Romans 1:18-20 "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
Have you ever been in a crisis? Whether small ones or big ones, crises make us feel trapped, hopeless, helpless and near the prospect of death. Fear too can accompany a crisis. Sometimes we can be in a crisis and not even realize it. Recently I had attempted to travel during the Christmas season. When I had left home, the weather was already severe. The part of the world where we live is known for its harsh and cold winters, and so I figured it was par-for-the-course. When I got on the main thoroughfare, I saw flashing signs with these words: "lake effect snow warning in effect". My instincts told me to drive very slowly.
As the miles dragged on with a creeping pace, I began to see further warnings, flashing their urgent messages. I knew then I might need to think about turning back. Soon the traffic I was traveling with gradually came to a halt. There we were in a "white-out". It didn't take long before I witnessed tow-trucks and even big snow plows in ditches along the berms of the road. These combined warnings prompted me to turn about and head back home. I would find out later that they had shut down that stretch of highway for the night. Warnings are there for a reason.
When we come to Romans 1:18, we find a Heavenly warning: "For the wrath of God is being revealed from Heaven". Today’s post will feature the beginning part of Paul’s explanation in Romans 1:18-3:20 about mankind’s threefold crisis before God: spiritual, moral and relational. The only remedy adequate to deal with all three is the Gospel. We find in the first leg of Paul's exposition on the Gospel the "bad news" (1:18-3:20): that mankind is in spiritual crisis (1:18-2:4); moral crisis (2:5-16) and a relational crisis (2:17-3:20). The spiritual crisis that we will be exploring in Romans 1:18-2:4 is of the most severe sort. What then is the magnitude of this spiritual crisis? How bad off is mankind? Truly before we can appreciate the good news of the Gospel, we must first understand the bad news.
1. God's Warning From Heaven. Romans 1:18
What is God's wrath? One writer has identified God's wrath as His standing opposition against sin. New Testament scholar Douglass Moo writes the following about God's wrath:
"As long as God is God, He cannot behold with indifference that His creation is destroyed and His holy will trodden underfoot. Therefore He meets sin with His mighty and annihilating reaction."
The Old Testament prophets mention the wrath of God in their pronouncements. Nahum 1:3-4 states: "A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; The Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, And He reserves wrath for His enemies. 3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way, And clouds are the dust beneath His feet." Or again, Habakkuk 1:12-13 "Are You not from everlasting,
O Lord, my God, my Holy One?
We will not die. You, O Lord, have appointed them to judge; And You, O Rock, have established them to correct.
13 Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, And You can not look on wickedness with favor. Why do You look with favor On those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up Those more righteous than they?"
To not warn people of a flooded out bridge or blizzard warnings would be tantamount to a moral defect in the messenger. God's warning of coming wrath is not Him being a mean and over-bearing God, but rather a God of grace who extends the opportunity for people to believe, repent and be saved from such wrath. In the context of both these verses, God's wrath functions like a black cloth to accentuate the precious jewels of His other moral attributes such as mercy (Nahum 1:7) and glory (Habakkuk 2:14) and grace (see Habakkuk 3). The wrath of God is essential in understanding how God's holiness against sin functions in perfect balance with His holiness for righteousness in perfect love.
The Old Testament is not the only part of the Bible that communicates about God's wrath. When we see Jesus for example cleansing the temple in John 2, we see Him expressing wrath over the injustice and profane actions going on in the temple. Undoubtedly Paul's opening lines in the main body of His exposition on the Gospel features this attribute of God. Sadly, God's wrath has gotten so much bad press in both the culture and the church. As always, the bad press is due to misunderstanding and failure on the part of those who criticize Christianity in not reading the context of places we find God's wrath. It could be also said that the blame falls equally on preachers and the church for neglecting this important attribute of God.
We must subject our preconceived notions of God to the text of scripture and not the other way around. I could say more, but, the reader is invited to read further on God's wrath here:
With this warning about God's wrath from heaven, we need to then inquire what it is that God's is expressing His wrath about. It is in Romans 1:19-20 that we find the root of man's spiritual crisis.
