2. The Present Wrath of God (Romans 1:15-32)
A few years ago my wife and I were waiting at a stop light in our Pinto station wagon. We were waiting alongside a Corvette. He had eight cylinders; I had four. He had a high performance engine; I had a pathetically powerless engine. I knew full well that as soon as the light turned green, the driver of that Corvette was going to accelerate, pass me on the right, and then cut in front of me. It had happened too many times before with cars much less powerful than this one. I knew I did not stand a chance.
Nevertheless, when the light changed, I put my foot to the floor and gave that Pinto all it had. I shifted like Andy Granatelli. In spite of my best efforts, the Corvette eased by me effortlessly. My wife Jeannette knew exactly what was happening. Turning to me, she said, “You were trying to race him, weren’t you?” I could not deny it. I replied, “Yes, and the worst of it is, he didn’t even know it!”
God is doing a work today, and few even know He is doing it. He is presently revealing His wrath on “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). God is judging men for their sin today, and few even know it is happening. Unbelievers are unaware of God’s judgment, because they do not know God, nor are they alert to His presence and power in the world today. This is to be expected. But many Christians are equally ignorant of God’s present judgment of sin. They think of God’s judgment only in terms of the future. And they think of the sinner’s present self-indulgence in terms of pleasure, not punishment.
Recently the Mardi Gras was observed in New Orleans once again. On the evening news, a commentator’s brief description of this annual event summed up the spirit of our age. Quoting one young person in New Orleans for the celebration, the commentator reported: “It is sin and degradation, and we love it!”
Many Christians look upon the sinfulness of our culture in about the same way one of the psalmists of old looked upon his culture—with envy.59 Instead of grieving over the sins of others, as Lot did over the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah (see 2 Peter 2:7), we are tempted to envy sinners, as though they are privileged to enjoy pleasures we Christians are denied. And so, very much as Satan implied that God was withholding good from Adam and Eve (see Genesis 3), we are tempted to believe that God is withholding something good from us. We try to console ourselves with the thought that though we must suffer now, we do so in order to enjoy better pleasures in heaven.60
Paul’s words in Romans 1:18-32 may take many of us by surprise. We are not inclined to believe that God’s judgment has a present, as well as a future, manifestation. And even if we do believe in a present judgment, the form which this judgment takes, according to Paul, is not that which we would expect. Paul’s teaching in our text will force us to re-evaluate much of our thinking on the judgment of God.
In addition to teaching us a vitally important lesson on the judgment of God, our text provides insight into the nature of sin. While Paul is seeking to demonstrate in this section (Romans 1:18–3:20) that all men are sinners, under divine sentence of death, he is also providing us with a definition of what sin is. We will see in our text a most vital and often neglected dimension of sin which must be included in a biblical definition of sin.
This text is powerful and enlightening. We must have divine illumination to understand it, and we must have divine enablement to apply it. Let us petition God for the ministry of His Spirit, as we approach this most important passage.
Structure of the Text
To understand Romans 1:18-32, we must learn how it fits into the context into which it has been placed. We must see how it follows Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:1-17, and how it paves the way for 2:1-29. In particular, it is essential that we see the distinct message and emphasis of 1:18-32 in relationship to 2:1-29. That we shall endeavor to do as we consider the structure of this text.
There is a clear change evident in Paul’s teaching at Romans 2:1 and following, as compared with 1:18-32. First, there is the change from commending sin to condemning it. In Romans 1:32, Paul speaks of those who “give hearty approval” to those who practice sin. Now, in Romans 2:1, Paul describes those who condemn those who practice sin.
Second, there is the shift from a general indictment of sinners in Romans 1 to the specific indictment of individuals as sinners in chapter 2. In Romans 1:18-32, we find the more indirect pronouns such as “they,” “their,” and “them.” In Romans 2:1 and following, Paul becomes more specific, pointing his finger at “you.” The condemnation of all mankind in 1:18-32 seems to be of man collectively, while the condemnation of chapter 2 is much more individual, based upon the revelation each man has received. In chapter 1, Paul seems to be laying a foundation; in chapter 2, he zeroes in for the “kill.” One can almost see the heads of Paul’s readers nodding in agreement with Paul’s indictment of “them,” while their eyes begin to pop out in chapter 2 when Paul becomes personal and individual, turning to “you.”
