After writing about the righteousness that comes from God through faith, Paul points out that those who lack this faith will face the wrath of God. Many people today are inclined to downplay the wrath of God and speak only of His love. They claim that the wrath of God is an Old Testament idea that no longer applies since Christ has come. Paul makes very clear in these verses that to ignore the wrath of God is to misrepresent the justice of the sovereign Lord. Sin is antithetical to God’s nature. So strong are His love toward the human race and His anger toward our sin that, rather than leave it unpunished, He poured out His wrath on His Son, Jesus Christ. How can His wrath not kindle against those who reject His salvation? There would be no explanation for the gospel if there were no wrath against sin.
God has made Himself known. Paul makes very clear that “what may be known about God is plain . . . because God has made it plain” (v.19). All people everywhere live in God’s world. He created it. Creation shouts out about God. I have lived in many parts of this continent from Louisiana to New Jersey; from Michigan to Alberta. I have backpacked through Europe. Everything God made points to Him. Indeed the Psalmist was correct when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Psalms 19:1). John Calvin wrote that the hand of God in creation is very visible when a person wears the spectacles of faith.
Unfortunately, mankind chose to remove those spectacles in the garden by eating from the forbidden tree. Left to himself, no longer can man discern the presence of God in creation. I once heard the illustration that if God would arrange the stars so that they wrote out “I AM,” Christian churches would be filled for a time. Eventually, people would become so used to God’s revelation of Himself in the skies that they would no longer be in awe of His revelation or of Him. Church attendance would dwindle and people would return to pursuing their own natural desires. The simple truth is God has left His imprint on the stars, and the human race refuses to see it because we love the darkness rather than the light.
Not only does God reveal Himself in nature, but He also makes Himself known through history. In man’s history we often focus only on wars, conquests, world leaders, and politics. God’s history reads between the lines and tells us that, in spite of man’s history, all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord. In our own lives we can see how God takes events that seem insignificant and uses them for His glory. We see how God averts all evil from us or turns it to our profit.
In addition, God reveals Himself in science. Many today want to argue that science and religion are in conflict with one another. They are not. We need to differentiate between science and speculation. Unfortunately, in an effort to stay respectable in a world that considers itself wise, self-acclaimed scientists often refuse to acknowledge the handiwork of God in spite of their findings. Several years ago scientist determined that the Sahara Desert was once completely under water. This is something that the children of God have known since the days of Noah. Yet, even as we can rejoice in the fact that once more general revelation confirmed the truth of God’s Word, the article concluded with the scientists/archeologists emphatically stating that they did not believe their finding was at all related to the great deluge. Even in their emphatic denial of a global flood, they prove the truth of the Scripture they seek to suppress.
Finally, God reveals Himself through our consciences. We know the law. It is written on our hearts. We know right from wrong. If I would walk into our church’s nursery with a hammer and bludgeon a three-month-old baby to death, what court would not convict me of murder? And rightly so! Yet there are all kinds of laws to protect a doctor who would have torn that same child apart limb from limb four months earlier. To my knowledge, no politician has ever been elected that spoke positively about abortion. Rather, they want to limit abortion; they want to maintain a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. They know it’s wrong. Yet they suppress that truth in favor of personal gain and personal comfort.
Through general revelation the human race can know God. I believe every human being comes to a point in life where he is confronted with God and with the purpose of life. The very fact that existentialists claim that there is no purpose to life indicates that they have considered what that purpose might be. The false gods of the Old Testament and the idolatry of today prove that there is a vacuum within the heart of man that longs to be filled and, as Augustine said, can only be filled by God.
Left to themselves, however, people refuse to acknowledge or worship God. The problem is not with God or with a lack of evidence that points to God. What may be known about God has been made plain since the creation of the world.
Recently, I was chatting with a young Christian who was pursuing his master’s degree in philosophy. The head of the philosophy department was a humanist. The young man challenged the professor’s presuppositions for his humanistic view of life. After being shown how the logic of his worldview failed, the professor retorted, “I don’t believe in God because I don’t want there to be a God.”
