Here’s a side of God we don’t much think of and a work of God we’re unaware is going on right under our noses.
“[For] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 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” (1:18-20).
I inserted the word “For” because Paul originally wrote it (Greek, gar). Inexplicably, the NIV omits it, though it’s a key word. Paul has just noted that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel of his power for salvation (1:16,17). With the word “For” Paul explains why the gospel is being revealed—namely, because his wrath is. He reveals his saving righteousness to save us from his revealing wrath.
But we don’t know it. Ask American teenagers about their religious faith, as sociologist Christian Smith did in 2005, and this is what you get: a god who “watches over” human life, who “wants people to be good, nice and fair”, who is involved in human life only “to resolve a problem” and who “takes good people to heaven when they die.” Sociologist Smith calls it Moral Therapeutic Deism. Deism: a god who created the world but leaves us pretty much alone. Therapeutic: a god who makes things better for us when we can’t do it for ourselves. Think “therapist”. Moral: a god who is concerned about right and wrong conduct, who wants us to be “nice”. No room in that belief system for a God who reveals his wrath.
But, I’ve got to ask. What’s got God so upset? “ . . . all the godlessness (disregard for God) and wickedness (disregard for what God says is right) of men . . . “
For that to make sense and for God’s wrath to be fair, we have to move on to “ . . . 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.”
In sum, creation reveals God! Paul’s readers had no telescopes or microscopes. But they had eyes. They could see stars and mountains and rivers. They had skin. They could feel wind and raindrops and the sun’s heat. Paul is arguing that, through creation, God is showing himself. He shows himself to be divine. He shows himself to possess unimaginable power. He shows himself to be eternal, because he existed before he created.
Humans, however, disregarded God and disregarded what is right. That’s what got God so angry. And he’s revealing his wrath on humans who have no excuse.
But humans’ sin does more than offend God. Sinners “ . . . suppress the truth by their wickedness”. Question: what truth do they suppress? That God must not be disregarded. Or, as Paul puts it more clearly in the next sentence, that such a God is to be glorified and thanked.
Question: how do godless, wicked humans suppress that truth about God by their unrighteousness?
Here are two illustrations. A university professor unrighteously forbids mention of God in classroom discussion. His prohibition keeps the truth about God from public knowledge. A husband has sexual intercourse with another woman. His unrighteous act, by magnifying illicit sex, covers over the truth of God’s glory in moral purity.
So God is angry. And he’s revealing his wrath—his punitive fury. But it comes in a surprising way, which we’ll see later in this chapter. For now, let’s uncover more of what’s got God so angry—and how humans’ disregard for God affects them.
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:21-23).
“For although they knew God” is a stunning statement. It means that everyone who can see God’s creation knows God. Not in a saving way, not in the way Paul writes of in 1:16,17. But knowing in a way that should evoke praise and thanks. Instead, humans “exchanged the glory of the immortal God (seen in creation) for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”
This has got to be the height of offense to God—to refuse to glorify him as the immortal God that he is and to refuse to give him thanks and instead to make (as the Romans did) wood and stone images of mortal creatures.
Why did intelligent, caring humans do it? Because their thinking and their hearts were literally affected by their disregard for God. “ . . . they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile (meaningless, deceptive, foolish) and the foolish hearts were darkened (made unable to morally understand).”
Paul doesn’t mean they became dumb. In fact, some of these men and women today are lauded in their fields of expertise as being exceptionally intelligent. But when it comes to God, in Paul’s day they became so foolish and morally bankrupt they actually worshiped stone idols instead of the Creator!
So God is angry. And is revealing it. We’ll see how next time.
* * *
Lest we boast we’d never be like that, Paul writes 3:23 . . .
” for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
And, if we’re honest, we know we’re like that. We know we don’t glorify God the way we should. We don’t make much of him in daily living. (I know that I, with my handicap, sometimes blame God!) We know that we put created things above God. We do it when we engage in sex outside marriage, when we cut corners on our work to make more money faster, when we gossip or slander, or disobey our parents, or cut down people with our words.
We know our hearts are idolatrous. We know that we too exchange the glory of the immortal God for our idols. Therefore, in our most honest moments, we admit we deserve God’s wrath. “Woe is me!” should rightly be on our lips.
But for Romans 1:16,17 . . .
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”
God’s wrath won’t consume us. We won’t drown in his fury. By faith in the gospel that reveals God’s righteousness, by faith in the gospel that is the power of God for salvation, we will live!