How would you like it if someone committed a terrible crime against you, kidnapped one of your children, but was caught; he was put in jail, had his day in court, was found guilty by the jury, but then the judge said, “It would be inhuman of me to pass any sentence on this man. Judge not, lest you be judged, as Jesus said. Therefore, I will let this man go scot-free.” Would you respect such a judge? Let’s try a different analogy. Let’s say a young man and a young woman just got married. They are about to move into their house, when they find out that it is infested with mice, termites, roaches, and other vermin. The young man promises to get all these vermin exterminated, but never seems to get around to it. He thinks it is just fine for his new wife to live in such a house. Do any of us think that his love fore his wife may be somewhat less than he thinks it is? Let’s try a third analogy. Imagine that you are a British subject in the late 1930’s, and you have just heard that Hitler has invaded all of Czechoslovakia, and all of Austria, after promising that he would not. Your Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, keeps on saying that we must avoid war at all costs. But you know better. You know that Hitler is bent on world domination. What do you think of PM Chamberlain? Wouldn’t your respect for him go downhill fast? In all three of these examples, we have some kind of evil that needs to be answered, and in all three cases, the person who can do something about refuses to do so. This is wrong, is it not? We know in our heart of hearts that there needs to be justice done on the kidnapper, that there needs to be a vermin-free house if the wife is going to be happy, and that Adolf Hitler needs to be stopped. There is such a thing as righteous wrath. And yet, when it comes to God, all of a sudden we get cold feet in talking about His wrath. A great deal of modern Christianity would prefer never to talk about God’s wrath. “God is love,” we shout at the top of our lungs. That God would send anyone to Hell seems unthinkable to us. What Paul is telling us here, however, is just that: God’s wrath is always evident against unbelief, and He will continue to oppose sin forever. Our message then is about the wrath of God. What I hope to show is that rather than hate God for exercising His wrath, we should actually come to love God for showing His wrath.
The context here is very important for showing what Paul is saying. Particularly verse 17 is important, since there is a parallel there that we need to see. In verse 17, we see three elements: “in the gospel,” “righteousness of God,” and “revealed.” In verse 18, we see three parallel elements: “from heaven,” “the wrath of God,” and “revealed.” So in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. We saw last week that this righteousness is the gift of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain by faith alone. In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. But now, from heaven, the wrath of God is being revealed. What this tells us is that God’s love always has wrath as the flip side of it. Think about this for a moment, and it will make sense. How can God love us without hating our enemies? How can God love holiness and righteousness without hating wickedness? How can God love what is good without hating what is bad? The wrath of God should therefore make perfect sense to us, if we know God’s true character.
When it comes to wrath, however, we need to be careful to define it properly so that we do not get any wrong ideas about it. When we hear the word “wrath,” for instance, we tend to think of rage. We tend to think of a rage that is out of control and out of proportion. Neither is true of God. The wrath of God is His righteous opposition to all wickedness. And it is in perfect proportion, which is to say that God’s wrath is infinite, because any and all sin is infinitely heinous in the sight of God. So, there is no sin whatsoever in God’s holy wrath against sin.
Against whom is God’s wrath directed? Verse 18 tells us quite clearly. God’s wrath is directed against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice the terms here. Godlessness refers to people’s failure to worship God as they ought. Wickedness refers to their failure to love their neighbors as themselves. So God is angry against both vertical sin committed against God, and horizontal sin, committed against other humans. What is more, all their wickedness, both vertical and horizontal, is being used to suppress the truth about God. We need to mull this over for a moment. Sin suppresses truth. If people do not acknowledge God, or give Him thanks for their lives, it is because they are in the grip of sin. We must never think that natural man, in his fallen state, has the ability to think clearly about God. Natural man cannot do so. This is part of what we mean by total depravity. Sin corrupts every part of us, including our minds. Sin warps our thinking so that we get wrong ideas about God. We can see this even in our own lives as Christians. We are still quite capable of distorting God’s truth by our own sin. How many times do we rationalize sin? We do that because we do not want to stop sinning in that manner. So we justify our sin, even though we know that such sin is wrong. We try desperately to quiet that annoying conscience that keeps on pricking us, but we cannot quiet the conscience. The truth about good and evil is built into us. So, seeking to suppress it is a little like trying to press down on a powerful spring. The more you try to press it down, the more it pushes back against you.
