Give Me The Bad News First (Rom. 1:18-20)

Romans Verse By Verse   •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  31:23
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Are those who have never heard the gospel condemned?

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Romans 1:18 NKJV
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
Give Me The Bad News First
Romans 1:18-20
It is important that we grasp the connection between this section (‘The wrath of God’) and the last (‘The gospel of God’).
In verses 16–20 the apostle develops an argument of sustained logic.
He refers successively to the power of God (16), the righteousness of God (17), the wrath of God (18) and the glory of God in creation (19–20). 1
1 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 69.
Let me try to clarify the stages of the argument by engaging Paul in dialogue.
Paul: I am not ashamed of the gospel (16a).
Q: Why not, Paul?
Paul: Because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (16b).
Q: How so, Paul?
Paul: Because in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, that is, God’s way of justifying sinners (17).
Q: But why is this necessary, Paul?
Paul: Because the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (18).
Q: But how have people suppressed the truth, Paul?
Paul: Because what may be known about God is plain to them … For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen … (19–20).
1 The Wrath of God
God’s wrath is a dominant Bible teaching and the point in Romans at which Paul begins his formal exposition of the gospel.
Yet, to judge from most contemporary forms of Christianity, the wrath of God is either an unimportant doctrine, which is an embarrassment, or an entirely wrong notion, which any enlightened Christian should abandon.1
1 James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Justification by Faith, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991–), 129.
How can anger, they ask, which Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount equated with murder, and which Paul identified as a manifestation of our sinful human nature and as incompatible with our new life in Christ,10 possibly be attributed to the all-holy God?
There are two main words for wrath in the New Testament. One is thymos, from a root that means “to rush along fiercely,” “to be in a heat of violence,” or “to breathe violently.
We can capture this idea by the phrase “a panting rage.” This type of anger is explosive and sudden.
The other word is orgē which means “to grow ripe for something.” It portrays wrath as something that builds up over a long period of time, like water collecting behind a great dam.
Leon Morris notes that apart from the Book of Revelation, which describes the final outpouring of God’s wrath in all its unleashed fury, thumos is used only once of God’s anger.
The word used in every other passage is orgẽ. Morris observes,
The biblical writers habitually use for the divine wrath a word which denotes not so much a sudden flaring up of passion which is soon over, as a strong and settled opposition to all that is evil arising out of God’s very nature.”
It represents God’s abhorrence and hatred of sin. The same authority notes that orgē (ὀργη) is not punishment of sin but God’s attitude towards it. 1
1 Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English Reader, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 29.
The wrath of God, then, is almost totally different from human anger. It does not mean that God loses his temper, flies into a rage, or is ever malicious, spiteful or vindictive.
On the contrary, his wrath is his holy hostility to evil, his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it, his just judgment upon it.
2 Against What is God’s Wrath Revealed?
Paul writes that God’s wrath is being revealed against all the godlessness (asebeia) and wickedness (adikia) of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (18).
According to J. B. Lightfoot, asebeia is ‘against God’ (lack of reverence) and adikia ‘against men’.
Scripture is quite clear that the essence of sin is godlessness. It is the attempt to get rid of God and, since that is impossible, the determination to live as though one had succeeded in doing so.
‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (3:18). The converse is also true. The essence of goodness is godliness, to love him with all our being and to obey him with joy.
God’s wrath is directed, however, not against ‘godlessness and wickedness’ in vacuo, but against the godlessness and wickedness of those people who suppress the truth by their wickedness (adikia again).
It is not just that they do wrong, though they know better. It is that they have made an a priori decision to live for themselves, rather than for God and others, and therefore deliberately stifle any truth which challenges their self-centredness.
Lack of respect for God leads to a lack of justice for people. History demonstrates that nations that forsake God lose their concern for the rights of the individual.
To forsake God is to forsake his creatures.
1 Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 77.
The people of whom Paul spoke were those who by their wicked and sinful lives “suppress the truth.” Truth cannot be changed, but it can be held down or stifled.
Wickedness “denies … truth its full scope” (Knox). We will learn in the verses that follow that God has revealed to all humans something of his eternal power and nature.
Yet people refuse to believe, and as a result their understanding is darkened. To turn willfully against God is to move from light into darkness. The blindness that follows is self-imposed.
3 What Truth is being Suppressed? (vs. 19-20)
A. Inner Witness (Conscience) vs. 19 (SEE AR)
B. Outer Witness (Creation) vs. 20
What ‘truth’ has Paul in mind? He tells us in verses 19–20. It is that knowledge of God which is available to us through the natural order.
For what may be known about God (and what is knowable to finite, fallen creatures like us is inevitably limited) is nevertheless plain or open.
And the reason it is plain is that God has taken the initiative and has made it plain.
How? Verse 20 explains. It is that ever since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualitieshis eternal power and divine nature (which together constitute something of his ‘glory’, 23)—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.
In other words, the God who in himself is invisible and unknowable has made himself both visible and knowable through what he has made.
The creation is a visible disclosure of the invisible God, an intelligible disclosure of the otherwise unknown God.
Just as artists reveal themselves in what they draw, paint and sculpt, so the Divine Artist has revealed himself in his creation. (See AR)
A. The Revelation of God’s Truth
B. The Reach of God’s Truth
C. The Resistance of God’s Truth
Verse 20 explains that certain invisible attributes of God have been clearly perceived since the world began, specifically, his “eternal power and divine nature.”8
They are understood from what has been made. The NEB says they are “visible … to the eye of reason.”9 God has revealed himself in nature in such a way as to hold all people responsible.
They are “without excuse.” Seeing the beauty and complexity of creation carries with it the responsibility of acknowledging the Creator both as powerful and as living above the natural order.
Disbelief requires an act of rebellion against common sense. It displays fallen humanity’s fatal bias against God. Although the created order cannot force a person to believe, it does leave the recipient responsible for not believing.
Paul ends his statement with the words: so that men are without excuse (20).
The Greek word translated “without excuse” (anapologētous) suggests that from a legal standpoint people had been stripped of any defense.
This shows that what he has been asserting is ‘natural revelation’ and not ‘natural theology (or religion)’.
The latter expresses the belief that it is possible for human beings through nature to come to know God, and that therefore, as the way to God, creation is an alternative to Christ.
Some people base this belief on Romans 1, especially on the expressions that they knew God (21) and that they possessed the knowledge of God (28).
But there are degrees to the knowledge of God, and these phrases cannot possibly refer to the full knowledge of him enjoyed by those who have been reconciled to him through Christ.
For what Paul says here is that through general revelation people can know God’s power, deity and glory
(not his saving grace through Christ), and that this knowledge is enough not to save them but rather to condemn them, because they do not live up to it.
Instead, they suppress the truth by their wickedness (18), so that they are without excuse (20). It is against this wilful human rebellion that God’s wrath is revealed.
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