In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul has made clear his strong desire to visit Rome. And he wanted to visit them because he wanted to preach the gospel in Rome. And he’s not ashamed of the gospel, because he knows it’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. God works through the preaching of the gospel to call and to draw sinners to Jesus Christ for salvation. And in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. And we were thinking about that phrase the last time. Through faith in the Saviour, sinners are declared right with God so that even though we have done everything wrong, God now regards us as if we have done everything right. God shares with us the righteousness of Christ so that we have peace with him. And we receive this righteousness through faith in his Son.
The righteousness of God — or this righteousness that comes from God and which is shared with all who believe — is revealed in the gospel, which is why Paul was so eager to preach the gospel in Rome. But in verse 18 the Apostle goes on to speak about the wrath of God. And just as God makes known his righteousness, so he also makes known his wrath. In fact, John Stott — in his commentary on this passage — suggests that Paul in these verses refers to four ways that God reveals himself to us. Firstly, God reveals his glory to us in his creation. And that’s what we’re going to see in verses 19 and 20. Secondly, God reveals his wrath against our godlessness and wickedness. That’s in verse 18. Thirdly, God reveals his righteousness in the gospel. That’s in verse 17. Fourthly, God reveals his power in the preaching of the gospel, because through the preaching of the gospel he works powerfully in the hearts and minds of sinners to enable them to believe.
God reveals his power in the preaching of the gospel. And God reveals his righteousness in the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ve already dealt with those two. So, in the next verses, we read that God reveals his wrath against our godlessness and wickedness. And he has also revealed his glory in what he has made.
Let’s turn to verse 18 where Paul writes:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
Let’s think about the wrath of God for a moment. It’s never been a particularly popular idea, and from very early on, people have argued that the idea of God’s wrath is incompatible with the belief that God is love. How can a loving God also be a God of wrath? How can a loving God inflict his wrath upon people? If God is love, surely he will not punish anyone?
One modern commentator on the book of Romans suggests that we’re not to think of God as a God of wrath who personally punishes sinners for their sin. No, that’s not right, he said. Instead we should think of wrath as a kind of inevitable cause-and-effect process. You know, if you do something wrong, there are bound to be harmful consequences. If someone drinks too much, their health is damaged. If someone drives too fast, they’ll crash. That’s just what happens: one thing causes another thing to happen; and we can’t say that God was punishing someone for their sins.
But we can’t accept this view of the way things are, because throughout the Bible we read how God’s wrath is provoked by our sin, and he responds to our sin with his wrath. So, in the book of Exodus, for example, when Moses wanted God to send someone else to the Egyptians, we read how the Lord’s anger burned against Moses because of his refusal to do what the Lord commanded. And when the Egyptians refused to let the Israelites go, we read how the Lord unleashed his burning anger against them. And when the Israelites made the golden calf and bowed down to worship it, the Lord’s anger burned against them. And you can think of many other examples as well from other places in the Bible. The Bible teaches us that God’s wrath is provoked by our sin and he responds to our sin with his wrath.
Now, the Bible teaches us that God will reveal his wrath in the future on the day of judgment, when the Lord Jesus comes in glory and with power to judge the living and the dead. That is, he will come to judge all people. And while the righteous will go into everlasting life, the wicked — who did not believe the gospel — will be thrown into eternal torment, away from the presence of the Lord.
However, while God’s wrath will be revealed in the future in the eternal punishment of unbelievers, it’s also true to say that God’s wrath against sinners is also revealed in the present. Every day, God reveals his wrath against sinners. So, it’s not that God is reserving his wrath to the end of time and the last day. He’s making his wrath known today. That’s what Paul is saying here in verse 18:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.
Right now, God — who is in heaven and who rules over all — is revealing his wrath to all who are under the heavens.
And God’s wrath is directed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Well, some commentators suggest that the word ‘godlessness’ refers to religious sins, and the word ‘wickedness’ refers to social sins. In other words, ‘godlessness’ refers to sins against God, and ‘wickedness’ refers to sins against other people. Whenever we break any of the first four commandments, those are sins against God. And whenever we break any of the remaining six commandments, those are sins against our neighbour.