What is this truth that Paul is talking about? It is the truth that God has revealed Himself as the all-powerful God in creation. Theologians call this general revelation. Now, general revelation does not tell us everything there is to know about God. We might get that idea from the passage, but we would be misinterpreting the passage if we did. Paul says “what may be known about God is plain to them.” Paul does not mean “everything that may be known about God.” Instead he means “what we can know about God from the creation.” This is clear from verse 20, where Paul says that the creation of the world demonstrates God’s invisible qualities, namely, His eternal power and divine nature. That is what has been revealed. Notice how oddly Paul phrases himself here. He says that God’s invisible attributes have been clearly seen. How can you see something that is invisible? The last part of verse 20 tells us: through what has been made. It is a bit like Jesus’ description of the Holy Spirit in John 3. The illustration He uses is the wind. You cannot see the wind. It is invisible, since it is only air that is moving. But you can see what it does. So also, God’s nature is evident in nature. Examples are innumerable, but I will only mention one. The earth is exactly the right distance from the sun and from the moon. Any closer, and we would burn up, although we seem to have come close to that this week! Any further, and we would freeze to death, although again, we often seem to come close to that as well! The earth is spinning just the right speed for life to work. The moon influences the tides of the ocean just correctly. Everything on earth is exactly perfect for life, and there is no room for error. The idea that all these things came about by chance is simply ludicrous.
The fact is that there are no real atheists. Everyone knows that there is a God, and they know He is all-powerful and that He hates sin. They know that there is a judgment coming, which is why they are frantically seeking anything and everything to quiet that noisy conscience. They are without excuse. Many people want to know about the poor, innocent African tribesman who has never heard about Jesus. Is it fair for God to throw such a person into Hell? Well, no it wouldn’t be fair for God to condemn someone who is innocent. If the man is innocent. But are there any innocent African tribesmen? Paul would say no. All are completely without excuse. But we might object at this point and say, “But they haven’t heard the gospel? How can they be judged for rejecting Jesus when they have never heard of Him.” The answer to this is that they will not be judged for rejecting Jesus. They will be judged for rejecting God. They know about God from creation and from their own conscience. Just because they haven’t heard the Gospel does not mean that they have an excuse. It is humanity’s fault, not God’s fault, that the level of information needed to render us without excuse (general revelation) is not as much information as what we need for salvation (special revelation). The fact that any people at all hear about Jesus is pure grace from God. God does not owe everyone or even anyone a hearing of the Gospel message. Before Adam and Eve fell into sin, the revelation of God in nature was all that they needed. That was enough information. They had what they needed to obey God completely. After the Fall, however, they needed special revelation from God. They needed the message of salvation if they were to be saved. God graciously provided that in the Bible that gradually unfolded until it came to a climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
But what was people’s reaction to this information in creation? They rejected it by their sin. Look at verses 21-23. They all know God, but they refuse to glorify God, and they refuse to give God thanks. This is why the poor African tribesman is without excuse. On the information that he has, he needs to glorify God as God and he needs to thank God for everything that he has. He cannot do that in his fallen state. Instead, their thinking becomes futile, their hearts are darkened. They became fools, even in the very process of claiming to be wise. And they make a very terrible exchange: they exchange the glory of God for anything to put in God’s place. What a reaction! They get rid of their greatest good in order to worship what is clearly not God. They make idols, in other words. We may not think that these temptations are ours today, but they most certainly are. We may not worship birds and animals and reptiles, but we certainly worship humans! We love to worship ourselves. And those who worship nature are also on the rise. The whole “Mother Nature” movement is an idolatry of creation. Which is more glorious: the creation or the one who creates it? Surely it is the Creator who deserves all praise and thanks!
