Sermon preached on Romans 1:18-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/22/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Against All Ungodliness and Unrighteousness”
Back then and still today, there is a lot of wickedness going on. Today in our society, things seem especially to be going from bad to worse. And it’s passages like this that help us to make sense of it all. Of course, a passage like this humbles us. It humbles us before the almighty wrath of God. It humbles us because we know we deserve it. But for us who have found Christ, the wrath of God can also encourage us. It encourages us that our God is a just God, and will not let wickedness go unpunished. And so that encourages us, even while we are humbled knowing that save the grace we’ve found in Jesus that we have deserved this judgment ourselves. For this is what our passage is talking about today. That in the face of all the ungodliness and unrighteousness in the world today, that the wrath of God is revealed. That God has spoken from heaven – his wrath is against all of this ungodliness and unrighteousness. And so that we’ll be our consideration today: The revealed wrath of God, the reasons for it, and what this means for humanity.
Let’s begin then in verse 18. There we see that the wrath of God is revealed. It’s revealed. Revealed from heaven. It’s at this point we must remind ourselves not to impute to God the way man so often sinfully expresses wrath. God does have wrath, but it is a righteous wrath. We know that from verse 18, because it tells us that his wrath is specifically directed against unrighteousness as well as ungodliness. Thinking about what his wrath is directed against is helpful, because it paints the righteous character of his wrath. It shows that his wrath is not the petty anger of a prideful human who had his feelings hurt. Nor is it the exaggerated anger of a quick-tempered man who responds harshly with violent outbursts. Man’s wrath regularly falls short of expressing righteous indignation. God’s wrath never falls short.
And so we get a sense of that just by considering what his wrath is directed against in verse 18; that’s the ungodliness and unrighteousness. Let’s consider those two things for a moment. The reference to ungodliness here especially gets at man’s perversion of religion – he doesn’t acknowledge God properly. That man worships idols in one way or another, and that we don’t worship the one true God as we ought. This passage goes on to talk about such idolatry and perversion of worship. And then the reference to unrighteousness here especially gets at man’s perversions of morality: that immoral actions are committed, and that good deeds are lacking. The passage, especially the remainder of the chapter, gives examples of such immoralities. This is what God’s wrath is directed against.
And so the wrath of God stands in opposition to all such wickedness. His wrath then is his holy revulsion against this wickedness. But it is a holy revulsion that is expressed. He doesn’t pretend like his wrath isn’t there. He doesn’t bottle it up only to become bitter. No, his holy revulsion is expressed. His righteous indignation is expressed in his wrath. A wrath that purposes to punish sin. A wrath that designs to bring judgment upon this wickedness. This is what it gets at when it talks about how God’s wrath is revealed from heaven. God has made known to man his holy revulsion toward sin. God has made known that judgment is upon such sin. His wrath is upon those, as it says here, are men who have by their unrighteousness suppressed the truth. We’ll talk more about that suppression in a moment. But the point to know is that God has made this judgment known.
How has he revealed that wrath? We can think of several ways. It’s revealed in every natural consequence of our sin. It’s revealed when our consciences are pricked with guilt over our actions. It’s been revealed in the past supernaturally with things like the flood, or when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. It will be revealed in the future on the Final Day of Judgment. All of these are ways in which God’s wrath is expressed in judgment on the wicked. And another way that wrath is revealed and expressed is the concept we find in verse 24, and actually the rest of the chapter. It’s the idea of God giving people up to their sin. The people sin a particular sin, and God finally releases his restraint on them so that they fall into that temptation all the more. The result is someone who becomes hardened and calloused to their sin, that they stop even having the normal regret and pangs of conscience over it. They don’t give a second thought to that sin anymore. We’ll talk more about that concept next week as we delve further into that idea in the last half of this chapter. But here we see it connected with the fact that God’s wrath is revealed. This too is one of the ways God’s wrath is revealed, when the wicked are given fully over to the sin they had already sought to embrace. We can see some of that at work in our world today, for sure. Well, this chapter ends then with a very dramatic emphasis on how God’s revealed his wrath. It says that man so knows the judgment of God that they know their actions are worthy of death. All these ways that we’ve just discussed about how God’s wrath is revealed – that’s the climax of them. The judgment of death.