The sin of all mankind is described in more general terms in chapter 1. Man’s sin is the rejection of that which God has revealed. In chapter 2, man’s sin is viewed in an individual context, in terms of what God has revealed to each person and in terms of what that person has done with what he knows.
Third, there is the shift from the present wrath of God in chapter 1 to the future wrath of God in chapter 2.61 Throughout 1:18-32, the wrath of God is described as being presently revealed.62 In chapter 2, Paul speaks of God’s wrath as that which is future:
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 (Romans 2:5).
The wrath of God is thereby separated into two different categories: (a) that wrath which is presently being revealed against sinners, and (b) that coming wrath of God which is yet to be revealed against sinners. The differences between these two dimensions of divine wrath are explored later in this message.
These are the major contrasts I find between Romans 1 and 2. Let us pause to consider a distinction which some find between these two chapters, but which I do not accept. Some think Romans 1:18-32 is describing the condemnation of Gentiles, while in chapter 2 Paul focuses on the condemnation of the Jews as sinners. I disagree with this analysis of Romans 1 and 2. Instead, I find Paul indicting both Jews and Greeks in both Romans 1 and Romans 2. There are a number of reasons for my conclusion which are briefly summarized below for your consideration.
(1) Paul’s choice of words at the beginning of both major sections (the first section is Romans 1:18-32, and the second is Romans 2:1-29) are deliberately general and universal, so that both Jews and Gentiles are included:
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, emphasis mine).
Therefore, you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things (Romans 2:1).
(2) In 1:18-32, neither Jews nor Gentiles are singled out by name; in 2:1-29, Paul refers to both Jews and Gentiles.
(3) The indictment of 1:19-20 would seem to apply most directly to the Gentile heathen, while that of 1:32 seems to be aimed more directly at the Jews. The minimal amount of revelation is that which can be seen from creation. This is referred to in 1:20. The greatest revelation of God’s character is that found in the Law, and this is referred to in 1:32. Thus, everyone from the bush man in some remote jungle to the unbelieving Jewish Rabbi is under divine sentence for rejecting the revelation which God has given him. Romans 1:18-32 therefore indicts both the Jews and the Gentiles—and not just the Gentiles.
(4) The Bible does not divide sin into “Gentile sins” and “Jewish sins.” If one reads the history of Israel and especially the indictments of the Old Testament prophets, it quickly becomes apparent that Israel’s great failure was in not being a “holy,” “peculiar” people. They were instead constantly imitating the sins of the Gentiles, including those which seemed most abominable to the Jews. Many of the sins of Romans 1:18-32 are those for which the Israelites were rebuked by the prophets and chastened by God.
The distinction between the Gentiles and the Jews is not the key to understanding the structure of chapters 1 and 2. Three repeated concepts provide us with the key to understanding the structure of Romans 1:18-32. The terms are not always identical, but the concepts are the same. These three concepts are:
- God reveals something about Himself to men
- Man rejects this revelation
- God gives men over to their sin
Given this frame of reference, we can see the structure of Romans 1:18-32 unfolding:
- General statement: Divine revelation rejected by man — 1:18-23
- God gave men over to their natural lusts — 1:24-25
- God gave men over to unnatural lusts — 1:26-27
- God gave men over to their corrupt thinking — 1:28-32
The Flow of Paul’s Argument
15 Thus, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”
In verse 15, Paul expressed an eagerness to preach the gospel to those who lived in Rome. In verses 16 and following, he gives some of the reasons for his zeal. Verses 16 and 17 give the positive reasons for Paul’s boldness in proclaiming the gospel: men are saved, and God’s character is revealed. The gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (verse 16), and it reveals the “righteousness of God” (verse 17). Beginning at verse 18, Paul gives yet another reason why he is so eager to proclaim the gospel: all mankind are sinners, condemned by a righteous and just God, and under the sentence of death. The gospel is the only hope for condemned sinners.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 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. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
This paragraph is a general statement, describing the present wrath of God as the necessary response of a righteous God to man’s sin. The principle is stated in verse 18: God’s wrath is presently being revealed against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. All mankind is guilty before God and deserving of His wrath, because men are suppressing God’s truth by means of their own sin.