Here, then, is the flow of Paul’s thought through the passage: the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all sin. The sin of humanity tries to the suppress the truth about God. But this truth is clearly revealed in creation in such a way that all are without excuse. But sin in the hearts of human beings will do everything to avoid that terrible truth of God’s wrath and judgment. Therefore they will worship anything and everyone before they will worship God. But their denial of the truth does not make the truth any less true, does it? The wrath of God is coming whether or not we acknowledge it or not. I remember a coyote-roadrunner cartoon where coyote was in a stationary railroad car, and a train was coming to smash the railroad car. He didn’t have time to do anything or get out of the railroad car. So he simply drew down the curtain so that he couldn’t see the train coming. Of course that didn’t stop the train from hitting the railroad car at full force. It was a feeble attempt to deny the truth. And that is what all attempts to deny God’s judgment are: feeble! God is coming to judge the living and the dead, and His wrath will be poured out against all evildoers!
So why should we love God for His wrath? What sense does that make? It makes sense to love God for His wrath because God has poured out His wrath on Jesus Christ in our place! Jesus Christ was called a fool. He became “foolish” in our place, as it were. It is very foolish to want to take on oneself the divine wrath. But Jesus wanted to do just that because of His love for us. You see, the good news of salvation doesn’t mean anything without the bad news that God’s wrath is directed towards us. In the good news, Jesus diverts God’s wrath from falling on us, so that it falls on Him instead. Going back to the coyote-roadrunner cartoon for a minute, it is as if we are coyote, waiting for the train to come and hit us, but before it can hit us, Jesus Christ comes and quickly builds a fork in the tracks (after all, anything is possible in the cartoon world, isn’t it?). He builds this fork and the train goes on the fork instead of hitting us. But Jesus does not get out of the way of the train, which then hits Him will all the force in the world. Can’t we see then, that the wrath of God is also in a sense God’s love? God cannot love us without hating our sin. And God wants to show us just how much He loves us by diverting His wrath from us so that it lands on Jesus Christ. And then, at last, we can come back to the one who is preparing a house for us. We wouldn’t want the new heavens and the new earth to have any blemish or sin or evil of any kind, would we? The wrath of God is so complete and total, that there will be no evil left. If God’s wrath were even slightly less powerful than it is, we might justly fear that there would be evil in the world that God is preparing. But be thankful that God’s wrath is so complete that all evil will be eradicated, and we will have no fear of evil ever again. So be thankful for the wrath of God. It is God’s holy anger against sin. And it is the flip-side of God’s love for us.
This has several implications for us beyond what we have already said. First of all, it has great importance for our evangelism. We may think that we should not start with the wrath of God in evangelism. However, if people don’t know that there is a problem, they will never flee to the solution, will they? How can people be saved if they don’t think that they need to be saved? Saved from what, after all? Paul starts his entire gospel of salvation by speaking about the wrath of God. We may not downplay or ignore what Paul has done here. And it is a good model for us to follow.
Secondly, whenever we sin, we are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This is just as possible for Christians to do, as for non-Christians. What are we suppressing? We are suppressing that voice of conscience that tells us that what we are doing is wrong. We need to listen to that voice of conscience.
Thirdly, we need to glorify God and give Him thanks. If we do not glorify God by worshiping Him, and if we do not thank Him, then we are worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. We are worshiping ourselves. We will become darkened in our thinking. We must not think that these things could not happen to us because we are Christians. Sin has all sorts of effects in our lives, far beyond what we even imagine. And it is very foolish indeed to underestimate sin’s power in the life of even a believer.
And fourthly, we need to see God in what He has made. Every little flower that opens, and every bird that sings. God has made them, every one, and He made their tiny wings. He is as evident in the petals of a flower as He is in the most powerful hurricane. God’s work is everywhere, and He is everywhere working! We need to see Him at work. God’s amazing love for us is demonstrated in that He rules every particle of this universe all for our benefit, so that we could have a beautiful world in which to live. Small thanks to God if we never worship Him, or are lax in our worship, or our thanks! Worship Him and give Him thanks, yes, even for His wrath!