The Terrifying Wrath of God – Romans 1:18
Pastor Mark Hardy December 4, 2011
A group of godly farmers in a Midwest community were irritated one Sunday morning in October 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.”
Although God may often seem to overlook and tolerate the sin of men, as evangelist Billy Sunday would say, “Payday is Someday!” Remember that when God doesn’t settle His accounts in October, His patience is merely filling up His bowl of wrath for a future day. It is this concept of God’s righteous judgment that we will be looking at this morning. Turn with me in your Bibles to Romans 1.
In Romans 1:18 we see three characteristics of the wrath of God that should instill fear in unbelievers and motivate believers to be more faithful in sharing the gospel.
The first characteristic is:
I. The Truth of God’s Wrath
A. Look at v. 18: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven… (Stop there)
1. The word “For” (gar) here is the fourth occurrence of this word in three verses (vv. 16-18). Not only does it contrast the righteousness of God in v. 17 with the wrath of God in v. 18, but it also explains why in the gospel God’s saving righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary.
2. Last time in vv. 16-17, Paul introduced God’s plan of salvation in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the theme of the letter, and he will return to it again in 3:21. But sandwiched between these two passages, in 1:18-3:20 he explains that because all mankind have absolutely no righteousness of their own and stand condemned under the terrifying wrath of God they are in desperate need of God’s saving righteousness.
3. Therefore as we now come to v. 18, it is a summary statement of this entire passage on God’s universal indictment against all of humanity. In 1:19-32 all people are indicted, not just the Gentiles as many commentators suggest.
4. And again in 2:1-3:20 all people are indicted, although Paul develops his argument through two ethnic categories of people—the Jews and the Gentiles. He is not just focusing on the Jews, as many say, but both groups of people stand condemned before a holy God in both sections.
5. This is clearly seen in 3:9 where Paul states that, “…both Jews and Gentiles are under sin.”
6. F.F. Bruce accurately stated, “Paul’s aim is to show that the whole of humanity is morally bankrupt, unable to claim a favorable verdict at the judgment bar of God, desperately in need of his mercy and pardon.” (pg. 88)
7. Therefore, salvation means being saved from the terrifying peril of the wrath of God. The gospel of Jesus Christ has no meaning whatsoever unless there is something to be saved from, and thus, there is no point in talking about salvation.
8. It is only against the black backdrop of the bad news of peoples’ sinfulness and deserved condemnation that the diamond of the Good News of salvation in Christ is most brightly and powerfully seen.
9. To be willing to accept God’s remedy of the gospel people must first be overwhelmed by the disease of their sin and its eternal consequences if not cured. They have no reason to want spiritual life unless they first recognize that they are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1).
10. John MacArthur said it well, “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.”
11. This is why Francis Schaeffer was correct when he said, “There is no real preaching of the Christian gospel except in light of the fact that man is under the wrath of God.” (Alan Johnson pg. 65 #3)
B. Now modern man today can more easily accept that God is a “God of love” than they can that He is a “God of wrath.”
1. Notice that Paul says, “…the wrath of God,” which means that wrath originates from and belongs to God. Paul further proves the origin of this wrath when he says that it is “from heaven.”
2. “Heaven” (ouranou) is residence or dwelling place of God. It is where the Almighty sits on His throne and sovereignly rules and reigns over the universe He created.
3. Now when God created the world, He built in certain physical and moral laws that have since governed its operation. Just as a person will fall to the ground when he jumps due to the law of gravity, so he will receive the consequences of sin when he violates God’s moral law.
4. Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”
5. Although the wrath of God can encompass that, it is a personal attribute of God that flows out into an activity of God. Whereas God is a “God of love,” He is also a “God of wrath,” for the Scriptures teach both!
6. God is a loving and merciful God and doesn’t want to punish us, but because is also a holy and just God He must punish sin. Psalm 7:11 declares, “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.” (NKJV)
7. Exodus 34:7 says that “…He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” And God proclaims in Ezekiel 18:4, “Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.”
