Romans (VI)

ROMANS 1:18-21

(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 7/22/01 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)

Today, as we continue our study in the book of Romans, we get into what looks to some like a total and disjointed shift of focus. In verses 16 and 17 of Romans 1, which we went over last week, Paul talked about the gospel as that which is the power of God to salvation and that which reveals the righteousness of God. Now let's read the first sentence after this, which is in verses 18 and 19:

Romans 1: (18) For God's wrath is revealed from Heaven on all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, holding the truth in unrighteousness, (19) because the thing known of God is clearly known within them, for God revealed [it] to them.

What do these verses have to do with the previous verses? How can Paul go from the gospel to God's wrath? Notice how Paul begins the sentence. What's the first word in the sentence we just read? "FOR." Remember - that's a connector word. We saw this word three times in the previous sentence, and it always pointed to what was before it. Now in this sentence, in verses 18 and 19, Paul is connecting this to the previous sentence, in verses 16 and 17. Some would say that this sentence doesn't follow at all from the previous sentence. Yet Paul, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes "FOR." It's no mistake or lapse in logic here - it's a connection that is inspired by God.

So what does the wrath of God have to do with the righteousness that is revealed in the gospel? Well, notice ON WHAT God's wrath is revealed. It is revealed against ALL UNGODLINESS AND UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. Here we see the reason this sentence follows from the last sentence. The RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD is revealed in the gospel. God is perfectly holy, and God shows His perfect holiness and His perfect justice in the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. We saw last week how God's righteousness is revealed when God set forth Jesus as a propitiation to show God as just and Justifier. NOW, in verse 18, we see that God's WRATH is revealed on UNRIGHTEOUSNESS. God, being RIGHTEOUS, must show WRATH to all who are UNRIGHTEOUS. This starts an entire section that goes through chapter 3, verse 20, in which Paul shows that all who do not have a righteousness that equals God's righteousness are condemned. Look over at chapter 3 verse 20 for a minute. Paul concludes the section we're starting by saying:

Romans 3: (20) Because by works of Law not one of all flesh will be justified before Him, for through Law [is] full knowledge of sin.

He then says in verse 21:

Romans 3: (21) But now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

Do you see how it all fits together? Romans 1:17 says that God's righteousness is revealed in the gospel. Romans 1:18 to 3:20 says that all who do not have a righteousness that equals God's righteousness, whether they be Gentile or Jew, are condemned. And Romans 3:21 starts a section that goes into exactly what that righteousness of God IS that is revealed in the gospel, and how God is just to justify those who are not righteous in themselves.

Notice the ORDER in which Paul presents the doctrine. Before he shows how God is just to justify the ungodly, he shows that all who do not have a righteousness that equals God's righteousness are condemned. He starts with what is sometimes called TOTAL DEPRAVITY. TOTAL DEPRAVITY means that all men by nature are totally void of a righteousness that would recommend them unto God. Everything they do is wicked. And we will see this, the Lord willing, in the section we're starting.

Okay - back to chapter 1 verse 18. Let's first look at God's WRATH. What is WRATH? The Greek word is OR-gay, which means anger, indignation, abhorrence, vengeance, or hatred. It is a word that shows utter repulsion. "Wrath" is a fitting word to describe the attitude of the perfectly holy God toward sin and sinners. He cannot stand them. He is the exact opposite of them. Because God is holy, he MUST show wrath against unholiness, or He would not be God. The wrath of God toward the wicked is epitomized in hell, where the damned suffer punishment for eternity. Eternal punishment shows how repugnant the ungodly are to God. They are punished FOREVER because God is infinitely HOLY. Those who believe that the damned are annihilated rather than being punished FOREVER do not believe that God is infinitely HOLY. They believe that God's wrath is appeased toward the wicked when they are annihilated. God's wrath will NEVER be appeased toward the wicked. He will ALWAYS, THROUGHOUT ETERNITY, be WRATHFUL toward the wicked. WRATH is one of the essential attributes of God that stem from His JUSTICE. Were God not WRATHFUL toward the wicked, He would not be JUST. Turn to Psalm 7:11:

Psalm 7: (11) God is a righteous judge; and God is angry with evildoers every day.

God is angry with the wicked every day. Why? Because God is a righteous judge. God's wrath CANNOT be appeased toward those who are not as holy as He is, because God is a RIGHTEOUS JUDGE. He would not be a RIGHTEOUS JUDGE if he were not angry with the wicked every day.