Verses 19-23 document the statement of Paul in verse 18 with some necessary proofs and explanation. God has made known to men that which could not otherwise be known about Him. God is invisible, and His attributes or characteristics can only be seen indirectly. This is achieved through God’s creation, through His intervention in human history, and through His revealed Word. This revealed knowledge of God is evident and undeniable (verse 19). Some have more knowledge than others, but there is a minimum amount of knowledge evident to all, and this is the knowledge of God revealed through God’s creation. This knowledge has always been available to man, since his creation was the final act of God’s work at creation (see Genesis 1 and 2). David spoke of the revelation of God through creation:
The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat (Psalm 19:1-6).
God is invisible, and thus His attributes can only be seen through the revelation of His world, His work in the world, or His Word (Psalm 19). His world clearly reveals God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). Because these truths are self-evident, man is without excuse. Man’s response to these truths about God is also self-evident. God’s character, as revealed in His creation, prompts men to honor Him and to give thanks to Him (1:21). This, men did not, and will not, do. As a result of man’s sin, the truth of God is perverted, and exchanged for that which is more suited to man’s liking. Thinking themselves to be wise, men foolishly exchanged “the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (1:21, 22). Man was made in God’s image, to reflect His glory. Instead, man bows down to his own glory, and then to the creatures over whom he was commanded to rule. The order God established at creation has thereby been turned upside-down.
Sin has many faces, and thus God’s wrath takes various forms. In Romans 1:24-32, Paul describes three manifestations of God’s present wrath, which are the result of man’s sin. There are various ways to understand the three paragraphs which follow (verses 24-25; 26-27; 28-32). One way is to see them as sequential, as a kind of downward spiral.63 This does not seem to be Paul’s intent.
I am inclined to see three different “ fallen conditions” to which God has “given men over,” as a manifestation of His present wrath. These three states of condemnation are not necessarily all the forms which God’s judgment takes, but a sampling of them. All three judgments share three things in common. First, each group has received some revelation about God. Second, each group has rejected that revelation, exchanging it for some perversion of that revelation. Finally, each group is given over to some form of sin, which the sinner desires and deserves, as a manifestation of God’s wrath. We will briefly consider each of these three conditions as described by Paul in verses 24-32.
Man Is Given Over to His Natural Desires (1:24-25)
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
The first manifestation of God’s present wrath is described in verses 24 and 25. Men have rejected the truth of God and exchanged it for a lie. They have chosen to worship the creature, rather than the Creator (verse 25). Because of their rejection of God’s revelation of Himself, God “gave them over” to their own natural, fleshly lusts. The result of this judgment is that men, by sinning in this way, dishonor their own bodies. Would men refuse to honor God? God gives men over to their own lusts so that they dishonor themselves. Would men honor themselves, by exchanging the glory of an “incorruptible God” for their own corruptible image and likeness (1:23)? God will give them over to sin, so that their image is dishonored. How men treat God, in God’s justice, becomes the standard for the way in which God allows men to treat themselves.
Man Is Given Over to Unnatural Desires (1:26-27)
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
Man perverts the revelation of God in nature. Man’s worship of God is perverted to the worship of nature, rather than of the God who created all. Is it any wonder that God would choose to turn men over to sin in such a way as to let men act in an unnatural way? And so, while some men are given over to their natural desires (normal sexual appetites and unions with the opposite sex), others, described in verses 26 and 27, are given over to unnatural, perverted desires (appetites and sexual unions with the same sex).64 The resulting defilement is represented by Paul as a divine judgment: “receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (verse 27).
Man Is Given Over to a Depraved Mind (1:28-32)
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, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
Sin involves both a man’s morals and his mind. What a man thinks and how he lives are very much interrelated. Rejecting the truth about God (mental) led to moral depravity. Immoral conduct also affects the mind—man’s ability to think straight. And so the rejection of God’s revelation has led, Paul writes, to “futile speculations” and a heart that is “darkened” (verse 21). When men reach the point that they refuse “to acknowledge God any longer,” they are given over “to a depraved mind” (verse 28), leading to the practice of those things which are improper. If men will not act properly toward God, based upon His self-revelation, then God will give men over so that they fail to act properly toward one another. Men now, by their conduct, not only defile and dishonor themselves, they are a plague to society. The outcome is a long list of sinful attitudes, dispositions, and practices, all of which are destructive. The sins range from those which we do not take too seriously (gossip, for example—see verse 30), to those which we consider abominable (murder, for instance—see verse 29).
