The Angry God
Text: Romans 1:19-23
How are we to present the gospel? It is nothing less than astounding to hear how often the message of the cross is presented in terms of felt-needs and as a means to self-esteem.[i] This weakness in so much of contemporary preaching prompted the late Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones to administer the following rebuke: “Why is he [Paul] ready to preach the gospel in Rome or anywhere else? He does not say it is because he knows that many of them [the Romans] are living defeated lives and that he has got something to tell them that will give them victory. He does not say to them, ‘I want to come and preach the gospel to you in Rome because I have had a marvelous experience and I want to tell you about it, in order that you may have the same experience—because you can if you want it; it is there for you.’ This is not what Paul does…There is no mention here of any experience. He is not talking in terms of their happiness or some particular state of mind, or something that might appeal to them, as certain possibilities do—but this staggering, amazing thing, the wrath of God! And he puts it first; it is the thing he says at once.”[ii]
The Bible was not written to make us feel good about ourselves. On the contrary, it confronts us with very grim situations—we are sinners deserving and under the righteous wrath of a holy God. We should never seek to obscure this truth from people in our efforts to evangelize. “The Word of God,” wrote Gerhard Ebeling, “always comes as ADVERSARIUS NOSTER, our adversary. It does not simply confirm and strengthen us in what we think we are, and what we wish to be taken for…this is the way, the only way, in which the Word draws us into concord and peace with God.”[iii] God’s wrath is his response to sin, relational and illicit, in all its expressions. This is stated in a sweeping and emphatic fashion in Romans 1:18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men,” setting the tone for the lengthy treatment of the universal sway of sin that follows in Romans 1:18-3:20. In order to be clear on Paul’s understanding of sin, particularly its consequences, it is essential to be clear on his understanding of divine wrath or anger. Well over a century ago, George Smeaton wrote, “The question of divine wrath is at present the great point in debate on the subject of the atonement.”[iv] That observation continues true to the present, and nowhere more so than for the teaching of Paul.
Influential in the current debate has been the view of C. H. Dodd that Paul speaks of God’s wrath “not to describe the attitude of God to man, but to describe the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.” This reduces wrath to an impersonal process, “a purely immanent causal connection between guilt and retribution.”[v] If for no other reason, this view is deficient because it hardly does justice to Paul’s vigorously active language, “being revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18). Much more widespread are views being advanced by professing evangelicals. Typical is the notion that his wrath is “God’s allowing people to experience the intrinsic consequences of their refusal to live in relation with him.”[vi] According to another recent expression, God’s wrath, both present and future, is his “handing people over to experience the consequences of the sin they choose.”[vii]
Clark Pinnock, the leading spokesman for this kind of evangelicalism speaks of sin as primarily refusing God’s love and since love defines God then “wrath” is God manifesting Himself as a spurned lover who seeks to over come human sin by demonstrating His love through His wrath![viii] More seriously is the view being promoted by N. T. Wright who defines justification as the badge of covenant membership. The whole coherency of justification as meeting the problem of the wrath of God against sin, and therefore as being absolutely grounded in the substitutionary atonement by Christ which diverts that wrath from us, is lost or obscured in the membership interpretation. These things may not yet be denied by Wright, but there is no intrinsic connection between them and justification.[ix] Now it is certainly true that sin has consequences, expressed, for instance, in Romans 1:24, 26-31, in effect the negative counterpart of “virtue is its own reward”; sin is its own punishment. But this view is deficient in what it denies, often emphatically. It is intent on excluding from God’s wrath any affective or emotional aspect and, with the exclusion, denying that it is punitive or retributive in any extrinsic or reactive way that goes beyond leaving sinners to the natural and inherent effects of their sin.
I. Reasons for God’s Wrath: Because we take sin lightly, we are, therefore, offended when we hear about God’s wrath. Simply put—we don’t think God should be angry over our sin. Note this well. God never judges unless judgment is deserved. In Romans 1:19-23 Paul will give us four specific reasons for God manifesting His wrath.
A. The Revelation of Creation: The “because” of verse 19 is connected with the last clause of verse 18. This tells us the reason for Paul affirming the judgment of God on men for suppressing the truth, which God has clearly made known to them. God has, as it were, left his footprints and fingerprints all over creation. This revelatory knowledge is not redemptive. “It serves simply the negative purpose and function of preserving man’s responsibility before God, because it heightens the conviction of sin and brings to consciousness the state of inexcusability.”[x] Creation is to serve as a glorious theater of God’s majesty and splendor. Likewise, man, created in the image of God, carries about within him an innate knowledge of the Creator. This inner witness or monitor (the conscience) serves primarily a negative purpose of alerting fallen mankind to the foreboding sense that something is wrong.
B. The Rejection of the Knowledge of God: Men have turned away from what God has made known to them in creation. They are, therefore, indicted for failing to glorify the living and true God. Man was created for this purpose and is guilty of failing to glorify God (cf. Leviticus 10:3; I Chronicles 16:24-29; Psalm 148; Isaiah 48:1-11; Romans 15:5-6; Revelation 4:11). Because of this, they are also thankless and their foolish hearts are plunged into darkness.