As an important side-note, the Greek word for wrath, which is OR-gay, comes from the Greek word or-EG-o-ma-ee, which means "to stretch oneself toward." Another word that comes from this is or-GWEE-a, which means "a stretch of the arms." So when God said in Isaiah 65:2 that He spread out His hands all day long to a rebellious people, it is NOT saying that he was INVITING them or WOOING them or even CALLING them, like some would have us believe. Instead, God's stretching out His hands is a sign of WRATH! If you look at the context of this verse, you will see that this is what it means. And when Paul repeats this in Romans 10:21, the context there also shows that the stretching out of the hands is out of wrath, not love. The Hebrew word is pa-RAS, and similar words are pa-RAR, which means "to cast off," and pa-RASH, which means "to sting" or "to wound." The Lord willing, we will go into this more when we get into Romans 10:21.

Now that we have established God's attitude toward the wicked, let's look into what this wickedness is. Let's go back to Romans 1:18. God's wrath is revealed from Heaven on what? All UNGODLINESS and UNRIGHTEOUSNESS of men. Now why did God the Holy Spirit include both words - UNGODLINESS and UNRIGHTEOUSNESS? Aren't they the same thing? Not quite. The Greek word for UNGODLINESS is a-SEB-ee, which means "impiety." This comes from the word AH-sa-base, meaning "irreverent." This is talking about false religion, including engaging in false worship and not glorifying God. The Greek word for UNRIGHTEOUSNESS is a-dee-KEE-ah, meaning immorality or lawlessness. So God gives a comprehensive view of sin. It is sin of worshipping a false god and believing a false gospel, as well as sin of immorality. This covers all sin. It corresponds with the 10 Commandments: The UNGODLINESS has to do with breaking the first four commandments that have to do with love for God, and the UNRIGHTEOUSNESS has to do with breaking the last six commandments that have to do with love for one's neighbor. So when God says that He shows wrath toward UNGODLINESS and UNRIGHTEOUSNESS, He is talking about ALL transgressions without exception. This leaves every man by nature in a state of wrath and condemnation. As David said in Psalm 130 verse 3, "If You will keep iniquities, O Jehovah, O Lord, who shall stand?" David is asking a rhetorical question here. The answer is that NO ONE shall stand if God marks iniquities. Those who have been clothed with the righteousness of Christ - THEIR iniquities are not marked. But those who do not have this righteousness, those who are ungodly and unrighteous - THEIR iniquities are marked, and they cannot stand before a holy and just God who will not let sin go unpunished.

Now let's look at the second part of verse 18: "holding the truth in unrighteousness." What does that mean? The Greek verb for "to hold" is ka-TEK-o, which, in this instance, means, "to hold down" or "to suppress." The same word is used in 2 Thessalonians 2:6, which says, "And now you know the thing HOLDING BACK, for him to be revealed in his time." So God is saying that men by nature hold down or suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The next part of the sentence, which is in verse 19, explains this further. It says that the thing known of God is clearly known within them because God revealed it to them. What is this "thing known of God" that God clearly reveals to natural man? Well, we have to go to verse 20 for that. Let's read verse 20, which is the next sentence:

Romans 1: (20) For the unseen things of Him from [the] creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things made, both His eternal power and Godhead, for them to be without excuse.

Now we see what the knowledge of God is that He reveals to men by nature. The "thing known of God" is God's eternal power and His Godhead. We also see how God reveals this to natural man. He reveals it by His creation. So Paul is saying that the UNSEEN attributes of God, which are God's eternal power and Godhead, are CLEARLY SEEN by natural man because God has REVEALED them to natural man by creation.

Now how are God's eternal power and Godhead manifested to all men in God's creation? First, we need to see what is meant by "eternal power" and "Godhead." "Eternal power" is that force that orders all things. And not only is it a force, but it is an eternal force. Even natural man, when he contemplates the universe and the creation of it, knows that the power that created the universe must be eternal; it must have existed before time. Now some of you might be asking, "What about the majority of people who believe in the 'big bang' theory"? Even these people have been clearly revealed the truth and they suppress it in unrighteousness. What do the 'big bang' advocates usually start with? They usually start with some kind of swirling mass before the actual bang happened. Well, where did that swirling mass come from? Was it always there, from eternity past? If it was, then it is God. But even the 'big bang' advocates, being creatures created by God with a never-dying soul, see that there is some power behind all this that existed before the swirling mass. They might not admit it to themselves or others, but they see it, and they suppress it. The same goes for the continuing operation of the universe, especially the world and its events. And what about the "Godhead" that is revealed to natural man? Well, this is the only time that this Greek word is used in Scripture. It is a derivative of another word that is translated "Godhead" in Acts 17:29 and "divine" in 1 Peter 1:3-4, but it is not exactly the same. The word here is used to denote a "divinity" or a "divine being." God reveals to men by nature that there is a divine intelligent being who is the creator, not just "chance" or "fate." The creation manifests to all that there is an intelligent divine being who is infinitely more intelligent than we are.