In this passage, Paul deals with some very weighty topics. As I conclude, let me turn your attention to several important subjects. I shall seek to show how Paul’s teaching in our text contributes to each of these subjects. I shall also seek to suggest some ways in which Paul’s teaching impacts our lives.
The Attributes of God
As I have studied Romans, and this text in particular, there has been a growing sense of Paul’s emphasis on the attributes of God. We see in our text a clear reference to God’s attributes, which brings the subject to mind:
Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20, emphasis mine).
There is much more emphasis on God’s attributes in this text and in Romans than just a reference to them. The attributes of God are a dominant factor in Paul’s motivation, in his ministry, and in his message here. Let me begin by drawing your attention to some of the attributes65 of God to which Paul refers in Romans:
- Eternality — 1:20
- Power (omnipotence) — 1:20
- Divinity — 1:20
- Righteousness — 1:17, 18
- Wisdom and knowledge (omniscience) — 8:33ff.
- Impartiality — 2:11, etc.
- Mercy — 9-11; 12:1; 15:9
- Love — 5:8ff.; 8:35ff.
- Immutability — 11:29
- Sovereignty — 8:31ff.; 9-11
In Romans 1, the attributes of God play a significant role in God’s program, and in Paul’s life, ministry, and message. The gospel is not only the message by which men are saved, it is one means by which God’s character is displayed. Through the proclamation of the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed” (1:17). Because of this, Paul is eager to preach the gospel and bold in his proclamation of it (1:15-17). The judgment of God not only stems from His righteousness, but is an expression of it (1:18ff.).
It is apparent, I believe, that God has purposed to reveal Himself to men. He has done this universally (to all men) through His creation of the world. Through His creation God has revealed some of His invisible attributes, made visible through the work of His hands. Among these attributes are His “eternal power and divine nature” (1:20). He has also revealed Himself through His Word. His Word includes the Law, given through Moses, the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures, the “Living Word,” the “Word made flesh”—Jesus Christ, and the New Testament Scriptures.
The revelation of God’s attributes to men has several purposes, as I understand Paul here, and as I look at the Scriptures as a whole. First, the revelation of God’s attributes enables men to know God. The invisible God is made known to men by the revelation of His attributes to men. Thus, Paul can say of those who are able to behold His creation that they “knew God” (1:21). He can further say that because they knew God, they are “without excuse” because His attributes were “clearly seen” (1:20).
Furthermore, the attributes of God instruct men as to how they should respond to God. God’s creation was not made with “messages” attached to the trees or strategically placed around the world like traffic signs and bulletin boards. Men do not walk in the woods and find a sign fixed to a tree, reading, “Worship God” or “Praise the Lord.” Why not? How does God expect men to worship, praise, and honor Him, if He has not specifically instructed them to do so? Because, I believe, the attributes of God make man’s proper response to God self-evident. If God is divine, and we are human, should we not honor and serve Him? If He is incorruptible and we are corruptible, should we not worship Him, rather than that which is corruptible? If God is eternal and all-powerful, should men not bow down to Him? The attributes of God show His perfection and our imperfection; His power and our weakness; His holiness and our sinfulness. The attributes of God inform us that He is the Lord, and that He alone should be worshipped and served.
God’s attributes, then, are the basis and the standard for our behavior:
But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY” (1 Peter 1:15-16, citing Leviticus 11:44, etc.).
Without ever being told, men understand that God’s character has very direct implications for their conduct. Time after time I have observed that men who have just been cursing and telling dirty stories suddenly change their behavior when I come on the scene, known to them as a preacher. Who told these men that God is holy and is displeased with ungodly behavior? Indeed, why do we refer to sin as ungodly? We know that God’s character brings with it certain obligations regarding our conduct.
This is why God gave the Israelites the Law. God gave Israel His Law, but not merely as a list of do’s and don’ts. God’s Law was a definition of God’s holiness and of the holiness which He required of His people, who were set apart to manifest His character to men. God revealed His attributes, His character, to Israel in His dealing with them and with the Egyptians when He brought them out of their bondage. He revealed who He was, and then He gave them the Law, so that they might know what holiness looked like, what form it would take in their daily lives. The Law was a definition, a description of the holiness which Israel must preserve and practice if they were to reflect the God who had made them His people. The character of God is the standard for the conduct of those who call upon His name, and who have been called to reflect His character in a fallen and sinful world.66 God’s commands were rooted in His character, just as our conduct must be. While His attributes do not reveal His standards in nearly as much detail, they do reveal God’s standards in general terms. And for rejecting and violating these standards, men are judged as sinners.
