The Wrath of God Against Ungodliness and Unrighteousness
Today we take a major turn in the letter of Paul to the Romans. Romans 1:16–17 is the theme of the letter: the gospel is the power of God to save believers from the wrath to come. And this gospel — this good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection — has that power to save believers from God’s wrath, because in the gospel, day by day, week after week, year after year, God keeps on revealing his righteousness as a gift to be received by faith and for faith, so that those who have their righteousness from God (and not themselves) will not perish but have everlasting life.
Now having described the greatness of his theme, which he will come back to and unpack in wonderful and profound ways in future chapters, Paul enters on a description of human sin and God’s wrath in Romans 1:18–3:19. In Romans 1:18–32, Paul speaks of the condition of the Gentile world apart from the gospel and apart from saving grace.
We Are All Under Sin
Then in Romans 2:1–3:8, Paul deals more or less directly with the Jewish condition. Then in Romans 3:9–10 he draws his summary conclusion like this: “What then? Are we [Jews] better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one.’” That is the point of Romans 1:18–3:10. Then Paul piles Scripture upon Scripture in Romans 3:10–19 to support his point of universal sinfulness and guilt and rebellion against God in every human heart.
He wraps up the section with this summary in Romans 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the Law [the Old Testament word of God] says, it speaks to those who are under the Law [the Jewish people], so that every mouth [all the nations, all the Gentiles] may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God.”
“Knowing sin and wrath will help you cherish the gospel.”
We will talk later in this series about why God chose to silence the world by dealing mainly with the Jews. But that is the truth. Paul seems to mean if the Jews, with all their advantages of divine revelation, have not been righteous before God, but only sinful and guilty (Romans 3:9), how much less will the Gentiles be able to open their mouths and protest that they have been righteous before God.
Then Paul explains in verse 20: No matter how beneficial the Law of God should have been, when it is misused the way many in Israel misused it, it only compounds the problem of sin. He says, “[Jews and all the world are under silence in their guilt] because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” Neither Jewish Law nor Gentile idolatry gets anybody right with God.
Righteousness Apart from the Law
Then in Romans 3:21 Paul returns to the theme of Romans 1:17: “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested.” You see how similar this is to Romans 1:17: in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. And from here on Paul is unpacking the greatness of the gospel of God’s gift of righteousness.
So what we have in Romans 1:18–3:20 is a demonstration of sin and guilt in the heart and life of every human being, both Jew and Gentile. The beginning of that section is what we are taking up this morning at Romans 1:18.
The Seriousness of Sin
Now, what should I respond if someone were to say, “Oh no! We are going to be slogging our way through sin and guilt for months. This is going to be really oppressive”? To that person I want to say three things:
Superficial diagnoses lead to false remedies.
First, superficial diagnoses lead to false remedies and no cures. If you want to find true remedies for a disease, and if you want to bring a lasting cure to the people who are diseased, then you need more than a superficial grasp of the disease itself. Those who care most about a cure for AIDS or cancer, spend almost all their time studying the disease.
Understanding sin and wrath will make you wiser.
Second, profound understanding of sin and wrath will make you a far wiser person about human nature — your own and others. And if you are wiser about the nature of the human soul, you will be able to fight your own sin more successfully, and you will be able to bless others more deeply with your insight and counsel.
I have pled with women and men in this church in recent months that what we need to nurture and cultivate here at Bethlehem over the next decades is sages — men and women who ripen with years into deeply sagacious people: wise, discerning, penetrating, deep lovers of people and deep knowers of human nature and God’s nature, who can see deeply into the tangle of sin and sacredness that perplexes the saints and threatens to undo us. If you run away from the study of sinful human nature — if you say, I don’t like to think about sin — then you run away from yourself, and you run away from wisdom, and, worst of all, you run away from the deepest kinds of love.
Knowing the nature of sin will help you cherish the gospel.
Third, probably the most important thing I would say, and the most firmly rooted in Romans 1:18, is that knowing the true condition of your heart and the nature of sin and the magnitude and justice of the wrath of God will cause you to understand the mighty gospel, and love it, and cherish it, and feast on it, and share it as never before. And this is crucial because this is the way the gospel saves believers. If you don’t understand the gospel, if you don’t cherish it and look to it and feed on it day after day, it won’t save you (see 1 Corinthians 15:1–3; Colossians 1:23). Knowing sin and wrath will help you do that.