Now what does all this knowledge do for natural man? Some would say that it enables them to worship God in the best way they know how and that this worship is acceptable to God, even if they are ignorant of the gospel. Some would say that this is God showing common grace to all men without exception. But God refutes these heresies with these words at the end of verse 20: "FOR THEM TO BE WITHOUT EXCUSE." God reveals Himself through creation and providence so as to render all men by nature to be without excuse. They have no excuse for not believing in God, and they are justly condemned for their suppression of the truth in unrighteousness. Now this is not saying that they had enough knowledge of God from creation to believe the gospel. Instead, they had enough knowledge of God's divinity and power to be justly condemned. We need to realize that God reveals enough of His attributes to fallen man so as to be just in condemning them for unbelief. Now someone might say, "That's not fair. God doesn't even present enough of Himself to the heathen for them to be saved, and what He does present of Himself, it is only so that they are justly condemned. It sounds as if God WANTS them to be condemned." The answer from God's Word is - yes, God WANTS them to be condemned. He WANTS to show His wrath toward all who are ignorant of the only ground of salvation, which is the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone. He WANTS to bring in all men by nature as guilty, vile, helpless sinners. He WANTS men to have no hope within themselves. And He WANTS to show that all men, even ones who have never heard of the gospel, are justly condemned for their unbelief.

Let's go to verse 21:

Romans 1: (21) Because knowing God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful. But [they] became vain in their reasonings, and their undiscerning heart was darkened.

They knew God in the way that I have already shown. Yet they did not GLORIFY Him as God, and they were not THANKFUL to God. So, even though God revealed to them His eternal power and Godhead through His creation and providence, they neither praised nor thanked God. Now, as we will see, the Lord willing, they DID worship and praise and thank THEIR OWN CONCEPT of deity, but God says that this is not good enough. They DID try their best to worship this deity in the best way they knew how, but God says that this is not enough. God DEMANDS that all worship Him as He reveals Himself, not as He is imagined to be. The second half of the verse says that they became VAIN in their REASONINGS. "Vain" means "empty" or "foolish." The heathen, as Paul is describing here, REASONED FOOLISHLY. Some would say, "As long as their heart is right, their head can be foolish." Well, guess what - their REASONINGS come from their HEART. As we saw in a previous sermon, the heart is what thinks, imagines, devises, plans, etc. Their VAIN REASONINGS, their EMPTY, FOOLISH THOUGHTS about God, came from a WICKED HEART. God calls it an "undiscerning heart" in this passage. The Greek word for "undiscerning" means "without understanding" or "unintelligent." This shows without a doubt that the HEART is the seat of the INTELLECT. The heart of the heathen is WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING. They are IGNORANT. They are VOID of SPIRITUAL DISCERNMENT. They do not know the standard of righteousness. They do not judge by this standard, because they do not know what the standard is. Their heart is DARKENED. It is blackened with the empty reasonings of depravity. The Lord willing, we will see next week what these vain reasonings made them do.

To conclude today, we need to see that God's wrath is revealed on all who do not perfectly conform to God's Holy Law, even those who have no other revelation than creation. These people who have never heard of the gospel are guilty, defiled, hell-deserving sinners. As Paul said in verse 16, THE GOSPEL is the power of God to salvation. No gospel, no salvation. These people never heard of the gospel. Yet they are without excuse, because God has revealed Himself in creation and providence. These people do not have a righteousness that answers the demands of God's law and justice. Is there any hope for such people? There is NO HOPE unless God chooses to reveal His Gospel to them, impute Christ's righteousness to them, and cause them to believe that salvation is conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone.

Now if people who have never heard the gospel are without excuse, how much more inexcusable are people who have HEARD the gospel and yet continue in unbelief? You who are listening to this have HEARD the gospel. Now if you're listening to this and do not believe that salvation is conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone, then listen. If God didn't give the heathen a break, do you think He will give you a break? God CANNOT give ANYONE a break, because God is HOLY, RIGHTEOUS, and JUST. He will CONDEMN all who do not believe the gospel. You are commanded to REPENT of your dead works and idolatry and BELIEVE the gospel of salvation based on the work of Christ alone. Amen.