And God’s wrath is being revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Now, the truth they’re suppressing is the truth which Paul goes on to refer to in verses 19 and 20. It’s the truth that there’s a God who made all things. And though this truth is obvious to all, and clear to all, people have suppressed it. They’ve denied it. They’ve pushed it out of their minds and out of their thoughts. And so, Paul is saying to us that God’s wrath is being revealed, right now, against the ungodliness and the wickedness of men and women and boys and girls who have denied the truth that there’s a God who made all things and who deserves our thanks and praise.
Verses 19 and 20
Let’s move on to verse 19 and 20 now. Paul writes:
since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Theologians distinguish between God’s natural revelation and his special revelation.
God reveals himself to us through what he has made. That’s his natural revelation. And by means of his natural revelation he reveals to us his power and his wisdom and his goodness. He made the world around us: that reveals how powerful he is. He made all things well: that reveals how wise he is. He has filled the world with good things for us to enjoy: that reveals his goodness and kindness to us. If we didn’t have any other revelation from God, and if all we had to go on was the world around us, we’d know that God is powerful and wise and good.
But then there’s God’s special revelation. And this refers to the ways God has revealed both himself and his will for our salvation in special, supernatural ways. So, in the past God revealed himself and his will for our salvation through the prophets and through visions and dreams and appearances. Then he revealed himself and his will for our salvation most fully and completely by the incarnation of his Son. And he has now given us his word, the Bible, which tells us what we need to know about God for our salvation. This is what we mean by God’s special revelation.
So, by God’s natural revelation we mean the way God reveals his power and wisdom and goodness through what he has made. By his special revelation we mean the way God has revealed himself through the prophets, and through the Lord Jesus, and in his word. And it’s by means of his special revelation that we come to know the way to be saved.
Well, in verses 19 and 20, Paul is referring to God’s natural revelation. Since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen. How have they been clearly seen? Well, from what has been made. As the Psalmist wrote:
The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Every day the world around us speaks to us and says to us that the God who made all these things is great and wise and good and he’s worthy of our thanks and praise. Everyday we should be in awe of him for what he has done. And we ought to give thanks to him for what he has given us.
However, says Paul, though this knowledge of God has been made plain, though his invisible qualities have been clearly seen, though these things are understood from what has been made, people have suppressed this truth about God. They’ve denied it. They haven’t acknowledged God to be God and they haven’t given thanks to him and they haven’t given him the praise he deserves. Everything around us speaks to us of his power and his wisdom and his goodness. Everything we can see tells us there is a God above. But people have refused to acknowledge him or worship him.
And since God has clearly revealed himself in what he has made, since everyone has seen these things, then everyone is without excuse. Do you see that at the end of verse 20?
so that men are without excuse.
Parents, from time to time, will scold their children because they didn’t do what they were asked to do. They didn’t tidy their room. They didn’t do their homework. They didn’t take the rubbish out. And their parents are cross with them. And they threaten to punish them:
No pocket money for you this week!
That kind of thing. And what do the parents get? All kinds of excuses:
I didn’t know you wanted me to do it.
I didn’t realise you were talking to me.
I thought you wanted someone else to do it.
And so on. But according to the Apostle Paul, no one can say to God:
I never knew you. I didn’t know you existed. I would have thanked you and praised you if I knew you were there. But I didn’t know.
We cannot make that excuse, because God has clearly revealed his power and his wisdom and his goodness in what he has made. Everyone is without excuse.
In the verses which follow, Paul goes on to explain how God’s wrath is revealed. Take a look at verse 24, for instance. Paul says:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts.
And look at verse 26:
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.
And then look at verse 28:
Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind.
God gave them over. God gave them over. God gave them over. Do you see what Paul is saying? Because they did not acknowledge him or worship him, God gave them over, or God gave them up, to do what they wanted to do. He gave them up to more and more sin, more and more wickedness, more and more darkness. God reveals his wrath in letting sinners go their own way. So instead of restraining their wickedness, and holding back their sin, he lets them fall deeper and deeper into sin and shame.
We’ll look at this more next time, but let’s remember to give thanks to God every day for his grace to us, because instead of giving us up to our sins, he has revealed to us his righteousness and he has enabled us to believe in his Son so that we might receive his righteousness and not his wrath. Let’s give thanks to him, because we did not deserve this and we have done nothing to make ourselves worthy of it. It’s entirely down to his kindness to us.
And let’s remember to pray for the preaching of the gospel, because in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed to sinners. So, let’s pray that the Lord will work powerfully through the preaching of the gospel to enable sinners to believe so that they might receive the righteousness of Christ which is by faith.