Let me make sure we understand what Paul’s doing here. I’ve mentioned before that the first half of Romans is developing a theological treatise on justification. About how man can be declared right before God through faith in Jesus Christ. Last week he introduced that concept briefly in verses 16 and 17. Now he begins to make his case for it. But do you see where he starts? Before getting into the detailed explanation of how we are justified, he starts with the need. Before getting into a detailed explanation of the good news, he describes the bad news. You see, this is the context for talking about justification. He’s making it very clear that the world is not by default able to be declared righteous. We’ll see that more in chapters 2 and 3 as well. You see, the natural man cannot be declared righteous on his own, because rather it’s declared here that man is unrighteous on his own. The result is not justification. It’s God’s wrath. Wrath that is revealed as standing opposed to their justification. Natural man is not justified before God. Natural man is guilty before God, and declared wicked; under judgment; under condemnation. For Paul to talk about our justification, he has to first make clear our need. Of course, Paul had already talked about the good news and our justification. That was verses 16 and 17, as I mentioned. But before he delves into the details of that, he’s making really clear our need. Man needs justification by faith in Christ, because on our own we have only God’s wrath to face.
At this point, I love to note how Paul closes this section in verse 25 with praising God. As he summarizes God’s wrath, he then goes on to say how blessed God is. What a wonderful point he adds in here. You see, when talking about God’s wrath upon sinners, people often impugn God’s goodness. Not Paul. Paul declares God’s goodness when he talks about God’s wrath. God is just and right to have this wrath toward sinners. We’ll see that as we keep looking at this passage. And you have to love that this blessedness of God includes that the wrath has been revealed. For it to be revealed from heaven is just another reason why God is so blessed. He’s warned mankind. This of course is not something our world likes to think about. People today have a distaste for God’s wrath. They want to emphasize that God is love, but they don’t like to think of him as also as a God of wrath. And yet the Bible shows how God has both love and wrath. Since we can have both, it’s not surprising that God can have both. And yet in God, they are both perfectly expressed. And so God is a good God, and indeed blessed forever.
Well, let’s turn now to consider why God is just to show this wrath. The first point that is made here in that respect is that all men know God. The point specifically here is that even unregenerate humans know God. Even those who have not been born again by the Holy Spirit, even they know God. This is meant, obviously, not in a relational sense. But in terms of knowing the existence of God, they inwardly know this to be true. Let’s walk through verses 18-20 and see how Paul explains this.
Begin in verse 18. At the end of the verse 18, Paul acknowledges that even these unregenerate humans have truth. As we’ll go on to see, this is truth about the existence of God. And yet what Paul says is that they suppress this truth. Professor Murray explained the idea here is that they hold back this truth. They don’t let it come to the forefront of their thinking. They won’t acknowledge it. Verse 19 then flushes this out further. Here’s where it specifically talks about knowing God. It acknowledges that the existence of God is clear to them, because God has made it known to them. Again, you see the justice of God. No one can really claim that they didn’t know, or that God didn’t reveal himself to them. No, right here in verse 18, the Bible claims that God has revealed himself to all people. There is not a person alive who has not had God reveal himself to them.
Well, that might seem like a bold claim, or at least raise some questions. So, Paul goes on to explain what he means. Verse 20 explains what Paul has in mind. Paul says that the creation reveals the existence of God. This is what we call in theological terms as general revelation. That God has revealed himself in some general way to all people, through the creation. As Psalm 19:1 says, the “Heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” This is in contrast with special revelation, which is what we have in the Bible. There God in great detail reveals not only himself, but his plan of salvation, and so much more. Surely, there is so much more light about God in the special revelation of the Bible. And yet, there is at least enough in general revelation for mankind to know there is a God and that he ought to be worshipped. That’s Paul’s point here.
Paul goes on in verse 20 then to explain how this works. How people know there is a God through the creation. Paul uses a bit of an oxymoron to make his point. Paul says that God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen. Did you catch that? God’s unseeable things can be seen. The point is that God is not something you can see with your physical eyes. And yet as we see the creation with our physical eyes, we can mentally see him and his qualities. In other words, we can perceive with our brains about the things of God as we see with our eyes the physical world around us.
