Contending for the Recognition of Absolutes, Part 14
It is hard to imagine anything in religion more repugnant to people than the wrath of God, and it is easy to see why.…The notion of a “vengeful” God strikes us as inconsistent with a God of love. This seems right at first, but the complaint is based on a misunderstanding. God’s love is not a thing in itself, so to speak, but is tied, like all of his attributes, to his goodness, the very goodness we are inclined to question when evil runs rampant. “Why doesn’t God do something?” We wonder. Yet we cry foul when we learn God will do something decisive about evil and we are the evildoers.
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder, and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep of the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.
—Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.
—the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Romans 5:6-9—
View summaries of all the articles in this series here.
Before distributing the final exam, the college professor told his class his last test would have a strict time limit. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have 90 minutes and only 90 minutes to complete this test. If you go over that time, I will have to lower your grade substantially for this class.”
An hour passed. Seventy minutes. Then the students began to finish—a few at first, then more. They rose from their seats, placed their work on the professor’s desk, and quietly left the room. At the end of the hour-and-a-half period, one student remained, and he kept working. The professor sat silently at his desk and watched him intently—but the student didn’t look up even once. Then, at a full 20 minutes past the deadline, he rose from his chair with paper in hand and walked to the front of the room.
“Young man,” said the professor, “you know you took more than your allotted time to complete this exam. I’m afraid I’m going to have to reduce your grade to a point where it really will hurt you. I would not be fair to everyone else in the class if I didn’t.”
“Sir,” responded the student, “do you know who I am?”
“No, I don’t” said the professor.
“Good!” He then randomly inserted his own test in the stack of exams on the desk. Grateful he’d been able to hide his own paper among those of his fellow students, he smiled at the professor, wished him a good afternoon, and walked out of the room.
Bad News That Gets Even Worse
“Wow, that’s a pretty sharp kid!” someone might say. Maybe so, but his tactic absolutely will not work for the biggest test of all—life’s final exam. You see, God not only knows who each one of us is, He knows all. Moreover, He overlooks nothing, and He doesn’t grade on a curve.
As hard as this news is, there’s more. It actually gets worse. God is angry. In Romans 1:18, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declared, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and righteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Actually, the New International Version translates the tense of the verb even more clearly:2 “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,” (emphasis added). Paul went on in subsequent statements to elaborate on ways this was occurring, but for now let’s consider the realities that God is angry, His anger is real, and it affects people directly.
God’s character determines reality, and anything contrary to His character invokes His wrath. This is how things are, regardless of feelings or opinions to the contrary.
We said earlier that “God determines reality; people don’t.” Moreover, we’ve sought throughout this series to convey that God didn’t arbitrarily determine what reality would be, even though certainly He made deliberate choices. More to the point, God’s character determines reality, and anything contrary to His character invokes His wrath. This is the way things are, regardless of feelings or opinions to the contrary. The Greek word translated wrath in Romans 1:18 reflects not only God’s judgment and punishment for wrongdoing, but also the divine anger on which the judgment and punishment are based.
The Reason for God’s Anger
Why is God angry? We first need to know that the Lord has revealed Himself through nature and the created order. We call this “general revelation.” We use the term “special revelation” to refer to revelation occurring when God transcends nature and reveals Himself in miraculous ways, including through Scripture, and especially through His Son, Jesus Christ. In the Bible God speaks of His unveiling Himself in nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” wrote David in what we now know as Psalm 19, “And the firmament shows His handiwork.
2 Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
4 Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1-4).
Asher Brown Durand, The Catskills, 1859
Note verse 3 in particular. Nature and the ordered world speak a universal language, one everyone can understand. They testify clearly to God’s glory. Furthermore, in Romans 1:20, Paul wrote that God’s deity and power are clearly evident in creation, so much so that people “are without excuse.” Verses 18-23 of Romans 1 provide a context that helps us more fully understand.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things (Rom. 1:18-23).
Please note these phrases and clauses. God is revealing His wrath (verse 18) against this backdrop.
- Verse 19: “what may be known of God is manifest in them”
- Verse 19: “God has shown it to them”
- Verse 20: “clearly seen,” “understood,” “without excuse”
Even though people saw and comprehended the truth about God, the passage tells us, “they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). Consequently, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18).
Do you now see why God is angry? He effectively painted a portrait of Himself on the canvas of nature, declaring that He exists and created everything that is. He spoke—and speaks—so clearly that no one can fail to understand. God’s self-portrait is unambiguous. Specifically, since “His eternal power and Godhead” (v. 20) are evident, people know from what they see in nature to look for God, not in nature, but beyond it. Yes, it’s true that we need to know more about God than creation tells us, but here we are concerned with what people have done with the initial information they have received. People have ignored and rejected God’s revelation!
God has made Himself known, and people have ignored and rejected God’s revelation!
We are reminded of the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. While this parable has multiple implications, we must not miss this main point: The king invited people to his son’s wedding, and they refused to come. They even “made light of it” (v. 5). We therefore readily understand why the king “was furious” and took action against them (see v. 7). Romans 1 presents a similar scenario.
A Warning for Everyone
The situation is dire for those who turn a cold shoulder to what they know about God, but we must read Romans 1 with great humility. No one is immune from responding to God’s revelation in the way Romans 1 describes. We need only look at Psalm 19 to see this. After describing God’s portrait of Himself in creation and how the Lord’s laws and ways were supremely valuable, David wrote, “Who can understand his [own] errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me.” (Psalm 19:12-13). As God declares in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; who can know it?” If Romans 1:18-32 does not describe you, it is only because of God’s grace that it does not!
A Great Urgency
Again, we return to the truth “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18). This may upset us, but because it is true, we need to know and understand what this means. The Greek word translated wrath in Romans 1:18 appears in numerous other places in the New Testament, including Romans 5:6-9, which we cited at the top. Examining several Bible passages that carry the term will help us gain the understanding we need, along with a sense of urgency about where people—including you and me—stand before the Lord.
Next week, we’ll look at 4 Bible passages that tell us about divine wrath.
Yes, the bad news is bad—no question about it. Even so, we have hope. Just as God’s character exudes wrath, so also is His character the source of our hope.
Don’t miss next week’s discussion!
Part 15 is available here.
Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
One passages was taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
1Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 97.
2James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Volume 1, Justification by Faith, Romans 1–4, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 133.