Romans 1: 18 - 20
The wrath of God is truly a forgotten doctrine, even in the evangelical church. I’ll dare say that many of you have never heard a sermon on God’s wrath. The reasons for this apparent neglect are not hard to find. Most of us would rather hear about love and grace. I know I would rather preach about God’s grace. After all, to speak of the wrath of God makes us appear narrow-minded, judgmental, and God help us, fundamentalist. In an enlightened community, those aren’t popular words. Also, God’s wrath is difficult to comprehend, so in some ways, this is a doctrine that is easy to overlook. The thought that nice people we know might someday go to eternal hell is so overwhelming - and so disheartening - that we’d much rather not think about it at all.
No Need to Apologise
Christians feel as if they have to apologise for this doctrine. Some think it a blemish on God’s character. Others think that God’s wrath is inconsistent with his love. There is no need to apologise for God’s Word so long as it is fairly and graciously presented. I intend to be both fair and gracious in what I have to say.
The Bible is filled with warnings about God’s wrath and eternal judgment. I would not be a faithful pastor if I did not deal with this. God has made no secret of his wrath, and neither should we.
1. The Meaning of God’s Wrath
Let’s begin with a simple definition of wrath as one of God’s attributes. When we use the word wrath we tend to think of uncontrolled anger. While that may be human wrath, it is far from the truth about God’s wrath. Here’s a working definition: God’s wrath is his settled hostility toward sin in all its various manifestations. To say it is “settled” hostility means that God’s holiness cannot and will not coexist with sin in any form whatsoever. God’s wrath is his holy hatred of all that is unholy. It is his righteous indignation at everything that is unrighteous.
Please note these distinctions. God’s wrath is not…Uncontrollable rage - Vindictive bitterness - God losing his temper. The Bible says that God is “slow to anger” (Neh. 9:17; Psalm 103:8). God never “loses his temper” the way we do. Wrath is God’s “natural” response to sin in the universe. He cannot overlook it, he cannot wink at it, he cannot pretend it is not there.
Wrath is what happens when holiness meets sin!
Wrath is what happens when justice meets rebellion!
Wrath is what happens when righteousness meets unrighteousness!
Wrath is what happens when perfect good meets pure evil!
As long as God is God, he cannot overlook sin. As long as God is God, he cannot stand by indifferently while his creation is destroyed. As long as God is God, he cannot dismiss lightly those who trample his holy will. As long as God is God, he cannot wink when men mock his name. With that as background we now turn to the clearest passage in the Bible on God’s wrath - Romans 1.
2. The Revelation of God’s Wrath v. 18
This passage pronounces God’s judgment on the whole human race. It comes in response to man’s rejection. The truth is - we’ve got the problem - not God. First man rebels and then God responds with his wrath.
Simple Progression -
Men by nature suppress the truth about God.
That suppression leads to ungodliness.
Ungodliness leads on to wickedness.
That wickedness leads to every kind of evil and violence.
The upshot is that Paul is teaching that moral perversion comes from perversion in faith. To say it another way, apostasy in doctrine leads eventually to apostasy in lifestyle. What you believe is how you live. Once you decide to turn your back on God, the end result is a river of wickedness flowing out of your life. The only thing damming that river is the constraint of your own conscience or the constraint of circumstances. Left to himself man always turns to wickedness.
Notice how it happens: First men reject the truth about God, then they turn away from God, then they turn to immorality. The shocking truth is that this goes on all the time. Every baby born into this world comes with a disposition that turns him away from the truth. Each man, each woman, the educated and the illiterate alike, all by nature suppress the truth about God. Left to your own devices, you will always turn to wickedness.
That’s why “suppress” is in the present tense. Men by nature always and in every case suppress the truth about God. That’s how you can have mass murderers who used to attend Sunday School and prostitutes who once sang in the church choir. This is true in every generation and every culture. It ultimately includes every individual on earth. All of us suppress the truth about God. All of us when left to ourselves will turn to wickedness.
3. The Result of God’s Wrath v. 21 - 23
Downward progression as men come under God’s wrath. What starts with indifference ends in total moral corruption.
Stage 1: Indifference to God v. 21a
Truth demands a response, and the truth about God demands that we the creatures glorify him as the great Creator. When we don’t, we fail in the great purpose for which we were created.
Stage 2: Moral Blindness v. 21b, 22
The first step - summed up in the word “neglect” - second step -called “speculation.” As men become indifferent to known truth, they begin to actively search for alternative explanations. Paul draws a vivid picture of the result: “Their thinking became futile.” This refers to the mental processes of those who turned away from God. Their ability to look at the world around them and to draw accurate conclusions about it, became futile.
Strange picture of men - having rejected the truth, desperately search for anything to replace it. They flit from idea to idea, from hypothesis to hypothesis, from theory to theory. These are men who could not stop thinking about God, but the more they thought, the more wrong their conclusions became. They couldn’t stop thinking and they couldn’t get it right.