8. God’s attributes are perfectly balanced. He perfectly hates evil just as He perfectly loves righteousness (Ps. 45:7; Heb. 1:9). God would not truly love good unless He hated evil.
9. Habakkuk 1:13 says about God, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor…” (Deut. 27-28; Isa. 13:9; Jer. 19:3-7; Nah. 1:2-3; Matt. 3:7-8, 11-12; Rom. 2:5, 8-9, 16; Eph. 5:6; Heb. 10:26-27; 12:25; Rev. 14:9-11)
10. Therefore, we can only understand the profound reality of God’s amazing love for sinners as we comprehend His terrifying wrath against sin.
C. Now what exactly is the wrath of God?
1. There are two basic words in the Greek language used to express anger. The first is the Greek word “thumos” from which we get our English words thermometer and thermos.
2. This is the red-hot anger that overcomes people when they lose control. Whereas it is impulsive, passionate, and often irrational in its outburst of anger, God never loses His temper or flies off the handle.
3. The second is the Greek word “orge,” which signifies a settled and abiding condition. This is the word Paul uses here.
4. God’s wrath is His settled attitude and abiding determination to oppose everything that is evil. It is God’s response of His holiness to man’s sinfulness.
5. John Murray defined it beautifully in this way, “Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness.” (pg. 35)
6. Therefore, when we are truly growing in Christlikeness we will be more holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16) and have a “holy revulsion” of all that contradicts God’s holiness. We will hate sin, evil, and injustice.
7. Now when and how does God’s holy hatred of evil flow out into active opposition of man’s sinfulness? We see this in the second characteristic of the wrath of God, which is:
II. The Timing of God’s Wrath
A. Look again at the first part of v. 18: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven…
1. The timing of God’s wrath is seen in the fact that God’s wrath “is revealed.” Now just like in v. 17, the word “revealed” (apokaluptetai) here means “to make known or manifest.”
2. But when and how did God reveal, make known or manifest His wrath? Some people limit God’s wrath to the final day of God’s wrath in the end times described in Revelation 19-21.
3. Other people limit God’s wrath to all of the bad things that have happened to people throughout history. All of the pain, illness, suffering, tragedy, and natural disasters that man experiences.
4. Although these things can sometimes be a result of God’s wrath upon an individual or a nation, this is not always the case. For example, remember Job (Job 1:8), the man born blind (Jn. 9:1-3), and the 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them (Lk. 13:4).
5. Often, as in these cases, these things are caused by simply living in a fallen, sinful world or by Satan himself, not as a result of one’s personal sin. So we must be careful here!
6. Still others limit it to the greatest demonstration of God’s wrath seen in the cross of Christ. It was on the cross that Jesus, as our Substitute, willingly became sin for us and took upon Himself all of the holy wrath of God toward sin, at which time Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46).
7. However, since the present tense of the word “revealed” indicates a continuing process, it is best to see God’s wrath as encompassing all of these things.
B. God’s wrath first began to be revealed in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve sinned.
1. After promising the hope of salvation in Genesis 3:15, God then pronounced His righteous judgment upon Adam and Eve and all their descendants (3:16-19a), cursed the earth (v. 17), passed the sentence of death (v. 19b), and cast them out of paradise.
2. God’s wrath then continued to be revealed throughout Old Testament history. For example, it was revealed in: the flood (Gen. 6-7); the dispersing of people at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9); the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19); the plagues upon Egypt (Ex. 6-12); the drowning of Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 14); the institution of the sacrificial system (Leviticus); the curse of the law on every transgressor; God’s repeated righteous judgment upon His people Israel for their on-going sins of disobedience, rebellion, idolatry, and apostasy, and against various sinful kings and nations.
