Righteous Wrath - Romans 1:18

We are in Romans 1:18 and looking at this one verse that is so critically important. This text reads, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” You no doubt see the stark contrast between the good news of what preceded in verses 16-17 and the bad news of verse 18. This is a shocking transition to verse 18 as Paul declares, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.”

 

This announcement of wrath begins an entirely new section in the book of Romans. This verse serves as the topic sentence over the entire section that lies ahead. This first major section of the book begins here in Romans 1:18 and will extend to Romans 3:20. To reduce the central theme of this section to one word, it is condemnation. Paul will make his case, like a prosecuting attorney, and bring the indictment of God against every member of the entire human race who are outside of Jesus Christ. It is a monumental portion of Romans that speaks to the total depravity of every person and the wrath of God abiding upon all.

 

As Paul is making this case, the purpose is to show why everyone desperately needs to hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this section, Paul goes for the jugular vein with this argument. He does not say you need the gospel because you have been leading an unsuccessful life. He does not say you need the gospel because you have been lonely. He does not say you need the gospel so that you can find the right spouse. He does not say you need the gospel because you are feeling insecure. Paul says that you need the gospel because apart from its truth, you are presently under the wrath of Almighty God and are going to hell.

 

I. The Reality of Divine Wrath (1:18a)

 

The word ‘wrath’ is the Greek word orge. You can almost hear the English word orgy that is very closely related to it. An orgy is a place of sexual licentiousness in which there are heated passions in the participants. The people are worked up into a mindless enthusiasm of lust. That is an orge in the most negative sense. But there is also a positive use of orge which involves God. Obviously, anything with God is holy, pure, and perfect.

 

The word ‘wrath’ in Romans 1:18 describes the heated passion of God that is enflamed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. God is not a stoic sovereign. He is not a mechanical Maker of heaven and earth. He is not passively observing what is happening upon planet earth. God is a holy God, and there is a moral indignation within Him against all ungodliness and unrighteousness upon the earth. If this were not so, God would not be God. If this were not so, God would not be perfectly holy.

 

When Paul says, “for the wrath of God,” he means the wrath that comes down from God. Paul will talk about the wrath of God in a twofold way in the book of Romans. He will talk about His future wrath in eternity future and His present wrath now, within time. I want to take us to a couple verses on future wrath, the reality of future eternal wrath. In Romans 2:5, Paul says, “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.” Every sin that an unbeliever commits is storing up more wrath from God. The more people suppress the truth about God, the more they are accumulating more and more wrath.

 

In his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards likened it to a river of wrath that is flowing from the throne of God down from heaven. At this moment, that river of wrath is being dammed up by the mercy of God. God is giving opportunity to sinners to repent of their sins, to repent of their stubbornness, and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in saving faith. But this whole time, the dam of mercy is holding back the surging, rising river of divine wrath. The river is building and increasing, and the pressure upon the dam is growing exponentially by the moment. When this dam of mercy is withdrawn, a tsunami of wrath will be unleashed upon the sinner. He will be swept into the bowels of hell and will be under oceans of wrath throughout all eternity.

 

There is also present wrath, which are preludes of future wrath. That is the meaning here. Paul is announcing that there is a present wrath that God has toward all that is contrary to His own holiness. This announcement of the smoldering wrath of God is not the superficial message that we hear from many today, that says “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” This pronouncement of divine wrath that is being revealed at this moment is the sheer, unvarnished, unadulterated truth of God Himself.

 

II. The Revelation of Divine Wrath (1:18b)

 

Notice that Paul uses the present tense when he says, “For the wrath of God is revealed.” He does not say that the wrath of God “will be revealed” at some point in the future. That would mean that a person could procrastinate, getting around to believing the gospel one day, as if the wrath of God will not be revealed until some time in the future. But to the contrary, this is a present revelation of wrath, which makes the gospel message so urgent. That is why every person on planet earth desperately needs the gospel of Jesus Christ now, without delay.

 

Given what follows later in this chapter, this present revelation of wrath, understood within context, is what can be called abandonment wrath. It is when men repeatedly reject God, He may come to the place when He abandons them and turns them over to their own ways. A person can reject God to the point that God rejects them. At that time, God turns a person over to go their own way, which is further away from Him. When that occurs, they cannot come back to God unless He, in an extraordinary measure of mercy, brings them back to Himself.