Stage 3: Loss of God v. 23a
Note the progression: Neglect leads to speculation which leads to moral blindness which now climaxes with a total loss of God. This is what God thinks of the great philosophers of Greece and Rome. In God’s eyes they were fools because their philosophy was based on a rejection of God’s truth. That’s what God thinks of the world’s intellectuals. Although possessing great intelligence, they are moral and spiritual pygmies.
Have you ever ridden a see-saw? It works on a very simple principle: If one person is up, the other person must be down. Both people can’t be up at the same time. It’s the same in the spiritual realm. If God is up, then man is down. If man is up, then God is down. Both can’t be up at the same time. When God is up in his rightful place, man will be down in his rightful place. But when the roles are reversed reality itself is distorted.
Stage 4: Idolatry v. 23b
Because man is incurably religious, if he will not worship God, he will find (or make) something to worship. When man turns away from God, he creates an “image” to worship. Don’t miss this. When you turn away from God, you always turn to something else. No man lives in a vacuum. You either worship God or replace him with a god of your own making! Men swap God for idols.
A. God Gave Them Up v. 24 - 28
“God abandoned them.” J. B. Phillips - “They gave up God. So God gave them up.” It is a very strong word, meaning that act of God whereby he hands over the human race for judgment because of their sins. “When men lose God, they always lose themselves.” It’s as if God has said, “All right. If you want to turn away from me, I’ll let you go. I won’t try to stop you. But you’ll have to face the consequences of your own actions.”
#1: Sexual Immorality v. 24, 25
#2: Widespread Homosexuality v. 26, 27
#3: Total Moral Depravity v. 28 – 32
B. The Final Step v. 32
We have now reached the bottom, and it is not a nice place to be. The bottom is where you are when evil becomes good and good becomes evil. The bottom is where you are when the wrongdoers are publicly praised while defenders of morality are mocked. The bottom is where you are when truth is on the scaffold and wrong is on the throne. Living Bible - “They were fully aware of God’s death penalty for these crimes, yet they went right ahead and did them anyway.” That, my friends, is the bottom - when evil is celebrated publicly!
At this point you have the total reversal of values in society. I do not think it unfair to say that we have essentially reached this point. It is argued that homosexuality is “normal,” churches are ordaining homosexuals and those who object are mercilessly condemned. No one knows the difference between right and wrong because the values of society have been turned upside down.
Let us understand something at this point. God’s judgment on sin is generally not of the fire and brimstone variety. That rarely happens. When God wants to judge a community or a nation, he simply lets sin take its natural course. If we insist on destroying ourselves, God says, “OK, go ahead and destroy yourselves. I won’t stop you.” He simply lets us go our merry way. The true judgment on the human race is that man has turned away from God and does not realise it.
What is the judgment of God when men turn away from him? God “gives them up” to their own devices. He lets them follow their own desires. He doesn’t try to stop their descent into the abyss. God “abandons” the human race by letting men reap what they sow. Nothing more terrible could ever be contemplated. When men “abandon” God in their thinking, God “abandons” them. Why? Because God respects the freedom of the human will. If a man or a woman decides to live without him, he says, “Fine. You can live without me. In the end, you’ll be sorry. But if that’s your decision, I’ll respect it.”
4. The Deliverance from God’s Wrath
I’m glad to tell you that I do have hope to share. It’s wrapped up in an important word you need to know: Propitiation. It’s used 6 times in the NT to describe the work of Christ on the cross. To propitiate means to “turn away wrath by offering a gift.” Pagan religions are built on the concept of propitiation, whereby a devotee brings a chicken, a goat, a lamb, or a plate of food and offers it to his god.
OT - High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year - on the Day of Atonement -bringing with him the blood of a bull. When he sprinkled the blood on the Mercy Seat—the lid of the Ark of the Covenant—that blood was accept by God as an “atonement” or a “covering” for the sin of the people.
NT picks up this idea of propitiation in 1 John 2: 2 “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” By the offering of himself, Jesus turned away God’s wrath forever.
Justice satisfied … the price paid … mercy available. What an awesome thought. God’s wrath is real, but so is his mercy. He satisfied his own wrath by offering his own Son on the cross. “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
Two Final Thoughts
1. Because Christ bore the full weight of God’s wrath, we now enjoy the full blessing of God’s mercy. If you are a Christian and you are living with a guilt complex because you think God hates you, how little you understand of the cross of Christ. The table of the Lord is God’s final proof that he is not angry at you. He loves you and is merciful towards you. His wrath has been turned away.
2. For those who reject Christ, there is nowhere else to turn. The gift of Christ is so great, his sacrifice so magnificent, his death so awesome in its benefits, that if you decide to go someplace else, what you will find is there is no place else to go. If you turn from the cross and go back into the world, or if you think you can do it on your own and save yourself, if you turn from Jesus Christ, you will discover there is no place else to go. There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.