The Wrath of God
Text: Romans 1:18
We will never be able to understand the love of God until we grasp the significance of God’s holy hatred against sin (Hebrews 1:9). We will likewise never grasp the Biblical understanding of God’s grace until we know the full import of God’s Law. Forgiveness can never be appreciated until we come to know the penalty of the broken law. God hates sin because sin carries in it a hatred of God. PECCATUM EST DEICIDIUM is the Latin phrase used by Thomas Goodwin to express the intense hatred sin has for God, “he that hateth God may be said to be a murderer of him, and wisheth that he were not.”[i] As John Gerstner has written: “The ultimate rationale and necessity for the wrath of God is the nature of God, especially his holiness (though all his attributes are involved). An infinitely holy God simply must infinitely destroy opposition. There is no other way that the law of God can be fulfilled. Also, God has sworn that He will be revenged, and He has given evidence that He will do it. Most of all, when the grace of the gospel itself is spurned it is necessarily turned into a wrath most terrible.”[ii]
There is a present, as well as a future; manifestation of God’s wrath, and the present unveiling of God’s wrath is the theme of this passage of the epistle (cf. Psalm 7:11—“God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.”). In Acts 20:27 the Apostle Paul declared that in the course of his ministry in Ephesus he had not hesitated to proclaim the whole counsel of God. No doubt that included the themes of God’s wrath and judgment—and the passage before us unfolds these biblical truths in vivid detail. Speaking of this section of Romans, the noted Lutheran preacher, Walter Luthi, announced that Paul tells us the truth and nothing but the truth about our condition.[iii] Today, however, we rarely hear much about sin, wrath and God’s judgment. Evangelicals who have been taken captive by the market-driven model of church growth (seeker-sensitive and user friendly) avoid such things like the plague. The heretical gospel of self-esteem has likewise caused many to become mute on these critical subjects. Sooner or later, however, we all come face-to-face with the brute fact of sin—not only the sin that is so obvious in the world around us, but the sin that is in us. The late Martin Lloyd-Jones once said, “I know of no passage in the Scripture which describes so accurately the world of today and the cause of the trouble.”[iv]
I. The Revelation of God’s Wrath: The Apostle has stated the theme of the epistle in 1:16-17. He is now ready to launch into a detailed exposition of the gospel—particularly as it centers on justification by faith alone (3:20-5:11)—but in developing this, he must first address the biblical teaching on sin and God’s wrath. We will never understand and appreciate God’s grace and love until we come face to face with a biblical understanding of God’s holiness and hatred for sin.
A. The Wrath of God Defined: God’s wrath is not like man’s. “As in the case of grace, so God’s work, even in wrath, is free of caprice, and the constancy of God’s will is not impaired by exceptions. This transforms faith into assurance of salvation and godlessness and unrighteousness into the equally certain assurance of calamity.”[v] His is a divine and holy wrath (Habakkuk 1:13). It is because we have cloaked God’s holiness in a distorted and sentimental concept of love that the very mention of God’s wrath strikes us as being out of character. We need to heed the words of David F. Wells: “When holiness slips from sight, so, too, does the centrality of Christ. A God who is not holy cannot deal with the great darkness of corrupted human life, the darker forces behind it, and the whole societal fabric in which this rebellion has become normative (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10). He can scarcely comprehend the damnation that has already settled subliminally on the human psyche, and he is even less able to do anything about it. The best he can hope to do is offer counsel like a Rogerian therapist, listening carefully but non-judgmentally, necessarily detached in his kindness from the deepest pains, the most destructive realities of our lives.”[vi] The wrath of God is just and perfect because God is just and perfect (Lamentations 1:18). The Scriptures give abundant testimony to the reality of God’s wrath (cf. Psalm 2:1-5; 76:6-9; 90:7, 11; Isaiah 9:19; Jeremiah 7:20; Ezekiel 7:19; John 3:36; Romans 9:22; Ephesians 5:6; II Thessalonians 1:7-9—these are only a few select texts. There are many others. In fact, there are over six hundred references in the Bible to God’s anger, wrath and judgment).