 

That abandonment is found in Romans 1:24, 26, and 28. This is the present wrath of God described in verse 18. Verse 24 states: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” Verse 26 reads: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural.” It is lesbianism. Verse 27: “In the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another.” Homosexuality. Then in verse 28: “Just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer…” This wrath is their rejection by God.

 

“They did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over” (1:28). This is the third time Paul says that God gave them over. It is the slippery slope that leads further and further away from God. By their continued rejection of God, they are descending deeper and deeper into sin. It starts out with immorality, and then it comes down to the grossest of all immoralities, lesbianism and homosexuality. But it does not end there. There is a basement even lower than that. Verse 28 asserts: “God gave them over to a depraved mind to do those things that are not proper.” In verses 29-31, Paul spells out that this final stage of abandonment wrath results in the depraved, reprobate mind of men and women that can no longer rationally think. They can no longer differentiate between right and wrong. They cannot think their way morally from point A to point B.

 

This present unleashing of wrath is an abandonment by God. This is the scariest thing that can ever happen to a person, culture, society, denomination, seminary, ministry, or movement. It comes because they reject God. They reject the virgin birth. They reject the substitutionary death of Christ. They reject the inspiration of the Scripture. They reject the bodily resurrection. They reject eternal hell. When this occurs, God will give them over to ungodly leaders and even homosexual ministers. But it will become worse. Such God-rejectors will make a series of decisions that will take them further and further, and still further and further away from God. They think are serving God, but they are like a dead fish floating downstream who do not know that they are spiritually dead.

 

This is exactly where a major portion of America is. Many people are making the most insane decisions, and we think, “How in the world could you possibly have come up with that decision?” This passage explains how such insanity occurs. This present wrath is abandonment wrath. It is God turning a people over to go their own way. When God gives you over, you keep making decisions that take you further away, and further away, and further away from God.

 

III. The Reasons for Divine Wrath (1:18c)

 

In verse 18, the apostle Paul declares God’s wrath is “against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men.” Paul does not talk about felt needs, because such superficial needs are not a person’s real needs. One’s real needs lie much deeper within their soul. A person’s real needs are to escape the wrath of almighty God that will come down against every unbeliever who is outside of Jesus Christ.

 

This verse clearly declares that God is angry with sinners every day. This moment, God is rightly  angry and full of heated vengeance and boiling fury against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Without any hesitation, Paul speaks very directly to this truth of the abiding wrath of God toward sinners. There is no fine print in what he writes in the book of Romans. There is no withholding this truth on his part until the end of the book. There is no tickling their ears and telling them first what they want to hear. Paul is a straight shooter, and he cuts to the bottom line on this. He says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” When he adds “from heaven,” the idea is that it is descending down from God. It is plummeting down from His omnipotent hand with devastating power. It is coming down with overwhelming force upon this sinful and rebellious world.

 

Notice that Paul does not say that the wrath of God is revealed against merely some ungodliness. Not against most ungodliness. Not against a lot of ungodliness. Rather, this says it is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

 

There is a distinction that Paul makes between ungodliness and unrighteousness. He is not being redundant and the order of the two words is very important. Words always mean something specific to Paul when he writes. As this brilliant intellect writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul first addresses God’s holy hatred of ungodliness before he moves to unrighteousness. Ungodliness is man’s unbelief directed towards God. Unrighteousness is his unbelief directed towards man. Ungodliness is vertical, while unrighteousness is horizontal.

 

“Ungodliness” Toward God

“Ungodliness” literally means ‘irreverent,’ and it is irreverence in the hearts of unbelievers towards God. This is where everything begins, with one’s relationship with God. Here, it starts with one’s lack of relationship with Him. You tell me what your relationship with God is, I will tell you everything else about your life. A.W. Tozer said, “The most important thing that will ever enter your mind is what comes to your mind when you think of God.” What a person thinks about God is the lead domino, and everything else is a consequence of who they believe God is and what they do with this knowledge of God.

 

Your knowledge of God will chart the course for every step of your life. It will impact the decisions you make, how you live your life, your motives, your ambitions, and your priorities. This is the trigger point for everything, including who you marry, where you work, how you work, how you raise your kids, and how you face adversity. Your relationship with God is that determinative.