Now, I’m not an expert in general revelation, so I can’t explain in great scientific details how all this creation works. As a pastor, my training’s in special revelation. And yet there are many Christians who are trained in general revelation. I’m thinking of scientists who are Christians, etc. Talk to them and consider with them how the creation shows the existence of God. It’s a biblical thing to meditate on. And yet, you really don’t need to be well trained in science to appreciate this. That’s Paul’s point. Just look around, and you see the wisdom and power of God. You see how he organized everything so wonderfully. I was recounting to Will the other day in the garden about how sticks will eventually turn into dirt. I simply told him that otherwise we’d run out of dirt in the world. After I said that, I paused and thought that this would pretty cool. God had a plan. This world operates in an amazing way.
And so Paul in verse 20 goes on to describe two of these invisible things of God. He says that we can see his eternal power, and his Godhead, through the creation. Power to create and power to sustain, showing that it is eternal power. And the word for Godhead is better translated as divinity, or divine nature. This appears to be getting at his worship. That the creator shows he is God. That he is above all. Different than us; transcendent. Worthy to be praised by us who are his creations. That then leads to the next verse. Verse 21 shows that this all demands a response. Verse 21, “They neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.” You see it says, that man should be praising God and thanking him. That’s worship language. That natural man should not only recognize God’s eternal power and divinity, but then respond with a right worship of him. And yet, Paul says, that has not happened.
You see, here is why God’s wrath is justified. Verse 21 again makes the point that was made earlier. They knew God. Unregenerate men know God. The wicked have known God. So tie all of this together. These verses say that all men know God, even the wicked. They know him by observing his existence and attributes through the creation. They perceive in this, that this God ought to be worshipped and thanked. But do they do this? No. They suppress this truth. They cover it up. They ignore it. They try to cast it out of their minds. Like it says in verse 28 – they do not like to retain God in their knowledge. And God says they are successful in some sense. Their suppression of the truth results in what it says in 21 and 22. Futile thinking; foolish hearts; darkened minds. It’s as it says in verse 25. They exchanged the truth of God for the lie.
This is such an interesting dynamic then when we talk to the natural man. Apart from the Holy Spirit’s regenerating of someone, they are in this sad estate. Affected by sin, they have a mind and intellect that is blinded. The theology term for this is the noetic effects of sin. It’s the effects of sin on our minds. Our minds do not see clearly the clear reality of God. And yet, deep down inside, every man still does know there is a God. Cornelius Van Til emphasized this in his teaching on apologetics. That every man truly knows there is a God and that you can appeal to it. To help them see that they have been suppressing that truth. He says you step into their shoes and help them to see how they really have been living like they know there is a God, because they really do know there is a God. Surely that’s why people live with some sense of morality, even when a consistently held position of atheism can’t account for morality. Because deep down inside, their suppression of the truth of God’s existence can only go so far. Van Til says we can challenge people in this area. And yet Van Til, as a good Calvinist, also acknowledges that a person will not ultimately come to acknowledge God unless the Spirit moves in them to remove these blinders from their minds. To renew their thinking and regenerate their hearts.
And yet I have digressed. The main subject here is more than just something for our apologetics. The main subject is how God’s wrath has been revealed. It is this knowledge of God that Paul uses to make his case. His point is that men are without excuse, verse 20. This is why God is just to reveal his wrath against such people. They know him and have ignored him. But Paul’s not done yet in making his case here. It gets worse. Not only have such people not worshipped God as they should, they have actually done worse. They have engaged in worship – foolish worship. Instead of worshipping God, they have worshipped the idols. Paul shows that this ultimately means they have worshipped the creation. That’s his summary in verse 25. Such fallen humans have worshipped and served the creature, rather than the creator.
