STUDIES IN ROMANS

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002

STUDY THREE: WHY 'A RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM GOD' IS NECESSARY [PART I] - ROMANS 1:18-32

A. THE WRATH OF GOD (1:18)

'The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men'

In the Greek text 1:18 is connected to Paul's summary of the gospel in 1:16-17 by the word 'for'. Here, Paul says, is the reason why such a gospel, such a righteousness, is necessary. And here is why this righteousness is of necessity 'from God' and 'by faith from first to last': God's wrath is being revealed from heaven.

In these words Paul introduces us to the very real concept of 'the wrath of God'. God is real. His hatred and prohibition of sin are real. His justice is real. His just and sustained anger against sin is real. Hell is real. To deny the reality of the just, sustained wrath of God is to deny the reality of our need for salvation and to deny the necessity of the cross. Apart from this wrath there would be no need for salvation, for there would be no penalty incurred by sin. Salvation is necessary because of this 'wrath of God'. But we must not understand 'wrath' to refer to spontaneous or irrational anger but to indicate his just, deliberate, determined, historic and on-going opposition to and judgment on sin. God opposes sin. God imposes sin's penalty. God exacts punishment. This is part of his holiness, part of his perfection, part of his justice, that sin must be opposed because sin is contrary to all that God is and to all that he created us to be.

Paul also teaches us in this verse that God's wrath is being revealed. That is, right now, at this present time. Just as he has told us that in the gospel 'a righteousness from God is revealed'', so also is God's wrath being revealed from heaven. This has been so from the first warning against sin (Gen 2:17), right up to the time that Paul was writing, and even until now. God has not kept his wrath hidden. God's opposition to sin and his final judgment against sin on the last day has never been a secret. In addition, the death of Christ on the cross for sin is the clearest revelation of the wrath of God that God has ever given; every time the message of this death is proclaimed, the wrath of God is revealed in its ultimate expression. This death that Christ experienced affirms beyond question that the wrath of God is real.

For discussion: In what way does the death of Christ reveal and affirm the wrath of God?

B. THE SIN OF ALL MANKIND

Paul tells us that God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (1:18).

[1] Firstly, let us note the word 'all'. None of our sin escapes the anger of God. In the context of Paul's letter to the Romans, this means that Paul here includes the Jews along with the Gentiles, as we will see later.

[2] The totality of sin is encapsulated here in these two words 'godlessness' and 'wickedness'. Together these words refer to all defiance and disregard of God's person: not only the overt expression of observable sinfulness which we would categorize under the heading of 'wickedness', but the very heart attitude out of which these sins come: the sin of not giving to God the place and the honour due to him as God, that is, 'godlessness'.

The word translated 'godlessness' is asebeian' which is formed by the negative 'a' followed by a derivative of sebomai which refers to reverence, worship and adoration. Rightly understood 'godlessness' is not always observable as overt acts of sin. 'Godlessness' can in fact display the observable characteristics of goodness. There are many 'good' people who are quite 'godless', who do not reverence, worship or adore God. They may be 'good' by human standards, or even by the standards of God's moral laws, but they neither know nor honour God.

The word translated 'wickedness' is 'adikia' - 'unrighteousness', which is the opposite of 'righteousness'. The righteousness from God revealed in the gospel stands in stark contrast to the 'wickedness', the total lack of righteousness, of men. There is nothing in us that would gain our acquittal in the courts of heaven: we are adikoi - not innocent, not able to be acquitted, not right according to legal standards.

It is this comprehensive human sinfulness that, along with the wrath of God, necessitates a gospel righteousness from God. It is this comprehensive human sinfulness that necessitates the gospel being the 'power of God', for it is obvious that we are powerless to do anything to save ourselves. The gospel is what it is of necessity, because we are what we are.

[3] Our human godlessness and wickedness if further explained: we are represented as those who 'suppress the truth by their wickedness' (1:18).' To 'suppress' means to 'hold back, hold down, restrain.' The 'truth' is the real truth about God, and, consequently, the real truth about the real state of affairs between man and God. This aspect of sin is developed in the verses 19 to 32. It has two important inferences:

If the truth is 'suppressed' it is obviously there to be suppressed.

This suppression of truth is part and parcel of our wickedness.

1:19-20: The truth is plain to see, because God has made it plain; God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. This revelation of God in creation is not just a by-product, or a spin-off, but something deliberately woven into the created world by God himself: 'God has made it plain'. It is not simply that if we analyse creation we will discover also something of God's nature, but rather that God created what and how he created expressly to reveal himself. Creation lays evident and exposed before us the eternal power and divine nature of God. It leaves us 'without excuse' - without any defence in the presence of God - for we, who have his power and glory thus manifested always before us, have suppressed that truth.

1:20b: 'so that men are without excuse'.' No one can claim ignorance of God as an excuse for their sin and rebellion, for the whole created world is constantly proclaiming his glory.

For meditation: read and meditate on Psalm 19:1-4a.

1:21-32: In these verses we can identify repeated reference to (1) knowledge of God, (2) rejection of that knowledge, and (3) the results of that rejection. Check this out in the following table:

Knowledge of God
Rejection of that knowledge
Results of that rejection

although they knew God

they neither glorified him as God, nor gave thanks to him

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

they became fools

God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another

the truth of God

they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator

because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts (read 26-27)

the knowledge of God

they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God

he gave them over to a depraved mind to do that ought not to be done (read 29-31)

they know God's righteous decree

they continue to do these very things and approve of those who practise them

You therefore have no excuse -you who pass judgement - you condemn yourself.