 

When Paul says “ungodliness,” the word (asebeia) means ‘irreverence towards God.’ It includes idolatry, impiety, a failure to take God seriously, a failure to commit one’s life to God, a failure to live for the glory of God. All these are an aspect of irreverence. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.” Paul will open this up in verses 19-21, and this idolatrous irreverence becomes the lead sin of humanity. It becomes the chief sin before all other sin. He says in verse 19, “Because that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them.” In verse 20, God has made Himself known. Verse 21 continues, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” That is an expansion of this word ‘ungodliness.’

 

No Fear of God

At the end of this section, in Romans 3:18, we find Paul’s indictment of the entire human race, both Jew and Gentile, both nonreligious and religious, both pagan and those who had been raised in Judaism. Romans 3:18 summarizes this ungodliness that Paul is addressing in Romans 1:18. He says, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” What is so striking today is that many churches want to make an unbeliever feel as comfortable as they possibly can. They remove everything that would cause any to fear God. They stroke their egos and tell them how great they are. All this shallowness perpetuates no fear of God. Despite this approach, the fear of God remains the very heart of authentic Christianity. That is why elsewhere in Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs, it says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of everything that is godly and right.

 

A lack of fearing God produces false converts. No one giggles their way into the kingdom of heaven. No one comes laughing into the kingdom of heaven. The only ones who genuinely come into the kingdom of heaven are those who realize they are under the wrath of God and have the fear of Him alarming them. They come to God with lowly humility. They come with brokenness and emptiness. It is not, “Repeat this prayer. Oh, okay. You said those words, so you are in.” To the contrary, down deep in the soul, is the fear of God within anyone who is right with God. A reverential awe of God comes from the realization that you are under divine judgment. You must be convicted that you are under the condemnation of God for your sin. You must know that you are foul, wicked, and depraved. That is who you are, and that is what you are without Christ. That is the issue in your life.

 

“Unrighteousness” Toward Men

Look at the next word, “unrighteousness.” Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” The word “unrighteousness” deals with one’s conduct in life. It deals with the steps that a person takes, and how he conducts himself. How he lives his life. It speaks of lawlessness and immorality. It speaks of going one’s own way and doing one’s own thing. It speaks of breaking the law of God. Paul is not needlessly repeating himself. He is not saying the same thing with two different words.

 

This two-fold aspect – “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” – is how the Ten Commandments breakout. The first four of the Ten Commandments govern your relationship with God. The last six commandments govern your relationship with man. First the vertical, then the horizontal. The horizontal begins, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vein. You shall not make any graven images. You shall honor the Lord on the Sabbath.” Then comes the horizontal dimension, “You will honor your father and mother. You will not bear false witness. You will not steal. You will… etc.” This is what we see here, compact in these very few verses. Paul first addresses our ungodliness, then follows with our unrighteousness.

 

IV. The reaction of Divine Wrath (1:18d)

 

Verse 18 continues, “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” The word “suppress” (katecho) means ‘to hold back, detain, restrain.’ It can indicate a person who is trying to hold something under. The illustration has been given of a beach ball at the lake, full of air, and you try to push it down under the surface of the water. But the second you let go of it, it comes popping back up. That is the idea here. These unbelievers try to get rid of the knowledge of God. They try to hold down the idea of the existence of God. They try to submerge their accountability to God. But they are only suppressing the truth that comes right back up.

 

The truth about God is not going away. Paul will go on to tell us in the next verses, Romans 1:19-20, and in Romans 2:14-15, that God has put the truth of His existence in their conscience. He has made it clearly evident to all men. The fact of creation obviously implies there is a Creator. No one can get away from the fact of the existence of God. Whatever mind game someone tries to play to explain away God, they are only suppressing the truth about God that is clearly evident in creation itself.

 

In verse 20, Paul says that everyone on the planet is “without excuse,” concerning the existence of God. No one gets an exemption in their accountability to God, because He has clearly made Himself known to all. The fact of the existence of God and something of His character has been made evident to every person on planet earth. Not everyone knows the way to God, because that is only found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not everyone hears the gospel. But everyone knows that God exists. But tragically, everyone, because of the depravity of their heart, is trying to suppress the truth about His existence. Verse 18 says, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” The “truth” refers to the truth about God, what He has made known about Himself to man.

