards the truth, in voluntarily resisting its control, and shackling its freedom, as a foolish and unprincipled king does towards his best and wisest counsellor, whom he throws into prison to have him out of the way, resenting his past fidelity, and determined to be no longer troubled with his salutary but unpalatable admonitions. (R. Wardlaw, D.D.)
Holding down the truth:—The heathen world would not allow the truth to exercise its proper and legitimate influence upon them. They failed to educate their minds to perceive it, or their hearts to love it. The eye can be trained to discover beauty in the landscape and in works of art; or it may have its very powers of vision impaired and destroyed by gazing at the sun or on the snow. So man, by a holy walk and conversation, may fit and prepare his soul to discern and value the truth concerning the eternal power and character of God; or by unrighteousness he may injure his spiritual faculties and be unable to read the revelation of God, though plainly written in the book of nature. The following are some of the steps by which men keep back the truth:—1. They are prejudiced against it. 2. They positively hate it. 3. They neglect or misrepresent it. 4. They deny and dethrone it in order to enthrone and exalt falsehood. 5. They revile it. (C. Neil, M.A.)
Repression of God’s truth:—Two interpretations: One, that a man may be of unrighteous life and yet have a knowledge of the truth; he holds the truth, but is unrighteous in spite of it. The other, that men keep down the truth by their unrighteousness. Compare 2 Thessalonians 2:6, where the word here translated “hold” is translated “withhold.” We take the latter. Man’s unrighteousness “withholds,” “keeps back,” “represses God’s truth.” This is evidently the view of the revisers of the Authorised Version, for they translate: “Who hold down the truth in unrighteousness.”
- All things demand for their proper development suitable conditions and surroundings. Truth no exception to this rule. We observe that it requires—1. An appreciative spirit—love for truth. 2. A receptive spirit—openness to truth. 3. An earnest spirit—zeal for truth. Such, and such alone, attain truth; into such minds only will truth enter or come to anything. This with respect to truth generally. Religious truth requires something more. 4. An obedient spirit (John 7:17; 8:31–32).
- Trust involves a moral element because it does not concern the intellect alone, but regulates the life. The text declares that unrighteousness—sin—represses the truth. This appears from the following considerations: Sin—1. Destroys the love of truth. 2. Sensitiveness to truth. 3. Zeal for truth. 4. Obedience to truth. Hence it destroys the conditions necessary to the development and progress of God’s truth.
III. It follows from all this.—1. That a sinner is disqualified for pronouncing upon Divine truth. 2. That our doubts—all scepticism—are finally referable to a sinful nature in ourselves rather than to any inherent difficulties in the truth itself. 3. That the progress of Christ’s religion is hindered not only by outward sin, but by the imperfections and inconsistencies of those who profess it. (H. M. Jackson.)
The truth held prisoner:—
- What is that truth which men hold prisoner? Religious and practical truth which tends to the right ruling of the heart and life in obedience to the will of God. The truth is twofold. 1. The truth of natural religion, or the dictates of a natural conscience, agreeable to those common notices of good and evil left in man since the Fall. 2. The truth of revealed religion, which comprehends the whole truths of the law and of the gospel also.
- How men hold truth prisoner. 1. In others. (1) By putting truth into an ill name, casting reproach and disgrace upon it, on whatever pretences. (2) By resisting and opposing the truth. (3) By an authoritative shutting up of truth. This often follows as a judgment. 2. In themselves. This is what the text mainly aims at. It is kept prisoner—(1) With respect to others, when it is kept back from preventing sin in them. This is done two ways. (a) When it is restrained by undue silence. If the Lord call men to bring it forth, silence in that case is a bond laid on truth. “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My words,” &c. When is truth held prisoner by undue silence? (i.) Negatively, not when one has no sufficient call to bring it forth. “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” And in discerning these times there is much spiritual wisdom. Truth kept in silence, during the proper time of silence, is not kept prisoner, but entertained in its lodging suitable to its character. “A fool uttereth all his mind, but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.” Truth is too sacred a thing to bring forth just to make a show of, and far more to prostitute to men’s lusts and humours. There is an unseasonable venting of truth, by which truth and holiness gain nothing, but lose much (1 Sam. 22:10). Our Lord forbids it. “Neither cast ye your pearls before swine.” (ii.) Positively, when the honour of God requires the bringing it forth (Mark 8:38). When the Lord’s honour is at stake, truth is like a fire that will seek a vent, and get it in a tender soul. Thus speaks Jeremiah, “His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” And it exposes men to the wrath of God, to hold in truth in that case, for that is to sacrifice God’s glory to men’s own interests. Again, to hold it in when the good of our neighbour requires it to come forth, is to hold it prisoner, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” Where there is any probable appearance of sin’s being prevented in others, by means of the coming forth of truth, it is not to be held in, nor can it be so, without the guilt of imprisoning it. (b) When by words or actions, one holding in the truth, leads another into sin. This is to hold truth prisoner with a witness, shutting the prison door with double bars. (2) In themselves several ways. As by—(a) Neglecting, overlooking, and not adverting to it in the management of their hearts and lives. The light shines about them, but they take no notice of it to order their steps by it. This is put the Lord’s candle in them, under a bushel. (b) Not obeying truth speaking to them in their consciences. (c) Going on in opposition to known truth, knowing the right and doing the wrong. “They are of those that rebel against the light.” (d) By overcoming the truth in their war against it. Many a battle there is betwixt truth in the conscience and a man’s lusts, till the man taking part with his lusts against the truth, convictions are murdered, the troublesome light in the soul is put out, and truth is taken and held prisoner, that it can no more disturb the man in the enjoyment of his lusts.