2. General Truths Everyone Knows. Romans 1:19-20
What if I told you that the external world about us is not a mirage but real - would you be surprised? Or, what if I told you that your memories of the past and the breakfast in your stomach was not a series of false memories planted with the appearance of age - what would you say? Such statements are patently obvious to the rationally thinking person. As a matter of fact, we can accept such statements on the face of things without appealing to long draw-out arguments due to them being "properly basic". In other words, all people know this stuff.
Paul's argument here in Romans 1:19-20 is that everyone know that there is a God to whom they are accountable. Everyone knows that God exists. Romans 1:19-20 classify this knowledge of God in two respects: we know God is all powerful and we know He is all good. All human beings not only possess this "general revelation" in knowing about God, they apparently possess this knowledge on the inside. This is knowledge we are born with and possess from birth. All of our moral intuitions (the sense of right and wrong, good and bad) stem not from biological evolution but from the Creator Who embedded morality into the fabric of reality and humanity. This is what everyone knows, and yet, this is knowledge that all humanity, apart from grace - soundly rejects. Hence we find the root of mankind's spiritual crisis.
3. Great Spiritual Crisis. Romans 1:21-2:3
So is mankind inherently good or bad? Is mankind the beacon of hope or the burnt-out ember lost and adrift in a sea of darkness?
Older Bible teachers refer to mankind's spiritual condition in terms of depravity. This doesn't mean people are as bad as they could be. Rather, sin has effected every nook and cranny of humanity as a whole and on the individual level. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 notes about mankind's sinful condition:
"By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God."
Mankind, though capable of noble achievements in art, literature, architecture, human thought, athleticism and exploration - lacks two abilities: the inability to solve their sin problem and the inability to do anything toward their own salvation with respect to God. Paul's following description of man's spiritual crisis matches Jesus' assessment in Mark 7:21-22 - "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” Fallen man is not a sick person on a sick-bed in need of medicine, rather mankind is like a corpse in need of a resurrection. If we were to summarize Paul's explanation of the spiritual crisis of humanity, we could do so in terms of how human beings "prefer" aspects of the creation over the Creator:
A. Preference of things over God. 1:21-24
B. Preference of lies to truth. 1:25-26a
C. Preference of man's plans to God's purpose. 1:26b-28
D. Preference of their own destruction to God's best. 1:29-2:3
If the reader is a Christian, how then are you to deal with this crisis? Although Christians by definition have been rescued and "saved" from God's wrath and the spiritual crisis described here by Paul, we nonetheless still deal with the left-over remnants of the old life residing in our bodies and souls. Paul writes in Colossians 3:5-11 "Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him— 11 a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all."
So we find then that God is warning from heaven concerning the fact that even though everyone knows about Him, nonetheless sinful man prefers the creation over the Creator. Apart from grace, sinful man will vote against God 100% of the time. This crisis is poignantly captured by Jesus responding to the disciples' shock over the failure of the rich young ruler to respond to Jesus in Matthew 19:25-26 - "When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Hence let's consider one last thought for today...
4. God's remedy you must receive. Romans 2:4
We read in Romans 2:4 "Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" As Paul closes out this particular exposition on the spiritual crisis of humanity, we find the hope of the Gospel. Romans 2:1-4 in particular reminds the Christian reader that before they point the long wagging finger of condemnation against unbelievers, they need to be sure to consider their own spiritual condition. Were it not for the grace of God, the Christian would be no better. The Apostle Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 4:16-18 "but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?"
Christians need the remedy of the Gospel for continuance in sanctification. Undoubtedly Paul's insistence upon this remedy of the Gospel is to hold out hope to the sinner who is otherwise in a state of spiritual crisis. It is God who leads people to repentance. It is God who reveals Himself in the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of the Bible and Jesus so as to bridge the gulf of fallen man unto Himself.
Closing thought for today
Wherever there is the convicting work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-12); a heart prepared by Him and open to the truth, ready to respond, believe, repent and thus be saved (Acts 16:14-15, 31; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:24-26); and God's Word (James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23) - expect change. Expect salvation. Pray for such things. For only in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can the remedy for our spiritual crisis be found.