In all of this the foundational sin is the rejection of God.

For further study: From Romans 1:18-32 consider the significance God gives to our minds.' Compare this with Ephesians 4:17-19; Romans 12:1-2. Add to this the literal meaning of the Greek word translated by the English 'repent? ' metanoeo ' I change my mind.
For discussion: Analyse the impact of evolution on our society and compare it with Paul's teaching tabulated above. Discuss why the rejection of God, and failure to honour him as God, has this impact of undermining our own self-perception/self-image, and diminishing our respect for self and others. You will be assisted in this analysis by discussing the ways sin expresses itself listed below.

[4] Through the rest of this chapter Paul provides us with a vivid description of human sinfulness, in which, as we will see later, his intention is to indict and condemn us all:

1:21

their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened

1:22

they became fools

1:24

desire in their hearts for sexual impurity, self-degradation

1:26

sinful lusts, abandonment of natural relations, homosexual perversions

1:28

depraved minds

1:29

filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity

1:30

slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful

1:30

invent ways of doing evil

1:30

disobedient to parents

1:31

senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless

1:32

continue to do the things that deserve death, and approve of those who do them.

For further study: Taking up the word 'darkened' in verse 21, check out the following scripture passages to fill out your understanding of the darkness from which we need to be saved: Genesis 3; 1 Corinthians 2; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Ephesians 4:17-19; Colossians 1:13a; 3:6; John 3:18-21; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:7-11. You will note that it is something much bigger than the darkness of sin, or even the darkness of sin's condemnation. It is the darkness of the ignorance of God, out of which all other darkness flows, and of which all other darkness is but a part. It is into this darkness of ignorance of God that Jesus came and said: 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life' (John 8:12).

[5] For advanced students: Further on the revelation of the wrath of God (1:18,24,26,28).

In 1:18 the Greek reads 'For the wrath ... ' This is to explain to us why salvation can only and ever be by faith, and can only and ever be achieved by the power of God. Such is the sinfulness of mankind that it brings down upon us the wrath of God. 'Note that this is not only something in the future, but 'is being revealed' - present tense. When we come to verses 24,26,28 we are confronted with some of the hard sayings of the Bible, in which we are told 'God gave them over'. We must understand these words to be a description of the wrath of God, which, in the presence of human sin, in the presence of human desire to be free from the restriction of divine control and authority, takes charge of those who thus choose to exist independently of God.

This takes us right back to Genesis 3 and our original choice to pursue the lie of Satan and grasp for equality with God, denying our creaturely role of dependence on him. Our foolish opinion that by exercising this choice to be free from God's control we will actually be beyond his authority, has deceived us. Nothing, no one, can ever step out from under the sovereign authority of God: as David expressed so clearly in Psalm 139, everywhere he goes God is there. There is nowhere to escape from him. Just as the whole created world has in-built law and order, and that law and order cannot be interfered with without in-built consequences, because there are laws within laws, and interference with one law brings another law into dominance (as the law of gravity takes over when certain aerodynamic laws are compromised), so with the human.

The primary law, or principle, is that God created us in his image (Gen 1:26,27): we were created to bear, or reflect his image, his likeness, his character. That is what constitutes our humanness: we are made to be like God. What we are depends totally on what he is. To choose, as we did in our first ancestor, Adam, to put ourselves in opposition to God, to no longer be dependent on what he is, is to choose an impossibility. We can only be what we were created to be when we remain in a positive, face to face, faith relationship with God. When we refuse that dependence another law or principle which is built into creation takes over: when you eat it you will surely die (Gen 2:17). When you interfere with the law of creaturely dependence on God (that is, the law of faith), the law of sin and death takes over. God's wrath (his just and determined opposition to sin) becomes active. The inevitable and logical consequences of your anti-God choice inexorably come into operation. The irreversible degeneration and degradation that follows rejection of God sets in. It is part and parcel of the 'surely die' of the 'death' that ensued when we chose to sever ourselves from God, who is the source of our life. This is the on-going manifestation of his wrath against our godlessness and wickedness, in which we have suppressed the truth: we die. All human suffering is encompassed in this one small word.

Consider the comments of James Dunn (selected from pages 55 to 64 of Word Biblical Commentary, 38A: Romans 1-8).

' ... the effect of divine wrath upon man is to show that man who rebels against his relation of creaturely dependence on God (which is what faith is) becomes subject to degenerative processes ... the actual operation of wrath Paul affirms to be clearly visible in human behaviour ... ' (1:18).

' ... Paul is ... operating within the framework of the fall narratives: man's desire for freedom from constraint to do what he wants as the primal sin ... ' (1:24).

'Paul would see the act of handing over as punitive, but not as spiteful or vengeful. For him it is simply the case that man apart from God regresses to a lower level of animality. God has handed them over in the sense that he has accepted the fact of man's rebellious desire to be free of God, ... and has let go of the control which restrained them from their baser instincts. ... God does not retain control over those who do not desire it; he who wants to be on his own is granted his wish.' (1:24).

'The outcome of failing to give God his due honour is the dishonouring of oneself: human respect (both self-respect and respect of others) is rooted in the recognition that only God has authority as Creator to order and dispose of that which is created.' (1:26).

[In other words, rejection of God (usually) leads to a loss of respect for self and others, and the consequent treatment of oneself and others as disposable items to be used for our own gain or pleasure. God's creation of man in his own image outlaws this kind of disrespect and mistreatment.]

For discussion: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the above comments from Dunn? Why?