3. God’s wrath continued to be revealed in the New Testament. Showing that all mankind is already under God’s wrath, Jesus said in John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
4. This is why Ephesians 2:3 tells us that all unregenerate people are said to be, “…by nature children of wrath.” Don’t forget that as a born-again believer that is who you once were!
5. Jesus’ righteous indignation was revealed twice as He cleansed the Temple of the money changers and sacrifice sellers who made His “Father’s house a place of business” (Jn. 2:14-16) and “a robber’s den” (Matt. 21:12-13). Although Jesus was love incarnate, he spoke more of hell than of heaven (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 8:12; 10:14-15, 28; 12:36-37, 41-42; 13:40, 49; 16:26; 18:34-35; 22:13; 23:33; 24:50-51; 25:26-30).
6. God’s wrath was seen in the killing of Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). And seen in the severe disciple of believers who repeatedly abused the Lord’s Supper and partook in an “unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27-32).
7. God’s wrath was seen preeminently in the atoning sacrifice of His beloved Son on the cross. And it is being continuously revealed today in the natural moral consequences of peoples’ sin, as well as, in God’s personal judgment, such as: the three times in Romans 1 where He specifically “gave them over” to their chosen sin and its consequences (vv. 24, 26, 28).
8. And God’s wrath will continue to be revealed in various ways until it reaches its peak of terror and destruction when the risen and glorified Christ’s takes back this world that rightly belongs to Him from the usurper, Satan, in His end time judgments, beginning in Revelation 6 and culminating in chapters 19-21.
9. Therefore, the timing of God’s wrath is a continuing process! It was revealed in the past, it is being revealed in the present, and it will be ultimately revealed in the future.
C. Now since God is not morally neutral or passive in the face of sin, why does it often seem that He allows the wicked to not only get away with their sin, but also prosper in their wickedness? (Ps. 73)
1. We must remember that “Payday is Someday.” God never changes in His attitude toward man’s sin, but when He seems to overlook and tolerate it, His patience (2 Pet. 3:9) is merely filling up His bowl of wrath for a future day.
2. This is why we are told in Romans 12:19, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.”
3. The third characteristic of the wrath of God is:
III. The Target of God’s Wrath
A. Look again at v. 18: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men… (Stop there)
1. Now the words “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness,” if taken separately as two distinct categories of man’s sinfulness, have different shades of meaning. The word “ungodliness” (asebeian) focuses on our relationship to God, as adddressed in the first four of the Ten Commandments.
2. It refers to a lack of love, reverence, and devotion to God. Since we as people are spiritual and relational beings made in the image of God, when we are not right with God we will naturally turn to idolatry (Rom. 1:25). Therefore, ungodliness leads to unrighteousness.
3. The word “unrighteousness” (adikian) is actually a much broader term an can encompasses the idea of ungodliness, which is why we see it by itself at the end of v. 18. It focuses on our relationship to others, as addressed in the last six of the Ten Commandments.
4. It is a lack of reverence to God’s holy law as found in the Word of God. And when God’s standards of morality in His Word are violated, people are sinned against.
5. Although separately these words have distinct meanings, when used together this distinction is not usually maintained. In other words, they become synonyms to show us that God is angry at all sin.
6. C. E. B. Cranfield states, “It is more probable that they are here used as two names for the same thing combined in order to afford a more rounded description of it than either gives by itself (“ungodliness” focusing attention on the fact that all sin is an attack on the majesty of God, “unrighteousness” on the fact that it is a violation of God’s just order).”
7. Leon Morris goes on to say, “…Paul is simply indicating the variety of evil and is not trying to divide it carefully. His all is important. There are no exceptions. Nothing is overlooked. We cannot say that God does not mind some evils. His wrath is revealed against every wrong.” (pg. 77)
8. Together, these two words serve to denote peoples failure in terms of God’s holy standard to love God supremely and love others sacrificially (Matt. 22:36-40). Men do not act righteously toward others because they are ungodly or not right with God, who is the only standard and source of righteousness.