For the Sake of the Gospel
This brings now to the beginning of Romans 1:18. Look at the connection between verses 17 and 18 (which the NIV inexcusably omits), namely, “for” or “because.” Verse 17: “[In the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Why does Paul introduce verse 18 with the word “for” or “because”?
He does this in order to show that everything he is going to say about sin is meant to support the gospel of verse 17. He does not mention the gospel for the sake of sin. He deals with sin for the sake of the gospel. Understanding sin is the foundation that upholds the preciousness of the gospel, not vice versa. His main aim is not to lead us from gospel to sin, but from sin to gospel. If you have been caught in a crime and are facing trial, and I say to you, “I have a letter here from the Hennepin County Court that they have dropped the charges against you, because you were guilty and liable to severe punishment,” what’s the point? The point of saying that you were guilty is to help you understand and cherish the good news that the charges are dropped. That’s the point of “for” at the beginning of verse 18.
So the way I hope to deal with all the sin in Romans 1:18–3:20 is to let it point us back again and again to the preciousness and the glory and the necessity and the freeness and the joy of the gospel of the gift of God’s righteousness. My prayer is that we would escape superficial diagnoses, and that we would cultivate a profound understanding of fallen human nature (which we all struggle with), and that we would come back again and again to the necessity and beauty and freeness of the gospel of justification by faith alone. If these three things can happen, I don’t think our time in these chapters will be oppressive, but rather gospel-exalting, hope-giving, and love-producing, as we grow to know ourselves and our God and our gospel more and more deeply.
Why We Need the Gospel
Now how does Paul begin this section in verse 18? He begins it by giving the reason that gospel and a gift of God’s righteousness is necessary. It’s necessary “because the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” We need the gospel of Romans 1:16–17, we need the gift of God’s righteousness, because God’s wrath is right now being poured out on the whole world of ungodliness and unrighteousness. Notice the double use of the word “unrighteousness” in verse 18. God’s wrath is being revealed against “unrighteousness” and the truth is being held down in “unrighteousness.” Surely Paul means for us to see that in relation to the revelation of the righteousness in verse 17.
In other words, the reason we need God to reveal his righteousness to us in the gospel and give it to us as a gift through faith is that we are unrighteous and resist the truth in unrighteousness and, therefore, God’s wrath is against us. We need righteousness. We don’t have it. God’s wrath is being poured out on us in our unrighteousness. Is there any hope? Yes, the gospel is the power of God to save because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. We can have a righteousness that is not our own, namely, God’s.
Three Ways God’s Wrath Is Revealed
Now we should ask, “How is the wrath of God being revealed?” The first thing to notice is that the word “is revealed” is the very same word and tense as in verse 17. There “the righteousness of God is being revealed.” Here “the wrath of God is being revealed.” In both cases, it is a present tense, continuous action. In other words, it is happening now, not just in the future. There is a day of wrath coming (Romans 2:5, 8–9; 5:9). But in advance of that final outpouring of wrath, God’s wrath is also present. How? In three ways at least that we learn about in Romans.
1. Universal human death is revealing the wrath of God.
From Romans 5 we see that universal human death is a revealing or a manifestation of the wrath of God. Death is the judgment of God on the ungodliness and unrighteousness of the human race rooted in Adam. In the middle of Romans 5:15 we read, “by the transgression of the one [namely Adam] the many died.” Then in the middle of verse 16 death is called a judgment and a condemnation: “For on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation.”
“We can have a righteousness that is not our own, namely, God’s.”
So you can see that death is seen as a judgment and a condemnation, that is, as an expression of God’s wrath against sin. Then in the middle of verse 18 you see it again: “Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men.” So the first answer is that the wrath of God is being revealed against human sin in universal human death.
2. Universal futility and misery are evidence of God’s wrath.
From Romans 8 we see that universal futility and misery are evidence of God’s wrath against human sin. Start at Romans 8:18:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility.
Stop there and consider what that means before we read on. I think it means that the sufferings he speaks of in verse 18 are inevitable in this fallen world. And specifically it means that you may plan well for retirement, and the year before you plan to enjoy it you have a stroke, and all the planning seems futile. You work with your own hands for years to build a simple home, and the week before you move in, lightning strikes, and it burns to the ground. You labor all during the spring to plant your crops and when the grain is just ready to sprout, a flood takes it all away. The creation was subjected to futility. In verse 21 it’s called “slavery to corruption.”
Now read on in Romans 8:20 to see where that subjection to futility came from: “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope.”