 

The greater the suppression of the knowledge of God, the greater will be the wrath of God unleashed upon that person. There will be more wrath for some than for others. The greatest wrath will be upon those who have heard the truth of the gospel and have rejected it. If you are going to go to hell, do so from a remote place in Africa where the gospel is not being preached. Do not go to hell from Dallas, Texas where there is an abundance of gospel witnesses. Hell will be hotter for people who have heard it over, and over, and over, and over, but blatantly reject it. They keep playing church, and keep hopping from one church to the next. They keep flipping through the dial and listening to the television preachers. But they are never born again. They never come to faith in Christ. They never come to the end of themselves. They never humble themself and repent of their sin.

 

The greatest sin is rejecting the greatest revelation of truth concerning God Himself. When God is intentionally refused, everything comes spiraling out of this. This is far worse than even the sin of immorality. It is far worse than the homosexuality, and the lesbianism, and all of the rest of the licentious sin. In Romans 2:8, Paul writes, “But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” await them. This awaits those who are just living for themself. Those worshipping at the shrine of the unholy trinity: me, myself, and I.

 

This is not a tame, moderate wrath, but the passionate, heated wrath of God. In the Old Testament, the word for “wrath” indicates a heated fury of God that will be unleashed upon sinners. The exercise of this wrath is not a little push into hell. Once sinners are in hell, they will be made subject to the fierce, relentless pounding of the wrath of God without end. This is not self-inflicted wrath in hell. Nor is it the devil inflicting this wrath. It is the omnipresent God, who is everywhere present, even in hell, inflicting this wrath. Sinners in hell only wish they were separated from God.

 

Romans 3:5, “The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is he?” The answer to this rhetorical question is, no. This wrath is well-deserved. It is not capricious. It is not undeserved. It is entirely just and equitable. It is necessary. In Romans 9:22, we read, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” This is the infliction of the wrath of the final judgment and the eternal torment of the damned in hell.

 

V. The Rescue from Divine Wrath (1:18a)

 

There is one more thing I want to show you here. In verse 18, the first word is “For.” That word (gar) introduces a reason or explanation for what preceded. This is also how verses 16, 17, 20, and 21 begin, with the word “For.” This indicates an ongoing sequence of explanations. Paul is a logical thinker, who is linear in his thinking. He thinks in a straight line, from one to two, to three, to four. He coherently reasons from A to B, from B to C, from C to D. Great teachers are not circular in their rationale, but are linear like a laser beam. Their mind works in a straight line that is easy to follow. They think with consecutive thoughts, not launching off into the wild blue yonder, chasing every stray thought. Paul is such a linear thinker.

 

In verse 16, Paul begins, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” This “for” explains why he is so eager to preach the gospel in the previous verse, when he wrote in verse 15, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you in Rome.” Why is Paul so eager? The answer is, because the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation.” That is why Paul was so eager, because this message of the gospel that he will preach will explode in hearts and turn them away from sin and idolatry. The gospel is that powerful. We then ask the question: Why is the gospel so powerful? Here is the answer in verse 17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” The gospel is so powerful that it can take unrighteous people and make them righteous.

 

Why is the gospel so necessary? Paul answers, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” The gospel would not be necessary if it was not for verse 18. This is why we must believe the gospel, why we must preach the gospel, why we must bear witness of the gospel. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men.” He will further unpack the necessity of the gospel in verses 20, 21, 25, and 26. These verses all begin with the explanatory word “For.” Paul is unpacking his explanation of why the gospel is so desperately needed by every person on planet earth.

 

Even if a person never hears the gospel, when they die, they die under the wrath of God. They go to hell and suffer for the sins that they have committed throughout their entire life. That is why Paul will say in chapter 10, “Blessed are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good news… Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word Christ” (verse 14). We have to get the word of God out to the world, because everyone, whether you have heard it yet or not, is under the wrath of God with no way to escape apart from the gospel.

 

This wrath of God is the necessary expression of the holiness of God against all that is unholy. A holy God hates sin and must punish sin. A holy God must damn sinners, or He, the Judge, is indicted with the crime. God must punish sin.

 

All Are Under Sin

This is why we are so committed to the gospel, as Paul is building his case for the gospel. This is the opening verse of this section in which Paul builds an insurmountable argument for the need for the gospel. Let me look ahead ahead for a brief moment with you, and show you where this argument is heading. In Romans 3:9, Paul says, “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” This announces the universal condemnation of the entire human race. Verses 10 and 11 say, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.”