C. The Rationalization of Fallen Mankind: Truth and light go together as does sin and darkness. When men reject the truth they demonstrate only foolishness. The word translated “fool” in verse 22 is MORANTHENAI. It is a very strong word, surpassing even ASYNETOS (translated foolish heart in verse 21). The noted German scholar, Adolf Schlatter, captured the essence of this when he wrote, “The inability to grasp and understand results in the conjuring up of flights of fancy and impossible goals that are groundless and detached from reality.”[xi]
D. The Religious Inventions of Man: Look around today at the religions that capture the allegiance of men. “Paul’s only standard for measuring religions is the longing for the truth. His only question is: What do people say about God? Whatever they are seeking for themselves by means of their religious acts, namely, to secure and increase their happiness, to atone for their guilt, and to gain for themselves the assistance of the deity, all of this is put aside. The individual is godless if he fabricates religion in his own interest, for the sake of his own happiness. God must be worshipped for the sake of God. With this rule Paul proved to be fully obedient as a disciple of Jesus.”[xii]
Conclusion: “God’s wrath (both present and future) comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph. 5:6), not as somehow consisting in that disobedience or being left to its various perverse expressions (Eph. 5:3-6), but “because of such things”. Wrath here is distinct from these things; it is God’s response to (“because of”) them, his (surely personal) reaction against them, provoked by them. On its negative side, it involves exclusion from “any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5), an exclusion that, in view of its terms deprivation of eschatological beatitude, is surely the punitive payback for sin.[xiii] Similarly, God’s wrath will result, on “the day of the Lord,” in “sudden destruction” coming upon the unrepentant (I Thess. 5:2-3, 9). The Apostle Paul refers to the wrath of God ten times in this epistle (1:18; 2:5, 8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4, 5). He obviously considers it an important element in understanding the Gospel. It is not until we begin to comprehend the reality of God; “His death was for those who deserve God’s wrath. And his death was fully adequate, because Jesus did not need to die for his own sins—he was sinless—and because, being God, his act was of infinite magnitude. That is the message Paul will expound in this epistle. It is the Good News, the gospel. But the place to begin is not with your own good works, since you have none, but by knowing that you are an object of God’s wrath and will perish in sin at last, unless you throw yourself upon the mercy of the one who died for sinners, even Jesus Christ.”[xiv]
[i] In the cover story of Christianity Today (Sept. 12, 1994), “Reaching the First Post-Christian Generation” By Andres Tapia (an article that relied extensively upon the marketing guru George Barna), it is no longer enough to present the gospel’s propositional truths. What will attract Xers, they [read again church marketing experts] say, is a strong, caring community of people who can be trusted” (p. 21). Or this rather direct statement, “The Xer experience makes certain evangelical tenets more difficult to understand or live by. For example, since Xers are growing up in a more pluralistic, multi-cultural society…they have a harder time accepting a theology that says their Muslim, Buddhist, or New Age friends and neighbors are going to hell” (p. 22). The article goes on and takes up the old liberal approach of calling the church to stop taking its cue from the Apostle Paul and get back to the simple teachings of the Gospels (selectively read, of course, since Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:13-39are not very user-friendly!).
[ii] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition I (Zondervan, 1985), p. 325.
[iii] G. Ebeling, Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language (Collins, 1963), p. 17.
[iv] George Smeaton, The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement (rpt. Banner of Truth, 1991).
[v] C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Harper & Row, 1932), p. 23.
[vi] S. H. Davis, “Christ as Bearer of Divine Judgment in Paul,” in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ eds. J. B. Green and M. Turner (Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 338, 345.
[vii] J. B. Green and M. Baker, Recovering The Scandal of The Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (IVP, 2000), p. 54.
[viii] C. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Baker, 2001), P. 82.
[ix] Cf. the critique by C. E. Hill, “N. T. Wright on Justification” IIIM Magazine Online (Vol. 3, no. 22), May 28 to June 3, 2001.
[x] S. Lewis Johnson, Romans (Believers Bible Bulletin, 1980), Lesson 3, p. 4.
[xi] A. Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God (Hendrickson, 1995), p. 40.
[xiii] R. Gaffin, “Atonement In The Pauline Corpus: The Scandal of the Cross” in The Glory of the Atonement eds. C. E. Hill and F. A. James III, (IVP, 2004), p. 151. I am indebted to Dr. Gaffin, one of my professors at Westminster Theological Seminary, for his analysis of our contemporary problems relating to the wrath of God.
[xiv] J. M. Boice, Romans I: An Expositional Commentary I (Baker, 1991), p.136.
In this book, Dr. R.C. Sproul surveys the great work accomplished by Jesus Christ through His crucifixionthe redemption of Gods people. Dr. Sproul considers the atonement from numerous angles and shows conclusively that the cross was absolutely necessary if anyone was to be saved.
Opening the Scriptures, Dr. Sproul shows that God Himself provided salvation by sending Jesus Christ to die on the cross, and the cross was always Gods intended method by which to bring salvation. The Truth of the Cross is an uncompromising reminder that the atonement of Christ is an absolutely essential doctrine of the Christian faith, one that should be studied and understood by all believers.
“The Truth of the Cross is the best book on the cross I have read. It is a ‘must’ for every church library and a book that I will give away many times to friends. This is so because it is sober (i.e., it contains historically informed reflections on salient biblical texts), sensible (i.e., it is well-argued), simple (i.e., it holds the reader’s attention through grabbing illustrations and even a seventh-grader can its substance), and spiritual (i.e., it comes from a heart set ablaze by the Spirit).”
Dr. Bruce K. Waltke, Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary)
“The gospel is a message of good news that something extraordinary has happened. At the heart of that message is that Jesus, God the Son incarnate, has atoned for the sins of all His people, turning away the righteous wrath of God. The gospel is a cross-shaped message. Sadly, in our day, this message is being re-shaped into other forms, and the results are not happy. We can give thanks for this volume by R.C. Sproul, however, because in it he steps into the breach once more to provide a clear, concise, and thoughtful case for the biblical and historic Christian gospel of the cross.”
Dr. R. Scott Clark, Associate Professor, Westminster Seminary California