We saw when we thought about Paul’s opening words to the Roman Christians that he very quickly stated in crystal clear terms the power and effectiveness of the gospel which he was setting out to expound, ‘the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. And he spoke of the gospel revealing a righteousness from God.’
But before he develops the doctrine underlying this marvel of divine righteousness imparted to men by faith, he must say something about a subject which is inescapable, if very disagreeable, namely the wrath of God. ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (1:18).
Now the gospel preacher does not find himself readily warming to the subject of the wrath of God. Perhaps he finds himself yielding to the temptation to play down this disturbing reality. But in fact Paul has much to say about this matter in the epistle to the Romans. It touches the ugly fact of human sin and depravity. It spells out the inevitable response of a God of infinite holiness to the tragedy of human rebellion against His laws. There is simply no escaping the awfulness of human iniquity and disobedience which made necessary God’s intervention in grace for man’s salvation and justification. Let it all be exposed in all its ghastly repulsiveness and, against that blackness, divine grace in redemption will shine in all its glory.
For, as Paul says of men in chapter 1 verse 21, ‘although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him but 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.’ And then come the ominous words, therefore God gave them over. He withdrew restraints and human sin and immorality rushed in like a flood. It was the story of mankind in rebellion against God; they refused to have God in their knowledge.
Paul knew that the Roman Christians would recognize the picture of what surrounded them on every hand in Rome. And do we have any difficulty recognizing it today? It sears the tongue to quote the litany of evil that the apostle lists: ‘evil, greed and depravity … envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice … gossips, slanderers. God-haters, insolent, ruthless’ and he adds, ‘they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them’ (1:29-32). Far from being secretly ashamed of their behaviour, they flaunted it and encouraged others to do the same. Paul showed how God had revealed Himself to men: ‘For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen…so that they are without excuse’ (1:20). We are reminded of Daniel’s indictment of King Belshazzar who had ample reason to appreciate the glory of God. ‘But you … O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this … you did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways’ (Daniel 5:22,23).
Nothing but the wrath of God could be invoked by such a debauched human condition as Paul describes in Romans 1. But God’s wrath is not like human anger which is often irrational, bad-tempered, with ill-controlled emotions which distort judgement. God’s wrath, real and terrible as it is, is just and holy; it is truly righteous indignation. We may feel like Martin Luther in speaking of God’s love as ‘God’s own work’ and God’s wrath as ‘God’s strange work.’ These are the words Luther used. But Paul was just preparing to expound the glory of divine grace and forgiveness. He must first establish beyond all doubt the justice and rightness of severe judgement on sin and wickedness. How acutely he was aware of the burden of human sin borne at Calvary by the Son of God who, he said, ‘loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Maybe, as well as keeping the blackness of sin and the awful reality of God’s wrath prominent in Christian witness to the unconverted, the Christian does well to meditate more often and long on this sombre aspect of gospel truth.
Later in his letter Paul had occasion to remind the disciples how easily sin in all its awfulness could taint their spiritual lives, even though the righteousness of God, through grace, was eternally theirs by faith. ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,’ and again, ‘Hate what is evil; cling to what is good’ (12:2,9).