It is assumed here that acknowledging the existence of “God” brings with it the commitment to submit, to serve, and to worship Him. To do otherwise is a most serious offense. The attributes or character of “God” determine the nature of our worship and service. False “gods” or “idols” are “gods of our own making.” Rather than serving the God who fashioned us with His hands, we create a “god made by our hands.” The character of this “god” sets the standard for our conduct. For good or bad, we imitate the God whom we acknowledge and serve. It is little wonder that men wish to remake God, to reshape and redefine Him so as to diminish His holiness and thus to lower the standards for our own life. Heathen religion goes so far as to make its “gods” immoral, so that they can imitate this immorality. They can thereby carry out their sinful desires as though it were an act of worship. The heathen fertility gods gave the pagans good reason to want to “go to church.” Fallen men therefore want to redefine God, to reject His attributes and to exchange them for less noble ones. And in so doing, they bring upon themselves the wrath of God. How often the “God” who is preached by the liberal preachers of our day is a redefined “God,” a “God” of our liking, and not the God of the Bible. The ultimate step is to deny God altogether, and thus to throw off any standard for our conduct altogether.
In Romans, the attributes of God are referred to as the means of knowing God, as the motivation for our worship and service, and as the standard for our conduct. In Romans 1 Paul will use the attributes of God as the standard by which God judges men and by which sin is defined. To fail to live in accordance with God’s character (as defined by His attributes) is sin. This leads to our next subject.
The Sinfulness of Man
The attributes of God are fundamental, because they set the standard by which sin can be defined. In Romans 2, Paul will define sin in more precise terms, as man’s disobedience to the commandments of God (at least so far as the Jews are concerned). But in Romans 1 sin is defined much more broadly: sin is practice which does not conform to the attributes of God. Sin is believing and behaving in contradiction to the character of God. Given this definition, we can understand how Paul can write, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
God is a God of glory. Men, to be like God, must conform to His glory. But we fall far short of His glory. And thus we are sinners. The Law reveals God’s character, as well as the character and conduct which men must have to manifest His attributes to men. When we fail to live up to all that God is, we sin.
Sin, according to Paul in Romans 1, is failing to live in a way that is consistent with the character of God. Though God is invisible, His attributes are visible and clearly seen. The attributes of God are revealed in nature and in His Word. We cannot claim ignorance of this knowledge, though we may reject or distort it. According to our text, sin is …
- universal (all men are condemned as sinners)
- inexcusable (all men have received and rejected God’s revelation)
- incurable (we cannot save ourselves—apart from God’s grace and intervention, we are lost)
Man’s sin may wear a cloak of scholarship and wisdom, but it is really folly. Those who reject God’s revelation think themselves to be wise, but they are really fools. We should therefore look for sin in the academic and scholarly circles and not just in the slums and the gutters.
All sin is a perversion. Some may reject the knowledge of God altogether, but even these men, by their conduct, reveal their perversion. Unbelieving man’s belief and behavior is a perversion of all that God meant men to be and to do. While homosexuality is specifically mentioned in our text, it is but one of many forms of perversion. Many, who are not homosexuals, would like to think of this sinful behavior as the only form of perversion. Our text indicates that all sin is a perversion of that which God is, and of that which God created us to be.
Finally, I believe that Paul teaches here that sin is both a cause and an effect. Sin is both the cause of God’s wrath and a manifestation of His wrath. Simply put, sin brings God’s judgment, and sin is God’s judgment. We shall explore this further in our final subject.
The Wrath of God
The primary topic of our passage is the wrath of God, God’s righteous indignation occasioned by sin and expressed in divine judgment. God’s righteousness (one of His attributes) requires His judgment upon sin. God is holy, and in His holiness and justice, He must deal with sin accordingly. If I understand our text correctly, not only does God’s wrath respond to man’s sin, but it corresponds to his sin. There is a kind of poetic justice or irony to God’s judgment. When men pervert God’s revelation, God turns them over to various perversions. When men reject the revelation of God in nature, He turns them over to that which is not natural. When men do not honor God, He turns them over to sin which dishonors them.
