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.
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.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:18-32)
Paul begins an argument in 1:18 that reaches a conclusion in 3:9. He writes, “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” He would conclude that both the Jews and the Gentiles are under sin, and that the Jews are not better than the Gentiles in this regard. As he says in the next verses, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (3:10-12).
Therefore all are guilty of sin, and subject to the wrath of God. And this means that all individuals without exception have a common need for salvation and for a righteousness that they cannot attain or produce by themselves. Since it is the purpose of the argument to reach this conclusion, it determines how we must interpret the statements that make up the argument. Whatever Paul says from 1:18 to 3:9, we realize that his general intent is to assert that all men are under sin and under the wrath of God.
Many people dislike the idea of divine wrath. Some of them would complain that the trait is unworthy of a perfect being. However, one could just as easily assert the same about divine love, or say that it is below such a mighty and transcendent being to have any concern with creation at all. But what is truly below him is men’s senseless speculation. God reveals himself in the Bible as one who possesses both love and wrath. Of course, there are those who acknowledge that the Bible teaches about the wrath of God, and they despise him for it. So non-Christians attack the Christian faith for affirming such a God. As for Christians, they tend to struggle to explain it and find a place for it, and to justify the divine attribute, or even to excuse him, as if there is something wrong with him.
The trouble that people have with the wrath of God is rather irrational, and lame. No wonder God is annoyed. Even his people are embarrassed about it and feel forced to accept it, and they run through all kinds of philosophical arguments to explain why God must be like this, as if God himself is reluctant to be himself. Now, I can do that too, but why should I? Why should I go through the trouble, when there is really nothing wrong with the wrath of God and when there is no good objection against it? You are not the one to tell God what he should be. He tells you what he is and you will like it or else!
In fact, I find the wrath of God very right and appealing. Of course it would be a fearful thing to be the target of God’s wrath, but as a Christian I understand that this is who he is, and I like it and praise him for it. And there is no reason to present it in such a vague and poetic way that nobody understands what it means. What is the wrath of God? If he disapproves of you because there is sin in your nature and lifestyle, then he is angry with you, and he is going to do things to hurt you and to torture you forever. This is the wrath of God. There is no sound argument against this, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it. Through Jesus Christ a person can attain peace with God and be rescued from this, but no one can change God’s nature so as to nullify his terrifying plans against sinners who remain in his wrath.
God’s wrath is directed at the non-Christians – he is angry with them and will do terrible things to hurt them and torture them – because they have turned from the true God and have invented alternatives for themselves. Although God is invisible, his creation is a constant reminder of his power, his wisdom, and his divine nature. This testimony does not point to just any kind of deity, but only to the Christian God, that is, the only God as he has been revealed in the Christian faith. We know this because Paul does not accuse sinners of failing to worship something, but of failing to worship the God that he worships, and that is the Christian God, or God as presented in Christian theology. Thus God has made himself plain to people, so that his power and his nature have been clearly seen and understood.
The proper thing to do would be for men to admit what they know so as to acknowledge this God and to worship him. This would mean admitting that God is the creator and the ruler of creation, and that all men must obey his commandments. But because they are evil, men hate God and do not want to admit the truth about God or to obey the commands of God. So they deny reality and suppress the truth. They repress what they know about God in their minds. To help them do this, they band together to invent alternatives, and to focus their attention on other objects so as to worship them, and to produce stories and explanations to lie to themselves, such as the myths of pagan religions and the superstitions of science, so that they will not have to face the truth about God that lingers under the surface of their immediate consciousness. Then, when someone threatens to expose them, they become angry, hostile, and even violent.
God has testified about himself clearly, specifically, and effectively. He demonstrates his power, his wisdom, and his divine nature in creation, and he has made this plain to the minds of men. This means that there is no excuse for people to deny him or fail to worship him. But they do deny him and fail to worship him. Theirs is a rebellion against the obvious. Therefore God’s wrath is unleashed against them.
