II. Rejecting the Gospel: The Wrath of God (Romans 1:18–2:11)


II. Rejecting the Gospel: The Wrath of God (1:18–2:11)

1:18 Paul shifts to talk about what necessitates the gospel—God’s wrath. God’s wrath is revealed from heaven, meaning he’s not hiding it. His wrath is his righteous and just retribution against sin. He does not apologize for his righteous anger, like we often try to do. Rather, he publishes it for all to see. Sinful human beings, conversely, would rather suppress the truth. Suppress means “to hold down.” It’s like holding a beach ball under water. The beach ball resists that and wants to pop back up; so if you want to keep the ball under, you have to suppress it, to force it down. That’s what we do with the truth about God’s righteousness: we humans tend to force it down because we don’t want to deal with it.

1:19-20 Though they may suppress the truth, people are without excuse. Whether a man lives in Timbuktu or Dallas, he knows something about God because God’s invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen (1:20) Human beings cannot see God, but we can see God’s effects. Consider the wind: even though we cannot see the wind, we know it’s there because its effects are obvious. Creation testifies to the existence, greatness, power, and glory of God (see Ps 19:1-6).

1:21-23 Suppressing the truth results in a vicious cycle of idolatry. Because humanity did not glorify him as God . . . their thinking became worthless (1:21). We humans decided to exchange God for something we thought would be more satisfying, so we swapped the glory of the immortal God for all manner of earthly things—images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and cars and houses and money and sex (1:23). An idol is any person, place, thing, or thought that you look to in order to get your needs met apart from God. It’s the worst exchange imaginable, as Paul plainly says: Claiming to be wise, they became fools (1:22).

1:24-25 What is God’s response to this nonsense? God delivered them over (1:24). That phrase appears here three times (1:24, 26, 28), and it shows God taking his hand of restraint off, essentially saying, “You want to do life without me? You’ve got it.” This is the passive wrath of God at work in history. He lets you experience the built-in negative consequences of living independent of him. But when we [exchange] the truth of God for a lie (1:25), we end up degraded among [ourselves] (1:24).

1:26-27 Sex has always been one of humanity’s favorite idols. But when sex becomes a god, lust reigns. So we find men and women exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (1:26). God, then, allows us to come up with all kinds of sexual lusts, but the result is a mess. Broken homes, broken hearts, sexually transmitted diseases—all are the fallout of letting lust rule. Moral degradation is the result of the abandonment of God and his righteous standards in both an individual’s life and in society.

1:28-32 It gets worse. When people reject God, God delivers them over to a corrupt mind (1:28). Thus, instead of acting sane, they act like people who have gone stark raving mad. The worst part is that they still assume they are thinking clearly.

You can know a person or a culture has descended into ultimate corruption when people give public and legal approval to sin. Paul lists twenty-four ways godlessness leads to madness. This is a catalogue of societal breakdown, filled with greed, murder, and deceit (1:29). We look around at our culture and say, “How did things get so crazy?” Paul answers: as a society, you asked to be free from God. This is what you get.

2:1-3 At this point in Paul’s argument, his Jewish listeners would be nodding their heads in agreement: “Get those pagans, Paul!” We may likewise be tempted to cheer Paul on, thinking that he is talking about someone else. Certainly we are not godless and immoral like other people out there. But Paul turns the tables, showing the impartiality of God when it comes to judgment. The moralistic Jews were practicing the same things for which they judged others. Paul’s response? When you judge another, you condemn yourself (2:1). God’s judgment is not based on our self-evaluation of our morals, but is based on the truth (2:2). It is complete foolishness to pass judgment on others for what you are doing and to think that you will escape God’s judgment (2:3).

2:4-5 The Jews, you see, had made the same mistake we often do: they mistook God’s patience for his absence. They assumed that if God had not judged them yet, he would not judge at all. But Paul says that God’s kindness is intended to lead . . . to repentance (2:4). He waits to pour out his wrath—not because his wrath is a myth, but because he knows that once it begins, there is no reprieve. Those who do not repent are storing up wrath for themselves (2:5). This should encourage us when people seem to get away with evil. Their account is enlarging, and the bill will come due in eternity. We should never envy the wicked because all they are accumulating is a greater degree of divine judgment.

2:6-8 God will repay each one according to his works (2:6), not for salvation, but to address the level of wrath and anger (2:8) and affliction and distress his works have earned (2:9)—or, for those who persevere in doing good, for the level of glory, honor, and immortality (2:7). Paul’s point here is not that we can be saved by works (the rest of Romans makes that obvious), but that God is an impartial Judge. He does not reward people based on their ethnic background. He looks at each individual specifically.

2:9-11 Lest Paul’s Jewish readers miss his point, he makes it clear: salvation can come to the Jew, and also to the Greek (2:9-10). But so can judgment. After all, there is no favoritism with God (2:11). As he says in the next chapter, all have sinned and all are justified by God’s grace (3:23-24).