For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
This sobering announcement of divine wrath stands in stark contrast with all that has proceeded to this point. In the previous verses, the apostle Paul has made known the gospel of Jesus Christ. But now, he abruptly transitions to the truth of the divine anger upon unrepentant sinners with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Having laid out the good news, Paul now gives the bad news. Here begins the case made for the need for the gospel.
Here, Paul begins the first major section in the book of Romans. This verse serves as the topic sentence over the entire first section that begins in Romans 1:18 and will extend to Romans 3:20. The central theme of this section in one word is ‘condemnation.’ Paul will make his case, like a prosecuting attorney, and bring the indictment of God against every member of the human race who are outside of faith in Jesus Christ. This starts a monumental portion of Romans that speaks to the total depravity of every unconverted person in the history of the world. Further, it presents the wrath of God abiding upon all unbelievers.
As Paul makes this argument, the purpose is to show why everyone desperately needs to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this opening section, Paul goes for the jugular vein with his case. He does not say you need the gospel because you have been leading an unsuccessful life. He does not reveal that 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 abruptly states that you need the gospel because you are under the wrath of Almighty God and are headed to hell.
I. The Reality of Divine Wrath (1:18a)
The word “wrath” (orge) is a Greek word in which you can almost hear the English word orgy that is closely related to it. An orgy is a place of gross sexual licentiousness in which there are heated passions by the participants. The immoral people are worked up into a fever pitch with a mindless rage of lust. That is the use of orge in the most negative sense. But there is also a positive use of orge that is experienced by God. Anything involving God is holy, pure, and morally perfect. So it is with His wrath for which there needs be no apology. Divine wrath is a necessary part of His perfect holiness. If there is no wrath, there is no holiness.
The word ‘wrath’ describes the heated passions of God that are enflamed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. God is not indifferent toward sin or sinners. He is not a stoic Sovereign. He is not a mechanical Maker of heaven and earth. He is not a robotic Ruler who is devoid of feelings against sin. He is not passively observing what is happening upon planet earth. Instead, there is a righteous indignation that rises within Him against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. If this were not so, God would not be God. If this were not so, God would topple from His throne of holiness.
When Paul says, “for the wrath of God,” he means the wrath that comes down from heaven, from God Himself. In the book of Romans, Paul will talk about the wrath of God in a twofold manner. One, the apostle will talk about the future aspect of divine wrath in eternity. Two, he will address His present wrath within time. A couple of verses speak to future wrath, the reality of eternal wrath in hell. Paul writes, “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” (Romans 2:5) This states that every sin that an unbeliever commits is storing up increasing measures of wrath from God that will be unleashed on the last day. The more people suppress the truth about God, the greater will be God’s wrath.
Sinners with an Angry God
In his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards likened the wrath of God to a rising river that is flowing down from the throne of God in heaven upon sinners. At this moment, this river of divine wrath is being dammed up and held back by the mercy of God. God is giving opportunity to sinners to repent of their sins, to turn from their stubbornness and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ. At this present time, the dam of divine mercy is holding back the surging, rising river of divine wrath. This river is ever building and always increasing, and the growing pressure upon the dam is rising exponentially. When this dam of mercy is withdrawn, an overwhelming tsunami of fierce wrath will be unleashed upon the sinner. Unconverted souls will be swept into the bowels of hell and will be submerged under the depths of divine wrath throughout all eternity.
Before this future wrath, there is present wrath, as a prelude of this final wrath. That is the meaning in this passage in verse 18. Paul is declaring there is a present wrath that God has toward all that is contrary to His own holiness. This pronouncement 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.” Instead, this pronouncement of divine wrath is being revealed at this moment toward sinners. This is the sheer, unvarnished, unadulterated truth of God Himself.
II. The Revelation of Divine Wrath (1:18b)
We must notice that Paul uses the present tense when he writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed” (verse 18, emphasis mine). He does not say that the wrath of God will be revealed in the future. That would mean that a person could afford to procrastinate believing the gospel until later. By this presupposition, the wrath of God will not be revealed until some time in the future. But to the contrary, there is a present revelation of wrath, which makes the gospel message so urgent. That is why every unconverted person desperately needs to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ now, without delay.
Given what follows later in this chapter, this present revelation of wrath must be understood within this context. This present wrath can be called abandonment wrath. It is when men repeatedly reject God, He will come to the place, known only to Him, when He will abandon them and turn them over to their own ways. A person can reject God to the point that God rejects them. At that point in time, God will turn a person over to their own devices. This will only further separate them from Him. When that occurs, they have hit the point of no return and can never come back to God. Only by an extraordinary act of divine mercy, can they be brought back to Himself.