B. The Time of God’s Wrath: Verse 18 begins with a “for” linking it directly with the preceding verse. What is the connection with wrath as stated in verse 18 and righteousness that concludes verse 17? “There is a revelation of righteousness by the gospel because there is a revelation of wrath on the whole world.”[vii] This wrath is constantly being revealed (as the present tense indicates). In other words, there is an on-going manifestation or uncovering of God’s anger against sin. There is a future aspect to God’s wrath (Romans 2:5), but the immediate context is concerned with the present manifestation of God’s wrath. This revelation of divine wrath does not simply refer to the bad consequences that are the outcome of bad behavior, nor does this merely refer to the experience of guilt that people suffer. Paul will unfold the nature of God’s wrath further in 1:24-32. Three times he will use the expression, “God gave them up,” (verses 24, 26, 28) in the sense of a divine judicial act. As we will see, this judicial infliction is penal and visible.
II. The Source of God’s Wrath: “Righteousness,” declares E. H. Gifford, “is revealed in the Gospel; wrath is revealed ‘from heaven,’ because there ‘the Lord hath prepared his throne’ (Psalm 9:7; 11:4), and thence ‘His judgments go forth as the lightning’ (Hosea 6:5).”[viii] The expression from heaven may be taken as the equivalent of the throne of God (cf. Luke 15:7, 10). Even though the Scriptures tell us over and over again about the wrath of God, people still have a difficult time accepting it. “The wrath of God also appears strange because it has no parallel in this world. It seems unreal because it does not exist here, though it is designed for those who do. Furthermore, it is to a great degree unknown in this world. People do not often hear of it and do not believe it when they do. It is also inconceivable in this present world. In fact, if men in this world ever saw the wrath of God poured out in its fullness, they probably would die at the sight.”[ix]
III. The Object of God’s Wrath: God is not some super amazing cosmic computer who simply runs the universe according to set physical laws—and His wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Note the word order; ungodliness precedes unrighteousness. This expresses the Biblical truth that immorality springs from perversity that is religious. “In the apostle’s description of the degeneracy impiety is the precursor of immorality.”[x] Note how this is reflected in the Ten Commandments. The first four commands have to do with God—the rest with our relationship to humanity.
IV. The Extent and Cause of God’s Wrath: God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. “The word all denotes two thing: the one is, that the wrath of God extends to the entire mass of ungodliness and unrighteousness, which reigns among men, without excepting the least part; the other is, that ungodliness and unrighteousness had arrived at their height, and reigned among the Gentiles with such undisturbed supremacy, that there remained no soundness among them.”[xi] Note how Paul declares that this behavior is intentional and deliberate—men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. The word translated suppress in the NIV Bible is KATECHO. It means to hold down, to restrain or suppress firmly (cf. II Thessalonians 2:6-7). It clearly implies that sinful humanity has some knowledge of the truth but is constantly seeking to suppress it (cf. John 3:19-20).
Conclusion: We tend to minimize our sins by calling them bad habits or faults or slips, mistakes, etc. As a result, we tend not to take sin seriously—and naturally we think God shouldn’t either. But He does take sin seriously. Listen to the advice of old J. C. Ryle: “Sit down, and take pen and paper, and count up the sins that you have probably sinned since you first knew good from evil. Sit down, I say, and make a sum. Grant for a moment that there have been on an average, fifteen hours in every twenty-four during which you have been awake, and an active and accountable being. Grant for a moment that in each one of these fifteen hours you have sinned only two sins. Surely you will not say that this is an unfair supposition. Remember we may sin against God in thought, word, or deed. I repeat, it cannot be thought an extreme thing to suppose that in each waking hour of your life you have, in thought, or word, or deed, sinned two sins. And now add up the sins of your life, and see to what sum they will amount.”[xii] Seeing the seriousness of our sin is the first step in understanding the wrath of God and, in turn, seeing the central importance of the cross of Christ. God’s wrath is seen throughout the Bible. In the Garden of Eden, God judged the sin of Adam (Genesis 3:14-19). In the flood, God again acted in judgment on the sin of man (Genesis 6:5-17). God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness (Genesis 18:20-19:29). The Law pronounces a divine curse on all who transgress (Galatians 3:10).