God’s wrath, according to Paul’s teaching, is both present (1:18-32) and future (2:1ff.). In addition to the factor of God’s timing in judgment, there are several other clear distinctions between God’s present wrath and His coming wrath:
(1) While God’s present wrath is largely passive, His future wrath is active.
(2) God’s present wrath allows sin to increase; God’s future wrath will put an end to sin, causing it to cease.
(3) God’s present wrath is often not recognized as such, and Christians must believe it by faith; His future wrath cannot be missed.
(4) God’s present wrath is reversible; His future wrath is not.
Strange as it may seem, God’s present wrath punishes men by giving them what they want. God’s present wrath gives men more rope, so to speak, allowing them to plunge more deeply into sin.67 This may seem to be wrong, but a little thought will explain why God deals with sin this way. I am reminded of the parable of “the wheat and the tares” in Matthew 13. The evil one comes, sowing tares among the wheat which has already been sown. The workers notify their master, who tells them to let both grow up together, and when they have matured, both the wheat and the tares will be evident, so that the tares may be pulled up and burned.
So too with sin. God allows sin to increase, to the point where it becomes more visible. When sin is seen for what it is, men may, in the providence and grace of God, desire to be delivered from it. It is those who have drunk most deeply from the cup of sin who may be ready to give it up, who are sickened by it and who want to be forgiven and delivered. The prodigal son was allowed by his father to plunge deeply into sin, and it was in the pig pen that this son “came to himself,” repented, and returned to his father.
God’s present wrath is really a gracious gesture on God’s part. It is not permanent, and it is not irreversible. When God gives men over to sin, He is not giving up on men. Giving men over to sin is God’s way of encouraging men to forsake their sin and to be saved. While God’s future wrath, once in force, cannot be reversed or escaped, God’s present wrath can be reversed, and men can escape. The reason for this is that God has already poured out His “future wrath” on Jesus Christ. This is the good news of the gospel. God’s anger toward sin has been satisfied in Christ because His wrath was poured out on Him, at Calvary. Have you accepted God’s forgiveness in Christ? Those who have trusted in Christ have already been punished, in Him. No man needs to suffer God’s eternal wrath, for Christ has suffered it for us. But only those who trust in Him may share in God’s salvation through Him. God’s future wrath falls only on those who reject the suffering of Jesus Christ, bearing God’s wrath, in their place. How tragic!
Men have chosen to reject God, they refuse to acknowledge Him, and they desire to live their lives without Him. In the Great Tribulation, God will give men their desire in even greater measure (see 2 Thessalonians 2). The God who “holds all things together” (Colossians 1:17) will remove His hand, and all of the universe will become chaotic. Men will not know if the sun will rise or if the planets will collide (see Matthew 24:29). It will be a frightening day when God gives men what they want. But this time of tribulation will be God’s instrument of turning men and women to Himself in faith and in repentance.
Those who do not see sin as a judgment will have difficulty understanding how God can allow men to fall more deeply into sin. But sin is a judgment. Sin is not a reward, but a curse. And thus to allow men to drink more deeply from the cup of sin is a judgment.
Christians need to get their thinking straight here. Sin is not a blessing, but a curse. We dare not envy the sinner, as though they are enjoying that which is good. We dare not think of God as holding back something good from us by prohibiting sin. This is like Adam and Eve thinking that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was really “good,” when it was something to be avoided. Hell is that place where God will give men an eternity to wallow in the sins which they desired, as though they were a delight. Heaven is the place where saints will eternally practice that which is good and perfect and a delight to the righteous. In heaven we will be occupied with the eternal joy of worshipping and praising God and serving Him (just as men should be doing now, but which sinners refuse to do). We can experience some of heaven now by occupying ourselves with these very things, even as God’s Word challenges and instructs us (see Romans 1:21).
God not only reveals His wrath by giving the unbelieving men what they want; He sometimes chastens Christians by giving them what they want, out of their lusts and sinful desires. Paul does not tell us that God only reveals His wrath presently on the unbelieving, but rather that He is presently revealing His wrath toward “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). I believe Paul includes the sins of all men, both saved and unsaved, in this statement. A God who is righteous takes all sin seriously, including the sins of His people:
They quickly forgot His works; They did not wait for His counsel, But craved intensely in the wilderness, And tempted God in the desert. So He gave them their request, But sent leanness into their soul (Psalm 106:13-15, following the marginal reading of the NASB at verse 15).