This divine abandonment, announced as the present wrath of God in verse 18, is found in Romans 1:24, 26, and 28. Paul states, “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them” (verse 24). Again, “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural” (verse 26). This is the gross sin of lesbianism. “In the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another” (verse 27). This is homosexuality. Then, “Just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (verse 28). This wrath is their present 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 yet further away from God. By their repeated rejection of God, they are descending deeper and deeper into an ocean of sin. It starts out with immorality, but then it turns into the grossest of all immoralities, lesbianism and homosexuality. But the depravity does not end there. There is a basement even lower than that. Paul asserts, “God gave them over to a depraved mind to do those things that are not proper” (verse 28). In verses 29-31, he spells out that this final stage of present abandonment wrath results in the reprobate mind that can no longer rationally think. Tragically, they can no longer differentiate between right and wrong. Their conscience is neutered.
This present abandonment by God is a manifestation of His wrath. This is the scariest reality that can ever happen, whether it be to a person, culture, society, denomination, seminary, ministry, or movement. It comes like a deadly plague because they reject God. They reject the inspiration of the Scripture. They refuse the virgin birth. They renounce the substitutionary death of Christ. They ridicule the bodily resurrection. They redefine eternal hell. When this occurs, God gives them over to ungodly leaders, even to homosexual ministers. But it will become worse. Such God-rejectors will make a series of decisions that will take them further away from the truth. They still drift further and further away from God. Blindly, they think they are serving God. But they are like a dead fish, floating downstream, who do not know that they are cascading into judgment.
In this present hour, this is where a major portion of America is. Many people are making insane decisions that go against what is right. We think, “How in the world could anyone possibly have come up with that position?” This passage in Romans explains how such moral insanity occurs. It is God turning a people over to their own iniquities. When God gives a person over to their sins, they continue making insane decisions that take them further away from any hope in God.
III. The Reasons for Divine Wrath (1:18c)
The apostle Paul explains why this wrath is revealed. He declares that God’s wrath is “against all unrighteousness and ungodliness of men” (verse 18). Paul does not talk about divine wrath against felt needs, because such superficial needs are not anyone’s real needs. One’s real needs lie much deeper within their soul. The real needs that a person has are to escape the wrath of Almighty God that will come against every unbeliever outside of Jesus Christ.
This verse clearly declares that God is angry with sinners every day. This very moment, God is rightly full of heated vengeance with boiling fury against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” Without any hesitation, Paul speaks directly to this present threat of the wrath of God toward sinners. There is no fine print in what he writes in the book of Romans. There is no withholding this sobering truth until the end of this epistle. 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 chase on this. He says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” When he adds “from heaven,” it is represented as descending down from God above with strong force. This wrath is plummeting down from His omnipotent fury with devastating power. It is coming down with infinite force upon this sinful and rebellious world.
Notice that Paul does not say that the wrath of God is revealed against merely some ungodliness. Nor that it is shown against most ungodliness. Neither is it represented against some of ungodliness. Rather, this text says it is revealed against all ungodliness and all unrighteousness of men. An intentional distinction is made by Paul between “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.” The apostle is not being redundant with his words. Further, the order of these two words is very important. Words always mean something to Paul. As this brilliant intellect writes, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he addresses God’s holy hatred against “ungodliness” before he moves to “unrighteousness.” “Ungodliness” is man’s perennial unbelief that is directed towards God and His gospel. “Unrighteousness” is his resulting rebellion directed towards man. “Ungodliness” is vertical, while “unrighteousness” is horizontal.
“Ungodliness” Toward God
“Ungodliness” literally means ‘what is irreverent.’ It is irreverence in the hearts of unbelievers towards God and His kingdom. This is where the decline begins, with one’s drifting relationship away from God. Here, it starts with one’s resistance toward 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 that effects everything else. The direction of any person’s life is a consequence of who they believe God is and what they do with this divine knowledge.
Any person’s knowledge of God will chart the course for every step of their life. It will impact the decisions they make, how they live their life, their motives, their ambitions, and their priorities. This is the trigger point for everything in life. This includes who they marry, where they work, how they work, how they raise their kids, and how they face adversity. Their relationship with God is that all-determinative for time and eternity.
When Paul says “ungodliness” (asebeia), he means ‘irreverence towards God.’ This manner of life includes idolatry and impiety, any failure to take God seriously. It describes any failure to commit one’s life to God, which is any failure to live for the glory of God. All these are aspects of irreverence. Paul will open this up in verses 19-21, and this idolatry becomes the lead sin of humanity’s rebellion against God. It becomes the chief sin from which all other sins come. Paul explains, “Because that which is known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them” (verse 19). In verse 20, Paul writes that God has made Himself known to all people. He 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” (verse 21). All this is an expanded explanation of this word ‘ungodliness.’