9. However, most people today believe that, on the whole, they are pretty decent people. Although some people are “better” morally than others the central issue is not whether people have met their own standard, but whether they have met God’s standard.
10. If man wants to get to heaven by his own good deeds than he has to meet God’s standard of righteousness. Jesus gave this standard in Matthew 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
11. But that’s mankind’s problem! Isaiah 64:6 says, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”
12. Listen to Romans 3:10-12, “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.” (Verse 23) “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
13. This is God’s universal indictment against all of us! Therefore, the sinfulness of the entire human race is the target of God’s wrath.
14. It is not just the “bad people” that God through Paul is talking about here, but all mankind. We see that in the word “men” (anthropon)—“all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”
15. This is a general term that refers to all of humanity universally, both Jews and Gentiles. We are all in the same boat, the only exception was the sinless Son of God.
B. Paul then goes on to give the most important description of us as ungodly and unrighteous humanity. Look at the end of v. 18, “…who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
1. This is the governing fact that must interpret everything about who we are as fallen mankind. The word “suppress” (katechonton) means “to hold down, hinder, restrain.” It was used in ancient Greece for incarceration or imprisonment. (Lk. 4:42; 2 Thess. 2:6-7)
2. It is also in the present tense, indicating that sinful people continuously, as their characteristic lifestyle, hold down, suppress, and imprison something “in unrighteousness.” Their moral sin of suppression flows out of their lack of relationship with God.
3. What is it that they suppress? It is the truth of God’s creation, known as General Revelation, which we will look at next time in vv. 19-21.
4. God has given a real knowledge of Himself in creation whereby all of humanity, regardless of where in the world they may live, can know God’s power, deity, and glory.
5. Concerning this truth, A.T. Robertson states, “Truth is out in the open, but wicked men, so to speak, put it in a box and sit on the lid and ‘hold it down in unrighteousness.’” (pg. 328)
6. Leon Morris goes on to say, “The ‘truth’ here is the general truth that is open to all people, not the truth God has revealed in Christ and the gospel. People are guilty because they sin against the truth they have, not the truth they do not have.”
7. Therefore, although this real knowledge of God is not enough to save them, it is enough to condemn them because they continually hold it down, and won’t let it accomplish what God intends. This is why v. 20 says that “…they are without excuse” and stand under the terrifying reality of the wrath of God.
8. Absolutely no one can plead innocence, because no one can plead ignorance. All of humanity suppresses the truth that they have in unrighteousness.
9. R.C.H. Lenski observes, “Whenever the truth starts to exert itself and makes them feel uneasy in their moral nature, they hold it down, suppress it. Some drown its voice by rushing into their immoralities; others strangle the disturbing voice by argument and by denial.” (Expositors pg. 23)
10. This is why intelligent people can look at the vastness of space or the microscopic sub-atomic particles and say that all of this just happened by time and chance or by Evolution or the Big Bang Theory.
11. Sinful mankind is tenaciously committed to not acknowledge God and bow the knee to Him. This was seen most clearly when face-to-face with God incarnate, the Light of the world, they rejected Jesus Christ.
12. Jesus said in John 3:19-20, “…men loved darkness rather than 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.” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1; 73:11)
13. This is why the target of God’s wrath is the sinfulness of the entire human race. The bad news is that God hates sin, but praise God the Good News is that God loves sinners and offers salvation to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and receives Him as their personal Savior and Lord.
In closing, we have seen three characteristics of the wrath of God: its truth, its timing, and its target. It is the terrifying reality of God’s wrath that should not only instill fear in unbelievers, but also motivate us as believers to live more holy lives, so that we can be more faithful in sharing the gospel with them without being a stumbling block (2 Cor. 5:11).
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the world’s only hope of salvation from the terrifying wrath of God. It is essential that we take it seriously because peoples’ souls are at stake. It is a matter of eternal life or death. For Hebrews 10:31 declares, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”