For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Rom. 1.18).
As I read these words from chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, I am reminded of the 1971 John Lennon song, ‘Imagine’ in which he envisions a world without God and says, ‘… It’s Easy if You Try’. Lennon himself described the song’s meaning and explained its commercial appeal: “Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted … Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.” And Rolling Stone magazine has commented: “[Lennon] calls for a unity and equality built upon the complete elimination of modern social order […] 22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.”
Forty five years later, this all seems strangely relevant as we have gone from merely ‘imagining’ to moving swiftly toward this one-world philosophy and a rejection of the One true God from our society. The sobering words found in the book of Judges should cause us to pause and consider the inevitable outcome: “…everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17.6b). Is it any wonder why there is a worldwide movement to push the homosexual agenda, and more recently, why we can’t figure out who should go into what public restroom? These and many other examples we could cite in our society are simply indicators that we have lost our way.
Contrary to what people naturally think, right and wrong is not something we can determine or achieve on our own (see Rom. 3.28). Instead, Paul in Romans 1 states that true righteousness is revealed in the gospel. The gospel reveals the righteousness of God that comes by faith from start to finish (v.17). As believers, we must promote the gospel, not pin our hopes on a political figure or what anyone might do to improve things economically, socially, morally or otherwise. Change comes when people obtain a new heart. For that, Christ must change us from the inside out. That is why the gospel matters more than anything else to change a nation. The gospel is God’s revelation about Jesus Christ.
God’s Revelation to a Godless Society
Just as God’s righteousness is revealed (v.17) in the truth of the gospel, God’s wrath is likewise being revealed (present tense). This is meant by God to show how much we need his righteousness. God’s wrath is against those who suppress or ‘hold down’ God-given truth (v.18) (see also John 3.36).
It is important to note that God’s wrath is not an emotional outburst of uncontrolled anger. God does not “lose his temper.” Rather, his wrath is his abiding, necessary, and personal response to unrighteousness in light of his own holy nature. An active rejection of the truth revealed by God, results in an active response from God. What we might not realize, however, is that God’s wrath is a reflection of his love. Because God is so angry from the effects of sin upon the world, He sacrificed his own Son in love to destroy it. We should not wonder then if or when God will judge a society. When we see unrighteousness increase, this IS judgment from God. Moral and spiritual decline is proof that the wrath of God is in full swing upon those who have rejected Him.
The Reasons for God’s Wrath
Paul presents an explanation and a description of those upon whom God’s wrath falls. This may seem unfair. But God is absolutely just in His response toward sin and the truth He has revealed. How so?
First, Paul clearly states that God has clearly revealed Himself to everyone through His creation (vv.19-20)(cf. Ps. 19.1-4a). We can know that He exists and to some degree what He is like. Theologians call this, General Revelation.
Secondly, people willfully ‘suppress’ God’s self-revelation (vv.21-23). That is, they attempt to ignore, hide and refuse the truth about God, which they see in creation and within their own conscience. This rejection of God is the reason for God’s wrath and is described by Paul as being both deliberate and degrading. It is deliberate in that there is a stubborn refusal to honor God or give thanks to Him. (v.21a). It is degrading in that their suppression of the truth about God negatively affects their thinking and the motivations of their heart. Paul’s description shows this as a digression into moral and spiritual darkness. Ultimately, those who suppress God’s revelation of Himself become fools (i.e. morons, morally bankrupt). “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The irony of this is that the fool thinks he is wise, yet by his own actions and behavior gives unmistakable proof of his own morally bankrupt state. This is now not just something that they do, but what they become and even recommend to others. In truth, they have lost touch with the Ultimate Reality. Paul indicates that this final state is due to idolatry – rejecting the true God and embracing a substitute that they have made up in their own mind and heart.
God’s Response – the Removal of His Restraining Grace
The execution of God’s wrath and resulting judgment appear particularly in verses 24-32 in the phrase, “God gave them up” which occurs three times in these verses (vv. 24, 26, 28). What does it mean to be ‘given up’ by God? This is a judgment that appears to be the removal of His protective hand of grace. The person or nation thus fully experiences the downward effects of their own choices (cf. Isa 3.9). God lets them go their own way, and the evil that God normally holds back in His grace is allowed to have its way. Essentially, God gives them what they crave – a world without God. This is a hopeless condition and results in physical and spiritual death (cf. Eph. 2.12, Rom. 6.16). C. S. Lewis, writing in his book, The Problem of Pain, has said, “The lost enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded and are therefore self-enslaved.”
Really Good News
You say, that sounds really depressing. It is, except for the good news of the gospel. The gospel provides us with the only solution to God’s abiding wrath due to sin. The fact is, the gospel is not just for a godless society. This IS really good news for everyone … for those we consider as the worst of society, to those we might think are pretty decent and moral folk to those who consider themselves religious … to you and to me. All alike are under sin. From the worst to the best of us, all are unrighteous without Christ. This will be Paul’s argument all the way through chapter 3, so that no one ‘gets a pass’ based on their own merits. Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world, substitutes His own righteousness for our unrighteousness. Upon placing our faith in Jesus, we are immediately forgiven of our sin and declared righteous before God. The believer is thus empowered to work out this righteousness as we listen and follow the Spirit Who now lives within. This is the hope of the gospel. This is the hope of every man.