III. Truth is unjustly thus treated, wrongly held prisoner by sinners. This is clear, for that—1. It is God’s messenger to men and His deputy in the soul, over which they have no power and authority. So that one cannot hold it prisoner but in unrighteousness, or in rebellion against the God of truth. 2. It is never guilty of any crime against men, that it should be so treated. Falsehood and lies are ever contrary to men’s true interest, but the truth is never so. 3. It cannot be held prisoner but for an unrighteous cause, and in favour of some lust or other. 4. A just God will clear it, and set it free at the cost of those who hold it prisoner. “They shall know, saith the Lord, whose word shall stand, Mine or theirs.” If truth prevail not to men’s reformation, it will prevail to their destruction.
- To confirm the doctrine. Consider—1. A person’s treating truth thus is rebellion against God, who is the God of truth and Lord of light. “If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” 2. It exposes men to severe temporal judgments. It was our first parents holding truth prisoner which brought in the flood of miseries on the world (see also 1 Pet. 3:19, 20). 3. It exposes to spiritual judgments (Isa. 6:8–10; Rom. 1:21–23). 4. It exposes to eternal judgments. Conclusion: Consider—1. The evil of it. (1) It is ingratitude to God of the deepest dye. (2) It is direct disobedience to God, a flying in the face of His orders. (3) It is a rising up against God in open rebellion and war. (4) It is working against our own interest in favour of Satan and our lusts. It is the putting out of the candle which God in compassion to our darkness has lighted unto us. It is like one travelling through a wilderness of pits, rising up against his guide, binding him and casting him into one of them. Like captives conspiring against their deliverers, or sick men against their physicians, to their own ruin. 2. The greatness of the hazard. (1) Men so doing grow worse and worse. (2) It brings on judicial blindness. (3) It brings on judicial hardness (Isa. 6:10), (4) It provokes God to give up with men and to give them over to their own lusts. Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone. (5) It paves the way to the unpardonable sin (Heb. 6:1–8). (6) It is often punished with the prevailing of the spirit of error and delusion (Isa. 66:3, 4), (7) It provokes God to remove the gospel from among a people, and to leave them in darkness (Rev. 2:5), (8) It will aggravate a person’s torment in hell. “It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment than for you.” Remember the doom of the servant who knew his master’s will, but did it not. As the sharpest vinegar comes of the most generous wine, so the most fierce wrath comes from the despising of truth revealed to one in the gospel. 3. Set truth free, loose its bands that it may reign freely in your hearts and lives. That is—(1) Resist not truth laid before you. (2) Slight not nor overlook truth in the conduct of your lives. (3) Submit to the truth, to the truth in the Word, and to truth in your conscience, as the ruler of your life. (a) It will set you at liberty. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (b) The way of truth is the way of holiness and happiness. (T. Boston, D.D.)