The book of Revelation is from beginning to end, a record of God’s wrath. Supremely, God’s judgment and wrath against sin is depicted in the suffering of Christ’s cross (Galatians 3:13; Romans 3:21-26). “We seldom conceive of the greatness of injuries, as they are in themselves committed; so we are apt to slight them; but we do measure them best by the anger and the wrath they beget in the party wronged (if he be not partial in his own cause), and by the furious expressions of his wrath returned back again upon the offense. So whilst we view sin in its direct and proper notion, and that it is an injury against the great God, so we should never have seen the full vileness of it; for as God is in himself invisible, so is the evil of sin; and as Christ is the liveliest image of the invisible God, so are his debasement and his sufferings the truest glass to behold the ugliness of sin in, and the utmost representation to make us sensible of it. The throwing down the angels out of heaven, the cursing the earth and all Adam’s posterity for Adam’s sin, the drowning the old world, the overturning Sodom, and the fire unquenchable which burns to the bottom of hell; these were such considerations as make us stand amazed and cry out, Oh, what is sin, that thou dost so remember it, or the sinfulness of it, that thou dost punish it in the destruction of the best creatures thy hands have made! But all these tragedies are but as lighter skirmishes, and but shows of justice and wrath, in comparison of the death and sufferings of his Son.”[xiii]
[i] The Works of Thomas Goodwin IV (rpt. Tanski, 1996), p. 156. Sin, says the Puritan Ralph Venning, “goes about to ungod God, and is by some of the ancients DEICIDIUM, God-murder or God-killing, The Plaque of Plaques (rpt. The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), p. 30.
[ii] J. Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards II (Berea, 1992), p. 52.
[iii] W. Luthi, The Letter to the Romans: An Exposition trans. by K. Shoenenberger (Knox, 1961), p. 19.
[iv] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Plight of Man and the Power of God (Zondervan, 1977), p. 15.
[v] Adolf Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God (rpt. Hendrickson, 1995), p. 30.
[vi] D. F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 143.
[vii] F. Godet, Commentary On the Epistle to the Romans (rpt. Zondervan, 1970), p. 164.
[viii] E. H. Gifford, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (rpt. James Family, 1977), p. 62.
[ix] Gerstner, op. cit.
[x] J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1968), p. 36.
[xi] Robert Haldane, An Exposition of Romans (rpt. MacDonald, N.D.), p. 56.
[xii] J. C. Ryle, Old Paths: Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity (rpt. James Clark, 1972), p. 153.
[xiii] The Works of Thomas Goodwin V, p. 287.
Sinners in the Hands of Angry God is considered the most famous sermon ever preached in American history. Jonathan Edwards delivered this message on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut. Many who heard it trembled and cried out for mercy. Others fainted. Five hundred people were converted that day.
Introduction by R.C. Sproul.
Your foot shall slip in due time.
God does not lack the power to throw wicked people into hell.
The purpose of this terrifying subject is to wake up the unconverted.
It is the wrath of the infinite God.
How dreadful is the state of those who are in danger.
When Max McLean, founder of Fellowship for the Performing Arts preached this sermon to 5000 attendees of a Ligonier Conference, the silence in the audience was deafening. Mr. McLean is also the narrator of the English Standard Version of the Bible and does a variety of live stage, conference and seminary performances.
Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and He stands crying out to all to accept His call. Jonathan Edwards presents a clear picture of the predicament of every sinner and lukewarm Christian. Through his words, you can discover much about what it means to follow God. Edwards shows how you can know you have God’s favor, avoid the tricks of the Devil, understand more about what sin really is, be an intercessor, and find your reward in heaven. With compelling words and imagery, Edwards describes the shaky position of those who do not follow Christ and God’s urgent call to receive His love and forgiveness today.