The humanist professor is a prime example of Romans 1. There Paul describes man’s exchange of God’s truth for the foolishness of the world. God reveals His existence and eternal power in general revelation. Rather than seek God and hold ourselves accountable to Him, natural man, in sin, does not glorify Him. Instead we glorify ourselves, and, if we feel the need to worship something, we build gods in our own image (Psalm 115). We fail to acknowledge that every good gift comes from God. In failing to give thanks to God, we boast in our own accomplishments and become filled with futile thinking. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we look over our self-made kingdoms and exclaim, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built?” (Daniel 4:30). As with the king, so it is with us. We blind ourselves to the benefits of God and, although we profess to be wise, we become fools. Since we have rejected God, God gives us over to our own sinful desires until we are no better—and perhaps worse—than the beasts that do not bear His image.
Having been turned over by God to their own desires, natural man creates gods of his own image—gods that permit him to be free of any moral restraint. Paul lists idolatry and homosexuality as evidence of God’s wrath being poured out on those who fail to revere His Name. These two gross sins point us directly to the law of God. Having abandoned God, natural man also rejects His law, resulting in broken relationships between man and God and man and his neighbor.
Too often when reading this passage in Romans, we focus on homosexuality to the point where idolatry is forgotten. We must, however, not ignore the relationship we have with God. One of the great battles fought during the Reformation was the cleansing of the church of all its icons and false worship. According to the Heidelberg Catechism we must avoid and shun all idolatry, lest we endanger our very salvation (LD 34 Q&A 94). And yet, we often fill our homes and churches with images and pictures of God. We add to our worship services that which God has not commanded. The only permissible images we are to bring into worship are the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion. They are the signs instituted by Christ for worship. Anything else becomes idolatry.
Ministers should understand that one of the worst sins against the third commandment is a bad sermon. Worshippers should understand that the third commandment is most often violated during worship. If you doubt that statement, ask someone in the narthex after the service what songs they had just sung. Were they sung in praise to God or did they just mumble the words and thereby misuse the name of God? A broken relationship with God is part of the downward spiral of the natural man.
Broken relationships between man and his neighbor begin when the natural man places his own desires ahead of others. No longer loving his neighbor as he loves himself, he pursues unnatural relationships. Among those relationships, Paul speaks very clearly against homosexualism. Paul would not have fit in with today’s new religion of tolerance. He speaks out boldly against the sin of homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:9–11. His most devastating argument against it is found in Romans 1.
So severe is the exchange of God’s truth for a lie, that many try to use the very words of Paul against him in an effort to have the church condone the sin of homosexuality. The wisdom of the world argues that a homosexual lifestyle should be permitted because some people are born with a mental predisposition toward it. They claim it is genetic. Paul would argue that everyone has an evil predisposition for sin: “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). Moses wrote already in Genesis 6 that the heart of man is only evil all the time. Sin is genetic. We inherited it from Adam after the fall—but that does not excuse it. That is the very reason why we need to fight against the old nature. All it does is lead us further and further into sin—inexcusable sin! Romans 1 makes very clear that homosexuality is sin because it violates God’s design for sexual intimacy between husband and wife.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans points out that sin can be forgiven in Christ. He died to save His people from their sin—all sin. Those who suppress that truth and turn away from God’s one method of salvation will be without excuse. He will pour out His wrath on them regardless of what the foolish wisdom of the world may teach. Those, however, who come to God through Christ will be forgiven. The gospel of Christ is able to deliver sinners out of a lifestyle of idolatry and sexual impurity of any kind and restore the elect to a proper relationship with God and with one another.
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Do many Christians oppose the idea of the wrath of God? How would you respond to them?
2. Against whom does God reveal His wrath?
3. What is the difference between “ungodliness” and “wickedness”?
4. How does God make Himself known through general revelation? Give examples.
5. List and describe the stages of man’s rejection of God’s truth and its consequences.
6. What common excuses do people have today to avoid God and religion? Does the church often allow for these excuses?
7. What sins have become “respectable” even within the church today?
8. Is an unbeliever to be pitied for his ignorance or condemned for his sin? Explain.