No Fear of God
At the end of this section, we find Paul’s indictment of the entire human race, against both Jews and Gentiles, both those nonreligious and religious, both pagans and those in Judaism. The apostle summarizes this ungodliness when he says, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). What is so striking today is that many churches want to make an unbeliever feel as comfortable in their sins as they possibly can. They remove everything that would cause any fear of God. They stroke their pampered egos and tell them how great they are. All this affirmation negates any fear of God. Despite this flawed approach, the fear of God remains the entrance point into authentic Christianity. That is why elsewhere in Hebrew poetry – 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.
Any lack of fearing God produces false converts. No one giggles their way into the kingdom of heaven. No one comes skipping into the kingdom of heaven. The only ones who genuinely enter into the kingdom of heaven are those who realize they are under the wrath of God and have the fear of Him alarming them. In response, they come to God with lowly humility and repentant of heart. They come with brokenness and emptiness of Spirit. Entrance into the grace of God is not in response to hearing, “Repeat this prayer. You said those words. So you are in.” To the contrary, there must be the reality of the fear of God within anyone who is to be made right with Him. A deep, 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
The next word, “unrighteousness,” deals with one’s unlawful conduct in life. It deals with the steps that a person takes in living their life apart from God’s word. It addresses how he conducts himself without God in his life. It speaks of lawlessness and immorality and going one’s own way in doing one’s own thing. It speaks of a life lived in continual breaking the law of God. Paul is not needlessly repeating himself with these two different words “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.”
This two-fold aspect is how the Ten Commandments are easily divided. The first four of the Ten Commandments govern our relationship with God. The last six commandments govern our relationship with man. First God establishes 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” (Exodus 20:3-11). Then comes the horizontal dimension, “You will honor your father and mother. You will not bear false witness. You will not steal” (Exodus 20:12-18). This is what we see here, compact in these very few verses. Paul first addresses our vertical ungodliness, then follows with our horizontal unrighteousness.
IV. The reaction of Divine Wrath (1:18d)
Paul continues, “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (verse 18). The word “suppress” (katecho) means ‘to hold back, detain, restrain.’ It indicates a person who is trying to hold something under a strong force. The illustration has been given of a beach ball in a 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 rid themselves of the knowledge of God. They try to hold back 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 ever present before them. Paul will tell us in the next verses that God has put the truth of His existence in their conscience (Romans 1:19-20;2:14-15). He has made His existence clearly evident to all men. The fact of creation clearly implies there is a Creator. No one can escape the reality of the existence of God. Whatever mind game someone tries to play to explain away God, they are only suppressing the truth about Him that is plainly evident in creation itself.
Paul says that everyone is “without excuse” (verse 20) concerning His existence. 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. 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. They “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (verse 18). The “truth” refers to the truth about the existence and attributes of God that 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 upon that person. This presupposes that there will be more wrath for some than for others. The greatest wrath will be reserved for those who have heard the truth of the gospel, but have rejected it. All this says, if you are going to hell, do so from a remote place where the gospel is not being preached. Do not go to hell from where there is an abundance of gospel witnesses. Hell will be hotter for people who have heard it repeatedly, but blatantly reject it. Such people are playing church, or they keep hopping from one church to the next. They keep flipping through the dial and listening to the next television preachers. But they are never born again. They never come to faith in Christ, because they never come to the end of themselves. They never humble themself before God and repent of their sin.
The greatest sin is rejecting the greatest revelation of truth concerning the existence of God Himself. When God is repeatedly refused, that life comes spiraling down into judgment. This rejection of the knowledge of God is far worse than even the sin of immorality. It is far worse than the homosexuality, lesbianism, and the rest of the licentious sins mentioned in this chapter. Paul writes, “But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” (Romans 2:8) await them. This awaits those who are myopically living for themself. These worship at the shrine of the unholy trinity: me, myself, and I.
This is not a tame, moderate wrath of God, but the passionate, heated vengeance. In the Old Testament, the word for “wrath” indicates a heated divine 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 relentless pounding of the vengeance of God without end. This is not self-inflicted punishment in hell. Nor is it the devil inflicting this wrath. It is the omnipresent God, who is present even in hell, inflicting this unmitigated fury. Sinners in hell will only wish they were separated from God.
“The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is he?” (Romans 3:5). The answer to this rhetorical question is, no, God is not unrighteous. This wrath is well-deserved. It is not capricious, nor is it 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 unmitigated wrath of the final judgment that pronounces the eternal torment of the damned in hell.