There are times when our desires are not godly desires, but simply fleshly lusts. We may deceive ourselves about these, thinking that they are from God. We may persist in praying that God give them to us. And He might just do just that. But it is sometimes the discipline of God and not a blessing. It may be that God is allowing us to have our fill of some desire, only to see how empty it really was. God may give us what we desire, in order to change our desires.
Finally, the wrath of God should be a motivating truth. It should be a fearful reality, a deterrent to sin. It should be, for the unsaved, a motivation to turn in faith to God for salvation. It should also be, for the Christian, a great source of encouragement and hope. We who pray for the coming of His kingdom, so that God’s will might be done on earth, as it is in heaven, should find comfort and joy in the wrath of God, which will not only punish sin, but which will remove sin, once and for all, from the earth. What a day that will be!
A Word to Parents
About the Wrath of God
I believe that Paul’s teaching on the present wrath of God has several implications for parents. Letting men have their way is giving men over to their sin and is a divine judgment. Those who are given over to sin are those who know the truth, but reject it. I believe that there are times when the parents of older children must give them over to sin, much like the father of the prodigal son did (see Luke 15). I do not think that we should remove restraint from young children. How often I see parents letting their children have their way, deceiving themselves that this is an expression of love. We must, as parents, reflect the righteousness of God. We must hate sin and must punish the sinner. Letting our children have their own way is a clear disobedience to God’s Word.
There is another way in which this passage speaks to parents. It speaks, I believe, to those parents who have lost an infant through death.68 It speaks, as well perhaps, to those who grieve (rightly) over the murder of millions of unborn children, through abortion.
If I understand Romans 1-3 correctly, every person who falls under divine condemnation, who falls under the wrath of God, has received some specific, clear, undeniable revelation about God, which they have refused and rejected. I understand the Bible to imply that those (unborn, infants, mentally incapacitated) who have not received any revelation about God, and who have not therefore rejected Him, are not under the wrath of God. I believe, on the basis of statements like those of David in 2 Samuel 12:23, that we will see our infants in heaven. I believe, on the basis of Romans 5, that the death of Christ reverses the curse which Adam’s sin brought on mankind. And since no one will be condemned to hell because of Adam’s sin, infants will go to heaven because of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection. Only those who have received clear revelation about God and who have rejected it will suffer the eternal wrath of God.
61 The contrast between God’s present wrath and His future wrath is even more striking than it first appears. From the standpoint of our experience, God’s “present wrath” takes place in the present time, and God’s “future wrath” is yet to come upon sinners. But in verses 18-32, Paul speaks of the “giving over” of men to sin as a past act, “God gave them over,” rather than as a present “giving over.” I am not entirely certain of all that Paul meant by this. It may be that he is speaking of this judgment from the standpoint of God’s eternal plan, in a way that might be similar to the purposes and plans of God for our salvation, described in Romans 8:28-30.
63 If there is a downward progression evident in these verses, it is this: men move from a correct knowledge of God (1:19), which they distort and pervert, to a state of mind in which they do not even acknowledge God at all (1:28).
64 It is hard to overlook the fact that women are first mentioned as having departed from natural sexual desires and practices, and then men. Is Paul suggesting by this that God’s natural order of leadership is also overturned?
65 For further study of the attributes of God, I recommend: Arthur Pink, The Attributes of God (Baker Book House, 1975); J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Inter-Varsity Press, 1973); and Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971).
66 This truth has a great deal of bearing on the current “Lordship Salvation” debate. Lordship salvation (I do not care for this label) is not about man’s commitment, at the time of his salvation, nor about the faithfulness and obedience of the one who is calling upon God for salvation. Lordship salvation, in my opinion, should focus on the Lordship of the God on whom we call for salvation. We have focused on the wrong thing. Men should not focus on themselves, on the amount or the quality of their faith, or on the kind of life that they will lead as Christians (though these are matters to consider). The real issue should be this: What is the nature of the God on whom I am calling for salvation? How big is the God to whom I am looking for salvation? If He is not Lord, the sovereign God of the universe, then why do I think He can save me? And if He is all that His attributes declare Him to be, how could I possibly expect Him to save me, and to serve me, when He is the Lord whom I should serve? Let us focus more on the God who is Lord, than on the men who call upon Him. Who He is is what matters most.