 

You may say, “What about people in religions in the Far East. They are so religious. Are they not seeking God?” It is the total opposite. They are running away from the one true God. They have invented their own gods because they do not want to deal with that which is made known about God to them. They are not running to God, they are running away from God. There is none who seeks for God.

 

Look at the next verse, “All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” Now Paul describes their total depravity, “Their throat is an open grave.” In other words, only lies come out of their mouth. “With their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood. Destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known.” The climax is found in verse 18, which reads, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” You say, “Who is he talking about?” He is describing everyone outside of Christ. This is Paul’s diagnosis of the human race. Verse 19 says, “So that every mouth maybe closed, and all the world may become accountable to God.” That is a sobering truth, but it is nevertheless reality.

 

Saved From the Wrath of God

This is why the gospel is so precious. It is why the gospel is everything. In Romans 5:9, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” This is what salvation is. It is not rescuing you from a lonely existence. It is not delivering you from a bad job. It is not saving you from having personal insecurities. It is not saving you from being unhappy with yourself. It is saving you from God, and there is only One who can save from God, that is God Himself. Salvation is God’s grace saving us from His wrath. This great salvation is done through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

 

The way this deliverance from divine wrath takes place is found in Romans 3:25. It is found in one word, “propitiation.” Romans 3:25, “Whom God displayed publicly,” talking about Christ, “as a propitiation in His blood.” The word “propitiation” means ‘appeasement or satisfaction.’ The death of Christ satisfied the wrath of God toward us. He took this wrath to Himself. When Christ bore our sin, He then bore the wrath of God upon our sin. There is not one drop of wrath left for those who put their faith in Christ. That is why Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” There is no divine wrath left for us because Christ has taken it to Himself.

 

Conclusion

What is the “So what” of all this? The “so what” of this is what humility, what thankfulness, what praise to God there should be in your heart and in your soul for what God has done for you in His Son Jesus Christ.

 

Proper Perspective

Further, this rescue from divine wrath puts all our present problems in proper perspective. In comparison to this divine wrath, you do not have a problem in your life. You may have a few issues, but this supreme of all problems has been taken care of. This is the ginormous issue in your life. It is for you to be made right with God, and for you to escape the wrath of God that is going to be unleashed upon sinners.

 

If you have committed your life to Christ, the biggest issue of your life has been taken care of. I do not mean to minimize whatever issues are going on. I realize that life’s struggles can become big and seemingly swallow us up. But in comparison to these trials, this fact that we have escaped the wrath of God causes everything else to be seen with right perspective.

 

Proper Diagnosis

Do you want to know what is wrong with the world? Do you want to know what is wrong with America? Do you want to know what is wrong with the Democrats? Do you want to know what is wrong with the Republicans? Do you want to know what is wrong with everybody? It is the rejection of God on God’s terms. If you reject God on God’s terms, you are going to be turned over to go your own way. Sin makes you stupid. Sin makes you make the worst decisions you could ever possibly make with your life. There is only one cure. There is only one way to sort out what is going on in this world. Ultimately there is only one cure, and it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Nobody wants to talk about wrath these days. Everyone wants to pretend like it is not there. Everyone wants to play hide-n-seek and go to other parts of the Bible. But Paul begins his case for Christianity right here, that all people are under the wrath of God. There is only one means of escape, and that is through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

So, I have got to ask you, have you committed your life to Christ? Have you believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ? I cannot end this lesson without calling for the verdict. Where are you in this? Going to church does not save you. You are going to need to go to church, if it is a good church, but you do not go to heaven because you go to church. You are not right with God because you come to a Bible study. You are only made right with God if you have repented of your sin and committed your life to Jesus Christ. Every inch and every ounce of you. If you have never done that, I would plead with you to do so before it is too late.

 

I am going to assume that most of you who come to a Bible study like this, have a right standing with God. But in a group like this, there is always someone who needs to take this decisive step to commit their life to Christ. You need to do that, and you need to do it today.

 

Let me close in a word of prayer.

 

Father, thank You for the time that we have had here today. Thank You for the salvation that You have provided for us to escape this deluge, this tsunami of Your wrath that is being unleashed. God, we treasure the Lord Jesus Christ. We embrace Him, and we praise You that You have had mercy upon us. You have demonstrated Your love toward us in Christ. Father, I pray that everyone here in this room today is truly, genuinely in Christ. For those who are listening who are not, may they run to Christ, and flee to Christ this very moment. In His name. Amen. 

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.