God’s truth and man’s treatment of it:—
- The thing spoken of here as “the truth.” 1. Truth in the spheres of science, literature, art, philosophy, is an object worth attaining. But it is not in reference to such truth that Paul writes. Truth, indeed, is one, in whatever you may find it, whether in geological records or in the Bible. It means universally the reality as opposed to that which is not real. Now we want to know what the reality is in everything that comes before our minds. We want the historian to give us the reality as he narrates for us the events of history. So also in the higher matters of religion. The truth about God and His relation to man; truth bearing upon our duties, destiny—this is our supreme want. That which distinguishes us from the brutes is the possession of a religious nature with its moral capacities. 2. It is only as this religious nature grows that the man himself can be said to truly grow; and this growth can proceed only in connection with religious truth, which is its proper food. Take away light and moisture from the plant, and it dies. So our spiritual being can live and grow only in the light and under the vitalising influence of religious truth. Christ assigns two functions to Divine truth in relation to our fallen humanity. (1) A liberating work. Christ says, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” With all the progress of civilisation, and the spirit of civil and political liberty, moral slavery still prevails among every people. And men are not very adverse to it. A very real slavery this; because, while the body may be free, the man himself is fettered by the love of sin and the spirit of worldliness. How shall he be made free? The truth is the only instrument to effect his liberation. “The truth,” not any truth. The truths of physical science or of political philosophy, however precious for other purposes, are wholly insufficient for the liberation of a soul from sin and guilt. (2) A sanctifying work. “Sanctify them through Thy Truth.” Growth in holiness of character is the great thing—greater than any advancement in culture, than brilliant talents and genius; than the acquisition of material wealth or social rank and power. As we grow in holiness we grow in real greatness and in real happiness.
- Man’s conduct in reference to “the truth.” It does not get access to the heart, does not get its rightful power and ascendancy; it is checked, hindered, held back in its design to bless by unrighteousness. In what way? Notice—1. That sin extinguishes the love and desire for the truth. It does not do so in regard to secular truth. The astronomer in his observatory, the chemist in his laboratory, the geologist among the rocks—each in his own way seeks the truth and desires it. But it is very different in regard to “the truth” as it comes to us in God’s Word, and sounds in the conscience. Why? (1) Because it does not offer itself as mere abstract truth, to excite speculative interest; it comes with great demands; it is truth which claims obedience; and it is not so easy always to obey the truth as to talk about it and admire it. (2) “The truth” is a rebuke to a life of sin; and we do not like to be rebuked for that which we know to be wrong. (3) “The truth,” again, reveals to man the peril to which a life of sin exposes him. The sinner, therefore, closes his eyes to it. He desires to be undisturbed and at peace in his sin. 2. Sin destroys the soul’s sensitiveness to the truth. It weakens the soul’s power of moral perception, beclouds the inner vision. (A. Bell, B.A.)
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.
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” (Gk. gar), 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, CEB, NAB, and NJB). Other scholars, however, think that the “for” provides the critical clue about how to understand the relationship between v. 18 and vv. 16–17. One option is that the “for” here in v. 18 is parallel to the “for” in v. 17, with both dependent on v. 16: both the revelation of God’s righteousness and the revelation of God’s wrath are aspects of the gospel (v. 16). Karl Barth, for instance, 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. However, Barth’s interpretation also requires that “reveal” have a cognitive sense: “make known, disclose.” But as we have seen, the 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.” Another way of linking v. 18 tightly with v. 17 rests on the close biblical connection between righteousness and wrath. Paul may then be supporting his claim that God’s righteousness is being revealed because the wrath of God is present: either wrath is a component of righteousness or righteousness and wrath are the two sides of God’s eschatological intervention.30
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 twentieth-century British scholar C. H. Dodd represents the more recent impulse to reject or drastically modify 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.” 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.”34 The OT regularly pictures God as responding to sin with wrath;35 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. 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.39
If, then, Paul presents God’s wrath as a present reality, how are we to understand that that wrath is now being manifested? As noted above, the verb “be revealed” has the same historical sense the same verb had in v. 17. 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.”42 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 his readers here. While God’s wrath is continually being “revealed” in this sense, it is also probable that this condemning activity is particularly bound up with the eschatological breaking in of the new age in Christ: the inauguration of the last days means that the final, climactic wrath of God is already making itself felt.
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 nature45; or to sins against God and sins against humans. 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.47 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. In this case, as Meyer says, they “do not let it develop itself into power and influence on their religious knowledge and moral condition.”
18 The word “revealed” with which verse 18 begins in the Greek text has, for this reason, distinct emphasis. It corresponds to the same word in verse 17, but since its subject is different it is the total contrast between verse 17 and verse 18 that is thrust into prominence. “The wrath of God” stands in obvious antithesis to “the righteousness of God” in verse 17. This fact of antithesis shows unmistakably, if any confirmation were needed, that “the righteousness of God” (vs. 17) is not the attribute of justice but the righteousness provided in the gospel to meet the need of which the wrath of God is the manifestation. The justice of God being retributive in reference to sin would not be the provision for escape from wrath.