Verse 23 spells this out for us. It explains the idolatry. People have worshipped idols. Idols made by man to look like man, or birds, or animals. Idols that cannot express the glory of God. And these certainly cannot be used to properly worship the one true God. And so do you see the irony here? Verse 20 said that it’s in the creation that we see God and that we ought to worship him. And yet verse 23 says that instead man has made the creation their god and worshipped it instead. The irony is that the very thing that should drive us to worship God has instead become the idol. It’s what man worships instead of worshipping God. That’s why it’s a perversion. A perversion of something that should lead us to God., is used for idolatry instead, in man’s sinfulness.
Back then this was true. Romans and Greeks tended to have gods and idols that looked a lot like humans. Egyptians and Babylonians tended to have idols that looks liked birds or animals. And yet this is still true today, even without the physical graven images. Modern sensibilities have gotten rid of the physical images for the most part, but not the idols themselves. For example, humanism essentially makes man god. Pantheism, the idea that all the creation is god, is alive and well in eastern spirituality. Certain forms of radical environmentalism are essentially religions that worship the earth. This idolatry still is alive and well today. And yet in the face of it all, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. And just as the people back then were without excuse, so this is true today for all who practice these forms of idolatry and don’t worship the one true God who is to be blessed forever, amen.
Well, today we’ve talked about the need of man. Man needs justification because man on there own is in deep trouble. The wrath of God has been revealed against man, because they are not justified before God. They are not declared righteous before God. They are declared unrighteous before God. That’s the problem presented in this passage. It’s the problem Paul will be addressing as he goes on in this letter. And yet, we don’t have to leave today without a reminder of the solution. The solution has already been presented in Romans. We mentioned the emphasis today of verse 18 on the revealing. The wrath of God has been revealed. But contrast that with what was already said in verse 17. The righteousness of God is revealed. See the contrast? Two things have been revealed! Yes, the wrath of God has been revealed against wicked man. But the righteousness of God has also been revealed. The righteousness of God which by faith will save us. The righteousness of God which is announced to us in the gospel. That us wicked human beings can be declared right before God by faith in Jesus. That we appropriate God’s righteousness for us by trusting in the work of Jesus Christ: his righteous life and his sacrificial death.
And so this is something we will flush out more as we study this letter. But for today, be encouraged. For us who are in Christ, the wrath of God is no longer turned against us. For the wrath of God is turned against all who are unrighteous. And yet in Christ, God no longer sees us that way. That’s what’s so wonderful about justification. God sees us as righteous, because he sees Christ’s righteousness on our account. Therefore, such wrath is no longer turned against us!
And so that means that for the Christian this passage need not frighten us. And for the non Christian it should. It should call you to see your need to flee from God’s wrath to Christ. But that is why we preach this message. God uses his Word to awaken dead souls. He uses his Word to enlighten previously darkened minds. He uses his Word to bring the wisdom from above to those previously foolish. And so if you are here today having not acknowledged Christ before, then do so today. Repent, and believe in the gospel and be saved from the wrath of God to come.
Well, then for us who have found this salvation, our response from this passage is clear. It’s a response of praise and thanksgiving. It’s a response of worship and service. That’s what the unregenerate person lacks according to this passage. Because they have sinfully suppressed the truth of God, they don’t praise him and thank him, verse 21. They don’t worship and serve him, verse 25. Instead they worship and serve their idols. So then, for us who have come to embrace the truth, we ought to live in light of that clear truth. How can we not praise and thank God, if he has quickened our hearts to acknowledge his existence? If God has given us sight by taking away that sin caused blindness, how can we not but see his glory and his blessings and so praise and thank him! And then if we are to worship and serve him, how can we exchange his awesome glory for something so simple, by making him into something created in our own image, or something created in the image of mere animals? No, we must then aspire to worship him in all his glory. We must aspire to worship him spiritually, and in all truth, perceiving the eternal mightiness of his power and divinity.
And then let me take this all one step further. God has awakened us to our spiritual denial of himself not through general revelation, but actually through special revelation, and by his Spirit. And so then how can we ignore his Word which so clearly tells us how to worship and serve him. It leaves no doubt for us on how to please him. It leaves no need to try to discern how to rightly worship him from the creation. Yes, we can see the need for it from the creation. But how much more clearly does he then speak to us by his Word. Let us not neglect so great of a salvation that we have by not worshipping and serving our creator and our redeemer. He is indeed blessed forever. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.