V. The Rescue from Divine Wrath (1:18a)
There is one more truth I want to show you here. The first word is “For” (verse 18). 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 reasoning. 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, chasing every stray thought. Paul is such a linear thinker, who stays on a subject.
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, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you in Rome” (verse 15). Why is Paul so eager? The answer is, because the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (verse 16). That is why Paul was so eager, because the gospel that he will preach will explode in hearts and turn them away from sin and idolatry. The gospel is that explosively 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 sinners and transform them into righteous saints.
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 what he writes in this verse. This is why we must believe the gospel. It is why we must preach the gospel, and why we must bear witness of the gospel. The reason is, “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.” In this section, Paul is giving his explanation why the gospel is so desperately needed by every person.
Even if a person never hears the gospel, when they die, they do so under the wrath of God. They go to hell and suffer for the countless sins that they have committed throughout their entire life. That is why Paul will write later, “Blessed are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good news… Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word Christ” (Romans 10:14). We must take the word of God to everyone, because whether you have heard it yet or not, they are already under the wrath of God with no way of escape apart from the gospel.
This wrath of God is the necessary reaction of the holiness of God against all that is unholy. A holy God hates all sin and must punish it. A holy God must damn sinners, or He, the moral Judge of the universe, is indicted with the same crime. God must punish all sin wherever it is found.
All Are Under Sin
This is why Paul was so committed to the gospel, he was building his case for the necessity of the gospel. This is the opening verse of this first section in the epistle, in which Paul builds an insurmountable argument for the universal need for the gospel. Paul will conclude, “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Romans 3:9). This announces the universal condemnation of the entire human race, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God” (verses 10-11).
You may say, “What about people in religions in gospel-deprived places. The people are so sincere in their alternate religions. Are they not seeking God?” The answer 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 to them about the true God. They are not running to God, but away from Him. There is none who seeks for God, not one.
Paul indicts the entire human race, “All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (verse 12). He proceeds to describe their total depravity, “Their throat is an open grave” (verse 13a). 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” (verses 13-17). The climax is reached, which reads, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (verse 18). You say, “Who is he talking about?” Paul is describing everyone outside of Christ. This is his diagnosis of the human race. He concludes, “So that every mouth maybe closed, and all the world may become accountable to God” (verse 19). That is a sobering truth, but it is nevertheless reality of his life before God.
Saved From the Wrath of God
This is why the gospel is so precious and necessary. Paul will explain, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Romans 5:9). Salvation is not rescuing the sinner from a meaningless existence. It is not delivering him from a bad job. It is not saving him from having personal insecurities. It is not saving him from being unhappy with himself. It is saving him from God, and there is only One who can save from God, and that is God Himself. Salvation is God’s grace saving us from His wrath. This great salvation is accomplished through the life and death of His Son, Jesus Christ, offered to sinners without cost.
This deliverance from divine wrath takes place in large measure in one word, “propitiation.” Paul writes, “Whom God displayed publicly,” talking about Christ, “as a propitiation in His blood” (Romans 3:25). The word “propitiation” means ‘appeasement or satisfaction.’ The death of Christ satisfied the wrath of God toward sinners who believe in Him. He took this wrath to Himself upon the cross. When Christ bore our sins in His body, He suffered the wrath of God upon our sins. As a result, there is not one drop of wrath left for those who put their faith in Christ. That is why Paul says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There is no divine wrath left for us because Christ has taken it to Himself.
A Final Word
What is the “So what” of all these verses? The personal impact of of this should be to produce humility, thankfulness, and praise to God in our hearts for what God has done for us in His Son Jesus Christ.
This rescue from eternal wrath should put all our temporal problems in proper perspective. In comparison to this divine wrath, you do not have a problem of any lasting significance in your life. You may have a few issues, but your supreme problem has been resolved. This is the enormous issue in your life. It is for you to be made right with God, and for you to escape the wrath of God that will 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 other issues are going on. I realize that life’s struggles can become big and, seemingly, swallow us. But in comparison to these temporal trials, the fact that believers have escaped the wrath of God causes everything else to be seen with right perspective.
Do you know what is wrong with the world? Do you know what is wrong with America? Do you know what is wrong with the Democrats? Do you know what is wrong with the Republicans? Do you know what is wrong with everybody? It is their defiant rejection of God. If you reject God, you will be turned over to go your own way. Sin makes you stupid. Sin leads you to make the worst decisions you could ever possibly make with your life. There is only one cure for your sin. 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 read and study 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 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 you for the verdict. Where are you with 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 sins and committed your life to Jesus Christ. If you have never made this commitment, I plead with you to do so now, before it is too late.
© 2019 Steven J. Lawson