It is unnecessary, and it weakens the biblical concept of the wrath of God, to deprive it of its emotional and affective character. Wrath in God must not be conceived of in terms of the fitful passion with which anger is frequently associated in us. But to construe God’s wrath as consisting simply in his purpose to punish sin or to secure the connection between sin and misery is to equate wrath with its effects and virtually eliminate wrath as a movement within the mind of God. Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness. The reality of God’s wrath in this specific character is shown by the fact that it is “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”. The same dynamic feature of the term “revealed”, as it appears in verse 17, will have to be understood in this case also. The wrath of God is dynamically, effectively operative in the world of men and it is as proceeding from heaven, the throne of God, that it is thus active. We must regard the penal inflictions, therefore, as due to the exercise of God’s wrath upon the ungodly. There is a positive outgoing of the divine displeasure.
The contention of Philippi that the term “reveal” can refer only to “an extraordinary revelation through miraculous acts” (ad loc.) and therefore only to that which is supernatural has much to support it in the New Testament use of the terms “reveal” and “revelation”. But to restrict the revelation of wrath spoken of to the final judgment (cf. 2:5) and to the extraordinary “precursory and preparatory revelations of wrath” such as the deluge, the dispersion of nations, and the division of tongues, as Philippi does, seems hardly possible. The present tense “is revealed” would seem to be parallel to the same in verse 17 and the judgments referred to in the succeeding verses, inflicted upon the Gentile nations for their sins, would require to be regarded as the penalties executed in pursuance of God’s wrath. The usage of the New Testament, as Meyer points out, would likewise allow for this use of the word “reveal” (cf. Matt. 10:26; 16:17; Luke 2:35; 2 Thess. 2:3, 6, 8). In other words, these instances indicate that the term “reveal” can refer to manifestations other than those which are in the category of extraordinary and miraculous acts of God. Hence it is possible to think of God’s wrath as “revealed” in respects which are not supernatural, and contextual considerations would indicate that this is necessary in this instance.
“Ungodliness” refers to perversity that is religious in character, “unrighteousness” to what is moral; the former is illustrated by idolatry, the latter by immorality. The order is, no doubt, significant. In the apostle’s description of the degeneracy impiety is the precursor of immorality.
The revelation of wrath contemplated is restricted to the particular class or division of mankind with which the apostle is concerned. He is dealing, as was noted, with the Gentile nations. That restriction is intimated in verse 18 by the fact that the ungodliness and unrighteousness against which the wrath of God is revealed are specified as those “of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness”. What is meant by this characterization? The term rendered “hinder” in the version has frequently been interpreted in the sense of “holding down” or “suppressing”, and so the truth is regarded as asserting itself within the men concerned but that they hold it down or suppress it. This thought is true enough in itself. Undoubtedly there is a witness of the truth welling up from within which men suppress by their unrighteousness. But the version appears to have discerned the thought of the apostle more precisely by employing the word “hinder”. The usage of the New Testament in respect of this term does not provide any support for the notion of “holding down” or “suppressing”. Most frequently it means to “hold fast”, “possess”, “retain”. If this meaning is not suitable in this case, then the only other meaning which the usage would warrant is that of “restraining” or “holding back” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:6, 7 and possibly Luke 4:42; Phm. 13). This meaning is admirably suited to the context. For, as we shall see presently, the apostle is dealing with the truth derived from the observable handiwork of God in the work of creation. The notion of “holding back” is well suited to express the reaction which men by their unrighteousness offer to the truth thus manifested. “In unrighteousness” is instrumental and denotes that by which this resistance of the truth takes place.
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.
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).
 Klein, W. W. (2017). Romans. In T. Cabal (Ed.), CSB Apologetics Study Bible (p. 1398). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
 Blum, E. A. (2017). Romans. In E. A. Blum & T. Wax (Eds.), CSB Study Bible: Notes (p. 1781). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
 Criswell, W. A., Patterson, P., Clendenen, E. R., Akin, D. L., Chamberlin, M., Patterson, D. K., & Pogue, J. (Eds.). (1991). Believer’s Study Bible (electronic ed., Ro 1:18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1613). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.
 Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Ro 1:18). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
 Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2158). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ro 1:18). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1423). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
 López, R. A. (2010). The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans. In R. N. Wilkin (Ed.), The Grace New Testament Commentary (pp. 627–628). Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1678). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Witmer, J. A. (1985). Romans. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 442). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
 Vanlaningham, M. G. (2014). Romans. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 1745). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W. (2000). Romans (Vol. 6, pp. 47–50). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Utley, R. J. (1998). The Gospel according to Paul: Romans (Vol. Volume 5, Ro 1:18). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 12–13, pp. 67–68). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Exell, J. S. (n.d.). The Biblical Illustrator: Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 73–80). New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company.
 Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 48–50). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Moo, D. J. (2018). The Letter to the Romans. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Second Edition, pp. 110–114). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Murray, J. (1968). The Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 35–37). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 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.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 1, pp. 59–68). Chicago: Moody Press.