This means that God subjected the creation to futility. Satan and Adam could not be the one who did this, because Paul said it was done “in hope.” Neither Satan nor Adam in the Garden of Eden was planning for the hope of the human race. They simply sinned. But God showed his wrath against sin and subjected creation to futility, not as the last word, but in hope. There would come a day when the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). But the misery and futility of the world we live in is owing to God’s subjecting creation to futility, and is a testimony to his wrath against sin.
3. The sinking degradation of humanity reveals God’s wrath.
So the first way God’s wrath is revealed against ungodliness and unrighteousness is in universal human death. The second way is in the futility and misery and suffering of creation. The third is the one most immediately in Paul’s mind here in Romans 1, namely, the sinking degradation of human thinking and behavior. You see this three times in Romans 1:24–28.
After describing the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man in Romans 1:19–23, Paul says in verse 24, “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” In other words, God reveals his wrath against sin by giving people up to be more sinful. Again in verse 26: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions.” And again in verse 28: “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.”
So these are three of the ways that the wrath of God is being revealed now in this age against the universal (Romans 3:9) ungodliness and unrighteousness of man. He has consigned all to death, he has subjected all to futility, and he has given many over to the degradation of their own minds and hearts.
Wrath Mingled with Mercy
There remains time perhaps for one burning question: Is that God’s only response to the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men? The answer to that question is: no — neither in the case of unbelievers or believers.
Take the case of unbelievers. Wrath is always mingled with mercy in this age of hope. Look at Romans 2:4–5. Here he speaks to those who are missing this great truth:
Or do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.
Yes, there is kindness in the midst of wrath. God is always doing more than one thing. Jesus said, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Paul said to the pagans of Lystra, “[God] did not leave himself without a witness, in that he did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
“God does not give us over to a depraved mind, he gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
He said this to people who were dying and suffering and sinning under the wrath of God. God warns with his wrath and he woos with his kindness. He speaks both languages: severity and tenderness. Do you recall how Jesus interpreted the coming of John the Baptist as a severe, leather-girded, locus-eating, desert-living, adultery-condemning prophet, on the one hand, and his own coming as a party-going, wine-making, child-healing, sin-forgiving savior, on the other hand? He said, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” Instead, you said, “John has a demon and Jesus is a glutton” (Matthew 11:17). The gospel came with both languages, but they would not hear.
Unbeliever, God is speaking to you in your pain to warn you, and God is speaking to you in your pleasure to woo you. Don’t misread the voice of God.
Death, Suffering, Sin in the Life of a Believer
And to believers, what is our case? According to Romans 1:17 we have the gift of God’s righteousness by faith. God’s punishment of us was poured out on Jesus who died in our place (Romans 8:3). Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:9 says, “God has not destined us for wrath.” What then are our death and our suffering and our sin? Are they still the wrath of God against us? If not what are they?
The answer is that death and suffering and sin are not the wrath and condemnation and punishment of our heavenly Father. Each one is fundamentally altered by the gospel of Christ crucified in our place.
1. Death is a gateway to paradise.
For believers, the sting and victory of death have been removed. “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55–57). For believers, death is not the wrath of God toward them. It is the last gasp of a defeated enemy who unwittingly opens a door to paradise.
2. Futility and suffering are pathways to holiness.
For believers, futility is removed from suffering. For those who love God and are called according to his purpose “all things work together for our good” (Romans 8:28). Punishment is transformed into purification. Destructive forces become disciplinary forces. And the seeming chaos and futility of life’s calamities become the severe, but loving hand of our Father in heaven, as we learned last year from Hebrews 12.
3. The power of sin is replaced with a love of righteousness.
Finally, not only is the sting of death replaced with hope and the futility of suffering replaced with meaning, but the dominion and degrading power of sin is replaced with a love of righteousness (the point of Romans 6). God does not give us over to a depraved mind, he gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, let us awaken to the truth of Romans 1:18 that the wrath of God is being revealed now in this age against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man. We can’t understand the world or the gospel without that truth. But let us also awaken to the truth that God is revealing something else at the same time. He is revealing the gift of righteousness for all who will believe on Christ. And with that righteousness there is no wrath or condemnation on us anymore. For you (whoever you are!), who believe, death becomes a gateway to paradise; suffering becomes a pathway to holiness; and sin becomes a dethroned enemy that we fight by the power of God’s Spirit.
So let us flee the wrath of God, and take refuge in the precious power of the gospel of God. Amen.