Nevertheless, God’s wrath is not a mere reaction to the rebellion of men, as if their wickedness sprang from free will and then shaped God’s thoughts and determined his plans. In another place Paul writes that “in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him” (1 Corinthians 1:21). In other words, God planned the whole thing. He testifies about himself through creation, and makes himself plain to the minds of men, but by his own arrangement he ensures that no one would arrive at true religion from his testimony in creation and in the human consciousness. He does this so that he would plunge all men into sin, and render all of them guilty, so that he may rescue his chosen ones to heaven and damn the reprobates to hell, and thus glorify himself through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Paul has this in mind and so he writes, “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge” (3:4). This is evidently his doctrine, because he adds that someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” It has been “slanderously reported” that he says, “Let us do evil that good may result” (3:7-8). That is, he teaches a doctrine from which some have drawn this inference; however, he does not teach what has been inferred, and what has been inferred does not follow from the doctrine itself, so that it constitutes slander. But Paul indeed teaches that the wickedness of men has been divinely ordained and ensured so as to incur divine wrath and punishment, and thus “bring out God’s righteousness more clearly” (3:5).
Even before God tortures non-Christians in hellfire forever, the wrath of God is displayed against them when he hands them over to false beliefs about reality, including science, false religions, and to various lusts and sins. A non-Christian worldview is not an alternative to the Christian faith, but it is a punishment against the non-Christian. It continues to harden his heart, to increase his guilt, and to prevent him from meeting the true God. A false religion oppresses him with fearful tales, false gods, and powers that he cannot overcome. The stringent customs make him a slave to demons. The foolish and grotesque rituals make a clown out of him. As man struggles against this he tries to develop a view that is free from these trappings, and so he invents scientific explanations that are no less irrational than the worst pagan religions. Now he is an animal, or nothing more than a combination of molecules. Now the superstitions of science enslaves him. And he is still a clown.
God laughs at them. You refuse to worship the true God and turn to idols? Then have more idols. Serve them harder. Suffer under them in this life, and hellfire in the life to come. You wish to explain away God and deny reality by your science? Then have more science. Make up more ridiculous theories. And in the process make yourself even more inhuman, even more inferior, and even more abased and depraved. Meanwhile, all your sins are still being counted. Each time a non-Christian bows to an idol, each time a Catholic looks to an image of Mary, each time a professor teaches evolution, or each time a student compromises with a godless cosmology, God adds it to his list of transgressions and he will pay him back with fire and brimstone.
The non-Christian scoffs at God’s judgment, and he does this because God makes him, so that God may cause him to suffer even more in hell, and so that God’s righteousness will become even more obvious. Indeed, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). If God has it in for a man, the man is done for. Unless God decides to save the man, his wrath and judgment will plague him all the days of his life, and increase manifold forever in the life to come. Yet the man still despises God and considers himself very clever. He thinks he will win. This is the life of a man without the grace of Jesus Christ. So Paul observes that non-Christians think that they are smart, but they are stupid (1:22).
Then, according to Paul, the prevalence of homosexuals is at the same time a manifestation of men’s overflowing wickedness and God’s judgment upon it. God created the reprobates for filth (9:21), and since they enjoy the filth and wallow in it, God causes them to have more filth; meanwhile, God continues to count their sins and their condemnation multiplies. Among other purposes, God uses the reprobates to shock and disgust his chosen ones, so that they may take warning and be inspired to grow in holiness.
Paul selects homosexuality as one chief indication of human depravity and divine judgment, explaining God’s design for it. Nevertheless, the apostle lists many other sins and indications of human depravity and divine judgment. They include greed, gossip, slander, deceit, malice, murder, and many others. A society defined by these characteristics is already in ruins, and only the gospel of Jesus Christ can save it. If God chooses not to enable the people to believe, then all this constitutes a death sentence upon them.
How should we think about non-Christians? And what should we say about them? Paul says that they are stupid people (v. 22), and that they are “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (v. 31). This is what all men are like when they are not Christians, and when they do not have faith in Jesus Christ.